As the countdown begins for North Korea's controversial rocket launch, people in the impoverished nation are asking why their leader Kim Jong Un is giving priority to putting the country's first-ever satellite into orbit when many are finding it difficult to get food on the table.
Some of the North Koreans RFA spoke to were shocked to learn that the cost of the satellite-carrying rocket launch in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung will, according to some estimates, cost about U.S. $850 million—enough to feed most of the North's 24 million people for a year.
The cost of the other celebratory events may be around U.S. $2 billion, South Korean officials estimate.
“Right now, upon the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, people are solely interested in when and how much they will be able to receive their rations of food,” said a North Korean from northern Yanggang province bordering China.
“Compared to the problem of getting their rations, issues like the satellite launch are nothing,” he said.
"Provisions are running out ... and for many people in the city of Hyesan it is difficult to have even two meals a day,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity from the administrative center of Yanggang province.
Disguised missile test?
An executive from North Hamgyong province, the northernmost province of North Korea, questioned the need for the launch of the rocket, the Unha-3 (Galaxy-3), which Pyongyang says will place a research satellite called Kwangmyongsong-3 (Shining Star-3) in orbit sometime between April 12 and 16.
The United States and its allies insist that the launch is a ballistic missile test in disguise, in blatant violation of United Nations resolutions and a February U.S.-North Korean agreement.
“[It is] impertinent to have a missile experiment when they can’t even provide sufficient rations for their people,” the North Korean executive said, adding that the Kim Jong Un regime "will probably start extensive propaganda on the success of the [event] right after the missile launch."
North Korea has been reeling from persistent food shortages since a famine in the 1990s, and banks on foreign aid to feed its people.
The U.S. has suspended planned food shipments to the North because Washington said the rocket launch breached the February deal, under which Pyongyang agreed to a partial nuclear freeze and a missile and nuclear test moratorium in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid.
The aid package had been expected to target the most needy in North Korea, including malnourished young children and pregnant women.
A South Korean official said on Sunday that the North appears to be preparing to follow up the rocket launch with a third nuclear weapons test, but Pyongyang has denied the claim.
“When people find out that this is not a satellite launch, they [North Korea] will surely suffer the consequences,” another North Korean asserted to RFA.
He said that even if the launch ends up in failure, the Kim Jong Un regime will still advertise it as successful, just as they have done in the past.
Some experts believe North Korea's planned satellite launch may herald a repeat of events in 2009, when global criticism of Pyongyang's last long-range rocket launch prompted its pullout from six-nation nuclear disarmament talks and its second nuclear test.
A North Korean college student, also from North Hamgyong province, said there seems to be little interest among the people in the planned satellite launch amid the massive birthday celebrations.
"I am aware of the launch, but since there are many events lined up for the 'Day of the Sun' [Kim Il Sung’s birthday], people are not showing much interest yet about the satellite launch,” the student said.
“Newspapers and broadcast media are carrying active propaganda on other events, but not much has touched on the issue of the satellite launch,” another source from Yanggang province said.
Asked why the authorities are not presenting a major publicity blitz on the satellite launch at home, most of the North Koreans interviewed said that authorities may want to begin the propaganda campaign just ahead of the launch in order to create a "dramatic" effect.
'What's more important?'
In an unprecedented move, reclusive North Korea on Sunday invited foreign journalists to the site of the rocket launch in an apparent bid to persuade the world that the launch would have a "peaceful" purpose.
Jang Myong-Jin, head of North Korea's Tongchang-ri space center in the country's far northwest, said it was "really nonsense" to call the upcoming launch a disguised missile test, Agence France-Presse reported.
"This launch was planned long ago, on the occasion of the 100th birthday of [founding] president Kim Il Sung. We are not doing it for provocative purposes," he said.
When a correspondent from U.S. broadcast network CNN asked a North Korean official at the briefing, "What's more important, food or satellites?," the official stopped smiling, CNN reported.
"Please will you answer the question," the correspondent persisted. "Isn't it more important to feed your people?"
The North Korean official turned and was ushered out of the room, the CNN report said.
Reported by Moon Sung Hui for RFA's Korean service. Translated by Kang Min Kyung. Written in English with additional reporting by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.