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North Korea: Starvation in a Land of Plenty

John Bridges is a published author of history, and politics. His doctorate is in criminal justice.

Why Is North Korea Starving?

North Korea faces chronic food shortages, especially in poor rural areas. There are several things that cause famine: failure of crops to grow due to natural disasters or mismanagement, poor distribution systems, inability to trade externally, and corrupt politics. The food crisis in North Korea is the result of a combination of all of the above. The roots of the food shortages go nearly three decades back.

North Korea never fully recovered from the great famine of 1993 which to an extent has pervaded through to today. In 1991 the former Soviet Union collapsed. North Korea has always received generous financial support from the USSR, but after the collapse, the Soviets could no longer afford to buy allegiance from rogue nations such as North Korea. Aside from financial support, North Korea also lost the main supply connection for pesticides, fertilizer, and farming equipment.

Without help from the Soviet Union, North Korea was unable to respond to the pending famine. For a time, China filled the gap 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 its 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.

In 1995 nature took its wrath on the hermit nation. Floods devastated the lands suitable for farming; removing the fertile topsoil and leaving the land blighted and barren. The road system was also largely compromised impacting the already meager transportation and distribution system.

The famine was also a result of the culmination of a long series of poor government decisions that accrued slowly over decades. International trade was at a low and financially the rogue nation was strapped for cash. Those who held power and those who protected the people in power were given priority to what food remained. The elites in Pyongyang felt very little of the impact that was experienced by those in rural areas. Those in the rural areas were ordered to eat no more than two meals a day, and often one main ingredient in the meal was grass.

In the past, members of the military, essential in keeping the regime in power, were well-fed. As resources became scarce, rations for the military have been significantly cut while the elites continue to have excess. “Sources inside North Korea say the regime has ramped up ideological and military training recently but has not supplied the food and supplies soldiers need, causing morale to plummet. Recently, sources in North Korea said soldiers had taken to looting farms to feed themselves. The looting came after earlier reports that the communist regime has ordered the military to acquire its own food supplies. Normally, the regime mobilizes citizens to collect supplies for the army, but in October, the military was ordered to collect its own provisions.” (Little, M., 2017)

When Madeline Albright and her delegation visited Pyongyang, they were treated to an extravagant 12-course meal. There was no immediate reason for anyone in the delegation to believe there was a food crisis in the country, at least prior to them receiving a hefty bill for their meal.

It is estimated that 3.5 million citizens died of starvation during the great famine. The North Korean Secretary of Agriculture was chosen as the scapegoat and executed in 1997. There was very little he could have done differently.

Emaciated children search for hope that may never come.

Emaciated children search for hope that may never come.

The regime claims that it provides universal health care to its people. The majority of the public healthcare system collapsed in the 1990s, with only prioritized hospitals in areas such as Pyongyang kept functioning. Elsewhere, health services and medicine are only available to those that can afford them. Ordinary North Koreans are therefore afflicted by easily preventable or curable poverty-related diseases, such as tuberculosis and cataracts.

The recent crippling sanctions imposed by the United Nations have caused significant damage to North Korea. It may have also put the regime in a vulnerable position of facing widespread rebellion. While the political elite continues to eat well, the military which was used to getting its share of resources saw its allotment of food cut significantly. Out of desperation, the poor in remote areas have set up black-market stores to provide food and other goods. These stores are highly illegal, but many people would not survive without the goods they provide. Officials in these areas, far from Pyongyang, have become accustomed to bribes to ignore illegal activities. The power structure necessary to keep the regime in power is eroding. People's dependence on the government to provide is lessening. People are beginning to question, at least privately, the validity of the propaganda they have heard their entire lives.

Kim Jong Un's recent overtures to South Korea and the United States have less to do with his fear of those countries attacking than his fears that if he cannot begin giving his own people what they need to survive that they will rise up and overthrow his regime.


Little, Matthew. “The Sad State of North Korea's Starving Soldiers.”, 11 Dec. 2017,