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. 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. The North Korean government said about 250,000 people died.

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. The North Korean government seemed to have no plan to handle the crisis and farmers in some areas, particularly near the Chinese border, were told to fend for themselves and trade privately and sell food in markets. There were a few examples of micro-credit, double cropping and reducing the size of the collective farms. The U.S. began shipping food aid to North Korea in 1997, with shipments peaking in 1999 at 700,000 tons.

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. [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, New York Times, August 7, 2005]

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker: Farmers were not allowed to relieve their hunger by growing their own food and selling it, for, Kim observed, “Telling people to solve the food problems on their own only increases the number of farmers markets and peddlers. In addition, this creates egoism among people, and the basis of the Party's class may come to collapse.” If things were bad in “normal” life, the conditions in the vast North Korean gulag are difficult to imagine. Bradley K. Martin wrote in his book “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty”: “While more and more inmates died as a result of malnutrition, the political prison camps continued to be run more as slave-labor and slow death camps than as instant death camps.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, August 22, 2005]

North Korea’s Failed Agricultural Policy

Agriculture has always been a difficult proposition in North Korea, with its relatively cold climate and mountainous terrain with little high-quality farmland. 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.

Brian Palmer wrote in Slate: “In defiance of nature, North Korea’s isolationist leaders decided in the 1950s that domestic farmers had to fulfill all the country’s food needs. They instituted intensive agricultural practices to maximize yield from their limited arable land, relying on heavy irrigation and copious pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. They scraped by for decades with only occasional famines, but the system totally collapsed in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union cut the supply of subsidized fossil fuels, from which many of the DPRK’s agricultural chemicals are derived. [Source: Brian Palmer, Slate]

“When crop yields declined, the government tried to plug the gap by increasing acreage. They stripped hillsides of all natural vegetation and tried terraced agriculture. It worked for a little while, but heavy seasonal rains eventually eroded the new farms and filled the nation's rivers, reservoirs, and irrigation canals with silt. Eventually, the land was no longer able to absorb the water from annual monsoons, and flooding became a chronic problem.

“Even though the program to expand arable land failed miserably, North Korean leaders thought their mistake was not going far enough. Kim Jong-il is said to have supported a plan to bulldoze the entire country, in an attempt to turn mountains into fertile plains. Kim figured that the plan would both increase agricultural production and further the national ideal of perfect uniformity among citizens. Since farmers would no longer have been able to say their families had been farming the area between two hills for generations, they would lose any sentimental attachment to the land. Fortunately, Kim never had the resources to implement the great flattening.”

Origins of the North Korean Hunger Crises

Jordan Weissmann wrote in The Atlantic: A normal economy would deal with its inability to meet its demands for food “by importing food. But during the 1980s, the North Korean government embarked on a policy of radical self-sufficiency...Farmers were expected to overcome mother nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population. To do it, they relied on heaps of chemical fertilizer. But that crutch was yanked away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. [Source: Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, December 20, 2011]

“The demise of the USSR threw North Korea's entire economy into chaos, and agriculture was among its most important casualties. Without imports of cheap fuel (self-sufficiency had its limits), the country's industrial base fractured, and production of fertilizer dwindled. Farm yields plummeted, and the government started a campaign urging citizens to consume less. Its cheery slogan: "Let's eat only two meals a day."

“It was against this background that the Kim Jong Il took power. The country was at a crossroads, says Marcus Noland, a leading expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. With the USSR gone, the prospects for a small, isolated, neo-Stalinist regime looked rather grim. The government could have opened up its economy, much like Vietnam did with great success. Instead, North Korea chose to stay frozen in time. "The mystery is why the North Koreans did not understand the historical magnitude of the change around them," Noland says.

Famine and the North Korean Government

The North Korea government — strong proponents of juche (self reliance) — was humiliated by the fact it had to seek international aid to feed its people. One aid worker told Newsweek, "North Koreans are extremely sensitive about embarrassing photographs of teary-eyed children.”

Foreign governments stood by disgusted as the North Korean government poured money into missiles, nuclear weapons and huge statues of Kim Il Sung and held grandiose ceremonies while their people were starving. One defector said: "Most people” in North Korea “ are satisfied that they endured near starvation in order for the government to develop a weapon that brought the rest of the world to its knees."

Party elite faired better than ordinary people. One person in particular seem to have no problems. In October 1997, at the height of the famine, a Japanese newspaper reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il ordered 66,000 bottles of French wine, 1,900 boxes of canned meat and 20 cartons of chocolate.

Pyongyang was accused rewarding loyalty and punishing disloyalty by giving or taking away food rations, taking food away from rural areas to feed Pyongyang and using hunger as a bargaining chip to obtain food from other nations. There were some that asserted the entire famine thing was fabricated to get money and foreign aid.

Kim Jong Il and North Korea’s Famine

Jordan Weissmann wrote in The Atlantic: “In 1994, the year Kim inherited North Korea's reins from his late father, the country was in the midst of a severe agricultural decline. The newly minted despot transformed it into a famine that would claim as many as three million lives. Food shortages have plagued the country ever since. [Source: Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, December 20, 2011]

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “One of Kim Jong Il's first policy initiatives after his father's death in 1994 was to call on the United Nations' World Food Programme for help in feeding North Korea's famished population. At first, this request, which amounted to an admission of the state's destitution, was seen as an astonishing softening of the Juche line. The sort of international assistance that would be required to compensate for the near-50 per cent food deficit in North Korea always comes with conditions from donors and creates pressure for political and economic reform on the recipient. But it quickly became clear that Kim Jong Il was not prepared to expose his country to the scrutiny of foreign agents just to save the people from starvation. On the contrary, the regime, having declared itself in need, appeared bent on preventing anyone from seeing the extent of the famine. The few, individually vetted foreign aid workers who received visas were mostly kept penned up in Pyongyang and allowed to visit rural areas only under the strict control of government handlers. What they saw on these guided tours perplexed them. [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, was in North Korea at the time as an officer of the humanitarian organisation World Vision, and he describes the problem in his book The Great North Korean Famine: 'Before expatriate relief workers entered a city or rural area to do their work, the local authorities swept the streets of any evidence of famine. Beggars, emaciated people, abandoned children, debris and dead bodies were removed from the streets. People were told to stay indoors if they did not have presentable clothing to wear. One relief worker who spoke Korean watched a truck drive through a village just before the arrival of a visiting non-governmental organisation [NGO] delegation, announcing over a loudspeaker that people should get off the streets. Only party members were permitted outside their homes to take their ration of food aid while the NGO food monitors were in the city.'

Jerrold Post wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Kim Jong Il has shown a remarkable indifference to his people’s suffering. Early in the famine, Kim cut off nearly all food supplies to the four eastern provinces, also denying them access to international aid. From 1997 to 1999, on Kim’s orders, several hundred thousand people displaced by the famine were herded into camps, where many died of hunger and exposure. Moreover, witnesses say, Kim has ordered the systematic killing of babies born in North Korea’s camps for political prisoners. [Source: Jerrold Post, Professor of Psychiatry, Political Psychology and International Affairs and Director of the Political Psychology Program at the George Washington University, Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2003]

Breakdown of the Food Distribution System in North Korea

Jordan Weissmann wrote in The Atlantic: “One Cold War relic in desperate need of reform was the country's food distribution system. Crops such as rice and corn were raised on collectivist farms, then doled out by the state. The process served a political purpose by funneling cheap food to the country's outsized military, as well as citizens in the capital of Pyongyang, which together made up the base of Kim's power. But it was also ready to collapse. [Source: Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, December 20, 2011]

“In 1995, when the globe first learned about the North Korean famine, massive floods decimated as much as 15 percent of North Korea's farmable land. Local officials began hoarding food they were charged with distributing. And a fuel shortage made it impossible to move crops around the country. The government appealed to the United Nations World Food Program for humanitarian aid, blaming the floods for the disaster. Yet even as he sought help from abroad, Kim deepened the crisis at home by stumbling into a war with his country's farmers.

“Without enough food to go around, the North Korean regime had turned to triage. Pyongyang and the military had to eat, so the government cut rations for farmers instead, slashing the portion of their harvest they could keep to feed their own families. Predictably, there were severe consequences. Faced with the unappealing prospect of going hungry, farmers began hiding their grain. In 1996, the World Food Program found that half the country's corn crop had gone missing. Reports spread of farmers' roofs collapsing under the weight of stashed food. Soldiers were sent to guard the fields at harvest time, but as a United States Institute for Peace report noted, they were easily bribed. After all, the soldiers were hungry, too.

“From there, the situation only degenerated. Despite the international community's wariness toward the Kim regime, food aid did begin to flow. But much of it was stolen by well-connected elites, who re-sold the aid at marked-up prices. Farmers started doing the same thing with their own crops. As a result, food prices soared, and the poorest continued to starve.

“Farmers stole their own crops. Elites stole the aid. Impoverished Koreans starved. Because the country's statistics are so unreliable, nobody knows the exact number of casualties caused by the famine. But common estimates peg the number of deaths between one million to three million.

North Korean People Views of Their Government and the Famine

There were some reports of food riots in North Korea. "In the past we never complained," one North Korean woman told the Los Angeles Times in May 1997, "but now it is different. Among your friends, you criticize the government, and even public people criticize because even security people have not gotten a distribution [of food] since last year."

One defector from 1997 said, "people are so cynical about the instructions that they respond with the joke, "I have tightened my belt so hard that my belly has stuck to my back." Even so, one Chinese businessman who frequently visited North Korea, told the Los Angeles Times, "I doubt they will rebel before they all starve."

Many North Korean citizens believed that food shortages were not the fault of the government "but it is South Korea and the U.S. that have somehow created the situation." A teacher told the Asahi Shimbun. “I thought it was because of the economic sanctions imposed by the United States.” Others were thankful of the government’s help. One North Korean man told Reuters, "It's true there has been difficulties with food because of the floods recently but because of the Great Leader we can get food from abroad."

Executions and Relocations During the North Korean Famine

Selling grain, illegally crossing the border into China and stealing items to sell for food were crimes punishable by death during the famine. One defector who arrived in South Korea in May, 1997 told the Korea Times, "People go the extreme of stealing phone or electric lines, which contain copper, and sell them to smugglers from China. And those who are caught are shot to death in public executions." One woman said that she had witnessed the public executions of seven people, including two soldiers caught stealing phone lines.

"I remembered seeing a guy," one high school student told the Korea Times, "who had been caught stealing rice, shot to death as his family and another 20,000 people watched on." The man's family "was banished to a remote mountainous area."

One witness who said he saw a condemned man killed before a firing squad told Time: “first the man stares at the rifleman in front of him. Then the guard yells , ‘Fire,’ and the man closes his eyes, Then his head snaps back when the bullets hits him.”

The Korea Herald reported that the North Korean government relocated one million people from Pyongyang area "in order to cope with shortage of farming population and to ferret out those who are disloyal to the Kim Jong Il regime." Many people moved to the Pyongyang to take advantage of food rations and housing, swelling the population of the city to 3.5 million.

"Because of losing the privilege of better food rations and housing," a South Korean official said, "Pyongyang citizens are afraid more of being forced to resettle in rural areas than of going to jail...We have cases in which wives married to men from farming areas demand divorce in order to remain in Pyongyang."

North Korean Famine and Rumors of War

In the spring of 1997, there were rumors of a North Korean invasion of South Korea between July and October. Defectors said the army had begun drafting 18- and 19-year-old men with "dubious backgrounds" and North Korean television ran footage of "leader Kim " inspecting military units and ran messages "encouraging people to keep up with their war preparations every day."

During the North Korean food crisis, food and oil were stocked for war and the government prepared personal chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) warfare kits for each person, a North Korean defector named Kim Il-bom said. "Though the oil shortage limits the operation of vehicles," Kim told the Korea Herald, "military supplies for war such as oil and food, are in 100-percent stock." To boost the moral of soldiers, the defector said, Kim Jong Il gave orders to supply soldiers with extra rations of cigarettes.

"Ordinary North Koreans," Kim said, "especially those stricken by dire food shortages, are in deep despair and may inwardly wish for war." He said many people felt there is no difference between "starving to death bow" and "dying in a war."

Agriculture Improvements and Potatoes

With the help of South Korea and the United States, North Korea tried to reduce the chances of famine and dependance on foreign food aid and boost agricultural production by making changes such as growing hardy potatoes instead of rice. The biggest problem with the effort was a cultural preference for rice over potatoes but no doubt eating potatoes was better than eating corn starch mixed with grass.

There were reports in the North Korean press that Kim Jong Il himself was visiting potato farms instructing grateful farmers how better to grow, store and transport potatoes. He also reputedly offered help in prevent potatoes from rotting and offered some tasty potato recipes for soups and doughnuts made with potatoes.

The official Rodong newspaper declared: “We have started to see the potato revolution as an ideological revolution. The great leader said from now on, potatoes should not be considered a secondary food but a primary food. He said that people “can make any dish out of potatoes and that potatoes are tasty too.”

Food Aid in North Korea

During and after the famine in the 1990s North Korea accepted foreign aid from its traditional enemies — South Korea, the United States and Japan — for the first time in its history. North Korea needed about three million tons of food aid a year during the height of the famine in 1996 and 1997. By the early 2000s it needed about 500,000 tons a year. At one point so much food aid was sent to North Korea, there was less available for Africa and other places in need.

Despite obstructionism and red tape, relief agencies managed to distribute millions of metric tons of food aid in North Korea. About half the food came from private donation and a third by the World Food Program, acting of behalf of various governments. The remainder came from mainly from China, who donated and bartered hundreds of thousands of tons of grain.

The World Food Program directed most of its food to children. About half of its food supplies come from the United States. Some have criticized the international community for exacerbating the famine by not providing food aid earlier. Japan in particular had huge stockpiles of rice and was in a position where it could deliver large amounts of food quickly. But in may cases, political considerations kept that from happening.

In some places food aid plus harvested food boosted food rations from 100 grams a day to 400 grams a day. The food aid came in the form of rice, corn and corn-soy blend. Some of the corn products were not all that different from cattle or pig feed. Food aid changed North Korean eating habits. Much of the food aid was wheat and corn. Like most Asians, North Korean are used to eating rice as their staple.

Diversions of Food to the Military

During the famine the North Korean military was described as being the top rung of the food chain. It was given more food than other sectors to keep its members loyal, presumably so they could maintain control over the population if need be.

Soldiers that looked malnourished and weak in 1995 and 1996 looked much healthier after food donations started pouring in. Describing some new recruits one aid worker told Newsweek in April 1997: "They were skinny and scrawny. They looked like junior high school kids. The older soldiers you see walking around all over the place don't look terribly robust either, but these raw recruits clearly showed the effects of the food shortage.”

Video footage of soldiers at open air markets showed them sucking down corn porridge and eating bean curd next to skeletal children. Canned beef donated by a Christian relief group was found onboard a submarine captured in 1997. Even in the middle of the famine, North Koreans contacted South Koreans to trade gold for hard currency so they can buy their Great leader presents.

Relief workers said that most of assertions of diverting food to the party elite and the military was based on anecdotal evidence that had not been supported by documentation. Most of the grain that ended up in the hands of the military is believed to have originated from China which was much less careful about where their food supplies ended up than Western aid agencies,

Improvements in Food Production

By October, 1997, relief agencies were reporting the food crisis "is no longer getting worse" and there is enough food "to tide them over until the harvests at the end of October." But the harvest was dismally small but by that time large amounts of food aid was pouring in.. By 1999, food aid had brought the overall food supplies to subsistence levels. Children in the hardest hit areas were still thin but they were heavier and more active than before and no longer had distended stomachs, orange hair, stick-like limbs and bones visible in their heads — classic signs of severe malnutrition.

In the early 2000s, competition for food aid from Afghanistan and Africa, caused a drop in food aid in North Korea. Cold weather and poor agricultural management lead to shortages in the winter and spring of 2001. Food rations dropped to as low as 150 grams a day, At that point many donors were fed up that North Korea wasn’t doing more to improve the situation. The food harvest in 2002 was up 5 percent from 2001, but there was still a shortfall of 564,000 tons. By 2003, foreign aid workers said access and monitoring was gradually improving. Diversions to the military were rare and involved only small amounts of food.

Western visitors in the early 2000s, saw little evidence of famine. At that stage food problems were far from over. There were still worries that food supplies were not reaching those who needed them most. According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 34 percent of North Koreans were malnourished and more than 40 percent of children under 5 were chronically malnourished. According to one United Nations food official, North Korea may never be self-sufficient in food and that it needs to make reforms in its economy to increase agricultural production and earn more hard currency so it can import food frm abroad.

Legacy of the 1990s North Korean Famine: More Hunger and Food Shortages

Jordan Weissmann wrote in The Atlantic: “The great famine finally began to subside in 1998. There were better harvests. The world continued delivering food aid. And North Koreans adjusted to the new private food markets. But history had a habit of repeating itself under Kim. The government set in motion a second, albeit milder, food crisis when it outlawed the private sale of grain in 2005, forcing the country to rely once again on the public food system. The situation worsened once foreign governments cut off aid following the military's first nuclear test. [Source: Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, December 20, 2011]

“Then just in October, Reuters published a report on the growing fears about yet another food shortage. "The country's dysfunctional food-distribution system, rising global commodities prices and sanctions imposed over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs had contributed to what appears to be a hunger crisis in the North, even before devastating summer floods and typhoons compounded the emergency," the wire reported.

“There are skeptics who believe that Pyongyang is exaggerating its food problems. The country is known to hold grain for its military, even as rural peasants starve, and according to Reuters, South Korean officials believe it may be stockpiling supplies in preparation of a new nuclear test.

“And yet, the echoes of 1994 are haunting. Like his father before him, Kim Jong Il has left the country in the hands of a politically inexperienced son, who has yet to consolidate his own power. Once again, the transition has happened at a moment when the government may not be able to feed its own people. Hopefully, the parallels end there.

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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