North Korean rights groups and defectors have expressed frustration over Pyongyang’s third nuclear test which they say underscores a diversion of scarce funds towards weapons programs instead of coping with chronic food shortages.
The test on Tuesday drew global condemnation, with the U.N. Security Council weighing further sanctions against the North, which is already reeling from a series of international restrictions following its previous two illegal nuclear blasts and missile launches.
While Pyongyang says the nuclear test was meant to demonstrate its ability to defend North Koreans from “hostility,” the people are frustrated that precious resources are being diverted from efforts to address economic impoverishment, North Korean defectors and rights groups told RFA’s Korean service.
Henry Song of the U.S.-based North Korea Freedom Coalition said North Koreans are unable to reconcile the regime’s decision to detonate the nuclear device with the dire food shortages across one of the world’s poorest countries.
“North Koreans cannot understand the nuclear test when they see hunger in the country,” Song said.
“It’s unacceptable because there are many North Koreans starving to death while the authorities are wasting a lot of money—several hundred million dollars—on the test.”
Song said that he received a text message immediately after the test from a North Korean who had recently defected saying that he was “very disappointed at the North Korean government’s irrational behavior.”
In December, following North Korea’s rocket launch, CNN quoted an official from South Korea's Ministry of Unification as estimating that Pyongyang had spent U.S. $1.3 billion on its rocket program in 2012.
The official estimated that the cost was the equivalent of 4.6 million tons of corn, which could have fed North Koreans for “four to five years.”
Kim Hyun Ae, a defector and vice-chairperson for the South Korea-based North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, said that she felt extremely saddened by the news of the nuclear test.
“At first, I was exasperated by the North Korean provocation, but soon I felt deeply sorry for the North Korean people because they are being held hostage by the dictatorial regime,” Kim said.
“The North Korean regime has no consideration for human rights—it is only concerned with maintaining political power.”
Kim said that she had hoped for reform when the country’s young leader Kim Jong Un took power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011. But she said that the nuclear test showed that nothing has changed.
“Not only me, but many North Korean defectors in South Korea, knew that Kim Jong Un was young and had studied abroad, so we believed that he would be different from his father and grandfather [national founder Kim Il Sung] in terms of policy making,” she said.
“But our initial hope has clearly not materialized, making us sad—both for ourselves and for our family members and acquaintances back home.”
Jang Se Yul, a defector who is now secretary-general of the South Korea-based North Korea People’s Liberation Front, said he believes that by testing the nuclear device, the regime was attempting to assuage the anger and fears of the North Korean people, who he said no longer trust their government.
“The reason for the test is to divert or soothe the people’s discontent over the malfunctioning of the regime. In order to do that they must find an enemy from outside,” Jang said.
“The North Korean people are also frustrated by the high price of food and other goods and no longer trust the government with their welfare, so the government must do something to soothe the anger,” he said.
“From an economic perspective, the high-ranking officials have publicly talked about the opportunity of selling nuclear technology to other countries because many other countries want it, so they believe they can sell it at a high cost and get money which could be used to feed the people.”
A resident of North Korea’s Yanggang province, which borders China, told RFA that anger within the regime following the removal of several generals from the ranks of government during a broad political reshuffle had forced Kim Jong Un to test the device as an overture to the military.
“Since Kim Jong Un took power, many high-ranking [military] officials were sacked. The leadership change has created a stir at the lowest levels of the military,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“These people had made their way through the ranks through lots of experience in the military, but were replaced by politicians, and now the army is fed up,” he said.
“So Kim Jong Un and the rest of the leadership had to do something to appease the military.”
Whatever the motives behind the regime’s decision to go ahead with the test, businessmen living in Dandong city in northeastern China’s Liaoning province said that the action is likely to affect North Korea’s trade with China, valued at U.S. $5.64 billion in 2011.
A Chinese trader surnamed Li, who sells kitchen supplies to North Koreans, said that Beijing is likely to react unfavorably to the test, which it had publicly opposed earlier this month.
“That North Korea conducted a third nuclear test was not that surprising, as it was expected following an earlier announcement by Pyongyang. However, it is surprising that North Korea conducted the test during the Chinese Lunar New Year [China’s most important holiday of the year]. That was unexpected,” Li said.
“The North Korean regime is extremely unpredictable and this event only reaffirms that.”
A Chinese businessman named Chang said that regardless of how relations proceed at a bilateral level between the two nations, trading on the ground could face substantial obstacles because of the test.
“Recently, trading with North Korea has become more difficult, but this nuke test will aggravate the situation even further,” Chang said.
“I’m worried about the possibility that I might not get back money for the goods I gave to my North Korean counterparts on credit, because they are likely to say that the country is in a state of emergency and that they are unable to pay me back due to political reasons.”
News of the successful nuclear test seemed to do little to address the sense of desperation many North Koreans struggling to make ends meet feel on a daily basis.
According to sources inside the country, authorities had significantly tightened restrictions on the public and other security measures ahead of the test, but several people attempted Tuesday to defect into China across frozen sections of the Yalu and Tumen rivers.
Seven people belonging to two different neighboring families entered China across the Tumen River from Hoeryong city in North Hamgyong province, sources said, while a young couple made a brazen attempt to cross the Yalu in broad daylight and were captured by border guards.
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.