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What are Contributing Factors to North Korean Famine? Essay

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Updated: Dec 10th, 2019

Executive Summary

Historically, North Korean policy has long stressed on feeding its population. This has been illustrated through various initiatives the government has taken over the years. The aim of these initiatives is to increase food production and make the country be a self-sustaining society.

However, lack of clear strategies by the government has seen this objective not being achieved. Thus, the country has noted severe food decline culminating into famine as witnessed in the nineties.

Statistics indicate that ten percent of the population lost their lives. As the food disaster persists, it is estimated that over six million North Koreans will continue to face starvation. The question that most people are asking themselves is: why is famine so widespread in North Korea?

This essay seeks to explore the contributing causes to North Korean famine. This essay assesses the current food scenario in North Korea and explains the contributing causes to prolonged famine the country is experiencing.

The essay notes the agricultural practices, external shocks, ecology, farm policies, increasing farmland, altering grain composition, politics and political changes and food diplomacy among others were root causes of North Korean famine.


Why famine in North Korea? Traditionally, famine is an old and most traumatic test of humanity. Famine, as in previous times, has had far-reaching implications within the society. It has continued to threaten human populations across the planet.

For North Korea, economic breakdown has been noted owing to the threat caused by famine. For many years the country has been facing food decline since the nineties contributing to prolonged famine of unknown severity (Jung and Brownwn 548).

As per the US congress report, from 1995 to 1998, it is estimated that about 2.4 million people had died of hunger connected diseases and starvation with death climaxing in 1997 (Natsios 45). Also, non-governmental organization exhibits from interviews on the ground and North Koreans refugees in China illustrates that death from famine stood at 2.8 – 3.5 million (Lankov 858).


The joint report of WFP/UN FAO of 2004 justifies that North Korea had better harvest in the last 9 years (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). This favorable harvest was credited to efficient climactic conditions, low diseases and crop pests, and availability of fuel and other agricultural inputs which increased agricultural production.

Despite the recent gains in attaining food production, the country cannot produce enough food to sustain its 23 million populations. The UN, FAO and WFP joint report released in 2004 further demonstrates the extent of famine in the country (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization).

It affirmed that about 6.4 million North Korean children, elders and women comprising one-quarter of North Korean population, will need foreign intervention on food relief.

Further, the report showed that inadequate production, lower incomes, rising food prices and a poor diet as a justification of more foreign food aid dependency. These challenges underline the principal challenges that North Korean government faces currently as it tries to counter famine menace in the country.

The economic reforms, which government introduced in 2002 entailed increasing prices, wages and fixing a new brand of urban poor. These reforms have increased starvation to millions of people in the country.

Although these reforms were tailored in containing famine faced in the nineties, liberalizing, decentralizing and fixing an open agriculture atmosphere, they have continued to encourage famine in the country.

Sung Wook offers an example, before 2002, the cost of rice was 0.9/Kg, however, presently it is being sold at 46 won/kg (44). The costs of agricultural inputs such as pesticides, electricity and fertilizer have conjointly increased.

Famine in North Korea has been worse than war. In the 1990’s, it is estimated that more than two million, about ten percent of the total population, was killed (Cumings 178). The famine endured from 1994 to 1998.

However, severe food crisis prevails as millions of people continue to feel the scourge of the catastrophe of famine. The question that many authors ask themselves is how did North Korea, once an industrialized country and a role model of socialist development in Asia, come to experience such a disastrous famine?

North Korea’s shift towards famine during the 1990s started with a decrease in grain production in the late 1980’s. Compared to South Korea, North Korea produced enough food to sustain its population in late 1980’s. North Korea claimed pride in this; it was a country which produced about seven tons of rice per hectare in the world.

The surplus in rice production granted it opportunity to respond to crises in other countries where food shortage was common. For example, in 1984, the country dispatched seven thousand tons of food to South Korea when the country was severely affected by floods decreasing harvests (Lankov 869).

However, in 1987, the country’s food production began to decline as the soil fertility weakened because of decades of industrial agriculture on marginal lands.

Natsios illustrates the preceding periods of food shortage – 1945 to 46, 1954 to 55 and 1970 to 1973 resulted in institutional changes in agriculture, the pile of which was connected to the famine witnessed in the Nineties (36). Since 1946, the North Korean regime sought measures to prevent any avenues of food shortages by supporting grain production; this was through initiatives such as the five policy plan.

Under this policy, the government improved land used for food production, altered crop composition to favor better yielding grains, increased agricultural inputs such as farm machines and fertilizers and introduced solid planting methods (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). However, this policy proved futile in 1987 because it decreased grain production.

External shocks have also contributed to North Korean famine. The collapse of the Soviet Union and successive separation of socialist trading block further disoriented North Korea’s Agricultural systems. In 1990 North Korea imported about 18.3 million barrels of oil from Iran, China and Russia.

However, by separating from the Soviet Union, North Korea suffered heavily because it did not import enough oil to run farm machinery such as tractors. Similarly, in 1992 to 1996, the country’s energy consumption decreased by eleven percent annually. This was because it had stopped oil imports from Soviet Union.

The North Korean farmers relied on imported oil to power farm machineries. Sung Wook notes that fertilizer supply declined by 15.9 percent between 1987 and 1997 (66). Hence, the decline in imported oil contributed to North Korea agriculture decline contributing to food crisis in the country.

Besides, the abrupt disruption in trade hampered North Korean farmers to buy farm tools such as tractors, threshers and pumps. North Korea’s food production was deeply affected by its reliance on industrial agriculture. In 1992 to 1996 the country realized sixty percent food decline (Natsios 58).

In mid 1990’s, North Korea was hit by an ecological catastrophe beginning with classic floods in 1995 and 1996. These were the worst floods experienced in North Korean history, basing on the official government statistics. The heavy rainfall prompted high tides to flood and back up rivers in some parts of the country.

This disrupted agricultural production and domestic energy. Besides, in 1996 the rains displaced more than 5.4 million people and destroyed 330,000 hectares of farmland (Natsios 87). In addition, it is estimated that more than 1.9 million tons of grain were damaged. The grain damaged in 1996 was about 17 percent of the preceding year’s production.

The ecological catastrophe provoked the government to unveil an international appeal for food aid. The heavy rains followed the worst famine in the North Korean history. In 2000, with only one harvest, North Korea was adversely affected by famine. Consequently, in the year 2001, another harsh famine dried the earth, damaging the irrigation networks and exhausting reservoirs.

When the climate was favorable in 1998, the North Korean production level did not experience notable recovery.

Woo-Cumings (24) affirms that this was because the country suffered from soil erosion, environmental degradation, riverbed silting, flooding and abuse of marginal lands because of deforestation. Hence, severe weather played a major role in contributing to North Korea’s famine.

According to Natsios the socialist nature of North Korea’s system of agriculture is a cause of famine crisis (95). He argues that socialism lacked incentive to produce more food for the country. The collective farm policy restricted agricultural production because it denied farmer’s innovative efforts and production enthusiasm.

The collective farm policy allowed farmers to be treated as workers who were supposed to meet their required labor needs. However, this compromised the quantity and quality of their work. Also, division of labor on collective farms was less effective. This was because it allowed one person to perform various phases of work.

This was in contrast in the manufacturing field where specialization was highlighted. After separation, the North Korea had a history of policy that stressed industrial agriculture. As suggested earlier, these policies failed or proved unsustainable thus, fixing a long-term structural problem to North Korean food production.

Being a former colony of Japan, 1910 to 1945, North Korea embraced industrial agriculture which was widely practiced by the Japanese. The Japanese brought new breeds of seeds in North Korea during the early 1900s. The seeds introduced augmented yields, however, North Korean agriculture reliance on fertilizer and pesticides exhausted the soil fertility.

Various researchers link North Korean famine to income disparity and systemic crisis. The government policy, overtime, has neglected the vulnerable groups by not creating policies which favor or defend food production. While the population has a right to access food through various distribution channels, the government provides a single point where the population can access food.

One example of this policy is the Public Distribution System (PDS) (Marcus et al., 35). This policy has been discriminative. It allows only workers on government and cooperative farms to benefit. The policy fixes a uniform measure in which these categories of individuals receive.

However, what is puzzling is the government has never fulfilled this policy to populations’ satisfaction. Thus, failure of the government to decentralize distribution of food policies by involving other means such as market forces has contributed to famine in the country.

The North Korean government was in the view of increasing grain yields by altering crop composition from a diversity of grains towards maize and rice. They view that these crops were high yielding. In 1946 the total area under rice cultivation was twenty three percent and maize occupied ten percent.

By 1973 the land under rice cultivation increased to thirty seven percent whereas maize was forty percent. This trend signaled that North Korea was in the right direction for attaining food efficiency. However, the challenges of pursuing rice and maize cultivation were diverse.

First, the mountainous landscape hampered the country to effectively expand paddy fields for rice production. Secondly, the existing farming methods made farmers to be reluctant in intercropping maize with other crops. This was because intercropping was significant in preventing soil exhaustion.

Lastly, other types of grains were easy to plant and cultivate as they did not need significant amount of fertilizers compared to maize. In addressing these challenges, the government deprived farmers the choice in selecting which crops they would grow (Woo-Cumings 24).

The government supported local agricultural agencies in embracing regional self-sufficiency through appointing agricultural areas as flat, intermediate or mountainous. Flat lands were designated for rice, intermediate land for maize and rice and mountainous lands with other grains.

Despite these measures by the government, food production declined because the land degraded in fertility. Besides, intercropping practices such as cropping barley and wheat after maize and rice contributed to depletion of soil fertility.

The political standing of North Korea has been perplexing. Over the ages, the country has relied on socialist countries in its history. For example, during the Soviet occupation, the country depended on it for relief. The Soviet provided North Korea subsidy on fertilizer, petroleum, energy and manufactured goods.

Besides, the Soviet would, at times, consent North Korean goods and permit to pay later when it could. This was to grow their economy. Perhaps, the support of the Soviets helped model the North Korean economy during the early stages of its existence. After Soviet Union crumpled, China assisted North Korea temporarily. The Chinese government increased its exports commodity to North Korea to a tune of $ 0.66 billion but was still lower than what the Soviet Union exported to the country before.

President Kim II Sung’s government continued receiving aid from the US despite the increased negative publicity from the media and the international community. The death of President Kim, international aggression and domestic governance challenges further compounded the food crisis in the country in 1994. Political changes happening in the country further weakened North Korea.

This hampered the country’s efforts to focus on basics needs of its population. The government has also channeled its resources in equipping the military, thus, North Korea upholds the most militarized society in the world.

The military has more than 1 million men and women. It is estimated that 25 percent of the country’s GDP is devoted towards military spending, hence, giving food security a minor thought.

The North Korean famine is a product of unclear policies driven by political deliberation. The government failed to take responsibility by embracing sufficient measures to prevent natural forces that were obvious in causing famine.

Hence, rather than preventing the forces, the government established famine through a sequence of premeditated policies and insinuated famine by failing to recognize sufficient counteractive action. According to Cumings North Korean famine was an intentional choice of the government (76).

Cumings contends a public address by Kim Jong II in 1996 demonstrated that 30 percent of the total population was needed to reconstruct a stable society (54). Also, floods, to a larger extend decreased food production, although earlier statistics had indicated that the country had steady produce of grains in nineties. From the survey carried out in 1998 it was reported that most children’s were malnourished (Cumings 76).

Early warnings signs were obvious. The government would have easily recognized the probable start of famine if they had responded to the signs. However, the government was reluctant to respond until when the situation was worse. The government stepped in when the famine had swept through many areas in the country to request for foreign relief.

For more than forty years after liberation from Japanese rule, and partition from South Korea, the North Korea government embarked on continuous efforts to increase the land available for growing grains. North Korea is a country with rugged landscape, with about fourteen percent of its land viable for agriculture. In 1946, the country initiated a New West Coastline Land Expansion Project.

In subsequent decades, the project was followed by mountain cultivation projects. These policies increased land under cultivation by over thirty percent. Similarly, in 1974, the government launched the terraced field cultivating campaign.

This was aimed at transforming mountainous areas to terraced fields and ultimately solves the issue of food crisis. Although these measures were aimed at containing famine, they increased it as they increased soil erosion, deforestation and decreased food production.

The crowning responsibility for North Koreas’ predicament has been connected to Pyongyang. However, the international community has also surged politics with famine situation in the country. The international community has treated North Korean famine as an avenue to extort political concessions from the North Koreans.

Hence, food crisis having a technical ingredient has been a major diplomatic issue. In 1994, the government admitted food shortage; hence the World Vision secured permission from South Korea and US government to raise money for humanitarian shipment of food to the North (Cumings 65).

As the food situation got worse, the North Korean state approached Japan, a former colonial master. Japan had substantial reserves of grain stock. However, all these initiatives were thwarted by Kim Young Sam of South Korea. Kim warned Japan of sour relations if Japan went ahead and provided aid without South Korea’s participation (Natsios 61).

Observers were optimistic that these measures would dramatically improve diplomatic relations between donors and the US which had established closer ties. However, this optimism was forced to rest.

North Korea infringed the agreement entered when they compelled the ship delivering the first consignment of rice from South Korea to fly a North Korean flag and later seizing a crew of another relief vessel. Thus, North Korea’s failure to recognize the goodwill of international donors contributed to severe famine in the country (Sung Wook 69).

Famine has had widespread repercussions to economic growth of North Korea. Once a distinguished country in Asia with socialist ideals, North Korea had a stable economy, hence food security was a guarantee. Some factors attributing to severe famine have been manmade, whereas, others have been as a result of natural happenings.

However, the government has played a significant role in enhancing famine in the country. The government has failed to streamline policies which can stir agricultural activities; rather, it has concentrated in shaping its military power.

Though, food diplomacy has been successful, the government’s lack of goodwill in recognizing this assistance has also played a role in prolonging famine in the country.

Works Cited

Cumings, Bruce. North Korea: Another Country, New York: The New Press, 2004. Print

Jung, Kyungja and Brownwn Dalton. “Rhetoric Versus Reality for Women of North Korea”. Asian Survey (2006): 742-760. Print

Lankov, Andrei. “North Korean Refugees in North eastern China”. Asian Survey (2004): 856-873. Print

Marcus, Noland, Sherman Robinson and Monica Scatasta. Modeling North Korean Economic Reform. Journal of Asian Economics (1997): 15-38. Print

Natsios, Andrew. The Great North Korean Famine, Washington: U.S. Institute for Peace, 2001. Print

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. North Korea Has Bigger Harvest, 2004. Web. <>

Sung Wook, Nam. Food Security in North Korea and Its Economic Outlook, Seoul: Korea University, 2004. Print

Woo-Cumings, Meredith. “The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons”. Asian Development Bank Institute (2002): 24.Print

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