The percentage of population living in poverty is not known as data to determine the figure are not released by the North Korean government. About half of North Korea's population lives in "extreme poverty," according to a 2013 report by Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). These people subsist on corn and kimchi and "are severely restricted in access to fuel for cooking and heating." In 2002, 6 million of North Korea’s 22 million people depend on international food aid.

Reporting from Hungham in 2005, Jas Gawronski wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Yun Hyok's shaved head skims the ground as he turns and tries to get up. He's playing soccer on prosthetic limbs. His legs were severed two years ago, when he was only 5. It was not an accident, not a disease, but poverty. The legs got frozen in a house with no heating while Yun slept at -20 C. At the local hospital, with no technology, no surgical instruments or relevant expertise, doctors did not know what to do except to amputate the child's legs right below the knees. The hospital serves 3 million people, but it has only one old ambulance and no heating system. Here in Hungham, the second biggest city in North Korea after Pyongyang, amputation is a common alternative if a broken arm or a leg looks difficult to fix. [Source: Jas Gawronski, The International Herald Tribune, July 30, 2005]

“North Korea is a journey through poverty. Hungham is even poorer than Pyongyang, but there are no beggars in the streets, as in Rome or Paris. In a dictatorship, beggars disappear. Last February, the government of Kim Jong Il announced that North Korea had nuclear weapons. The claim was part of a strategy to acquire aid and to be taken seriously. … North Korea needs aid now more than ever. It produces 3 million tons of cereals a year, whereas at least 4 million are needed for survival. The income per head for a North Korean is 5 percent of what a South Korean makes. The official line is that this is entirely the fault of the West. ... “Our problems are caused by the hostility of the rest of the world, by the U.S. sanctions. South Korea has relationships with other countries, we are isolated."

When asked about the levels of poverty he saw during his visit in 2017, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In Pyongyang, people seem to be generally healthy and well-fed. On the last day of my trip, our government minders took us to an indoor water park, giving us an uncensored view of Pyongyang’s shirtless masses. Some people were noticeably thin; the rest were a diverse bunch, from chubby teenagers to enviably fit middle-aged men. Some had obvious farmer’s tans, suggesting that they didn’t belong to the country’s top elite. We attended one event, a major street opening, with several thousand North Korean soldiers. I noticed that while high-ranking officers were pretty hearty, low-ranking recruits were strikingly small, probably from malnutrition. Their weight seemed to correlate with the number of medals pinned to their uniforms — a stark reminder of the country’s poverty and inequality.” [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2017]

Poverty and Wealth in North Korea

According to Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies: “Neither extreme poverty nor wealth exists in North Korea, though in general the inhabitants live under conditions that do not match those of people in more modern countries, including their prosperous neighbors in South Korea. The government is committed to providing necessities to every person, but the ruling elite enjoys a more prosperous life than the general population. They are entitled to privileges such as quality housing, access to select shops with quality imported goods, and foreign travel. [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

“Until the famine of 1995, North Korea's education, health-care, and nutrition systems were thought to operate efficiently. Education is free and compulsory to age 15, which may explain the 99 percent literacy rate. A kindergarten system is available to all children. Higher education is serviced by over 200 institutions, which specialize in science and technology. In 1998 college graduates made up 13.7 percent of the adult population, compared to 9.2 percent in South Korea. Health care is free in North Korea. The health system provides a large number of hospitals and clinics staffed by skilled professionals.

“The natural disasters of the late 1990s caused phenomenal human casualties, however. Although little information is available about survivors in the affected areas, the worsening economic situation and famine have lowered the living standard of the entire population. Attendance has fallen at all educational institutions, and there have been reports of severe shortages of medicines and equipment. Malnutrition among children has been increasing since 1995. A system of food rationing designed to provide an adequate diet collapsed in various parts of the country during the late 1990s. In 1998 about 16 percent of children were malnourished, and another 62 percent suffered from illnesses related to undernourishment.

Indicators of North Korea’s Poverty Levels

North Korea can barely feed its own people and often it needs international food aid to achieve that goal. "The standard of living has deteriorated to extreme levels of deprivation in which the right to food security, health and other minimum needs for human survival are denied," the 2013 KINU report said. While it's difficult to get accurate data about North Korea, reports from defectors and other sources have helped outsiders patch together a picture of whats going on inside North Korea:[Source: Rick Newman, U.S. News and World Report, April 12, 2013]

U.S. News and World Report reports: “Annual GDP per capita is about US$1,800, which ranks 197th in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. GDP is 28 times higher in the United States and 18 times higher in South Korea. Inflation may be as high as 100 percent, due to mismanagement of the currency. Most workers earn US$2 to US$3 per month in pay from the government. Some work on the side or sell goods in local markets, earning an extra US$10 per month or so.

“The average life expectancy, 69, has fallen by five years since the early 1980s, according to the blog North Korea Economy Watch. The blog notes that those figures are based on official statistics, so the real numbers could be even lower. One-third of children are stunted, due to malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.

“Most homes and apartments are heated by open fireplaces burning wood or briquettes. Many lack flush toilets. Electric power is sporadic and unreliable, with homes that have electricity often receiving just a few hours per day.

“North Korea has a "free" medical system, but hospital patients must pay for their own drugs, cover the cost of heat, and prepare all their own meals at home. Parents who send their kids to schools are expected to provide desks, chairs, building materials and cash to pay for heating fuel. Some students are put to work producing goods for the government or gathering up discarded materials.

Poor and Homeless at the Chongjin Train Station

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In Chongjin, those at the very bottom of the heap can be found at the train station. The cavernous building boasts a large portrait of Kim Il Sung above the entrance and a granite-faced clock that rarely tells the right time. In front is a vast plaza crammed with people waiting for trains — sometimes for days, because the trains have no fixed schedules — and people waiting for nothing at all. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

These are the homeless, many of them children. They're called kotchebi, or swallows, because they wander the streets and sometimes between towns in search of food. Many gravitate to Chongjin station, because it is a major hub and the travelers have more to give. A video shot in 2004 “by a military official and sold to Japan's NTV television captured barefoot children near the station in torn, filthy clothing fighting over a nearly empty jar of kimchi. One boy scooted along the pavement on his buttocks; the narrator said his toes had been eaten away by frostbite.

“Kim Hyok knows how easy it is for a child to end up at the station; he spent the better part of two years living there. "If you can't find somebody or they left their home, chances are you can find them at the station," said Kim, now 23 and resettled in South Korea.

For every homeless person who survived, many more likely died. Kim Hui Suk recalled a particularly ghoulish scene at the train station. "Once I saw them loading three bodies into a cart," Kim said. "One guy, a man in his 40s, was still conscious. His eyes were sort of blinking, but they still were taking him away." Although the ranks of the homeless have thinned since the height of the famine, North Korean residents say their numbers are still considerable.

Hunger in North Korea

Sam Bramlett of the Borgen Project wrote: “The amount of people suffering from hunger in North Korea has been on a steady incline since the 1990s. North Korea is home to about 25 million people and 10.5 million of these people are undernourished. About 70 percent of the population relies on food aid, the country’s military ambitions have invited harsh sanctions that severely hamper its people. Roughly a quarter of North Korea’s GDP is funneled into helping Kim Jong-Un present a façade of power via nuclear weapons...lessening of support from charities and world leaders, making it even harder for North Koreans to find food. [Source: Sam Bramlett, Borgen Project, January 17, 2018]

“Because of this, the vulnerable citizens of North Korea are desperately in need of aid. According to a United Nations report, “More predictable funding is urgently required to ensure the immediate needs of the most vulnerable are addressed.” While sanctions grip the country in an attempt to incentivize halting nuclear weapons development, the sanctions have also impacted hunger in North Korea. About 60,000 children are at risk of dying due to a lack of food, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.’ In January 2018, “UNICEF launched a US$16.5 million emergency relief for North Korea.”

“The U.S. government “said in January that the international sanctions are “really starting to hurt” North Korea and was confident it would lead the regime to negotiate. The sanctions, combined with drought, corruption and a decline in crop production, add to hunger in North Korea more than they prevent weapon development.

Since 2009 food assistance has declined significantly. A study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that 84 percent of households have “borderline or poor food consumption.” The food crises had resulted in thousands of deaths.. Due to the government’s “two meals a day campaign” food riots are a common occurrence. [Source: Marcelo Guadiana, Borgen Project, October 16, 2016]

“The giant rabbit feeding program. In order to solve the widespread food shortages, Kim Jun-il began to breed giant overweight rabbits in 2007. He got this idea after seeing Karl Szmolinsky, a German rabbit breeder, breed the world’s largest rabbit. Szmolinsky sent overweight rabbits to North Korea but the experiment turned out to be a failure when it was suspected Kim was eating the rabbits himself.

Famine in North Korea in the mid 1990s

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.

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]

Causes of the 1990s Famine in North Korea

Most experts believed there was much 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

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.

What People Were Eating in the Famine

Most people ate two meals a day, the main one consisting of watery vegetable soup, a bowl of steamed corn, corn starch mixed with cabbage stocks, and sub-standard versions of kimchi.

One aid worker told the New York Times in June 1997, "We stopped and asked to see the head of the household and I said to him, 'What are you eating?' He showed us a bowl that looked like a small cereal bowl, maybe twice the size of a teacup. It was full of cornmeal gruel, white cornmeal with a lot of water in it, kind of the consistency if watered-down Cream of Wheat. He said he got three of those a day."

In the winter of 1996-97 people ate half of the corn crop as premature green kernels. The nationwide food ration had a fallen to 100 grams (3.5 ounces a day), the equivalent of half a bowl of rice or about 350 calories. The U.N. minimum daily level of food for refugees is 500 grams or 1,750 calories.

At that time people were observed picking up individual grains of rice in fields for food. One Korean Chinese who visited North Korea told the Korea Times, "I saw a hungry boy virtually steal a pieced of brownish cake from a person's mouth and gulp it down without chewing it. The person who lost his cake beat the young boy their until he threw it up and put it into his mouth."

Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in the New York Times, “To survive has required tenacity. Koreans are reported even to have murdered children and mixed their flesh with pork to eat. When I have encountered North Korean refugees in Asia, they look barely human — stunted figures with sallow, terrified faces. Some North Koreans have tried to grow their own food, potentially a sign of independent thinking. But for years Kim had them stopped.” [Source: Joshua Kurlantzick, New York Times, August 7, 2005]

Bark, Worms and Grass for Food During the North Korean Famine

To survive people with inadequate food rations ate excavated roots, the inner lining of tree bark, leaves, rice mixed with wood chips, ground corn cobs, cakes made from wild grass, noodles made from seaweed, “namul” (edible wild plants and herbs), mountain herbs such as arrowroot. and grass soup to survive. The consumption of tree bark reportedly caused intestinal problems and bleeding.

North Korean television ran programs telling people how to prepare grass and roots. "Today, I will introduce you to tasty and healthy ways to eat wild grass," the announcer said. "Parsley will be good after being briefly cooked in boiling water or fried. Making kimchi out of parsley will also be good." One North Korean man told the Los Angeles Times, "Eating wild plants is nothing — it's just that we're eating more of it these days. It's not easy. But our people are firmly united to overcome this national difficulty.:

An aid worker told Newsweek he saw "old wizened elderly women on their hands and knees in newly plowed fields, trying to find roots for the family soup pot." Journalist Orville Schell said he went to a golf driving range where peasants dodged golf balls, looking for edible plants in the fairway.

There were stories of children eating frogs and rats to survive. Children ate worms picked from the ground outside Pyongyang. In rural areas they picked up dirt and tried to eat it. Some people got very sick from eating cattle feed. The government urged North Koreans to raise rabbits and ostriches.

Stunted Growth and Weak People

As many 2.6 million children suffered stunted growth caused by malnutrition during the famine in the 1990s. Aid workers described malnourished children in the winter of 1997 as "nutritional dwarfs." Children that looked three years old were six. Those there were ten looked five. Four-years weighed around 10 pounds. They moved slowly to conserve energy and their skin hung from their wrists and ankles. Long-term malnutrition can leave children permanently undersized but they usually recover mentally.

In some places a child is considered full grown if the top of his head reaches the bottom of his mother’s nose. Stephen Linton, an expert on North Korea that visited the country more than 80 times, said the food shortage could result in "generational stunting" and said that government may have decided let relief workers into the country because "they don't want to face the 21st century with a stunted population facing serious growth and developmental problems...If they are malnourished in the critical years, you can't make it up. You can grow up with a generation of cretins."

There were reports people beggars at railway stations asking for scraps of food, exhausted people slumped beside the road, schools letting out early so children could get food, and children so weak they couldn't even sing the Welcome Song when foreign guests arrived. Malnourished and hungry people with weak immune systems died from diarrhea, measles, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Defectors reported seeing people with faces that had “turned black” from malnutrition.

In November 1997, Hilary Mackenzie wrote in Newsweek, "Everywhere I saw people slumped by the side of the road, exhausted and starving and people stripping bark from the city's trees for food.” One Chinese Korean who visited North Korea told the Korea Times, "I saw that people didn't move and I thought they were all dead. But later I realized they were too feeble to move because they hadn't eaten in days."

In some towns no people over 60 were visible because the elderly reportedly gave up their food rations so their children could survive. The elderly were too sick to get out of bed but they didn't kill themselves out of fear that their food ration might be taken away. Mackenzie wrote: “On family visits, I watched the elderly give their meager rations to children: one grandmother keeled over in front of my eyes."

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.

Urban Poor in North Korea

The urban poor suffer greatly in North Korea. Martin Nesirky of Reuters wrote: Those living in cities in the isolated communist state are close to the bottom of the food chain. Trapped between vicious inflation and uncertain paydays, the 60 percent of North Korea's 22.5 million people that aid workers estimate live in urban settings are a new underclass in a country where the daily food ration is equal to about two bowls of rice. "New vulnerable groups are emerging because of economic changes," wrote Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic charity Caritas. The outside perception might be that those groups most at risk were largely in the countryside. The reverse is true; urban poverty is a growing concern for aid workers. Yet despite the trend, few believe the poverty gap will cause social unrest. [Source: Martin Nesirky, Reuters, May 3, 2005]

Caritas says North Koreans in general are among the most marginalized people in the world because of the closed nature of their communist system. Stop-start economic reforms have pushed many further to the fringes, notably in cities. "The gap between rich and poor is widening," Zellweger said. "There is little opportunity for such dense and urbanized populations to directly engage in food production."

"Most urban residents are constantly living on the edge," said Richard Ragan of the World Food Program, which is studying the problem to work out how best to help further. "They don't eat enough, and their diet is very narrow; typically cereal — rice or maize — and vegetable soup and kimchi. Very little protein. Very little fruit." Those most vulnerable in North Korea spend 70-80 percent of their meager wages on food, Ragan said. Runaway inflation means little is left for non-food items. Electricity is short. Homes are cold in winter. World Food Program assessments consistently show urban residents are at a disadvantage compared with those on the land, particularly cooperative farm families who get more than twice as much food because they are allowed to keep some of their crops.

Efforts by North Korean Urban Poor to Get Enough Food

Martin Nesirky of Reuters wrote: “ Ever resourceful and often desperate, many North Koreans trade goods and gather wild foods such as grasses and acorns. But city dwellers have to forage further, almost always on foot, and compete with other city residents for the available flora. Some city residents have plots of land. Many do not and have to rely on the Public Distribution System, which is the main source of staple food for 70 percent of the people but has all but collapsed as a reliable conduit because of crop shortfalls. [Source: Martin Nesirky, Reuters, May 3, 2005]

“Others are getting an unexpected flavor of country life because they are being redeployed from idle factories to help on farms where fuel shortages mean most work is not mechanized. Most have to trek to and from their city homes, and they do not necessarily benefit from the surplus crop handouts, which are a reform spin-off in the countryside. There is little upside from market reforms for average people in the cities.

“At the other end of the scale, those in the political and military elite with access to hard currency have little trouble shopping at high-price markets and dining in new restaurants in Pyongyang, visitors to the North Korean capital say. "The time of shared hardships is long gone," said the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in a report on the North's reforms. "North Koreans doing best now are the ones who are quickest to adapt to the new system, but most people inside and outside the bureaucracy are struggling to keep up."

“Those struggling the most include the old, nursing mothers and children. Pyongyang is a showcase, although not immune to hardship. Regional cities, notably in the East, fare worse. "The further you get from Pyongyang, the worse the poverty becomes," said Dong Yong-seung, head of the North Korea team at the Samsung Economic Research Institute. An influx of South Korean video tapes and recorders, for example, has exposed many North Koreans to life outside their bubble. Word is also traveling faster these days about the positive market-reform effect on the elite. But if the rest of the people resent it, they have yet to show it.

“Zellweger said most people were too busy figuring out how to find food or medicine to consider protests against the system. "I don't know if there's much energy left to think about much else," she said by telephone from Hong Kong. "It is also very hard to say when they reach the bottom line; how much belt-tightening they could do. They would say to us, 'We are used to a tough life. We can cope with this'."

Rural Poor So Desperate They Steal Each Other's Feces to Fertilize Crops

Alex Lockie wrote in Business Insider: “Poverty in North Korea and the failure of state food rationing has caused farmers to rely on human feces to fertilize soil, with some even stealing feces from other families. Fertilizing crops with feces leads to the spread of parasites, like the ones found in the North Korean soldier who defected last month. [Source: Alex Lockie, Business Insider, December 4, 2017]

“Citizens of North Korea now rely on black markets, not the state, to provide goods. The harrowing conditions of poverty in North Korea have again come to light in the dismal story of the 25 year-old defector who crossed the border into South Korea under a hale of gunfire from his own troops. South Korean authorities took the soldier, named Oh, to receive care in a hospital where the surgeon saw something he had never seen before — a 10.6 inch parasite living in Oh's intestine. While food availability and conditions are known to be rough in North Korea, the parasite hints at a ghastly practice used to feed ordinary citizens at risk of starvation while Kim Jong Un allocates most resources to nuclear and missile development.

In 2014, Kim directed North Koreans to add human and livestock excrement to fertilizers to improve crop turnout, but as livestock was scarce, the burden fell on people to use their own feces. Lee Min-bok, a North Korean agriculture expert who defected to South Korea in 1995, said that despite the inherent risk of spreading worms and parasites, within the propaganda-ridden state, the human excrement had come to be known as "best fertilizer in North Korea," according to Reuters. "Vegetables grown in it are considered more delicious than others," Lee said. "When a family cannot produce enough, they must buy cattle or horse manure from ranches, but those that cannot afford are known to steal human feces from other households," Nikkei Asian Review reports.

“Oh, the parasite-ridden defector, wasn't even among North Korea's poorest. A member of South Korea's parliamentary committee on national defense told the Korea Herald that Oh's father was "a North Korean military police official with a rank equivalent to a South Korean lieutenant colonel.:

As North Korea's ability to ration and provide food to citizens crumbles, capitalist free markets have sprung up across the country. But unlike the state-sponsored food provisions, Kim has little control over the black markets. The case of Oh and his shocking parasites suggests that ordinary North Koreans are starving, unwell, and potentially looking to someone other than Kim for their security.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: 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, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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