Continuing Famine in North Korea: Possible Explanations

by Chang Kwon
January 18, 2011

North Korea has been suffering from famine for nearly two decades. It is estimated that the famine has killed about one million people during this period—between three and five percent of the population. The famine is ongoing and deeply rooted, spreading psychological trauma and disease throughout North Korean society. The international community has continuously expressed concern about this fragile state, pouring a total of 1723.66 million dollars of international aid since 1996 (Noland and Haggard, 2007). Nevertheless, any effective solution to the famine is still missing. Why, despite large amounts of international aid, does the North Korean famine persist? Knowing the cause of famine in North Korea is essential to building a feasible response.

This article suggests four possible explanations for the persisting famine: the central government is unaware of the situation, international aid is not sufficient, external shocks and natural disasters have generated the famine, and finally the government is aware of the famine, but selfishly chooses to ignore the situation.

(1) The Regime was unaware: It might be thought that the North Korean government was really not aware of the seriousness of the famine. In fact, it is reported that during 1991 and 1992, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were not exposed to any information about the severe economic downturn (Haggard and Noland, p. 41). Likewise, local officials often lied about grain shortfalls by submitting sanguine reports to the central government (Becker 2005, p. 101-103). Senior government officials could have been deceived by manipulated information. However, it is highly unlikely that the government did not notice prevalent and persistent famine.

(2) Insufficient international aid: Another explanation is that the amount of international aid has not been sufficient to eliminate the famine. This idea appears to have merit at first glance, but does not provide a complete answer. According to the World Food Program (WFP) report of March 5, 2009 only two million North Korean people among the targeted 6.2 million actually received food aid. However, even these beneficiaries were believed to have received only partial rations of food. Indeed, based on the data provided by Reliefweb, there has been a clear trend of decrease in international food assistance to North Korea. Does this decrease in aid indicate that international food aid has “never” been sufficient? Looking only at this trend cannot help. We must also examine North Korea’s experience relative to other countries.

North Korea is one of the top beneficiaries of international aid assistance compared to other countries experiencing similar food crises. Moreover, had the comparison been based on per capita, considering the small size of North Korea, North Korea’s rank would have been even higher. Thus, overall food assistance to North Korea seems to have been sufficient.

Despite these findings, the WFP report also shows that recent food assistance has declined while the country is still suffering from food crisis, so why is there such a discrepancy?

The statement made by Jasper Becker gives new insight into this puzzling problem:

The WFP began by appealing for 21,000 tons of food for 500,000 people in 1995, and three years later it was feeding 8 million people, nearly half the population. Nine years after it began, the WFP is still struggling to feed over 3 million and lamenting that it cannot do more to help many others. In North Korea the United Nations undertook one of the largest and longest emergency food aid operations in its history, but it did fail. (p. 209)

In short, at a time aid used to be enthusiastically provided by the international community. But international aid gradually declined as frustration arose from the fact that aid was not as effective as expected.

What is the primary cause of this unsatisfactory trend? In order to answer this question fully, additional explanation is needed. As the later explanation makes clear, effective food aid is not only contingent on the will of international suppliers alone, but also that of the recipient country.

(3) External Shocks and Natural Disasters: North Korea’s industrial and agricultural systems were negatively affected when the Soviet Union and China, its primary trade partners, broke their relations with North Korea in the early 1990s. In earlier years, North Korea’s industry was energy-intensive. Oil was an important input to develop industry and the Soviet Union was the primary supplier of this oil at well below the market price. However, oil imports suddenly stopped when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Moreover, China’s trade normalization with South Korea resulted in reduced trade with North Korea.

North Korea has also suffered a series of unavoidable natural disasters, which have exacerbated the food problem. In July and August 1995, catastrophic floods occurred in North Korea, resulting in the loss of nearly two million tons of grain, the destruction of over 300,000 hectares of cropland, and the displacement of 5.4 million people. In August 2007, six provinces of North Korea experienced another deadly rainfall. As a result, 102,400 people became homeless and 54,160 homes were damaged (Susan Rawas, UNICEF DPRK 2007, p. 41). Such unavoidable natural disasters contributed substantially to the famine.

However, estimates made by United States Department of Agriculture(USDA) and South Korea’s Ministry of Unification show that North Korea’s grain production had already fallen by more than 15 percent between 1990 and 1994 (Haggard and Noland 2007). In other words, North Korea had existing food problems even before natural disasters hit the nation.

In lieu of this fact, it seems somewhat unlikely that natural disasters alone can be blamed for the unrelenting famine being experienced by the North Korean people today. Likewise, the external shocks are unlikely to have caused the long-term state of famine. External shocks and natural disasters could provide complementary explanations for persistence of famine in North Korea, but there is another explanation which could better explain this situation.

(4) The Regime Knew Well and Did Nothing: During the devastating famine, the North Korean government has not focused on restoring the welfare of its citizens. Rather, it has tried to minimize damage to the power and control of the regime. Evidence of this can be found in the food distribution system. For example, the government has been limiting food distribution to the east coast and focusing on the politically favored jurisdiction in the west coast. An analysis of shipping shows that only 18 percent of all WFP aid actually went to east coast ports even though it is known that this region is the most severely affected by famine (Haggard and Noland 2007; Andrew Natsios 1999).

In addition, while domestic demand is still not met, the North Korean government uses its available resources, including foreign aid, only for its dictatorship. Interviews of foreigners who visited North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, attest to casinos, nightclubs, and other luxury entertainment facilities (Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid 2001).

This example suggests that North Korea can satisfy domestic demand for food by using its scarce foreign exchange reserves on other endeavors. Susan Lautze states that if the government had used its foreign reserves for the commercial import of food from the outside world, North Korea could have met its domestic food requirements and alleviated the situation (1996, p. 6). Regrettably, the North Korean regime used international aid to crowd out food imports. As Noland and Haggard show, the commercial import of food declined as food assistance increased, showing that aid is not used as a supplement but as a substitute for food imports. This shows how the North Korean government’s policy choices undermine the chance of recovery.

Furthermore, Nicholas Eberstadt also introduces the logic of “military first politics” of the North Korean government, which focuses its energy and resources toward empowering the military since Kim Jong Il took power. The belief behind this activity is that North Korea’s future development and prosperity depend primarily on developing a powerful military. Such a policy, as Eberstadt explains, is used as the primary means for financing the regime through which North Korea receives aid in exchange for not spreading insecurity. This strategy has proven to be effective. Despite the ongoing poor economic downturns and widespread famine, North Korea’s net imports increased between 1997 and 2003. Its 2002 net imports were well over $900 million. In turn, such resource accumulation is exclusively used for regime survival and military empowerment.

The above explanations describe and analyze possible reasons why famine in North Korea persists despite international attention. Of the explanations, it is most plausible that famine is still prevalent in North Korea because the government is aware about famine but chooses to focus on other issues.

Therefore, for future aid to North Korea, international community groups should cooperate closely to exert pressure on the North Korean government for better monitoring and transparency of aid. This would minimize the interference by the government and aid can reach the targeted population. Only after this, will the number of citizens suffering from hunger decline.

Works Cited

Becker, Jasper. Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea. New York: Oxford UP; 2005.

———-. “Food for Hungry Stolen by Arm.” South China Morning Post. 11 April. 1998.

Eberstadt, Nicholas. 2004. “The Persistence of North Korea.” Policy Review 127 (October –November: 23-48.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “Executive Summary: Rapid Food Security Assessment Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Haggard, Stephan and Marcus Noland. Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform. New York: Columbia UP, 2007.

———-. “The North Korean Food Situation: Too Early to Break Out the Champagne.” Asia Pacific Bulletin. Feb. 2009. 27.

Irvine, Reed and Cliff Kincaid. “Food Aid Supports North Korean Dictatorship.” Accuracy in Media 23 March. 2001.

International Food Policy Institute. October 12, 2007. “Global Hunger Index 2007.” Accessed 22 Mar 2009.

Kim, Mike. Escape North Korea: Defiance and Hope in the World’s Most Repressive Country. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield; 2008.

Lee, Keun-Soon. 2004. “Cross-Border Movements of North Korean Citizens.” East Asian Review 16, No. 1 (Spring):37-54.

Lautze Susan. 1996. “North Korea Food Assessment (May-June 1996).” Washington DC. US Agency for International Development, June 6.

Martin Bradley K. 2004. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. New York. Thomas Dunne.

Natsios, Andrew. 1999. “The Politics of Famine in North Korea.” Special Report. Washington, D.C. United States Institute of Peace, August 2.

Rawas Sausan. “Challenges of Dealing with Unsolicited Donations during Emergencies.” Field Exchange 34 (2008):41-42.

United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). 05 Mar 2009. “WFP Does What Little It Can for North Korea.”

—————-. 29 April 2008. “UNICEF Humanitarian Action Update: DPR Korea.”


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