Is there any greater nuclear threat to the world than North Korea? With a dozen nuclear weapons and a vile record of proliferation, this rogue state and its lunatic leader can be relied upon for just one thing: making terrible trouble for its neighbors and everyone else.
Just last month, U.S. Navy warships intercepted a North Korean vessel carrying missiles to Myanmar (Burma) and turned it around.
So this will most certainly come as an unpleasant surprise for nearly everyone: A few days ago, the United Nations chose North Korea, yes North Korea, as the new president of the U.N.’s Conference on Disarmament, which describes itself as “the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of the international community.”
Most of the conference’s 65-nation membership publicly welcomed the new president, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon endorsed his ascension.
Is this a joke? It should be. But as State Department spokesman David Kennedy put it, for the United Nations, this is “business as usual.” After all, with a straight face the U.N. also plays host to the Human Rights Council, among whose members sit China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. Quite recently, Libya, Pakistan and Tunisia also served.
Well, not to worry. The new Disarmament Conference president, North Korean So Se Pyong, promised to become “very engaged in moving the conference forward” so that it can “achieve concrete results.” How reassuring. Perhaps his country would like to set an example for the world?
Actually, North Korea is already setting an unprecedented example. It’s the only state that stubbornly holds onto a nuclear-weapons arsenal ― even though its leaders know full well that millions of their people are starving to death as a result. In fact, defectors are reporting a situation so desperate that people are turning to cannibalism ― all so Kim Jong-il can keep his bombs.
Right now, North Korea is facing a famine, and not for the first time. A calamitous food shortage in the late 1990s killed an estimated 2 million people. That time, once the world learned of the problem, months too late, it provided copious aid. But the nation’s leaders and their minions kept most of it for themselves and watched ― eating grapes (figuratively) as their people starved to death.
This time, almost no one seems willing to help. The United Nations is now pleading with the world’s wealthy nations, including the U.S. and Japan, to provide more aid. Despite months of entreaty, the U.N. office of humanitarian affairs has raised only 20 percent of what North Korea needs, though the European Union made a modest donation on Monday.
Other officials in Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and elsewhere are furious with Pyongyang, for multifarious reasons. Chief among them: For several years now, North Korea has refused to participate in nuclear-disarmament negotiations. In 2003 it withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and after that twice tested nuclear weapons.
For many weeks, the U.S. has been saying it is considering the aid request. But speaking to Congress last month, Robert King, special envoy for human rights in North Korea, said Washington doesn’t want “the people in North Korea to continue to starve while this food aid goes to the government” instead.
As it is, uncounted numbers of North Koreans are subsisting on grass they pick in fields. Last week Australian television broadcast harrowing smuggled footage showing “filthy, homeless and orphaned children begging for food” while “soldiers demand bribes.”
Watching all of this, Penultimate Potentate Kim issued an order: He shut down every one of the nation’s universities on July 1 and sent the students to work on construction projects and in rice paddies ― until next April.
Oh, maybe he figures that if everyone pitches in, they can help end the famine. No, actually, most analysts believe Kim is watching the Arab uprisings and wants to disperse the nation’s college students ― the seeds of any possible revolt.
Meantime, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency quoted “an alleged North Korean police document” describing rampant cannibalism, including “a male guard who could not bear his hunger” and “killed his colleague using an axe, ate some of the human flesh and sold the remainder at market” disguised as mutton. These allegations cannot be verified.
No one has said this, but it’s quite obvious that if Supreme Leader Kim stepped forward and declared his readiness to restart disarmament talks, much of the world’s reticence to help him would fall away. And what better opportunity could he have, now that North Korea is president of the United Nations Disarmament Conference?
By Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of “Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a troubled Land.” ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)