Famine in North Korea: The Impact of Poor Decisions

December 2, 2012
Food Crisis
Famine in North Korea started in the 1990s along with a deep and stark economic crisis. The famine lasted nearly a whole decade and since then the country has been suffering regular food shortages. To be precise, in recent years the economy has been picking up a little bit (at least in the capital Pyongyang), but in most rural areas people continue to suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. Making it to the capital is making it to the safest place (food-wise) in the country.

A disputed death toll

The official death toll of the North Korean famine has been disputed for many years and is now estimated between 600,000 and 1 million lives, which is … a very large bracket. With a population of 21 million inhabitants, a million deaths represents 5% of the population.

With over 15 years of food shortages, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) – or just North Korea – has become increasingly reliant on international aid from NGOs, South Korea and the UN to feed its people. But as always this aid came with strings attached; mostly international talks to prevent a conflict in East Asia.

A few years after the famine in North Korea started, the election of South Korea’s new liberal president was very timely as he was keen to build peace with the "sister country". The sunshine policy made it so that South Korean aid (i.e. the “sunshine” instead of cold, aggressive policies) actually helped build trust bonds between the two countries and even with U.S. President Bill Clinton back then. The radical change of policy that came with G.W. Bush and its conservative counterpart in South Korea (Lee Myeong-Bak) have had a clear contribution to fuelling the escalation of violence with North Korea.

Sidebar – The axis of evil?

North Korea is indeed an isolated country, run by a dictatorship and a wholly different economic system that its neighbors want to eliminate for good. So they have good reasons to be scared, when surrounded by giant, intimidating countries such as Russia, Japan, the US (through their influence in East Asia) and China – plus South Korea to some extent.

All of whom most likely want a share of the country. So, you could compare the country to a scared wild animal. You definitely don’t want to be aggressive with it, or it’ll bite. That’s just common sense. Or you have to kill 20 million people to solve the problem. But enough digression on this international relations mess, let’s find out more about the origins of poverty and famine in North Korea.

A bit of North Korean history

north korean soldier government policy army
A quick look at North Korea's government policies

A communist country

After the Korean War in 1953, the agriculture was collectivized – meaning that all the land was taken by the state and redistributed to farmers to use, though owned by the state (which in theory represents the people, hence the farmers too).

Farmers could use the land by entering either cooperatives or state farms. Private production was prohibited. Then the government started the good old soviet production planification and grain distribution programs.

Modernizing the agriculture

After a couple of years of shaky food production, the plans started to produce enough food for the population, thanks to the modernisation of the agriculture: chemical fertilizers, pesticides, modern irrigation systems and other machines.

In fact, in the 1960s North Korea overdid it a bit and had the agriculture that needed the most input in the world (all the things you need to produce your grains). The problem is that while yields increased, they also became dependent on input material. So that the only way they could keep on producing so much food was to keep on using so much input (pesticides, water, machines, oil and whatnot). And for a poor country, this means they were not being very efficient and probably that they were spending more money than other countries to produce the same amount of food.

Over time and after several “education” programs aimed at teaching soviet-style agricultural production, traditional farming techniques were completely abandoned if not forgotten. Why is that a bad thing? Now that their soil and its resources have been exhausted, they could use some of these sustainable techniques. So as you can see, the famine in North Korea was already looming large years before it all started. If only someone had opened his eyes before.

Not to mention the “nature re-making program” (full text available here, PDF) which consisted in using bulldozers to flatten the country’s productive land into fields of “regular shapes like a checkerboard”. They just loved nature like that. This program persisted for over 20 years and might still exist today.

The world’s most militarized country

The country’s fearful obsession with the United States and Japan (among others) has led it to over-invest in military weapons, including the nuclear bomb. It makes no doubt that this is a huge waste of North Korea’s limited resources, which could be put to better use by investing in developing the economy and fighting chronic hunger.

What caused the famine in North Korea?

agriculture famine in north korea
‍Modernizing agriculture in North Korea

The failure of juche (or the aid-dependency)

The decades old doctrine of juche (“self-reliance”) was supposed to bring North Korea the means of being autonomous (i.e. from soviet aid), notably in terms of food and energy production. But as we all know now, the soviets were very bad farmers. Their methods of intensive agriculture has ruined the soils of many countries, including in the Korean peninsula.

So after a few years of good crops, the yields suddenly started to plummet and within a few years, North Korea became aid-dependent. In other words, the country wasn’t producing enough food to feed its population and it didn’t have enough money to buy it either. Not to mention the fact that North Korea has a natural disadvantage when it comes to producing food: the country is very mountainous and traditionally, the South has always been more fertile while the North (especially under Japanese colonization) was used to mine resources from its mountains.

An all-pervasive crisis

In the early 1990s, massive food shortages followed an economic crisis that lasted 9 years. But the total death toll of the famine in North Korea hides certain realities: while people in Pyongyang were relatively safe, in certain provinces victims accounted for over 10% of the local population. All experts seem to agree that after a peak in food production in 1989, the yield of fields started to decline throughout the 1990s.

But you need to understand what happened as a large scale crisis that affected the whole economy, including the production of fuel and industrial goods altogether. The problem is that because the North Korean agriculture is so dependent on tractors and machines, that the economic crisis also fuelled the agricultural one, therefore causing massive food shortages.

Running out of land

As mentioned before, another problem was the over-intensive agriculture with techniques such as continuous cropping that not only depleted the soil’s resources, they also completely polluted it and therefore made it become too acid to produce as much as before. So, what happened once the little arable land that was available wasn’t enough anymore? They did what people do all over the world in developing countries: get rid of the forests.

The problem (among so many) is that in their particular case, forests are precisely what help the soil recover from pollution and exhaustion. They bring in new minerals and tons of good stuff that make a healthy soil. In the end, deforestation in fact increased the rate at which soil was eroding, and it made flooding worse – it’s no secret that trees are what prevent disasters when rivers go out of their beds. North Koreans ended up with a more depleted land and more frequent floods that destroyed crops (when there were any).

The hidden causes

Food aid in North Korea
‍Food aid in North Korea

The late big brother

One aspect that is often forgotten in this crisis, is the role of aid in North Korea. If the country has become ever more dependent on international aid from a variety of countries, this is merely a way to replace another type of international aid that vanished overnight. North Korea was indeed used to receiving regular support from the USSR ever since its creation – and later on China started taking the place of the former soviet empire.

But since the soviet regime fell, nothing has fully replaced the extent of financial support and expert training that North Korea was enjoying during the Cold War. In fact, the North Korean regime was taking this aid for granted, as a “tribute” to their ideological purity. Therefore the USSR had already started withdrawing its support in the late 1980s as North Korea was refusing to pay its debts. Soviet aid was usually in the form of very advantageous loans with very low interest rates.

Combined with the massive problems mentioned before, the loss of USSR support meant also the loss of a precious supplier in coal, oil and steel. Something the country direly needs to make its agriculture function properly or to manufacture agricultural machinery. In only a few years, the value of imports from Russia decreased by 90%. North Korea was just helpless.

New decade, new problems

From the 1980s onward, the government has tried many times (and failed) to reform and liberalize its economy step by step, trying to follow China’s path at the time. This was tried again in the early 2000s in order to introduce a bit of market economy and designated trade zones within the country. Along with attempts to normalize their relations with Japan and the US, this was also art of a strategy aimed at securing more humanitarian aid, which often comes with “strings attached”: conditions to fulfill in order to receive international support.

The problem is that the normalization of prices brought by the market has led to a big increase in the cost of life while the rationing system didn’t change at all. The way this system works is that ration tickets are attributed a certain value and are distributed to people. So, if the same total amount is distributed while the overall price of food and goods have augmented, it means that the average income of North Koreans has decreased. Add this to (finally) complete the list of preventable causes of the famine in North Korea.

Consequences of the famine

cooperative farm north korea
‍Food shortages & Cooperative farms in North Korea

Sluggish government reaction

The economic and political system itself was a major problem during the famine in North Korea. By relying too much on central power (Pyongyang) to make choices, the decision-making process was way too slow for the crisis. The soviet-style state farms too proved to be a huge obstacle as they weren't adapted to each local crisis and the tailored response that was needed.

Allowing people to grow their own food in a reasonably sized back-garden would have been a lot more helpful. In reality, they did allow small scale agriculture in private gardens but tons of contradicting policies (expansion of state farms, intensive agriculture) were plenty enough to thwart this little but crucial change.

An endless list of plagues and bad decisions

Among other consequences of the famine and mistakes that exacerbated the death toll, you also have:

  • ‍Food riots, aggravated by a government campaign of “two meals a day” (remember that the government controls what the population eats via ration tickets);
  • Reduced food imports from China in the mid-1990s, when China couldn’t afford to export its grain anymore and had to keep it for its own population. North Korea then denounced China as a “traitor to the socialist cause”, not their smartest move… for their own good;
  • A worldwide food crisis caused high food prices, making it even more expensive to import food;
  • As the result of more floods in summer 1995, over 5 million North Korean had been displaced, nearly 2 million tons of grain were lost and hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural land were destroyed;
  • At the same moment, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organizations issued a statement that over 2 million children and 500,000 women were on the brink of starvation.
  • Six months later, there were still nearly 150,000 people threatened by starvation and more floods followed in 1996, though not as intense.

In a way, the floods were very convenient for the North Korean government in that it allowed them to “save face” and pretend that the whole problem could be blamed on a natural disaster. And if the floods did have a huge impact on this famine in North Korea, the country would have still suffered large food shortages in the 1990s simply because of their faltering agricultural production.

The impact of humanitarian aid

At least the floods also helped a lot in bringing more international assistance and doing so quickly. Just so you know, international NGOs did play the same role of blaming it all on natural disasters in order to receive more money from big international donors. There’s no doubt that the North Korean population needed swift assistance, but it’s important to understand how the humanitarian aid system works and how it biased (not to say corrupt) it can be in certain situations.

But then again, NGOs are often only "slave" to their donors, forced to go where the spotlights of the media point at, and sometimes maybe it’s fair to “trick” donors to actually do something helpful. Nonetheless, by doing so they still contribute to distort the reality of what’s happening on the ground. Is it a necessary evil? Your call.

How to survive a famine in North Korea

children saluting in north korea military
‍Follow the leader: golden rule to surviving famines in North Korea

The long term consequence of this little game is that the root causes of the food crisis weren’t actually dealt with. The deeply flawed agricultural system and the lack of income have remained a problem in the 10 years that followed the end of the famine in North Korea. And even today, despite a small economic growth in the capital, some regions still suffer from chronic hunger.

Whether or not you'll suffer from famine in North Korea is determined by different factors: where you live, what your job is and whether you’re a member of the communist party. 

If you can live in the capital or in a special economic zone, your prospects of getting enough food are hugely improved. The same applies if you’re a member of the Party or if you work in the right trade (e.g. not in farming).

Interested in finding out more about the current situation in North Korea ? About how the government and people are coping with food shortages ? Drop me a word, and if there’s enough of you guys (and gals) we might consider a complement to this article – or even an e-book while we're at it.


  • ‍Famine and Reform in North Korea, Marcus Noland, Institute for International Economics / Asian Economic Papers 2005
  • Famine in North Korea: Causes and Cures, Marcus Noland et al., Economic Development and Cultural Change 2001
  • ‘Market’ Economy Rescues North Korea (1990s-2008), LIM Soo-Ho, SERI Quarterly 2009
  • North Korea in 2007: Shuffling in from the Cold, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Asian Survey 2008
  • North Korea in 2008: Twilight of the God?, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Asian Survey 2009
  • North Korea: Market Opportunity, Poverty and the Provinces, Hazel Smith, New Political Economy 2009
  • The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact, Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West, Population and Development Review 2001

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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