Academic journal article North Korean Review

The Origins of the Great North Korean Famine: Its Dynamics and Normative Implications

Academic journal article North Korean Review

The Origins of the Great North Korean Famine: Its Dynamics and Normative Implications

Article excerpt


With the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea faced what many of the excommunist states faced in the early 1990s: a depletion of aid and a collapse of economic relationships that was truly devastating to its political economy. But unlike other states reliant on Soviet aid, North Korea experienced a massive famine that, running primarily between 1995 and 1998, claimed anywhere from 220,000 to 3.5 million people.1 North Korean officials offer the conservative estimate of 220,000 famine-related deaths, while studies of North Korean defectors and outside observers offer the figure of 3.5 million deaths. Both are eye-opening figures, given the relatively little scholarly and media scrutiny the issue has generated.

Put the North Korean famine in perspective with past human tragedies: the Great Leap Forward in the People's Republic of China's collectivization effort claimed anywhere from 14 million to 40 million deaths2; India's Great Bengal famine in the 1940s claimed anywhere between 1.5 million and 3 million,3 while the Irish famine claimed around 1 million people.4 Even if one accepts the most conservative estimates, we are still looking at a famine that claimed more than 1 percent of the population.

While it is easy to attribute this disaster to a generic "incentive" problem that often plagues communist states, the North Korean disaster is perplexing if one observes Cuba, the "other" communist country with striking similarities-an authoritarian regime led by a charismatic leader with profound reliance on the Soviet Union. Cuba's economy did indeed suffer in the early 1990s but, by all indexes, fared much better than that of North Korea. In fact, Cuba is now consistently ranked as one of the "High Human Development" countries in the Human Development Index, and is currently ranked 38th on the World Health Organization's world's health system, ahead of South Korea and New Zealand.

What's more interesting is that Cuba, unlike North Korea, was not a selfsufficient country at the time of the Soviet collapse. In 1989, the Soviet Union accounted for 85 percent of Cuba's trade, and foreign trade itself accounted for around half of the national income-Cuba imported two thirds of its food, nearly all of its oil, and 88 percent of its machinery and spare parts from the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA).5 After the Soviet collapse and the tightening of the U.S. embargo, Cuba lost 85 percent of its trade, and its fossil fuel-based agricultural inputs were reduced by more than 50 percent.6 North Korea, on the other hand, under its juche (i.e., self-reliance) ideology, achieved a very successful economic development in the periods of the 1970s and the 1980s, producing agricultural selfsufficiency under its highly industrial and energy-intensive cultivation techniques.

This paper attempts to resolve the paradox. I first present two influential thoughts from the famine literature: one that attributes famine to decline in the food supply, and the other that holds distribution as the culprit. The theories are put to test by examining the political governance structure of North Korea. This observation allows us to understand North Korea's famine as a by-product of the incentives structures governing the authoritarian regime, especially in light of the fact that decline of the food supply by itself cannot be a sufficient reason for mass starvation in an open economy context. Throughout the paper, I attempt to demonstrate that the two theories do not offer mutually exclusive causal variables, but rather offer different observations of an interrelated chain of effects that drove the country into a full-blown famine. Normative implications are observed from both an economic and ethical standpoint.

Literature Review

Scholars generally attribute famine to the Malthusian notion of supply imbalance. Suk Lee's work, The DPRK Famine of 1994-2000: Existence and Impact, emphasizes this food availability decline (FAD) side of the story, attributing the famine to both the collapse in Soviet trade and the series of ecological disasters that hit North Korea in the 1990s. …

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