The contrast in two images coming out of North Korea could not have been more stark.

The first was the launch of a long range ballistic missile costing the poverty-stricken nation an estimated $850 million that could have been spent on food, fuel, and medicine. That the missile broke apart and fell into the Yellow Sea shortly after lift-off changed nothing.

The second came from evidently authentic reports of children required to bring buckets of human excrement to school for fertilizer, of housewives cutting in half the meals for their families to make their meager food stretch into another day, of bribes needed to cross the border to visit relatives living in China and again on the return.

Altogether, the images provided bleak evidence that the government of Kim Jong Un, the new ruler in Pyongyang, is just as ruthless and incompetent as those of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Negotiating with that regime is likely to prove as futile as ever.

The consequences of the missile failure almost immediately became a topic of raging speculation:

  • This being the fourth failure of a missile shot in 15 years, the threat of a North Korean long distance attack on Hawaii, Alaska, or the continental U.S. has faded. Those held responsible for the mishap will probably be severely punished.
  • North Korea, having been humiliated before the international community, will most likely be even more defiant and difficult to cope with. Pyongyang had portrayed the missile launch as a demonstration of North Korean prowess.
  • Internally, the failure has undercut the efforts of Kim Jong Un’s advisers and allies to parade him in front of the North Korean citizenry as a worthy successor of his father and grandfather.
  • Outside of North Korea, China appears to be the big loser. Asked by the U.S., Japan, and even Russia to press the North Koreans to cancel the launch, the Chinese dithered. Now they don’t even have a successful shot to show for it.
  • The issue was injected into the U.S. election campaign, the GOP Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, asserting that “incompetence from the Obama Administration has emboldened the North Korean regime.” The White House denounced North Korea.
  • A critical question: How long would the North Korean people or army, the ultimate source of power in Pyongyang, put up with the starvation, corruption, and incompetence of the Kim regime despite the rigid controls imposed on the nation?

Some apologists for North Korea and critics of America argue that the U.S. also spends large sums on missiles and other weapons when those funds that could be better spent on welfare, health care, and education.

That overlooks a pertinent fact, that dirt-poor North Korea spends 22 to 25 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), or wealth, on military forces while wealthy America has spent less than 5 percent of GDP on military power for the last twenty years.

Evidence of the harsh life in North Korea came from an organization that calls itself Good Friends, which has offices in Seoul and Washington, D.C. South Korean officials said Good Friends has conduits into North Korea and is financed largely by Buddhist sects in South Korea. Good Friends has declined to disclose its operations or finances.

In a recent report, Good Friends wrote: “The new semester has started but some children are unable to join their classmates because they cannot bring all of the required school supplies to school, including three buckets of night soil, or human excrement, used for fertilizer.”

“The school asks for everything,” the report said, “from pencils and notebooks that the students will use, to firewood, coal, brick, cement, gloves, socks, slippers, glass, nails, soap, brooms, and more.” If the child cannot fulfill the demands, he is not admitted to the school.

A woman whose given name was Ji-eun, was quoted in another report: “I start preparing breakfast and lunch with 500 grams of corn. Normally, a family with six people needs at least one kilogram of it. However, if I went with such a measurement, the food would be gone in five days when it is supposed to last for ten days.”

“So cutting down the amount of food per meal is the only way of preventing us from having nothing to eat,” she said, adding that all but her working husband eat only twice a day. “Most households have only two meals a day. I guess we all got used to it.”

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth