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North Korea's rocket expenditures could have helped the hungry

December 11, 2012|By Emily Alpert
  • Portraits of North Korea's national founder, Kim Il Sung, left, and late leader Kim Jong Il are prominent in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Portraits of North Korea's national founder, Kim Il Sung, left, and… (Associated Press / Kyodo…)

Impoverished and isolated North Korea has long invested heavily in its defense programs, even as its people suffer hunger and deprivation. North Korea's rocket launch Wednesday cost about $480 million, South Korean officials estimated before the launch.

Although North Korea said it was sending up a satellite for peaceful purposes, the United States and South Korea suspect that it was actually testing its ballistic missile technology. In either case, the money is a staggering sum in light of some of the nation's other needs.

“That sort of money could go a very long way to feed children, to upgrade health facilities,” said Patrick McCormick, spokesman for UNICEF. "Our position is that this money should be spent elsewhere."

If North Korea used the money to buy rice, it could cover its  shortfalls in grain more than four times over, according to the most recent World Food Program estimates and price calculations by economist Marcus Noland. That would cover basic food needs in the undernourished country, if the relatively optimistic estimates by the World Food Program are correct.

If North Korea chose to devote the money to existing hunger-relief programs, $480 million would quadruple spending by the World Food Program on emergency food aid and nutritional support for women and children, according to figures recently released by the U.N. agency. It would more than cover shortfalls in funding for its hunger programs in North Korea, which were about $260 million short as of several weeks ago.

"Certainly North Korea could do away with a good deal of its acute hunger and malnutrition if it turned those resources to feeding its own people," said David Straub, associate director of Korean Studies at Stanford University.

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