North Korea’s nuclear test shows off program built on free labor of the poor

North Korean soldiers turn and look towards their leader Kim Jong Un from a military parade vehicle as they carry packs marked with the nuclear symbol during a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. File, July 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

International monitors detected unusual seismic activity in North Korea on Friday, and within a few hours, state media confirmed suspicions: North Korea successfully conducted their fifth – and largest – nuclear test. Additionally, it is capable of mounting warheads on missiles that could reach South Korea, Japan or U.S. installations in the region.

The implications of North Korea as a nuclear state are disturbing. As the Atlantic put it in 2013, nuclear aggression could lead to “a second Korean War that would make the devastating civil war in Syria pale in comparison.” Just as disturbing, though, are claims that the program is not only being funded at the expense of 12 million people living in extreme poverty, but being built by their free and exploited labor.

North Korea spends less than any other nuclear state on their arms program. That’s because of strict cost-cutting measures.

“Their workforce works for free,” Kim Min-gyu, a former North Korean diplomat who defected in 2009, told Reuters in January. “Except for a few key imported parts, they make everything else.”

According to a 2011 report by Global Zero, an organization campaigning for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, North Korea only spent an estimated $700 million on nuclear arms that year, placing it at the bottom of the list after the estimated $2.2 billion spent by Pakistan. More recent estimates place nuclear spending around $1 billion to $3 billion, Reuters reported.

Still, that’s billions being spent on nuclear power play and not the 12 million people living in extreme poverty within its borders.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by because of the regime’s tight control of information, but that number is from a 2012 report by the Korean Institute for National Unification. It states that roughly half of the 24 million people in North Korea live in extreme poverty, surviving primarily on corn and kim-chi (spicy fermented cabbage – a Korean staple), with limited access to fuel for cooking and heating, and struggling to maintain three meals a day.

The nuclear program isn’t even creating jobs since most of the labor is free, as Kim Min-gyu pointed out. In fact, human rights groups have criticized the regime for sending laborers abroad to places like Poland and Mongolia under conditions that “resemble indentured servitude,” bringing in $200 million to $300 million a year, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights told Reuters. 

With a GDP per capita ranking 174th in the world, an official economy worth only $28 billion, and international sanctions tightened as recently as March by the United Nations, it seems the 32-year-old dictator Kim Jong Un has put it on his people to bear the burden of propelling his nuclear arms program at an “unprecedented rate,” this year, according to Reuters.

The blast occurred on the 68th anniversary of North Korea’s founding at 9 a.m. local time and followed closely on the heels of a medium-range missile test on Monday, while global leaders gathered in China for the G20 summit.

Estimates of its yield range from 10 kilotons to 30 kilotons. By comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 15 kilotons. The explosion was recorded as a 5.3-magnitude seismic event.

Amid declarations of “serious consequences” from President Obama and other sharp condemnations from Japan, the EU, Russia and China among many others, one thing seems clear: Neither Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” nor heavy sanctions have discouraged Kim Jong Un’s vision of nuclear power, and he seems eager to pursue it even at the cost of his own people.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.