Why Does North Korea Spend so Much on Military Weapons and Defense When Its People Are Starving?

Kim Il Sung
People gather to mark the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of the demise of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Is Kim Junior in Charge?" on July 25, 1994 after Kim Il Sung, then dictator of North Korea, died. In light of recent news involving North Korea and their threats against the U.S., Newsweek is republishing the story.

As North Korea's leader for 46 years, Kim Il Sung always kept the world guessing. Now that he's gone, his son is keeping the tradition alive. Within a week of the elder Kim's death, Radio Pyongyang was touting Kim Jong Il, 52, as "the sole successor to the Great Leader." But if Kim Junior had really nailed down the top Communist Party, government and military positions, he was acting coy about it. The official organizations that must ratify his leadership hadn't weighted in. Were they respectfully waiting until after the funeral, suddenly delayed for two days by the regime? Skeptical South Koreans had a different interpretation: Kim Junior was having trouble lining up support. Even if Kim Jong Il gets all the right titles, he will still have to prove he has the power to make things work. The generals are his top constituency: in a nation that doubles as a forward military camp, North Korea's defense complex eats up 25 percent of the gross national product. But the North's GNP has been shrinking by about 5 percent a year since 1990, and it now equals about one sixteenth of the South's. And if the generals are hurting, the rest of the country is almost beyond feeling pain. South Korean scholars estimate that the North now produces less than two thirds of the grain it needs, imports less than half of its oil requirements and falls well short of the domestic demand for coal.

"The economy on a national scale has already gone bankrupt," says Lee Dong Bok, a former South Korean intelligence official.

Once the tears of mourning for old Kim dry, Kim Jong Il -- or anybody else who emerges on top -- must somehow halt the free fall. Some economic reform is a must. North Korea's new bosses can't abandon the Great Leader's policy of national self-reliance and confrontation with the South. Yet if they actually follow that path of crippling isolation, they will hasten their society's total collapse.

Why Does North Korea Spend so Much on Military Weapons and Defense When Its People Are Starving? | World