Mass-Starvations in North Korea
“I personally know about fifteen people who died of hunger. In the case of an acquaintance of mine, her entire family died. There were so many deaths; we got used to seeing dead bodies everywhere – at train stations, on the streets. The year 1997 was the worst, and then things got better, because everyone began selling stuff at markets. That’s how we all survived.” – Ms. Kim, escapee from North Korea, 2005
OVERVIEW. Food in North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is distributed through a Public Distribution System (PDS), on which over 62 percent of the total population and 70 percent of the urban population is entirely reliant for monthly or biweekly food rations.1 Those not wholly reliant on the PDS include North Korea’s elite and wealthy classes, along with the nation’s farmers. However, because the government seizes farmer food production for re-distribution through the PDS, food security for farmers also remains highly tenuous.2 Photographs of the North Korean people who suffered through mass-starvation and severe food insecurity are posted in NKN’s Film and Photo section, Photographs of Mass-Starvations in North Korea.
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THE MASS-STARVATIONS OF THE 1990s. In the 1990s, widespread famine devastated North Korea, killing over 2.5 million, and perhaps upwards of 3.7 million, North Koreans, more than 10 percent of the population.3 By the end of the 1990s, the PDS could only support 6% of the nation, although 62 percent of the population relied on it.4 The 6 percent who received food through the PDS were fed only 128 grams per person per day – approximately 1 cup of food –, equivalent to some 25 percent of the internationally-recommended minimum calorie intake.5
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NOW. Reports indicate that starvation, hunger, malnutrition, and food deprivation and insecurity continue in the DPRK. In 2008, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) projected that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would soon face its greatest food deficit since the waves of catastrophic famine6 that devastated the nation in the 1990s.7 Although international organizations produced differing food projections,8 the WFP estimated that, as of April of 2008, 6.5 million North Koreans, or approximately 30 percent of the current population, did not have enough to eat – and that this figure would only rise in breadth and in magnitude.9
The World Food Programme (WFP) indicates that food rations in 2005 were at approximately 200-250 grams per person per day, approximately 50 percent of the internationally-recommended minimum calorie intake.10 In 2004, the WFP found:
• 57 percent of the population did not have enough food to stay healthy;
• 37 percent of young children under 6 were stunted due to chronic malnourishment, 23 percent were underweight, and 7 percent were wasted or wholly starved; and
• One-third of mothers were malnourished and anemic.11
Sadly, as nearly 70 percent of children under six are mal-affected by hunger, the harmful consequences of two decades of food insecurity will continue to reveal themselves for generations to come. In 2006, Sanduk Ruitt, an eye surgeon from Nepal who had visited North Korea to perform cataract surgeries, stated that North Korea’s “blindness magnitude – induced by malnutrition – is one of the highest in the world.”12
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HOW AND WHY: STARVATION POLITICS IN THE DPRK.
Mass-starvations do not just happen. They are made to happen. Famines, mass-starvation, and constant hunger in North Korea are not natural disasters. Rather, they are commissioned by the government through a series of strategic socio-economic and political choices. “In contradiction to assumptions fostered by television images of cracked earth and withered crops, the fate of a famine-prone population is often entirely within human control.”13 With secure total global food production and effective mechanisms for the distribution of aid, states have the ability to mitigate and counter food deficits.14 Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize-winning economist and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, asserts: “famines are, in fact, so easy to prevent that it is amazing that they are allowed to occur at all.”15
North Korea’s food crisis has endured for over twenty years and continues to be met with intransparency and inefficiency. Relatively rich in natural resources, international aid, and the capacity for effective infrastructure, North Korea’s catastrophic famine and persistent hunger and starvation affirm Kim Jong Il’s practice of starvation politics as a means of controlling and oppressing the North Korean people. Kim Jong Il strategically leverages hunger to gain and maintain power within North Korea and within the international order, starving the North Korean masses to silence dissent and paralyze initiative.
World leaders Vaclav Havel, Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Elie Wiesel affirm: “Pyongyang demonstrated repeatedly that keeping its population properly fed is a low priority for the government.”16 In fact, in the late 1990s, North Korea blamed its food crisis on severe flooding. However, regional flooding was estimated to have caused no more than 15 percent of the damage to incite North Korea’s catastrophic famine.17
In 1994, according to Andrew Natsios, former Administrator of USAID, the Northeastern Hamgyong provinces, where “loyalty to the center has always been weakest” was cut off from national food distribution in 1994.18 Complete stoppages of publicly distributed food and enforced bans on movement out of the Northeastern Hamgyong province effectively established regional internment – or starvation – camps, targeting dissenting regions. The communities of the northeast were deemed dissenters and therefore starved. In 1999, Action Against Hunger, a non-governmental organization, confirmed Kim Jong Il’s stoppage of food distribution to the Northeast regions of the DPRK.19 Additionally:
• Johns Hopkins University analyzed mortality and birth rates in the North and South Hamgyong provinces and found that 14.4 percent of the 5 million persons within this region were already dying by 1993.20
• Andrew Natsios explains: “The triage of the Northeast therefore began well before the famine spread to the western provinces; mortality rates were much higher much earlier than in the rest of the country.”21
Food is power in North Korea, and Kim Jong Il consistently shows that his priority is to keep his people hungry and his dissenters silent.
North Korea’s starvation politics reinforce state power and enable regime survival. Simply stated, those who are favorable before the state are more likely to receive food, to receive life. As the state controls food production, management, distribution, and aid receipt, Kim Jong Il’s regime essentially determines who will live and who will die. In addition to death, hunger produces weakness. South Korea-based NGO, Good Friends, explains that North Koreans have little incentive to work because hunger seeps them of their energy and work provides little guarantee of sustenance.22 With the majority of its people food insecure, hungry, and in fear of forced internment, the DPRK has constructed a world of subservience and acquiescence to its dictator. Starvation politics denies the North Korean people the life, strength, and capacity to implement change. Thus, Kim Jong Il’s following is sustained by devastating terror, physical, emotional, and cognitive fatigue, a prioritization of survival over revolution, and the death of all dissenters. Hunger in North Korea is savagely exploited to ensure loyalty, authority, and the survival of Kim Jong Il’s regime, emphasizing the savage exploitation of life that constitutes North Korea’s starvation politics.
Kim Jong Il’s strategic failure to feed is evidenced by five salient indicators:
(1) The lack of change in North Korea’s policy over the past decade plus,
(2) North Korea’s non-cooperation with international aid organizations,
(3) The ineffective distribution of food aid,
(4) The allocation of domestic funds from food to defense (military, nuclear weapons) programs, and
(5) The use of food to ensure loyalty and control to Kim Jong Il’s regime.
The DPRK’s systematic and orchestrated denials of the right to food, most notably through the 1990s, violate international law, the right to life, and constitute crimes against humanity.
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