North Korea has long put weapons ahead of food for its people

BEIJING — For decades,North Korea’s leaders have bet heavily on a stark calculation: In order to survive, they need to nurture their rocket and nuclear programs at the expense of feeding their people. Rarely have the consequences been as clear.

Friday’s attempted satellite launch was an inglorious failure for Kim Jong Un, the twentysomething who has been in power only four months. The launch was supposed to be the marquee event of 100th anniversary celebrations this weekend marking the birth of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and the emergence of the third generation of the dynasty.

Instead, the rocket exploded a mere 90 seconds into flight, turning out to be a very expensive boondoggle. The South Korean Defense Ministry estimated this month that the North Koreans had spent $850 million on the launch — enough to buy corn to feed the entire population for a year.

Hundreds of millions more are being spent to fly pro-North Korea delegates to Pyongyang for the centennial celebrations.

Moreover, in the wake of the test, the U.S. has canceled a Feb. 29 agreement to provide North Korea with emergency food aid. The U.S. and other powers fear that the launch masked an effort to test a delivery system for a nuclear warhead.

But the withholding of food aid seems unlikely to sway North Korea.

“Telling the North Koreans you’re not going to feed their starving people if they launch a missile is like telling your 2-year-old you’ll take away their broccoli if they don’t behave,” said an American aid official who asked not to be named because of the ongoing efforts to help feed the North’s population.

More than a million North Koreans died of starvation in the 1990s, a result of disastrous economic policies and the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

“The North Korean regime considers military success a question of survival — that it’s better to be famished than let the insidious Americans kill you,” said Andrei Lankov, a leading scholar of North Korean history.

Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korea’s new young leader, died in December. He adopted the songgun, or “military first” policy, pouring ever scarcer resources into the development of weapons of mass destruction. Lankov said a popular quote attributed to him goes, “We can live without sugar; we can’t live without bullets.” The quote seems to be a variant of one sometimes attributed to Nazi official Hermann Goering: “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.”

North Korea spends an estimated 23% of its gross domestic product on defense, more than any other country in the world. By way of comparison, Israel, also at the upper end of the scale, spends about 7%.

Rank-and-file soldiers were among those who starved in the mid-1990s. The military continues to suffer the effects of the deterioration in the overall population. In video smuggled out of the country last year by Japan-based AsiaPress, soldiers said they were eating only potatoes and suffering from malnutrition.

Many North Korean soldiers are less than 5 feet tall because of stunted growth, which the World Food Program reports now affects one-third of the country’s children. The minimum height requirement in the military was lowered recently to 4 feet 9 inches.

Recent visitors to North Korea describe old women with hand-sewn packs on their back collecting twigs for fuel; at makeshift markets on the side of the road, people try to score a few eggs or tiny baggies of cooking oil, since full bottles are unaffordable for most of the population.

David Austin, North Korea program director of Mercy Corps, the lead agency in a consortium that was supposed to supply aid in the Feb. 29 deal, said that at an orphanage he visited last month, children hadn’t eaten any protein since January. There had been no cooking oil for more than a month.

The 240,000 metric tons of emergency food aid was mostly intended for children and pregnant women. Because of concerns that grains are diverted to the military, the aid consists mainly of a vitamin-enriched porridge of soy and corn designed to be served in institutions.

“There remains an ongoing need to supply food to the most vulnerable people who are completely disconnected from the political situation,” Austin said.

The Chinese government has supplied some food to North Korea this year to make up for the lack of international aid. China and North Korea remain traditional allies through their ruling communist parties. But many Chinese, remembering their own lean years in the 1950s and ‘60s, are expressing anger toward the North Korean regime.

One Chinese microblogger on Thursday questioned why North Korea was intent on launching a rocket when it was so poor. “I feel like hitting Kim Jong Un with a shoe,” the blogger said.

Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.