Under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, the country cannot feed its people. Perennially dependent on food aid, North Korea has become a truculent ward of the wealthy countries it threatens. It is the world's first nuclear-armed, missile-wielding beggar -- a particularly intricate challenge for the Obama administration as it begins to formulate a foreign policy.The story goes on to describe how the famine is undermining the authority of Kim Jong Il's kleptocracy, in part through the development of underground food markets.
The "eating problem," as it is often called in North Korea, has eroded Kim's authority, damaged a decade of improved relations between the two Koreas and stunted the bodies and minds of millions of North Koreans. Teenage boys fleeing the North in the past decade are on average five inches shorter and weigh 25 pounds less than boys growing up in the South, according to measurements taken at a settlement center for defectors in South Korea.
Mental retardation caused by malnutrition will disqualify about a quarter of potential military conscripts in North Korea, according to a December report by the National Intelligence Council, a research institution that is part of the U.S. intelligence community. The report said hunger-caused intellectual disabilities among the young are likely to cripple economic growth, even if the country opens to the outside world or unites with the South.
While Kim Jong Il is punishing and starving North Korea's population, the country's food dependence--and his regime's need to skim some of the assistance for itself--are also leading him to threaten his neighbors.
North Korea's million-ton food gap was filled in recent years by South Korea as part of a bid to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula.
The Seoul government gave a half-million tons of food annually, along with enough fertilizer to grow another half-million tons. Unlike the U.N. World Food Program and other international donors, which have a policy of "no access, no food," South Korea did not monitor who ate the food it gave. But last year, South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, changed the rules.
"We have decided to monitor and secure delivery of food using the World Food Program procedures as our benchmark," said Lee Jong-joo, the humanitarian assistance chief in Seoul. "Unfortunately, we have had no dialogue whatsoever on these new conditions with North Korea."
North Korea, instead, got mad. It canceled military agreements and moved a long-range missile toward a launch center. Behind the anger is the food gap.