As the United States decides whether to strike Syria for using chemical weapons against its own citizens, another brutal dictatorship that has gotten billions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid via the U.N. is paying very close attention: North Korea.
The secretive communist regime led by Kim Jong-Un maintains, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, “a massive stockpile of chemical weapons that threatens our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea, and the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed there.”
Included in the arsenal, though Hagel did not say it, are large amounts of sarin gas, which the regime of Syrian President Bashir Assad used on his civilian population last month.
North Korea was the only country specifically named by Hagel before the committee as he warned Senators that “eroding the nearly century-old international norm against the use of chemical weapons” could “embolden other regimes” to follow the lead of Syria’s Assad regime to use the horror weapons against civilian populations.
What Hagel did not mention is that North Korea is also a silent partner in the Syrian weapons of mass destruction industry—and also, in all likelihood, in its chemical weapons program.
“What we know about North Korea is that it has been helping Syria for years with its ballistic missiles,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst and North Korean expert with the RAND Corporation in Los Angeles. But Bennett also cited “a couple of specific events” that indicated the regime has “worked closely” with Syria on chemical weapons.
--In 2005, a Syrian SCUD missile accidentally landed in Turkey after being test-fired over the Mediterranean. Israeli military analysts later told the Haaretz newspaper that the missile used North Korean technology designed to deliver air-burst chemical warheads.
--In July 2007, an explosion at a secret Syrian military installation in Aleppo reportedly led to dozens of deaths of Iranian engineers and by some accounts three North Koreans. The cause was said to be a botched attempt to test-load a SCUD-C missile with poisonous mustard gas, one of the mainstays in the Syrian chemical arsenal.
That incident came just weeks before Israeli Air Force jets destroyed a secret nuclear reactor in Syria that was modeled on a North Korean installation producing radioactive fuel for the Kim regime’s illicit nuclear weapons program. A number of North Korean engineers were reportedly killed when the Israeli warplanes dumped some 17 tons of explosives on the facility. The site was quickly cleaned up and scoured by the Syrians.
--In November 2009, a cargo ship bound for Syria was detained in Greece and found to be carrying thousands of pieces of protective clothing for atomic, biological and chemical warfare, manufactured in North Korea.
Like Syria, North Korea is not a signatory to the 1993 international convention banning chemical weapons. Indeed, citing a former U.S. military commander in Korea, Gen. Leon LaPorte, RAND’s Bennett warned that “North Korea does not consider chemical weapons to be weapons of mass destruction, but conventional ones. They are going to be watching us carefully to see how we respond to their use.”
Also like Syria, North Korea—formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK—has in the past mastered the art of developing weapons of mass destruction while garnering hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid, channeled through the United Nations, as it abuses, exploits and murders tens of thousands of its own citizens.
In the case of Syria, those hundreds of millions have been handed out under the guidance and coordination of the Assad regime, even as his armed forces waged a two-year war against dissidents that culminated in the August 21 chemical attacks.
According to documents obtained by Fox News, U.N. agencies and a handful of authorized private relief agencies have contributed more than $2 billion in humanitarian aid to North Korea since 2003—during an era in which the country continued to build on its reputation as one of the most savagely repressive and inhumane places on the planet.
These days, however, the aid has slowed to a trickle, as donor countries have shied away from a country that has repeatedly staged illegal nuclear explosions, threatened to turn the waters around neighboring Japan into a “sea of fire,” and launched sporadic military attacks against neighboring South Korea.
This year, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, says on its website that only $52 million of an appeal for $150 million has been donated “to deliver urgently needed humanitarian assistance to communities across the country. The same website announced that the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) announced a cutback in rations for “hundreds of thousands” of mothers and children it supports in DPRK.
Without additional money, OCHA says, “close to 2.5 million women and more than 220,000 young children” will stop receiving dietary supplements needed to bolster their physical development and growth.
WFP’s supervisory Executive Board in June approved a new, two-year “protracted relief and recovery operation” for North Korea that will cost just under $200 million and feed 2.4 million women and children—in essence, a renewal of the program that it is cutting back now—that depends on that donor situation doing a complete turnaround.
But according to a WFP spokesman, the new program, too, is “significantly underfunded.” Of the $200 million requested from donors, she said, only about $11.7 million had been received. In August, WFP was only able to provide food for 700,000 women and children out of a planned 1.3 million, while ration amounts have also been drastically cut.
For its part, the U.S. has, for now anyway, given up on a longstanding but frustrated policy of trying to tempt the Kim regime away from its nuclear outlawry with large offers of food aid, energy and development assistance.
“At a meeting with experts on North Korea, President Obama said there was no point in having discussions at the moment,” said Andrew Natsios, former head of USAID during the Bush Administration and currently an executive professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, located at Texas A&M University
(A U.S. State Department special representative, Glyn Davies, is headed to Asia next week to consult with South Korea, China and Japan.)
The problem is, rich Western countries with their own financial problems, and huge new challenges like the millions of refugees pouring out of Syria, have no enthusiasm for humanitarian crises in a country like North Korea, where a militarized communist elite living under U.N. sanctions since 2006 for its illegal nuclear weapons programs, apparently has plenty of money to spend on illegal nuclear development, ballistic missiles, the fourth-largest army in the world, and clandestine nuclear and chemical weapons programs with other pariah states like Syria and Iran--a “military first” policy.
Moreover, donor countries are increasingly aware that aside from the bad weather and flooding that seem to drastically affect North Korean harvests every year, the starvation, astronomical rates of infant mortality, malnutrition and disease that afflict the country are decades of deliberate Kim government policy that amount to a war of attrition against “enemy” sectors of its own population.
One aspect is the “military first” doctrine, but another is a decades-old North Korean communist system known as songbun, or, constituent status, initially established by North Korea’s founding communist leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1958—after millions of Koreans, including all religious leaders, were first executed.
Songbun is an elaborate system of social classification that spans generations in North Korea, and “subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthi¬ness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state,” according to a report issued last year on the system, titled Marked for Life: Songbun, North Korea's Social Classification System. The report was produced by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington-based non-profit organization.
In effect, songbun is a quantified combination of hereditary class and social rank that follows every single North Korean citizen from birth, and is used to dole out not only privilege but categories of jobs, education, marriage permission, geographical location and such basics as food, shelter and medicine.
Members of the “hostile” class receive virtually nothing of those basic necessities, often must obtain what little sustenance and care they get through bribes, and when they commit many of North Korea’s almost infinite variety of anti-state crimes are most frequently sentenced, along with their entire families, to harsh labor camps or immediately get the death penalty. None of them are allowed to live in the capital of Pyongyang, according to the study.
The study also asserts that the system is now updated digitally.
One of songbun’s key elements, according to the study, is North Korea’s “public distribution system,” or PDS, which is, in effect, the socialist rationing system for food. While the system collapsed during a famine in the 1990s, it has been at least partially restored. According to the World Food Program’s latest appeal for food funding, “Under the DPRK’s public food distribution system (PDS), the Food Procurement and Administration Ministry determines ration sizes for cereals, cooking oil and pulses [legumes]on the basis of production estimates and planned imports and allocates them to the entire population.”
Numerous reports by defectors from North Korea have claimed that U.N. relief supplies, including medicines and food have escaped from the food distribution system to be resold by corrupt officials, or be diverted to the military.
A variety of the accusations are contained in another stinging report on North Korea’s regime that was issued by a South Korean think tank late last year. In some cases, defectors assert, North Korean authorities wait until aid workers have left the area before reclaiming the goods doled out to their suffering populations. By their very nature, such allegations are virtually impossible to verify independently.
According to U.N. agencies queried by Fox News, however, they have received no reports of any such diversions.
The WFP, according to its spokesman, has also installed guarantees to ensure that such diversions do not take place, via a renewed “Letter of Understanding” with the Kim regime.
“Food assistance is not provided to areas where assistance cannot be fully monitored,” the spokesman said. WFP field offices have been set up in three North Korean cities outside Pyongyang—and WFP staffers, including Korean-speakers are allowed “immediate access” to any facility where WFP food is being stored or handled, she added.
The spokesman added that WFP staff are allowed “immediate access” to travel the country to visit “all institutions” and households where WFP food is being distributed, and about 2,600 “monitoring visits” were carried out between June 2012 and July 2013.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell