North Korea’s Devastating Famine
Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, is a vast symbol of the supposed might of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But during the mid 1990s there was a huge famine that affected the 25 million-person country.
The famine’s roots date to 1948, when North Korea was created. North Korean farmland and weather conditions aren’t ideal for producing food, but at first, the new country was able to sidestep those issues by aligning itself with the Soviet Union and socialist allies, which provided substantial aid and imported food and cheap fuel. The government strictly controlled the distribution of all food, doling out rations to city dwellers and people in the military. Rations were determined not by need, but by political power. Elites and those loyal to the government were given more food than the elderly, children and others. Over the years, however, as the USSR began to crumble, the aid that fed North Koreans faltered and then stopped altogether.
As the DPRK became more and more isolated, its leader, Kim Il Sung, turned to a national policy of self-reliance. North Korea’s people were expected to feed themselves. The DPRK’s government assisted by distributing chemical fertilizers designed to make farmers’ crops even more fertile. But when the USSR collapsed, so did access to inexpensive fuel. The DPRK’s fertilizer production ground to a halt, the victim of fuel shortages, and farm yields plummeted as a result.
In 1995 and 1996, a warm El Niño weather pattern brought widespread flooding to North Korea. This was catastrophic for North Korea’s supposedly self-reliant farmers: a whopping 15 percent of the country’s already scant arable land was destroyed. Then, the dictatorship reduced the amount of grain farmers were allowed to keep for themselves in an attempt to save food. Rather than eat less, farmers hid grain instead, which led to even less available food.
As food lessened, the government stopped providing rations altogether, and prioritized feeding the military over civilians. North Koreans began eating grass and foraging for wild food to survive.
Eventually, international food aid alleviated the famine. Today, North Korea continues to rely on food aid from the international community, including the United Nations and the United States, to prop up food production. Natural disasters and weather patterns continue to leave it vulnerable to large fluctuations in food availability.