A largely preventable famine killed as many as 2 million to 3 million people, 10 to 15 percent of North Korea’s population, in the 1990s. By contrast 1 million died in Ethiopia in the mid 1980s and 1.5 million died in Somalia in the early 1990s. The actual number of people who died is a matter of some dispute because accurate information about North Korea is so hard to come by. It was at least in the hundreds of thousands . The North Korean government said about 250,000 people died. Most of the deaths were from malnutrition-related causes. Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking defector from the North and a man close to North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, estimated about a million people starved to death in 1996 alone.

The famine built up in the early 1990s, peaked in 1996 and 1997 and subsided somewhat after that after large amount of international food aid arrived. Similar famines on smaller scales reoccurred in the 2000s. The 1990s famine was blamed on floods and drought, which served as a trigger, but more it was a "food crisis” caused by an overall breakdown of the country's state-controlled and centrally planned system — a long and painfully slow descent that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the loss of invaluable subsidies, petroleum and a principal export market.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The famine of the late 1990s revealed the shortcomings of the North Korean economy. The world had known for some time that North Korea's economy lagged far behind South Korea's, but the news of the famine was alarming to the West. Following massive floods in 1995 and 1996, a dry summer accompanied by typhoon damage in 1997 devastated North Korean agriculture. In 1997, the per capita daily grain ration fell from 24.5 ounces (700 grams) to 3.5 ounces (100 grams). The ration distribution also became intermittent. Because of the increasing deaths by starvation and undernourishment, funerals were allowed only in small scale and in the evening, and were attended only by the immediate family. As poverty increased and the lack of food intensified, there were reports that crimes related to the situation were on the increase — from petty theft to organized gang robbery, often involving murder. North Korea began relying heavily on foreign aid from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and other Western nations” which contributed to “North Korea's slow recovery from a serious food shortage.” [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Flooding in 1995 caused more than US$15 billion of damage and devastated agricultural production. In 1996, the United Nations (UN) sent emergency food aid to relieve famine. Hunger had been a problem under Kim Il Sung, Jasper Becker wrote in his book “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea”. But under Kim Jong Il, it became possibly ''the most devastating famine in history,'' surpassing ''any comparable disaster in the 20th century,'' even China's under Mao. More North Koreans died than victims of Pol Pot's Cambodia. [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, New York Times, August 7, 2005]

Floods, Drought and Food Shortages in North Korea in the 1990s

There were severe shortfall of food in the early 1990s. In 1993, there were bad harvests and food shortages. In 1994, destructive hailstorms and a cold growing season, resulted in a harvest of only 4.13 tons of grain, well below the 6.73 million tons necessary to feed the population.

The 1995, the worst floods in century, causing US$15 billion in damage and leaving 500,000 people homeless. The floods were caused by a typhoon that stalled over North Korea and dumped inch after inch and inch of rain. The worst hit areas were below dams that burst and swept away everything in their path and leaving behind farmland covered with gravel and sediment. North Korea's fragile economic system was unable to cope with the floods. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that North Korea didn't have the money or the credit.

The 1996 floods caused US$2.2 billion to rice-growing regions on the west coast. These floods were caused by a storm-induced tidal wave that swamped thousands of acres of agricultural land with water. These floods produced a shortfall of 50 percent of grain, meaning that only 3.5 million tons was produced, well below the 6.73 million tons needed to adequately feed the population and 4.8 millions tons needed to supply subsistence level nutrition. During the peak of the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s there was a 37 percent shortfall.

A drought occurred in the summer of 1997 after the annual monsoon failed to appear and was replaced by a string of 95̊ days. Rivers and reservoirs dried up. Some 5,300 minor rivers and 136,000 underground water stopped flowing. Huge lakes lost 96 percent of their water Corn crops were only waist high and rice paddies were dried. About 70 percent of the corn crop was lost.. The northeast was particularly hard hot by the drought.

Causes of the 1990s Famine in North Korea

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: The immediate trigger for the famine was flooding in 1995. But the centrally planned economy had been in free fall since 1990-91, when the Soviet Union collapsed and cut off subsidies. Without free fuel for its aging factories and without a guaranteed market for its often shoddy goods, North Korea came unglued.” Kim Jong Il himself said in 2004: "When the state was unable to supply food efficiently, people began to abandon their jobs and began searching for ways to acquire personal gains." [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, March 6, 2009]

Most experts believed there was much more involved than bad weather in the 1990s famine in North Korea. Political analyst Robert Manning wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "floods certainly triggered the country's food shortage, but four decades of agricultural mismanagement is the underlying cause. Any short-term aid will not alter the long-term outlook, an estimated shortfall of 1.8 million tons annually for the next several years. North Korea has been dependant on food imports since the mid 1980s. A slogan introduced in 1991 proclaimed, “Let’s eat only two meals a day!”

Even healthy harvests in North Korea produces only 5 million tons of food, 2.4 tons less than what the country needs to adequately feed its people. Marcus Noland, an expert from the Institute for International Economics told the Los Angeles Times: "Output was falling well before the floods occurred in 1995. North Korea had appealed to Japan and South Korea for aid before the floods occurred. So this is a systematic problem. This is not a problem caused by bad luck." An indirect cause was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cut off of trade.

Andrew Natsios, author of the book “The Great North Korean Famine” blamed the famine on four causes: 1) declining production due to poor agricultural management; 2) the sudden decline of subsidies from the Soviet Union and China beginning in the 1990s; 3) the elimination of food subsidies to the eastern coastal plain in 1994; and 4) the reduction of food rations to farmers. The reduction of rations and subsided encouraged farmers to divert food away from the public food distribution system and gave them no incentive to work hard growing food.

Agricultural Mismanagement During the Famine in the 1990s

Exhausted land, lack of fuel to run tractors, no fertilizer or pesticides have long been fixtures of North Korean agriculture. Years of using petroleum-based fertilizers have degraded much of the land. Hills were eroded and farms were stripped of top soil as the government forced farmers to grow rice and corn in places that were not suitable for these crops.

Poor agricultural practices have degraded the soil to such a degree that there is little organic material. One aid worker told the Los Angeles Times, “They have in many respects sterilized their soils over the last 3- years by over application of fertilizers.” Ironically crops will not grow without fertilizer.

Kim Il Sung’s half baked idea or raising corn on terraced slopes ended in disaster. Forests were clear cut and the shallow-root crops were planted in fragile soil. Heavy rains washed away the plants and caused heavy erosion, which blocked streams and rivers with silt, in turn causing flooding which devastated good agriculture land in the valleys.

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “In his later years, Kim Il Sung built a medical institute in Pyongyang for the sole purpose of prolonging his life. There, surrounded by Western doctors and an army of nutritionists, masseurs, homeopaths and the like, he was fed a diet of foods grown just for him. Meanwhile, across the countryside, his unaccountable scheme for bolstering the food supply by growing corn on the terraced slopes of vertiginous valleys was ending in catastrophe, as heavy rains washed the efforts away, clogging streams and rivers with silt, which in turn triggered flooding that wiped out perfectly good crop lands. Industry was grinding to a halt, reduced to less than half its production capacity by lack of fuel and raw materials.” [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

Energy shortages hurt agriculture which relies on tractors, electrically-operated irrigation and petroleum-based fertilizers. One North Korea expert told the Los Angeles Times, “There is direct causal links between the energy shortages and the food shortage. North Korea was not very well suited to growing food, and they developed an incredibly input-intensive style of agriculture.”

Rations for Food During the 1990s North Korean Famine

As food shortages in North Korea became more severe, food rations shrunk. One defector told the New Yorker, “The government rationing system began to shrink steadily after 1994, and people began to die of hunger in 1995. At first they would give us fifteen days food for a month. Then, after several months, they went to ten days for several months. And the rationing wasn’t even steady — it went on and off and people waited and waited.”

The living standards in North Korea were so poor that rations were reportedly cut the party elite and even senior officials had trouble feeding their families. During the winter of 1997-98, Pyongyang residents received about 450 grams of food a day while people in other part of the country received only 150 grams (12 spoonfuls of grain) a day. Around 600 grams is what the Red Cross gives to people at refugee camps around the world.

Many people received rations of 100 grams of rice a day. At the height of the food crisis, university students in Pyongyang were given a daily ration of 16 kernels of corn a day. Some parts of North Korea are believed to have received no food rations at all, meaning they had to fend for themselves on what they could scavenge or grow themselves.

Surviving in the Famine

During the famine in North Korea, people were not allowed to go away from their towns and were left to fend for themselves. They gathered what little food they could and were encouraged to grow their own food. Food came from summer barely and potato harvests and the autumn rice harvests.

People survived by cutting trees for firewood and selling edible plants they gathered in the mountains. One woman told the Yomiuri Shimbum, “I used a saw to cut down tees in the mountains and climbed down the mountain carrying wood on my back. Once down the mountain I took the wood back home on a cow and cut it smaller at home. After selling the wood, I bought cornstarch in the market.” She sometimes bought potatoes which were mixed with the cornstarch. Rice was a luxury reserved for special days.

One aid worker told the Los Angeles Times, "In most countries, if they were confronted with a serious food shortage as North Korea is facing...I think we would have seen megadeaths already. But people there have developed coping mechanisms." Another aid worker told AFP, "These are very proud people, a very stoic people and they are used to hardship, but it is amazing to us how relatively well they have done in the circumstances."

Growing up in North Korea During 1990s Famine

Mina Yoon wrote in NK News, I lived in North Korea I never thought I was suffering from malnutrition – even though I was not very healthy at the time. Perhaps that is because everyone was in a similar situation. And I was shadowed by my younger sister, who suffered from critical malnutrition, so my health was not a concern. “Only when you lose all energy and end up in a sickbed do you realise that you haven’t eaten well. [Source: Mina Yoon for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, June 13, 2014]

“My little sister went to kindergarten then, and she occasionally collapsed just while walking on the street. Then one day even her eyesight started deteriorating. She could not see anything at night. She could not even pick up her rice bowl. My mother could not do anything but shed tears looking at her, and my father did not know because, as always, he was always away (with the military) and busy with work.

“My friends and I went out to hills and an open field nearby, and collected shepherd’s purse, an herb known in North Korea to be good for night blindness. My kindhearted friends poured the shepherd’s purse they collected all day long, which could have made a decent dinner soup for their hungry families, into my basket. However, even the kindness of my friends could not save my little sister. There was no progress in her condition, and my mother finally wrote a letter to my father who eventually managed to get pig’s liver and sent it to my mother. She steamed it and fed it to my sister with salt, and fortunately it worked. My sister gradually recovered her eyesight.

“At a time when a kernel of corn seemed more valuable than gold, I think the biggest victims were the little kids in North Korea. In my hometown, there was a little girl named Soon Yi. I often saw her drawing something with a broken branch on the ground, waiting for her dad, who was out to find something to feed her. Because she was four-years-old, the same age as my own little sister then, I was a bit attached to her. Then, one day, I woke up and heard the sad news that she had died. Her mother passed away when she was still a baby and her father was the only one who could find something to feed her. However, at that time, it was not easy to find food.

During the famine “I had not grown at all....I had become bony. My face was white, covered with age spots and my hair had become rough and brittle. I looked shabby... Back then I suffered from severe vertigo. When I felt dizzy, I had to sit down for a while.”

“None of our family died of hunger. My father’s social status as a military officer was of no help, but we three children survived all this with our sick mother. I was the eldest, and I wanted to find anything to feed my little sister and brother, even little pieces of herbs. I sometimes went out wandering around hills and fields nearby with some of the old ladies in the village. As a nine-year-old girl, there was no herb that I didn’t know. I can still recognise all the herbs on the mountain. Fern, bracken fiddlehead, bonnet bellflower, Solomon’s seal, mountain wormwood, victory onion, clavaria, naematoloma… all of these now have become a memory of those times.

Everyday Life During the North Korean Food Crisis

One defector who left North Korea in December, 1996 told the Korean Times: "Schools and hospitals operate in the morning and close before lunch. Many people are suffering from malnutrition-caused illnesses such as tuberculosis and B-type hepatitis."

In the winter of 1997, schools were freezing and only 20 percent of the students were present. Teachers told aid workers the other students were "on field trips." On a journey out of Pyongyang, one Western visitor said:. "The countryside was poor and backward-looking. Extensive areas were under cultivation and the buildings looked impoverished and abandoned." [Source: Hugh Levinson, Seoul Times, August 11, 2006]

People waiting in long lines to collect their rations of rice, grain and vegetable oil. They also waited for hours in sub-zero temperatures for trains delayed by power shortages. One Chinese visitor to North Korea said it took her six days to travel a few hundred miles by train because of a lack of fuel.

There were also reports of people staying up all night to guard their belongings and food from thieves. Soldiers reportedly dug up food from people's gardens, looted homes, stole food from markets and knocked on the doors of strangers, begging them for food.

Homeless Orphan Survives in the 1990s

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Kim's mother died when he was a toddler, and he was raised by his father, a party member and an employee of a military unit that sold fish in China. During his early childhood, Kim, his father and elder brother lived in relative comfort in a high-rise apartment in the Sunam district. When the government stopped handing out rations in 1993, Kim's father used his connections to place his sons in an orphanage 60 miles away. Kim, who was about 12 at the time, wasn't sorry to be sent away. It was considered a privilege because the orphanages had food. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

In 1997, just before his 16th birthday, Kim "graduated" from the orphanage. He caught a train back to Chongjin, but when he got to his neighborhood, things looked unfamiliar. The electricity was off. Many apartment buildings had no glass in the windows and appeared vacant. Climbing the eight flights in pitch dark to his family's unit, he heard a baby crying and wondered whose it might be. Confused and scared, he knocked on the door.

“A young couple opened the door and told him his father had moved long ago but left a message: Look for him at the train station. The phenomenon of vagrancy is testament to how much North Korea has changed. Before the famine, the government controlled people's movements so strictly that they could not dream of visiting a relative in a nearby town without a travel permit, let alone selling their homes. Not showing up for work could bring a visit from police.

“But as people embarked on increasingly desperate hunts for food, families broke apart. With few telephones and a barely functional postal service, parents and children became separated. "People just started wandering around because they were hungry," Kim said. "They would sell their apartments for a few bags of rice." Kim never found his father. He also never found his brother, who had left the orphanage a year earlier.

With no place to go, Kim ended up at the train station. By night, he slept squeezed into a narrow space designed for a sliding iron gate. By day, he loitered near the food vendors on the plaza. He often worked with a gang of other kids — a few would topple a vendor's cart and the others would scoop up whatever spilled. "If you're not fast, you can't eat," said Kim, who even today in South Korea bears the signs of chronic malnutrition, with a head that looks oversized on a shockingly short frame.

Private Gardens and Black Markets

The only people who got more than their daily rations were people who grew their own food. In private garden people grew pumpkins, corn, wheat, apples and raising pigs chickens, and rabbits. After the famine started, the government increased yields by allowing farmers to keep 30 percent of their harvests.

Among the North Koreans that got enough to eat were party members who could afford to buy food on the black market, fisherman who caught more than their quotas, widows who prostituted their bodies, and citizens with ethnic Korean relatives in China that could supply them with food gifts.

One defector who left North Korea in 1997 said, "Workers now earn 70 to 80 won a month, while the black market price for one kilo of rice is between 60 won and 180 won." According to another report people were paying US$20 for a pound for rice, more 200 times the international market price." Some traders made so much money they went to China and blew their money on women and alcohol.

Mina Yoon wrote in NK News, “My mother planted cucumbers in the back yard. However, perhaps because of the drought, the cucumber vine hardly produced even a single skinny cucumber. It took a long time for the cucumber to grow to the size of a middle finger. Because of the weather, all sorts of crops could not grow well then. My mum forbade us from eating the cucumber because, she said, we all should share it. I was tempted to pick the cucumber and eat it more than a dozen times a day, but I was strong enough to resist to the urge. However, one day, I was surprised to see just part of the cucumber dangling on the vine, the rest of it bitten off. [Source: Mina Yoon for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, June 13, 2014]

“In the spot where it had been bitten, some fresh juice had oozed out, meaning it had not been long since it was eaten. My mum was furious, and demanded from all three of us who had done it. Finally, my brother stepped out, hesitatingly. He confessed that he ate it. He said he really wanted to eat all of it but stopped himself after only one bite because he wanted to share it with his sisters when the cucumber grew big enough.

“Would a partially bitten-off cucumber grow well? Everyone knows that it would wither away, shrink and eventually fall from the vine. Of course, my little brother was way too young to understand this. My mother, out of patience, spanked him, but regretted it later. She later said that she was angry because she could not fill the tiny stomachs of her little ones.“My mother said that she was angry because she could not fill the tiny stomachs of her little ones I sometimes wonder how I could live in such a world. However, I then remember that others were in even worse situations.

Agriculture and Industry During the Famine

Plowing was done by hand because there was no fuel for tractors and many of the draft animal had been slaughtered for food. The only draft animals were cows because they weren't slaughtered as they produced milk. One aid worker said she visiting a commune whose population of geese went from 3,000 to 50.

Many fields lay barren and unattended because farmers were took weak to plow and take care of them. In some places the army had to be called in to plant the rice crop.

In the fields where people were working school children helped out and everybody moved very slowly. A Korean resident of Japan told Newsweek that he saw "several men lying flat on a hillside, looking so skinny and weak. It was only 10 in the morning and they looked as though they didn't have any energy left."

One aid worker, who toured North Korea in April 1997 told Newsweek that during a 100-mile tour of North Korea's breadbasket around Suhung he counted only 26 tractors, of which only 13 were working.

No smoke came out of factories; workers milled around outside with nothing to do. The aid worker who toured North Korea in April, 1997 told Newsweek he visited 20 factories and only one, a metalworking plant, showed signs of life.

Hungry North Koreans Crossing into China

Many North Koreans crossed into China in search for food. There were reports of relatives dropping off orphans in border towns to fend for themselves and North Korean soldiers trading their guns for food. Hungry North Koreans crossed the border to barter ceramics, stamps, paintings and stuffed birds of prey and even their precious Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il badges for food.

Ethnic Koreans living in China crossed into North Korea to give their relatives food and sometimes threw bags of cookies across the narrow parts of the Tulem River, separating the two countries. North Korean children retrieved plastic bags of food tossed in the Tumen river by tourists. Farmers in Tumen had to sow corn three or four times because North Korean dug up the seeds to eat. Many ethnic Koreans in China were willing at first to share what they had with their North Korean brothers but their patience ran thin after a while.

There were many ragged North Korean children in China. Some had been caught by authorities, brought back to North Korean and escaped to China 10 to 20 times. They slept in caves, warehouses, staircases in apartments and out in open fields. Some scavenged for food in fields or trash cans. Some begged. Many worked in slave-like conditions for pitiably low wages to earn something to eat. Many were orphans. Some had parents that were unable to feed them.

Ethnic Koreans in China and Chinese citizens frequently crossed the border to deliver goods to the black markets in North Korea, a practice that Pyongyang tolerated to bring in food and other supplies. One Chinese woman who went to North Korea to visit relatives said she was so shocked by what she saw that she gave everything she had — even her extra underwear — to her relatives. And she was in a town that was supposed to be in pretty good shape because it was near the Chinese border. Towns in the interior of North Korea were much worse off.

Defectors Who Left North Korea During the 1990s Famine

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: Lee Young-suk, a former nurse, showed me pictures of herself and her husband, a retired army officer, on the day they arrived in China. They were small people to begin with, and in the photos, seated beside a roly-poly Chinese priest who had given them shelter, they looked so shrunken they might have been mistaken for a child's toys. 'At first, we didn't intend to come, because all our family were party members, so we were a well-off family,' Lee said. 'But after Kim Il Sung's death our financial situation got very much worse.' Her husband had no pension, there were no rations, and they had stripped their house bare, bartering all their belongings for food. 'Even though we were retired and starving, we had to work for the party. They called it social projects, working two hours for no pay at such things as early-morning indoctrination meetings and making fertiliser. But we didn't have much strength.' Her husband was furious when Lee first suggested going to China for rice. 'But our eldest son had already gone to China, and a state security agent came looking for him. We lied, but they kept coming and asking. So one day my husband said this was getting dangerous and they could send us to prison. We ran away in August 1997, crossed the Tumen River and went to a church there. They welcomed us.' [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

“Lee became agitated as she spoke...and she began to cry, quietly - almost, it seemed, ineptly, as if she didn't know how to cry, and disapproved of crying, and at the same time could not cry enough. 'My son who was shot to death in the military... his officer ordered him to steal pigs,' she said. 'So he got angry and said, "I came to the military for my country's unification and for killing Americans, not to become a thief." They started to fight, and the officer knocked him down and shot him dead.' She said it made her ill for days on end to think of her past, and the children and grandchildren she had lost. Then, just as abruptly, she stopped crying. 'I want to tell you about the deaths of my grandchildren,' she said. 'We used to eat grass soup with grass powder and my grandchild asked for rice. I told her we couldn't have rice because we had to starve for 10 days. Whenever I eat rice now, I feel very sad.'

Lee's hands caught each other in midair and settled for a moment in her lap. 'Before I found God, I drank a lot, and I drank a lot of alcohol in front of the graves of my children. I want to tear Kim Jong Il to death. My eldest son's wife and two of their children died of hunger. Their father had been working at a chemical-weapons factory, and they were starving. Two grandsons were starving - eight and 10 years old. They went to a noodle seller, and begged. The noodle seller gave them some noodles. They ate and fell asleep on the shop floor. Then the owner killed them with an axe to put their meat into the noodles, because pork was very expensive at the time.'

“Refugees' stories are often treated with suspicion, but in the late 90s, as the number of malnourished North Koreans in northeast China swelled from the thousands to the tens of thousands and then into the hundreds of thousands, their accounts of the conditions that had driven them to risk their lives and escape had a cumulative authority that defied disbelief. What's more, the fact that they were there - that so many had got out - was, in itself, evidence of a radical breakdown inside North Korea.

“Many of the refugees had crossed the river in broad daylight, seemingly in plain view of guards who were too weak with cold and hunger either to notice or to care. The situation on the border was constantly changing. The same guards who were nowhere to be seen one day were out hunting the next, often crossing into China to round up escapees, sometimes piercing their hands or noses to string them together and march them home.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, The Telegraph, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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