For most countries, soy sauce and nuclear missiles would seem to have little in common. But in North Korea, the two are apparently part of the same existential struggle.
According to state media, on a visit to the Pyongyang Condiments Factory last week, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un noticed a brand-new production building, and asked who had built it. The foreman replied that the food workers themselves had found time between fermentation cycles to construct it themselves. Their “spiritual strength,” Kim beamed, “is greater than those of atomic weapons.”
For years, East Asia’s Hermit Kingdom has been working to cut itself off from dependency on the rest of the world, trying to scale up domestic production of everything from condiments to inter-continental rockets. For Kim and his father, Kim Jong-il, an active nuclear programme has been the lynchpin of efforts to protect their regime from outside interference, and funds for the vast military have historically been found even while their people starve.
Just over a week ago, on the other side of the capital, short-range ballistic missiles blasted off from their launchers, soaring through the air at up to 600km an hour before crashing down into the sea. The fiery salvo of eight rockets was a record, analysts believe, and Pyongyang has reportedly spent as much as £530m to carry out the tests – around 2 per cent of the impoverished nation’s annual GDP.
The barrage came just hours after the end of joint military drills between South Korea and the US, amid tougher rhetoric from Seoul’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who has called for a united front against the North. “The right to self-defence is an issue of defending sovereignty and showing the Party’s unwavering fighting power and head-on contest,” Kim said over the weekend. Now, experts warn that Pyongyang could be preparing to carry out a nuclear test blast at any moment.
But North Korea’s threat of atomic warfare has also historically had a dual purpose – extorting economic support from the West. With tensions heating up on the peninsula, Kim and his allies seem to be pushing for concessions. Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Anna Evstigneeva, has hit out at Washington for calling on the Communist state to disarm while it still faces major restrictions on imports. “It is absolutely unrealistic to expect Pyongyang’s unconditional disarmament under the threat of an unwinding spiral of sanctions,” she said.
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North Korea, she claims, needs more humanitarian aid. Her Chinese counterpart, Zhang Jun, agrees: “There are many things that the US can do, such as easing sanctions in certain areas,” he added.
The row comes amid concerns that the country could be on the brink of catastrophic famine. Like Beijing, Pyongyang has pursued a zero-Covid strategy that saw it hermetically seal its already tightly guarded borders at the start of the pandemic. The result has been a growing food crisis, with imports and humanitarian aid rejected. Now, having reported more than a million cases of “fever” virtually overnight, new lockdowns and almost no vaccines doled out, an outbreak of Omicron appears to be pushing that situation over the edge.
Worse still, Kim finds himself in a weaker negotiating position than ever before. In 2018, his country was the pressing issue for geopolitical security, with then-US President Donald Trump touching down for a meeting in the demilitarised zone. As part of the upbeat, even friendly talks, Pyongyang agreed to accelerate its denuclearisation in exchange for a future lifting of sanctions.
Now, though, President Joe Biden is taking a far tougher line towards authoritarian regimes than his predecessor, refusing even to meet with Kim unless certain, unspecified conditions are fulfilled. “What I would not do is what has been done in the recent past,” Biden said of Trump’s strategy. “I would not give [Kim] all he’s looking for, international recognition as legitimate, and give him what allowed him to move in a direction of appearing to be more serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about.” At the same time, Western policymakers are distracted from the decades-long stand-off by Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine.
And so, with diplomatic channels seemingly exhausted and a worsening situation back home, North Korea appears poised to grab headlines once again. According to US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, a nuclear test could take place “at any time.” Whether it would serve Kim’s purpose of getting back on the agenda and forcing economic concessions, however, is unclear, and Sherman says any such launch would demand a “swift and forceful response” from the West.
For now, though, the spectre of atomic weapons looms large over North Korea’s struggling food factories, its locked down cities and, ultimately, the world.