Conversation #8

In which Pak Kim Li addresses causes and consequences of the current food shortages, including a peculiar take on its relationship to the nuclear issue. (First published in CanKor Report 309-310, 27 June 2008.) 


Erich Heinz Weingartner: The US government has agreed to send 500,000 metric tons of food grains to your country.

Pak Kim Li: Yes, that is correct.

EHW: Why?

PKL: Why are they sending us food?

EHW: Why are they sending it? Why do you need it? Why did you ask for it?

PKL: They persuaded us to ask for it.

EHW: The USA persuaded the DPRK to ask for food?

PKL: Yes.

EHW: Excuse me, but that sounds rather odd. The folks at USAID have been among the most critical regarding the conditions for providing food aid to your country.

PKL: They told us that their rules necessitated a request by us before they can offer humanitarian assistance.

EHW: How did this conversation arise in the first place?

PKL: We asked them.

EHW: You asked them for food aid?

PKL: Yes.

EHW: But you just said…

PKL: Look, we made no secret of the fact that last summer’s floods wiped out a third of our crops. Since the winter we have serious food shortages. On the sidelines of the Six-Party Talks we asked US delegates what it would take to obtain US food assistance. They said they needed a formal request.

EHW: You said they persuaded you. How much persuasion did you need?

PKL: Well it’s never easy for Koreans to ask for help.

EHW: Especially from your chief enemy.

PKL: From anyone. We help those in our extended family, our clan, and by extension our Party, our workplace, our community, our country. Having to reach out to strangers is shameful. We avoid it unless absolutely necessary.

EHW: Especially after telling the world that after the end of 2005 you no longer need food aid.

PKL: That too.

EHW: Was that a mistake?

PKL: We have had this conversation before. It was not a mistake.

EHW: A miscalculation?

PKL: As you once put it so eloquently, “Shit happens!” We were doing much better in terms of food production, our economy was improving, and we had a steady pipeline of inputs from China and south Korea. Then came the floods…

EHW: Floods are more or less predictable, Mr. Pak. Surely by now they should have been part of emergency planning. When crops are insufficient, you need to be ready to purchase food from abroad.

PKL: We do plan. But you must be aware of the way the price of food has skyrocketed on the world market. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that since early 2007, global food prices have increased by 30%. Even in China, food price inflation stands at 18%. We simply cannot afford to purchase large quantities of food. In addition, don’t forget that we suffer from sanctions.

EHW: There are no sanctions against purchase of food.

PKL: But there are sanctions against investments and materials to improve our industrial output so we can earn the required hard currency to purchase food. We were on the way to significant improvements in 2005. But in 2006 sanctions were imposed on us, and our economy began to shrink again. Last year, in 2007, we had twice the rate of contraction as the year before.

EHW: The sanctions are in place because of your country’s military policies.

PKL: The sanctions are in place because of the US government’s military policies.

EHW: It isn’t just the USA that imposed sanctions. There have been two United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions since the summer of 2006.

PKL: Imposed under pressure from the USA!

EHW: Let’s not be naive, Mr. Pak. Do you think the USA can overrule Russia and China, both of whom have veto powers in the Security Council?

PKL: You are the one who is naive, Mr. Erich. All members of the UNSC have their own interests to defend. These interests can be manipulated if you have big enough guns and know the right triggers to pull.

EHW: But your military leaders were the ones to pull the trigger. Big ones. First the intercontinental missile in July 2006, followed by an underground nuclear test in October 2006.

PKL: We had a sovereign right to these tests.

EHW: And you have a sovereign right to be wrong. Surely the condition your country is in today — with your people on the verge of starvation — proves that these were mistakes. What possible good can come from being legally right and strategically wrong?

PKL: I might have said the same thing after the missile tests of 2006. But I have learned much since then. Today I am convinced that we did indeed do the right thing strategically.

EHW: How can you say that? You turned your best friend, benefactor and strategic ally against you!

PKL: China may be a strategic ally, but she is not a dependable friend.

EHW: You have a mutual defence pact with China since 1961. That puts your country under the Chinese nuclear umbrella. There was no need to have a nuclear weapons programme of your own, which simply frightens all your neighbours — friends and enemies alike.

PKL: Let me put this as simply as I can. China’s strategic interests are meant to benefit China alone. China has the ambition to become the determining power in Asia. This puts it in direct competition with the USA. Until China becomes strong enough, it needs to handle the USA very carefully. Tension with the USA is not in its current interest. It needs a cooperative relationship, both militarily and economically. It also needs to polish its image vis-à-vis other Asian countries in order to gain regional influence and prove itself to be a responsible power. One way it does this is through trade relations with the USA, Japan, south Korea and others. Another is through large-scale public-relations exercizes like this year’s Summer Olympics.

EHW: Which have somewhat misfired thus far.

PKL: For China, we are useful only as a buffer. China wants to control us. China will protect us only as long as it serves her interests. When China created the Six-Party Talks, we were assured that both China and Russia would be on our side as we face the USA, Japan and south Korea.

EHW: And has that not been the case?

PKL: As we soon discovered, they were not on OUR side. Instead, we were expected to be on THEIR side. China was in no hurry to solve our problems. The economic aid we received from them was sufficient to keep us afloat, but with Western countries withdrawing their support, China’s help merely reinforced our dependency. Instead of rebuffing the Bush administration’s unreasonable expectations in the Six Party Talks, China put pressure on us to make concessions. In the spring of 2003, for example, China cut off petroleum shipments to us for three days.

EHW: But they said that was caused by technical problems…

PKL: Yes, and you believed them, didn’t you?

EHW: It’s no secret that China prefers for you to remain non-nuclear.

PKL: And it isn’t a secret that China prefers us to be dependent on her, a puppet state. And that is where we have to draw the line. Our Juche principles do not allow us to fall into that trap. Korean history does not allow us to fall into that trap. With the Bush administration’s intransigence, and Japan’s threatened acquisition of an American Theatre Missile Defence system — not to speak of Taiwan’s wish to be included — China had allowed itself to be manoeuvred into defending the continuation of the Six-Party process by putting increasing pressures on us. By the summer of 2006, we were convinced that our interests were no longer in play. We had to test how far the Chinese would go. We had to test the strength of our alliance.

EHW: By testing the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan.

PKL: The Sea of Korea!

EHW: Sorry. East Sea, if you will.

PKL: Don’t forget that we unilaterally suspended such tests since 1999. In 2002 we extended the moratorium and reaffirmed it in 2004. UNILATERALLY, mind you! And we did so while the USA invaded Iraq and threatened us with a pre-emptive nuclear strike. And still we’re accused of being intransigent!

EHW: The missile failed after 42 seconds. What did this test accomplish?

PKL: It showed us the limits of China’s reliability as far as our security is concerned.

EHW: For the first time ever, China voted in favour of a UNSC resolution (#1695) — wait, they co-sponsored a resolution that not only condemned your actions but also called for missile-related sanctions.

PKL: That was a counter-move by Russia and China to kill a Japanese resolution that would have imposed far more severe sanctions and even military action.

EHW: Yes, I remember. China argued that what was needed was to calm down the situation, prevent escalation. That sounds pretty reliable to me.

PKL: Ten days after the missile test, we received an official “goodwill visit” from Chinese vice premier Hui Liangyu and Wu Dawei, vice foreign minister and China’s chief negotiator to the six-party talks. They warned us not to take the step of testing a nuclear device.

EHW: And that also sounds like very reasonable advice.

PKL: Their message was clear: China would not be drawn into any nuclear confrontation on our behalf.

EHW: That’s to be expected, isn’t it? From their point of view?

PKL: Of course, always from their point of view. But you fail to see it from our point of view. For us it became crystal clear that to maintain our independence, we had to test a nuclear weapon.

EHW: Wait a minute. That sounds crazy. I don’t follow your reasoning.

PKL: You said it yourself. The 1961 mutual defence pact commits China to come to our defense in case we are attacked. Although nuclear war is not mentioned, in practice, our country can be considered to be under the Chinese nuclear umbrella. Hui Liangyu’s underlying message was that China’s protection could no longer be relied on in case of a war with the USA.

EHW: That’s paranoia talking!

PKL: Is it? We have long suspected that “if push comes to shove” (as you like to say), we cannot rely on China’s goodwill. Now we had the proof. In order to protect our independence, we had to send a firm and unmistakeable signal.

EHW: In order to show your defiance under pressure.

PKL: In order to create our own deterrence to replace China’s no longer reliable umbrella.

EHW: Are you telling me that the nuclear test was aimed more at China than at the USA?

PKL: An underground nuclear test on one’s own soil is not “aimed” at anyone!

EHW: You know what I mean. Who was the message for?

PKL: It was a way to indicate to both China and the USA the limits of Chinese influence on us.

EHW: At the cost of increased, severe sanctions adhered to by practically the whole world, to the point where your people are now once again at the edge of starvation.

PKL: Don’t forget that our tactics also led President Bush to the realization that the US administration had to become serious about negotiating a peace with us.

EHW: And the 500,000 tons of food pledged by the USA is part of that realization?

PKL: Without a doubt.

EHW: The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) says it has nothing whatever to do with the Six-Party process.

PKL: Not directly. Of course not. All the same, don’t you find it interesting that the department of USAID involved is called “Food for Peace”?

EHW: You’re reading too much into that title. That’s just a name they gave to their emergency food relief department. It’s taken from a quote by former President Eisenhower, who said, “Food can be a powerful instrument for all the free world in building a durable peace.” I hear that the reason USAID has changed its mind about sending food is that your government has agreed to new monitoring terms that conform to their requirements.

PKL: We don’t like the term “monitoring”. But yes, we agreed to terms that conform to USAID accountability. It’s our way of showing cooperation when we are no longer threatened with annihilation.

EHW: So none of this food will go to your military?

PKL: Please, Mr. Erich. You of all people already know the answer to that question.

EHW: Do I? I have seen your soldiers. Most of them don’t seem to be particularly well fed. What’s to prevent them from taking a share of the donated food?

PKL: Of course we won’t let our soldiers starve. What country in the world would? We take care of our soldiers not only because they defend our country. They are our number one construction company, raising apartment blocks and office buildings, erecting monuments, constructing bridges, dams, building and repairing our highways. They help farmers during critical periods of the crop year, like rice transplanting and harvesting. As a reward, the military gets a share of the harvest.

EHW: In line with your “military first” policy! What happens when you have food shortages?

PKL: I don’t think I am disclosing state secrets when I tell you that most of the food aid we receive from China is consigned to our military. We really don’t need the USA to feed our military.

EHW: But as you know, food aid is fungible.

PKL: Ah yes, that word again: “fungibility”. Meaning that if the aid agencies feed the most vulnerable segment of our population, we can use our own food resources for other purposes — like the military — thereby indirectly“diverting” the aid.

EHW: Or more to the point, you could save the money you now spend on food purchases from abroad and buy military equipment instead.

PKL: Yes, and that was certainly one major concern of the US negotiators. But in our written agreement, we pledged that we will not use US food assistance as a means to reduce our commercial or other imports of food from other countries.

EHW: According to news reports, 100,000 tons of the 500,000 tons of pledged food will be provided through NGOs from the USA.

PKL: Yes, I thought this might please you.

EHW: It does. But I am even more excited about the conditions that have been agreed for monitoring all that food.

PKL: Except we still don’t like the term “monitoring”. We call it “distribution and management” of the food. But it is true that we have agreed to random management visits and direct access to food aid stocks at all stages of the pipeline, over a larger than ever geographic area.

EHW: That actually makes me quite jealous. Back in the days when you and I were roaming the countryside, there were all sorts of restrictions.

PKL: You exaggerate. For us at that time of our history, when most of our people had never seen a round-eyed foreigner in their entire lives, the access we provided was actually quite remarkable.

EHW: I read that the agreement includes sixty-five new international staff to be resident in-country, and with no limit on Korean speakers! How did you get all this past your security people?

PKL: Well, I wasn’t really involved directly in the negotiations…

EHW: There’s more: a country-wide food needs assessment; an actual beneficiary list; staff permitted to stay in key provinces; and to top it all off, a nation-wide nutritional survey with international participation to be conducted this fall. That hasn’t happened since 1998.

PKL: That’s not right. We had one in 2002 and another in 2004.

EHW: Not with international participation.

PKL: It’s not a big deal.

EHW: It isn’t? Compared to what I had to deal with back in the 90’s, this is revolutionary!

PKL: I wouldn’t use that word. You are making me nervous.

EHW: But aren’t you excited as well?

PKL: Frankly, I am a bit worried. On paper it all looks a bit too perfect for the American side. I know that our negotiators wanted to show a maximum level of cooperation. After all, this food aid is a symbol of rapprochement between the DPRK and the USA.

EHW: …not to mention that you are facing such dramatic food shortages particularly in this year of the “Diamond Jubilee”, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK!

PKL: If you are implying that we would instrumentalize this food assistance for propaganda purposes, you are wrong. We agreed to clearly acknowledge the US status as donor at all stages, including distribution to end users.

EHW: Then what are you worried about?

PKL: As you often say, “the devil is in the details”. There are many details to consider, and there can be quite agap between a consensus agreement and implementation on the ground. With 65 pairs of foreign eyes watching for even the slightest lapse on our part, and most of our people suspicious of foreign intentions, the opportunity for unintended mishaps is not insignificant.

EHW: I understand your concerns, but I believe a show of good faith on both sides will go a long way to improving relations.

PKL: I do hope there is good faith on the US side. I don’t have much faith that it will be long lasting, considering that the USA will go through another regime change next year. Who can foretell what is likely to follow? But you can believe that we’re all tired of the constant tensions between our countries. Even a short hiatus of hope will do us all a lot of good.

EHW: Mr. Pak, I thank you for this conversation.

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