At first glance, the web of circumstances causing hunger in North Korea today seems impossible to untangle. The tangle has only grown in size and solidity since North Korea collectivized its agriculture in the 1950s. The country accomplished this transition without encountering the deadly food shortages suffered by other communist dictatorships, but it involved yoking nearly its entire food supply to tactics that, both literally and figuratively, eroded the ground under its feet.
The North Korean regime cleared away vegetation from mountains and hillsides to create more farmland, deforesting much of the countryside and leaving it more vulnerable to floods, erosion and drought. It made vital parts of its food infrastructure (chemical fertilizer factories, tractors, irrigation pumps and trucks for distributing grain) dependent on the importation of cheap, subsidized fuel from the Soviet Union. In 1957 it outlawed the trade of grain and devoted itself to outsized military spending and its founding communist ideology of self-sufficiency (Juche).
These elements came to a fatal head five decades later at a time when the country was possibly producing less than 60% of its food needs. Soviet petroleum subsidies ceased in 1989 and left the North Korean agricultural infrastructure without enough fuel to operate. Monsoons came in late June 1995 and flooded the now largely unobstructed countryside, drowned a quarter of North Korea’s rice paddies and covered some parts of the country in twenty-three inches of rain. Famine killed between 600,000 and two million North Koreans between 1995 and 1999 — 3-5% of the total population.
Attempts at Reform and Modern Hunger
Internal efforts to reform from 1996 to 2016 strained toward self-sufficiency without achieving it. Kim Jong Il’s 1996 reforms underestimated the country’s dependence on chemical fertilizer and the hegemony’s unwillingness to actively support reform. In 2012, Kim Jong Un instituted the Field Responsibility System (FRS), allowing farmers to keep any grain they produced in excess of their quota. His five-year plan, released in 2016, targeted an annual grain and fertilizer output of 8 million and 2.3 million tons respectively.
This growth required a 30% increase in grain output from 2014, but figures from the Food and Agricultural Organization suggest the target of 8 million tons was not reached. Farmers from the North who had come to South Korea were unaware that FRS reforms had even occurred, and despite efforts to increase domestic fertilizer production, over 250,000 tons had to be imported until 2018. In the meantime, the regime urged farmers to rely more on organic fertilizer. Chemical fertilizer production peaked in 1979 at 2.91 million tons. The output of cereals also peaked at just over 65 million tons in 1979. In the 44 years since, North Korea has never produced more.
Hunger in North Korea continues unabated. Citing Chinese customs data, a CNN report from March 3, 2023, shows the country exporting roughly 56 million kilograms of wheat and flour, along with 53,280 kilograms of cereals to North Korea in 2022. Seoul’s Rural Development Agency estimates that from 2021 to 2022 crop yields dropped by 4%. A clandestine source quoted in the South Korean paper Daily NK on Nov. 21, 2022, opens an urgent window on the subjective experience of hunger in North Korea today. “People with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep are roaming around trains stations, markets and the streets, but neither the city party committee nor the people’s committee are taking measures to deal with it.”
Reasons for Hope
Despite all this, Peter Ward, writing for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs in January 2023, begins to outline reasons for hope. North Koreans are resilient and resourceful. Surveys of refugees suggest they are getting much of their food by cultivating the sloping land in regions normally considered inhospitable to crops. This resourcefulness, combined with allowing farmers greater freedom to choose what they plant and tillage rights to their land might generate an increased productivity that could not only spur similar productivity in related industries (chemical fertilizer production) but give rural households a greater ability to purchase imported goods.
Furthermore, the World Food Program’s 2021 brief shows a substantial number of North Koreans directly benefiting from its efforts. From January to March of 2021, it distributed 891.5 metric tons of fortified food (food with added vitamins and nutrients) and 4,970 metric tons of raw food commodities to 566,886 people. This accounts for less than 3% of the country’s total population, but it is an impressive figure considering it was achieved in the teeth of a countrywide COVID-19 response that locked down North Korea’s borders with deadly force, closed many public and child institutions and eventually left no U.N. international staff in the country since March 2021.
Internal movements towards reform, continued international assistance and trade as the COVID-19 pandemic abates, and the resilience of the nation’s people are the hands inside and out that must continue to untangle hunger in North Korea, a problem that only seems unsolvable when the initial despair it inspires is not pushed through.
– John Merino