The United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea, released last month, contains so many tragic findings that it is difficult to grasp the scale of the crimes described. But the world owes it to the North Korean victims, both living and dead, to focus on a figure buried in paragraph 664 of the commission’s report: $645,800,000.
That is what the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is said to have squandered in 2012 on “luxury goods,” including cosmetics, handbags, leather products, watches, electronics, cars and top-shelf alcohol. In that same year, Mr. Kim also spent $1.3 billion on his ballistic missile programs.
Mr. Kim’s profligacy should be weighed against two other statistics absent from the commission’s report. The first is $150 million. That is what the United Nations World Food Program asked donor nations to give for food and other humanitarian aid for North Koreans in 2013. The second is 84 — the percentage of North Korean households that, according to the W.F.P. and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, had “borderline” or “poor” levels of food consumption in 2013.
Today, North Koreans starve to death by the dozens, maybe the hundreds. But during the great famine of the 1990s, between 600,000 and 2.5 million people died of hunger. According to the commission’s report, the North Korean regime, then headed by Kim Jong-il, obstructed the delivery of aid to the hungriest regions until 1997, and punished those who tried to earn, buy, steal or smuggle in enough food to survive. The regime was “well aware of the country’s deteriorating food situation” as it stocked airfields, reactors and palaces, rather than food stores.
According to one expert witness testimonial before the commission, the North Korean regime, at the height of the famine, could have closed its food gap by importing between $100 and $200 million worth of food each year, which is just 1 to 2 percent of its national income. Yet rather than using foreign food aid to supplement its own commercial food imports, the commission found that Kim Jong-il used aid “as a substitute for” them, cutting back on commercial food imports when more aid arrived. By contrast, the State Department estimates that in 1997, at the peak of the famine, North Korea’s annual military budget was $6 billion.
One defector testified that in 1995, as North Koreans began to die by the tens of thousands, the Kim regime spent $790 million on a mausoleum for North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung — which would have been enough to close North Korea’s food gap for four years.
The authors go on to argue that that sanctions could be a used as a tool to block Kim Jong Un’s wealth, and then release those blocked funds for limited purposes, such as bulk purchases of food, medicine and humanitarian supplies, instead of weapons and luxuries. Stanton, on his blog, notes how quickly the US Treasury acted to freeze the assets of ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovich and associates (the EU has followed suite), and wonders why the same hasn't been done for the North Korean leader:
Let’s unpack what that tells us about the priorities of the Obama Administration. Kleptrocracy that hasn’t resulted in mass starvation is now a higher enforcement priority than kleptrocracy that may have killed 2.5 million people, and that perpetuates one of the world’s top threats to both the global financial system and the global counter-proliferation system. Massive non-lethal corruption is a top priority. Crimes against humanity — including murder, rape, extermination, mass starvation, racially motivated infanticide, and the operation of gulags — are not a priority for the Obama Administration, period.