Poverty in North Korea
Poverty in North Korea has been persistent for decades. North Korea is one of the most secluded countries in the world, both socially and economically. Since the Korean War in the 1950s, the nation has followed an ideology of self-reliance, called Juche in Korean. According to the official website of the North Korean government, Juche has three tenets: political independence, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in national defense. Adhering to these principles, North Korea withdrew from contact with other nations, gradually developing into the closed-off state it is today.

However, poor economic policies and the misallocation of resources have caused much of North Korea’s population to fall into poverty. One study estimates that the poverty rate of North Korea is around 60%, and another puts the percentage of undernourished North Koreans at 43%. The country suffers from chronic food shortages and has some of the worst income inequality in the world. Here are four influences on poverty in North Korea.

4 Influences on Poverty in North Korea

  1. Resource Misallocation: North Korea is notorious for its obsession with nuclear weapons and its military. The Korean War created high tensions between the country and its neighbors, leaving North Korea feeling threatened. As a result, North Korea funnels large amounts of resources into developing and maintaining weapons and the military, when it could better use those resources to fight famine and improve the economy.
  2. Environmental Collapse: To become self-reliant in food production, North Korea has employed intensive agricultural methods, using copious amounts of chemicals and cutting down forests to create farmland and increase crop yields. The loss of forests has led to erosion and flooding, costing the country much of its food supply. In addition, people chop down trees for firewood and eat wild animals to survive, leading to an imbalance in the ecosystem. With land growing less fertile, North Korea struggles to produce enough food for its people.
  3. Government Decisions: In 1995, the government cut supplies to the north of the country to provide more food for the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to garner support for the regime there. This decision hurt the regime greatly. Farmers began hoarding food and selling it independently of the state. Citizen support of the regime fell, decreasing even further when the regime used force to maintain its power. The Juche ideology backfired, as the country had to rely on international aid during the famine.
  4. Decreased Foreign Aid: During the Cold War, North Korea received Soviet aid. However, the country refused to pay its debts to the USSR, which responded by withdrawing support for North Korea. The fall of the Soviet Union forced North Korea to rely more on China for imports. In the 1990s, however, China decreased its grain exports because its own population needed the crops. In response, North Korea condemned China as a traitor. Without foreign aid, poverty in North Korea has only worsened.

These four influences on poverty in North Korea show that it is the product of ill-advised governmental decisions. Fortunately, the global community has begun to take note of the country’s struggles, and other nations are offering help. China has been the most generous donor, sending over 200,000 tons of food in 2012 and $3 million in aid in 2016. South Korea has also been generous to its neighbor, pledging 50,000 tons of rice and $8 million in 2019. The U.N. asked donors for $120 million to give to North Korea, eliciting responses from countries like Denmark, Norway and Germany. Non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and the World Food Programme likewise commit to helping North Koreans in need. Hope remains for the people of North Korea.

Alison Ding
Photo: Flickr