North Korea launched its first frantic diplomatic appeals for international food aid in early 1994 — over half a year before the September 1994 flooding, it’s worth noting, that was subsequently used as the official justification for the awkward call for foreign aid by this ostensibly self-reliant juche state.
Pyongyang’s appeal for international food aid continues to this very day: this year, North Korea has reportedly lodged requests for emergency humanitarian relief to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the South Korean government, the US State Department and even a number of developing countries. Thus North Korea’s ‘temporary’ food emergency has entered its 18th consecutive year, notwithstanding billions of dollars and millions of tons of humanitarian relief from the international community in the interim. So far as can be told, North Korea has lost the capacity to feed itself — an astonishing historical first for an urbanized, literate and industrialized society.
Why should Pyongyang — a government that seems to manage such tasks as building and testing atomic weapons and launching long-range ballistic missiles — be so manifestly incapable today of the basic task of feeding its own population? We must address, and convincingly answer, this fundamental question before we can even hope to craft a successful international strategy for redressing hunger in North Korea.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Very broadly speaking, North Korea’s now permanent food crisis must be understood as the consequence of four defining factors — all of them integral to the very nature of the North Korean state.
The first, of course, is North Korea’s distorted Soviet-style economy, which is more distorted than the Soviet Union’s economy ever was: much less productive, much more inefficient, permanently and desperately dependent upon flows of foreign aid just to keep on going in its own sputtering manner.
The second is the regime’s completely wrongheaded food self-sufficiency policy: this Northeast Asian economy is densely populated, with limited amounts of arable land, and long periods of cold weather, and the notion that it should be trying to grow its own food rather than exporting labor-intensive products to buy inexpensive calories abroad is an open-ended invitation for trouble.
The third factor is the North Korean government’s unique and long-standing war against its own consumers. Apart perhaps from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Pyongyang has more completely demonetized its economy, and more successfully reduced its subjects to dependence upon direct provision of supplies from their rulers, than any modern government; when the supply pipeline dried up, many hundreds of thousands of those subjects were condemned to a rendezvous with death.
All of these are structural problems, and are plain enough to see. But there’s also a fourth structural aspect to the North Korean hunger problem that is much less widely understood by outsiders: this relates to North Korea’s songbun system of politically assigned class status. In an important new study, Robert M. Collins explains the workings of this system, with its 50-plus distinct strata, ranging from highly favored ‘core’ classes to the so-called ‘hostile’ classes at the bottom. Life as a member of a designated ‘hostile’ class in North Korea is full of peril: tragedies deliberately inflicted by the state. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the most desperate hunger North Koreans suffered over the past decade and a half was concentrated in the country’s northeast: in the provinces where the ‘hostile’ class members were predominantly resettled after the Korean War. Plainly put: during times of extreme food shortage the North Korean regime didn’t care too much if ‘hostile’ class members perished — and may actually have perceived some slight political benefit in those deaths.