North Korea and the Famine that Killed Hundreds of Thousands of its Citizens


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After World War II, Japanese-occupied Korea was divided in two: North Korea, a newly Communist government under the supervision of the Soviet Union, and South Korea, under the supervision of the United States. The North Korean Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was granted independence in 1948, and is now one of the few remaining Communist nations. The population of North Korea is approximately 25 million, with an estimated annual per capita income of about US$1,800.

North Korea is considered the most oppressive regime on Earth. The government is a dictatorship--previously operated by Kim Il-sung, then by his son Kim Jong-il, and now by his grandson Kim Jong-un.

Kim II sung

Although North Korea is generally described as a Communist government, it could also be characterized as a theocracy. The North Korean government operates 450,000 "Revolutionary Research Centers" for weekly indoctrination sessions, where attendees are taught that Kim Jong-il was a deity figure whose story began with a miraculous birth atop a legendary Korean mountain (Jong-il was actually born in the former Soviet Union). Kim Jong-un, now known (as his father and grandfather once were) as "Dear Leader," is similarly described in these Revolutionary Research Centers as a supreme moral entity with supernatural powers.

The North Korean government maintains ten concentration camps, with a total of between 200,000 and 250,000 prisoners contained therein. Conditions in the camps are terrible, and the annual casualty rate has been estimated as high as 25 percent. The North Korean government has no due process system, imprisoning, torturing and executing prisoners at will. Public executions, in particular, are a common sight in North Korea.

The North Korean famine, known as the Arduous March  occurred from 1994 to 1998. Estimates of the death toll vary widely. In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was faced with its own economic and monetary problems, it began demanding payment from North Korea for past and current aid – amounts North Korea could not repay.  When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, trade between the two countries ceased altogether and the North Korean economy collapsed.

The economy of North Korea entered a period of steep internal decline that verged on complete collapse. The government initially responded to this crisis by intensifying policies practiced in the past that focused on increasing physical labor requirements due to limited access to new technology and necessary agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer and fuel. The country soon instigated austerity measures, dubbed the “eat two meals a day” campaign.

These measures proved inadequate in stemming the economic decline.

Without the help, North Korea was unable to respond adequately to the coming famine. For a time, China filled the gap left by the Soviet Union’s collapse and propped up North Korea’s food supply with significant aid. By 1993, China was supplying North Korea with  77 percent of its fuel imports and 68 percent of its food imports.  North Korea replaced dependence on the Soviet Union with dependence on China – with predictably dire consequences. In 1993, China faced its own grain shortfalls and need for hard currency, and it sharply cut aid to North Korea.

In 2011, during a visit to North Korea, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter reported that one third of children in North Korea were malnourished and stunted in their growth because of a lack of food. He also said that the North Korean government had reduced daily food intake from 1,400 calories to 700 calories in 2011 (by comparison, a normal food intake for a healthy European is 2,000-2,500 calories per day. Some scholars believed that North Korea was purposefully exaggerating the food shortage, aiming to receive additional food supplies for its planned 2012 mass celebrations by means of foreign aid.

Escaped North Koreans reported in September 2010 that starvation had returned to the nation. A study in 2011 by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were 5 inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45 percent of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition. Most people eat meat only on public holidays, namely Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays.

One report by the Tokyo Shimbun in April 2012 claimed that since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, around 20,000 people had starved to death in South Hwanghae Province. Another report by the Japanese Asia Press agency in January 2013 claimed that in North and South Hwanghae provinces more than 10,000 people had died of famine. Other international news agencies have begun circulating stories of cannibalism.

Book cover: Famine in North KoreaStephan Haggard and Marcus Noland have written  Famine in North Korea, a book which examines the origins and impact of the famine, from the level of the individual household to the high politics of international diplomacy.

Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, has called Famine in North Korea, "The authoritative account of the famine, examining its origins and impact from the level of the individual household to the high politics of international diplomacy. It is an extraordinary book, essential reading for anyone interested in the issues of famine, economic transition, and the future of the Korean peninsula."

The following is an interview with the authors that was posted on the Columbia University Press blog.

Question: You estimate that up to a million people died in the great famine of the mid-1990s. The numbers are staggering; how could the government have allowed this to transpire?

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland: Famine is commonly thought of as occurring when there is not enough food to go around, and shortages do play a role. But as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who contributed a foreword to the book, has observed, distribution matters. The official explanation for the famine is that North Korea experienced devastating floods in the mid-1990s. The famine was, in effect, a natural disaster. However, food supplies had begun dwindling and mortality rates creeping up before the floods. The rigidly authoritarian regime made little effort to offset declining harvests either by purchasing grain in the world market or appealing for humanitarian assistance, and when push came to shove, the residents of the capitol, Pyongyang, received privileged access, while some provinces were cut off from grain supplies from the state-run public distribution system altogether, and were later denied aid when it began to arrive. The government was centrally culpable in this disaster.

Q: A theme of the book is the difficulty the humanitarian community has in dealing with such a hard state. How does the North Korean government get away with this?

SH & MN: The North Korean government holds its population hostage to the humanitarian values of the international community. The World Food Program and other relief groups had to negotiate for entry, even as people were starving, and more than a decade later, they remain tightly constrained in their access and activities.

Effectiveness was also impeded by the shifting political winds in the donor countries, which behaved generously when they felt aid could be useful in supporting diplomatic negotiations, while restricting aid at other times in response to North Korean provocations. Similar problems of coordinating how to engage North Korea persist to this day, with China and South Korea pushing for greater and less conditional support, while Japan and the United States take a harder line.

Q: What about the critique by some exiles that aid simply props up the government?

SH & MN: We take this critique quite seriously. Aid was channeled through the public distribution system, which was directly controlled by the government. And we provide evidence that aid was diverted, although probably to the market as much as to military authorities or the party. Yet we conclude that withholding aid is not likely to change the behavior of such a regime substantially and would only have adverse humanitarian effects.

Q: Well if aid was diverted, what did people do to survive?

SH & MN: Sadly, many did not. The state's failure to provide during the famine forced families to pursue a variety of coping strategies, including foraging and eating inferior foods. Markets began to develop spontaneously, aStatue of Kim Il-sung
Author     Denis Bakfiets out of desperation families began selling their belongings and trading for food. Work units also engaged in similar activities, even stripping assets to barter for food in China. These activities began a process of informal markeStatue of Kim Il-sung
Author     Denis Bakfiets of the economy from below, with potentially profound implications for the society.

Q: You mentioned China. Is it possible that North Korea could pursue Chinese-style reforms? What is the North Korean government doing to ensure that this tragedy never happens again?

SH & MN: Unfortunately, the government's stance has been ambivalent. Although it may seem counterintuitive, for a country like North Korea, with relatively little arable lStatue of Kim Il-sung
Author     Denis Bakfiets and inauspicious conditions for growing food, the long run solution to the food problem is to export minerals and manufactures, and import bulk grains—just like its neighbors China, South Korea, and Japan do. Yet the government appears to fear greater openness, and its actions have been tentative and contradictory. During the past year it has undertaken reforms to facilitate things like foreign investment, yet at the same time it has acted recklessly with respect to the food economy, trying to ban the private market in grain—through which most households actually get their food—expelling some NGOs, and greatly restricting the activities of the WFP.

Q: Your book went to press before the most recent agreement with the North Koreans through the Six Party talks. Does your book provide any insight into how these negotiations might play out?

SH & MN: One can glean several lessons from the book. First, the North Korean government makes concessions when conditions are bad, but when conditions improve, it will try to claw back those concessions. Second, it is prepared to act with startling ruthlessness in the pursuit of its core political goals. Third, divergent political interests among donors, or in this case, diplomatic counterparts, can undermine effectiveness in dealing with North Korea. While we welcome the recent progress in the talks, to employ a football metaphor, the February agreement was a first down, not a touchdown. We are still far from achieving our ultimate goal of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Interview with Haggard and Noland on Columbia University Press website.


Visit your local library for these resources:

Famine in North Korea
Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, (2007).

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick, (2010).
In spite of the strict restrictions on foreign press, award-winning journalist Demick caught telling glimpses of just how surreal and mournful life is in North Korea. Her chilling impressions of a dreary, muffled, and depleted land are juxtaposed with a uniquely to-the-point history of how North Korea became an industrialized Communist nation supported by the Soviet Union and China and ruled by Kim Il Sung, then collapsed catastrophically into poverty, darkness, and starvation under the dictator’s son, Kim Jong Il. Strongly written and gracefully structured, Demick’s potent blend of personal narratives and piercing journalism vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope.
— Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published December 15, 2009 (Booklist).

The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom
Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh, (2009).
As often as North Korea is in the news, we have little reliable information about what life is actually like in this “hermit kingdom,” and that’s no accident. Husband-and-wife Korea experts Hassig and Oh begin this illuminating national portrait with a quote from its leader, Kim Jong-il: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.” Hassig and Oh dispel the fog of repression with the help of defectors, including the dictator’s once privileged Japanese chef. Refugees describe a desolate, silent land where starvation is endemic except at the dictator’s luxurious villas, where Kim Jong-il partakes of the gourmet bounty of his private farms. Hassig and Oh provide chilling information and haunting photographs that starkly delineate the crisis state of North Korea’s economy, agriculture, and health care; the abundance of political prisons; and the tyranny of perpetual surveillance. The authors suggest new forms of diplomacy and express confidence that cell phones and computers are beaming their pixel light through the dark cloud that enshrouds this suffering land. — Excerpt of review by Donna Seaman first published November 15, 2009 (Booklist).

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
Blaine Harden, (2012).
Harden tells the harrowing story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man born in the notorious Camp 14. Shin’s parents were given to each other as a reward for good work, and he rarely saw them because familial bonds were discouraged. Shin lived in barracks, working from a young age in labor that killed many. Everyone was encouraged to snitch on each other, a policy so ingrained that Shin snitched on his mother, resulting in her public execution. In his early twenties, Shin became the first person to escape a North Korean labor camp. Harden details the difficult years that follow: months in rural China, cultural shock in affluent and competitive South Korea, and existential confusion once Shin reaches the U.S.
—Excerpt of review by Blair Parsons first published February 15, 2012 (Booklist).

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Bradley K. Martin, (2004).
For a quarter century, Martin has covered North Korea while working for the Baltimore Sun, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Using newly available material from Russian and Chinese sources, Martin offers surprising insights into the career and character of both Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il. He strives, albeit with moderate success, to unveil the reality from the mounds of myth and distortions with which both men have surrounded themselves. But Martin’s account is most chilling in his descriptions of contemporary North Korean society. — Excerpt of review by Jay Freeman first published September 15, 2004 (Booklist).



1. Article illustration:
Statue of Kim Il-sung
Author:Denis Bakfiets

2. Book cover: Famine in North Korea

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