Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, bought $440m worth of weapons from Russia last month. Meanwhile at home millions of his people are starving to death.
North Korea, the last bastion of Stalinism, is in the grip of an economic crisis that has led to famine in much of the country. Yet the 1.1m-strong defence force has not had its budget cut. While monuments to Kim Jong-il and his dead father, Kim Il-sung, are floodlit, apartment blocks in the capital, Pyongyang, have no electricity.
Rural areas have abandoned tractors and reverted to ploughing by hand or with livestock. Mercedes Benz cars belonging to the ruling elite ply the streets of the capital, while ordinary citizens dig for edible plants in the grass strips that line the five-lane boulevards. The public food
distribution system, on which three-quarters of the population depend, only provides rations on important dates such as the birthdays of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il.
Extrapolations from testimonies of North Korean refugees in China suggest that up to 3.5m people might have died from starvation and related illnesses between 1995 and 1998. Reports of deaths continue to permeate the border, although with less frequency: refugees say that the weakest have already died.
Meanwhile North Korea receives one of the largest allocations of food aid in the world - almost 1m tonnes a year. Mostly channelled through the United Nations World Food Programme, it supposedly targets 8m of the most vulnerable: children, pregnant and breast-feeding women, the elderly and the sick. Yet refugees from the northern provinces where WFP concentrates aid say that they never received this food.
No one knows what is happening to the food aid, not even the organisations in charge of distributing it, because the North Korean regime does not allow aid agencies the access necessary to ensure that aid reaches those for whom it is intended. All aid is channelled through the government-run public distribution system, effectively strengthening one of the main instruments of control at the government's disposal.
Aid agencies are permitted to "monitor" the aid, but must announce monitoring visits a week in advance. Aid workers have little contact with ordinary North Koreans as a government interpreter accompanies them everywhere, and questions deemed controversial are not translated.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) did try to overcome these restrictions. But teams realised that the government fabricated whatever they wanted aid workers to see: malnourished children when more food aid
was desired, and well-fed children when donors needed reassurance that aid was doing good.
Testimonies from refugees corroborate this: some report having carried food from military storage facilities to nurseries before a UN visit, others speak of being mobilised to dig up areas to exacerbate flood damage in preparation for a UN inspection.
MSF began to understand that the North Korean government categorises its population according to perceived loyalty and usefulness to the regime, and those deemed hostile or useless were expendable. In 1996 Kim Jong-il declared that only 30% of the population needed to survive to reconstruct a victorious society. Unable to direct aid to the most needy, MSF withdrew from North Korea in 1998.
Although they label their aid humanitarian, donor governments and aid organisations keep North Korea on life support for political, economic and diplomatic reasons.
The United States, Japan and South Korea are pursuing a "soft-landing" policy aimed at avoiding an implosion of the regime, which could trigger military action or refugee flows into China and South Korea. Food aid is aimed at opening dialogue and trust to pave the way for reunification.
Most members of the European Union have re-established full diplomatic relations with the regime, thereby bestowing legitimacy on Kim Jong-il and his clique.
While political and diplomatic engagement provides the only real means to influence the regime, using food aid to do so in a country beset by famine is reprehensible. The purpose of humanitarian aid is to save lives. By channelling it through the regime responsible for the suffering, it has become part of the system of oppression.
Fiona Terry is a researcher for Médecins Sans Frontières