In Yodok’s Fields, the Poppies Blow…


Disclaimer: The following contains excerpts of soap box moralizing. Reader discretion is advised.

To most Canadians, the image of the poppy is most associated with November 11th and Remembrance Day. For readers who are unfamiliar with the concept of this holiday, November 11th was chosen as a day to remember Canadians who have died in service to their country. The symbolism of the poppy comes from John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, where the poet describes a haunting, solitary cemetary full of crosses, caressed by a field of poppies that will not comfort the war dead.

Poppies, however, have different meanings for different people. Most notably, poppies are grown to produce opium, which in turn is a precursor for heroin. Poppy production has been quite an issue in such places as Afghanistan, where both the United Nations and coalition forces have spent much time and treasure in an attempt to wean Afghan farmers from growing this lucrative crop.

We have also known that for some time, the DPRK has also had its hand in the narcotics cookie jar. Whether it is heroin or methamphetamines (more colloquially known as “crystal meth”), the documented cases of this type of state-sponsored drug trafficking are far too high to discount these allegations as rubbish.

Now, of course, there are always counter-arguments to be made defending this type of abhorrent behaviour. For instance, there is the “it’s not North Korea’s fault” argument, where some may argue that Pyongyang, with access to hard currency stifled by such instruments as sanctions, has no other methods but the illicit to gain much needed hard currency. Others may bring up arguments of “labeling,” where they argue that years of labeling North Korea as a “rogue nation” and as part of an “axis of evil” have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, pushing the regime into the very behaviour we have long criticized it for.

Before moving on, it is necessary to address these counter-arguments, especially in the light of these allegations of drug trafficking. For the most part, this defence of the regime is unconvincing. North Korea’s lack of access to hard currency not only stems from sanctions (which through its persistent desire for weapons of mass destruction, are much deserved), but also from poor economic mismanagement and perhaps most overlooked, a massive defaulting of foreign loans in the 1970’s, precluding the country from ever becoming a credible borrower till the present day. To say that North Korea’s hard currency woes are at heart, the fault of the international community, is disingenuous.

The labeling argument is far more subtle, but still falls short of being persuasive. North Korea’s hand in illicit drugs is documented at least since 1995, long before the country was included in the so-called “axis of evil.” Nor are narcotics the only illicit method of hard currency collection that is used by the regime. Pyongyang (or Office 39, one should say) has been caught red-handed in exporting weapons (of both small and mass destruction) as well as counterfeiting money. All this conscious scheming seems to be motivated by one purpose, and one purpose only – hard currency. Over the fifteen years that we have known this office to be in existence, we have seen no credible sign of Pyongyang attempting to curtail these activities.

The latest satellite imagery from North Korea is particularly damning. Provided by Amnesty International, the photos show large poppy fields being cultivated outside of Camp 15, more famously known as “Yodok.” If this analysis is correct, then this news is extremely disconcerting. Not only is the regime using political prisoners to grow poppy crops, but the regime is not only expanding these fields for exploitation, but also deliberately choosing not to grow other crops. Even assuming that the food produced in these fields would not go to the inmates at Yodok, what would be produced could have been used, however little it may be, to alleviate at least a bit of the hunger that is attacking the people of North Korea again.

When the regime makes such deliberate choices, it backs proponents of food aid into an extremely difficult corner. Even letting  the political prisoner issue aside, the decision to grow poppies instead of food is indefensible. It violates the very essence of the social contract we expect governments to uphold: providing basic human needs. Instead, it demonstrates that the regime chooses to produce extremely destructive narcotics for the benefit of only itself. And it is precisely because of this type of behaviour there is really any debate on why the international community should send food aid at all.

As one of these proponents of food aid, such behaviour by the regime continues to attack my own position regarding this issue. Yet I cannot with good conscience on the other hand say that witholding aid to the people of North Korea because of the repugnant choices of their government is correct, either. Aid, simply put, is the right thing to do.

Yet the proverbial cake of the “right thing to do” cannot be preserved and eaten at the same time. It also puts into question the public silence we have generally seen from the humanitarian aid community regarding these choices that the North Korean regime have made: choices regarding food v. poppies, regarding human rights, even regarding the dogged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Even if humanitarian aid is to be unpoliticized, where and when does the humanitarian aid community cross that thin line between “silence in return for access” and publicly criticizing the regime for growing poppies instead of food? If sending food to the North Korean people is the right thing to do, is not criticizing this same regime for its despicable actions beyond politicization and, again, simply put, the right thing to do as well?

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