Girish Mahajan (Editor)

North Korean famine

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Total deaths
240,000 to 3.5 million

1994 – 1998

North Korea

North Korean famine httpsiytimgcomviPZ2R3glQ4mImaxresdefaultjpg

Economic mismanagement, natural disasters, collapse of the Soviet bloc, military-first policy

food and humanitarian aid (1994 – present)

Militarization of economy; spread of limited market activity; food aid from South Korea, China, United States, Japan and the European Union

Great Chinese Famine, Russian famine of 1921–22, Great Famine, Soviet famine of 1932–33, Bengal famine of 1943

The North Korean famine, which together with the accompanying general economic crisis are known as the Arduous March (Hangul: 북한기근; Chosŏn'gŭl: 고난의 행군) in North Korea, occurred in North Korea from 1994 to 1998.


The famine stemmed from a variety of factors. Economic mismanagement and the loss of Soviet support caused food production and imports to decline rapidly. A series of floods and droughts exacerbated the crisis. The North Korean government and its centrally planned system proved too inflexible to effectively curtail the disaster. Estimates of the death toll vary widely. Out of a total population of approximately 22 million, somewhere between 240,000 and 3,500,000 North Koreans died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses, with the deaths peaking in 1997. Recent research suggests that the likely number of excess deaths between 1993 and 2000 was about 330,000.

Arduous March

The term "Arduous March" became a metaphor for the famine following a state propaganda campaign in 1993. The Rodong Sinmun urged the North Korean citizenry to invoke the memory of an apocryphal fable from Kim Il-sung's time as a commander of a small group of anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters. The story, referred to as the Arduous March, is described as "fighting against thousands of enemies in 20 degrees below zero, braving through a heavy snowfall and starvation, the red flag fluttering in front of the rank."

As part of this state campaign, uses of words such as 'famine' and 'hunger' were banned because they implied government failure. Citizens who said deaths were due to the famine could be in serious trouble with the authorities.


The great famine, known in North Korea by the officially mandated code words konanŭi haenggun (The Arduous March), was a central event in the country's history, forcing the regime and its people to change in fundamental and unanticipated ways.

Only about 20% of North Korea's mountainous terrain is arable land. Much of the land is only frost-free for six months, allowing only one crop per year. The country has never been self-sufficient in food, and many experts considered it unrealistic to try to be.

In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union, under its leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was embarking on political and economic reform, it began demanding payment from North Korea for past and current aid — amounts North Korea could not repay. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, ending all aid and trade concessions, such as cheap oil. Without Soviet aid, the flow of imports to the North Korean agricultural sector ended, and the government proved too inflexible to respond. In 1991, energy imports fell by 75%. The economy went into a downward spiral, with imports and exports falling in tandem. Flooded coal mines required electricity to operate pumps, and the shortage of coal worsened the shortage of electricity. Agriculture relied on electrically powered irrigation systems and artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and was hard hit by the economic collapse.

Most North Koreans had experienced nutritional deprivation long before the mid-1990s. The country had once been fed with a centrally planned economic system that overproduced food, had long ago reached the limits of its productive capacity, and could not respond effectively to exogenous shocks.

North Korea's state trading companies emerged as an alternative means of conducting foreign economic relations. Over the past two decades, these stated trading companies have become important conduits of funding for the regime, with a percentage of all revenues going "directly into Kim Jong-il's personal accounts … [which have been] used to secure and maintain the loyalty of the senior leadership."

The country soon instigated austerity measures, dubbed the "eat two meals a day" campaign. These measures proved inadequate in stemming the economic decline. According to Professor Hazel Smith of Cranfield University,

... the methods of the past that had produced short-to medium-term gains might have continued producing further small economic benefits if the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc had remained and continued to supply oil, technology, and expertise.

Without the help from these countries, North Korea was unable to respond adequately to the coming famine. For a time, China filled the gap left by the Soviet Union's collapse and propped up North Korea's food supply with significant aid. By 1993, China was supplying North Korea with 77 percent of its fuel imports and 68 percent of its food imports. Thus, North Korea replaced dependence on the Soviet Union with dependence on China – with predictably dire consequences. In 1993, China faced its own grain shortfalls and need for hard currency, and it sharply cut aid to North Korea.

Floods and drought

The economic decline and failed policies provided the context for the famine, but the floods of the mid-1990s were the immediate cause. The floods in July and August 1995 were described as being "of biblical proportions" by independent observers. They were estimated to affect as much as 30 percent of the country.

As devastating floods ravaged the country in 1995, arable land, harvests, grain reserves, and social and economic infrastructure were destroyed. The United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs reported that "between 30 July and 18 August 1995, torrential rains caused devastating floods in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). In one area, in Pyongsan county in North Hwanghae province, 877 mm of rain were recorded to have fallen in just seven hours, an intensity of precipitation unheard of in this area... water flow in the engorged Amnoc River, which runs along the Korea/China border, was estimated at 4.8 billion tons over a 72 hour period. Flooding of this magnitude had not been recorded in at least 70 years."

The major issues created by the floods were not only the destruction of crop lands and harvests, but also the loss of emergency grain reserves, because many of them were stored underground. According to the United Nations, the floods of 1994 and 1995 destroyed around 1.5 million tons of grain reserves, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 1.2 million tons (or 12%) of grain production was lost in the 1995 flood. There were further major floods in 1996 and a drought in 1997.

North Korea lost an estimated 85% of its power generation capacity due to flood damage to infrastructures such as hydropower plants, coal mines, and supply and transport facilities. UN officials reported that the power shortage from 1995 to 1997 was not due to a shortage of oil, because only two out of a total of two dozen power stations were dependent on heavy fuel oil for power generation... and these were supplied by KEDO (the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization).... About 70% of power generated in the DPRK came from hydropower sources, and the serious winter-spring droughts of 1996 and 1997 (and a breakdown on one of the Yalu River's large hydro turbines) created major shortages throughout the country at that time, severely cutting back railway transportation (which was almost entirely dependent on electric power), which in turn resulted in coal supply shortages to the coal-fueled power stations which supplied the remaining 20% of power in the country.

A 2008 study, however, found no variation in children's nutrition between counties that had experienced flooding and those that had not.

Widespread malnutrition

With the widespread destruction of harvests and food reserves, the majority of the population became desperate for food, including areas well established in food production. In 1996, it was reported that people in "the so-called better-off parts of the country, were so hungry that they ate the maize cobs before the crop was fully developed." This reduced expected production of an already ravaged harvest by 50%.

People everywhere were affected by the crisis, regardless of gender, affiliation or social class. Child malnutrition, as indicated by severe underweight, was found at 3.21% in 1987, 14% in 1997 and 7% in 2002.


Sŏn'gun (Songun) is North Korea's "Military First" policy, which prioritizes the Korean People's Army in affairs of state and allocates national resources to the "army first". Even though the armed forces were given priority for the distribution of food, this did not mean that they all received generous rations.

The army was supposed to find ways to grow food to feed itself and to develop industries that would permit it to purchase food and supplies from abroad. The rations received by military personnel were very basic, and "ordinary soldiers of the million-strong army often remained hungry, as did their families, who did not receive preferential treatment simply because a son or daughter was serving in the armed forces."


Women suffered significantly due to the gendered structure of North Korean society, which deemed women responsible for obtaining food, water and fuel for their families, which often included extended families. Simultaneously, women had the highest participation rate in the workforce of any country in the world, calculated at 89%. Therefore, women had to remain in the workforce and obtain supplies for their families.

Pregnant and nursing women faced severe difficulties in staying healthy; maternal mortality rates increased to approximately 41 per 1000, while simple complications such as anemia, hemorrhage and premature birth became common due to vitamin deficiency. It was estimated that the number of births declined by about 0.3 during that period.


Children, especially those under two years old, were most affected by both the famine and the poverty of the period. The World Health Organization reported death rates for children at 93 out of every 1000, while those of infants were cited at 23 out of every 1000. Understandably, "undernourished mothers found it difficult to maintain exclusive breast-feeding, and no suitable alternative to this practice was available. Infant formula was not produced locally, and only a minuscule amount of it was imported."

The famine resulted in a population of homeless, migrant children known as Kotjebi.

Public distribution system

The food shortage was augmented by the deficiency of the public distribution system which was created by Cabinet Decrees 96 and 102 in November 1957. The system distributed food to people according to their political standing and their degree of loyalty to the state. The structure is as follows (the World Food Program considers 600 grams of cereal per day to be less than a "survival ration"):

However, the extended period of food shortages put a strain on the system, and it spread the amount of available food allocations thinly across the groups, affecting 62% of the population who were entirely reliant on public distribution. The system was feeding only 6% of the population by 1997.

The annual amount of food a farmer could keep fell from 167 kilograms to 107 kilograms.

In a contentious attempt to alleviate the plight, the North Korean government suggested an "alternative foods" regime for the people to sustain themselves on. For example, small bricks of bark, leaves and grass were added into diets.

Health care

Inadequate medical supplies, water and environmental contamination, frequent power failures, and outdated training led to a health care crisis that added to the overall devastation. According to a 1997 UNICEF delegation, hospitals were clean but wards were devoid of even the most rudimentary supplies and equipment; sphygmomanometers, thermometers, scales, kidney dishes, spatulas, IV giving sets, etc. The mission saw numerous patients being treated with home made beer bottle IV sets, clearly unsterile. There was an absence of ORS (oral rehydration solution) and even the most basic drugs such as analgesics and antibiotics.

Estimated deaths

An exact number of deaths during the acute phase of the crisis, from 1994 to 1998, will probably never be fully determined, unless the country collapses and the regime ends, because the government has refused to release any of this information to the outside world. Independent analysis estimates that between 800,000 and 1,500,000 people died due to starvation, disease, or sickness caused by lack of food.

Haggard and Noland reviewed all estimates of the "excess" deaths caused by the famine. Estimates range from 220,000 to 4,000,000 between 1995 and 1998, as claimed by the North Korean government.

In 1998, US Congressional staffers who visited the country reported that: "Therefore, we gave a range of estimates, from 300,000 to 800,000 dying per year, peaking in 1997. That would put the total number of deaths from the North Korean food shortage at between 900,000 and 2.4 million between 1995 and 1998." Higher estimates range from 2 to 3 million.

A survey by North Korea's Public Security Ministry suggests that 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 people died from 1995 to March 1998, although the numbers may have been inflated in order to secure additional food aid. The most sophisticated estimates used to measure excess deaths based on different data from multiple sources give a total number ranging from 600,000 to 1,000,000, or 3 to 5 percent of the pre-crisis population

The consequences of the famine are still playing out – most notably, in the breakdown of the public distribution system and the government food rationing system and other economic institutions, as well as increasing self-reliance by North Koreans in providing for themselves and their families.

Robinson's team found 245,000 "excess" deaths (an elevated mortality rate as a result of premature death), 12 percent of the population in one affected region. Taking those results as the upper limit and extrapolating across the entire North Korean population across the country's provinces produces an upper limit of 2,000,000 famine-related deaths.

According to the recent research by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, the likely range of excess deaths between 1993 and 2000 was between 500,000 and 600,000.

Black markets

At the same time, the years of famine were also marked by a dramatic revival of illegal, private market activities, and this furthermore led to what little pluralism North Korea has today. Smuggling across the border boomed, and up to 250,000 North Koreans moved to China. Amartya Sen had mentioned bad governance as one of the structural and economic problems which contributed to the famine, but it seems that the famine also led to the widespread government corruption which nearly collapsed old controls and regulations from Pyongyang.

When fuel became scarce while demand for logistics rose, so-called servi-cha (써비차, McC-Rsr: ssŏbich'a, "service cars") operations formed, wherein an entrepreneur provides transportation to businesses, institutions and individuals without access to other means of transportation, while the car is formally owned by a legitimate enterprise or unit that also provides transportation permits. The people of North Korea were becoming less reliant on their government and they came to trust the Kim family less.

With the desperation derived from famine and informal trade and commercialization, North Koreans developed their black market, and moreover, they were surviving by adapting. Andrei Lankov has described the process as the "natural death of North Korean Stalinism".

The average official salary in 2011 was equivalent to $2 per month while the actual monthly income seems to be around $15 because most North Koreans earn money from illegal small businesses: trade, subsistence farming, and handicrafts. The illegal economy is dominated by women because men have to attend their places of official work even though most of the factories are non-functioning.

International response

Initial assistance to North Korea started as early as 1990, with small-scale support from religious groups in South Korea and assistance from UNICEF. In August 1995, North Korea made an official request for humanitarian aid and the international community responded accordingly:

Beginning in 1996, the U.S. also started shipping food aid to North Korea through the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to combat the famine. Shipments peaked in 1999 at nearly 600,000 tons making the U.S. the largest foreign aid donor to the country at the time. Under the Bush Administration, aid was drastically reduced year after year from 320,000 tons in 2001 to 28,000 tons in 2005. The Bush Administration was criticized for using "food as a weapon" during talks over the North's nuclear weapons program, but insisted the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) criteria were the same for all countries and the situation in North Korea had "improved significantly since its collapse in the mid-1990s."

South Korea (before the Lee Myung-bak government) and China remained the largest donors of food aid to North Korea. The U.S. objects to this manner of donating food due to the North Korean state's refusal to allow donor representatives to supervise the distribution of their aid inside North Korea. Such supervision would ensure that aid does not get seized and sold by well-connected elites or diverted to feed North Korea's large military. In 2005, South Korea and China together provided almost 1 million tons of food aid, each contributing half.

Humanitarian aid from North Korea's neighbors has been cut off at times in order to provoke North Korea into resuming boycotted talks. For example, South Korea decided to "postpone consideration" of 500,000 tons of rice for the North in 2006, but the idea of providing food as a clear incentive (as opposed to resuming "general humanitarian aid") has been avoided. There have also been aid disruptions due to widespread theft of railroad cars used by mainland China to deliver food relief.

Post-famine developments

North Korea has not yet resumed its self-sufficiency in food production and it relies on external food aid from South Korea, China, the United States, Japan, the European Union and others. In 2002, North Korea requested that food supplies no longer be delivered.

In the mid-2000s, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that famine conditions were in imminent danger of returning to North Korea, and the government was reported to have mobilized millions of city-dwellers in order to help rice farmers. In 2012, the World Food Program reported that food would be sent to North Korea as soon as possible. The food would first be processed by a local processor and it would then be delivered directly to North Korean citizens.

Agricultural production increased from about 2.7 million metric tons in 1997 to 4.2 million metric tons in 2004. In 2008, food shortages continued to be a problem in North Korea, although less so than in the mid to late 1990s. Flooding in 2007 and reductions in food aid exacerbated the problem.

In 2011, during a visit to North Korea, former US President Jimmy Carter reported that one third of children in North Korea were malnourished and stunted in their growth because of a lack of food. He also said that the North Korean government had reduced daily food intake from 5,900 to 2,900 kJ (1,400 to 700 kcal) in 2011 (by comparison, a normal food intake for a healthy European is 8,400 to 10,500 kJ (2,000 to 2,500 kcal) per day). Some scholars believed that North Korea was purposefully exaggerating the food shortage, aiming to receive additional food supplies for its planned mass-celebrations of Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday in 2012 by means of foreign aid.

Escaped North Koreans reported in September 2010 that starvation had returned to the nation. North Korean pre-school children are 3 to 8 cm (1.2 to 3.1 inches) shorter than South Koreans. Roughly 45% of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition and the population of Kotjebi persists. Most people only eat meat on public holidays, namely Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's birthdays.

One report by the Tokyo Shimbun in April 2012 claimed that since the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, around 20,000 people had starved to death in South Hwanghae Province. Another report by the Japanese Asia Press agency in January 2013 claimed that in North and South Hwanghae provinces more than 10,000 people had died of famine. Other international news agencies have begun circulating stories of cannibalism. However, the World Food Program reported malnutrition and food shortages, but not famine. In 2016 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported a steady decline in the infant mortality rate since 2008. An academic analysis in 2016 found that the situation had greatly improved since the 1990s and that North Korea's levels of health and nutrition were on par with other developing countries.


North Korean famine Wikipedia

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