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  • Writer's pictureMayuri Chaudhuri

Dried Tears Of North Korea: What Can Be Learnt From the Past to Save the Present?

These precious smiles have come a long way through starvation and uncertainty. They should be given a chance to grow and prosper.

Children at UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) camps.
Children at UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) camps. (

Pyongyang marks as the mightiest venue, with large boulevards and monolithic constructions but what is not seen is the yearning of 25 million victims across the nation for a single piece of grain.

Workers roamed on the streets to fight their hunger off, children's skins dried off with acute malnutrition, and the government came out to be highly inefficient in administering the same.

Due to lack of transparency, deaths have been estimated to be around 220,000 to 3,500,000.

The real figures quoted by the non-profit organizations and the Chinese refugee interviews are around 2.8-3.5 million.

Referred to as the “Arduous March” or “The March of Suffering,” the slow desiccation of people’s hunger spanned through the 1990s (mostly 1994-1998).

The Slow Famine: How did it occur?

This was a time when the world was still confused over the matrix of one superpower domination (United States) and the fall of another (Soviet Union).

As North Korea was aided by the latter, its economy started dwindling.

The situation worsened as the Soviets started demanding the prices for the assistance provided earlier.

By 1993, exporting resources came down to 10% of what was done before 1991.

China became its major trade partner thereafter but couldn’t fill in the huge crevices and restricted itself to coal, petroleum products, and grain. They were unable to maintain their international market with an absence of a global player as well.

Climate and Natural Disasters

The geographical expanse permits only one crop cycle from June to October.

With the absence of cooperation from the Soviets, the immediate impact was pertinent by 1991.

So much so that they came out with the campaign of “let’s eat two meals a day,” showcasing utter fallibility of authority.

Some observers have moved on to quote that scarce grains such as noodles were used as luxuries and distributed amongst the privileged sections, creating acute disbalance in food equity.

Cultivation in a North Korean Field.
Cultivation in a North Korean Field. (

Also known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the region experienced devastating floods in 1995, destroying major crop yields of the year in the southern part of the country, being the breadbasket, sweeping through 400,000 hectares of crops and displacing 500,000 people from their homes.

It didn’t just stop there and went on to destroy the emergency grain reserves and power generation resources (hydropower plants and coal mines).

298 health facilities experienced destruction with the inability to even produce oral rehydration solution.

I 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.”

Quoted by Ms. Kim, an escapee from North Korea.

Before we move on to examine the situation more deeply, I would like to showcase some of the Propaganda Posters that I found were circulated at that time, which would make you wonder if there was an irony to this incongruity.

A North Korean propaganda poster.
A North Korean propaganda poster. (Weebly)

A poster that reads: “Let’s all go for harvesting.”
It reads: “Let’s all go for harvesting.” (Weebly)

A North Korean poster motivating people to buy goats and milk.
This poster is motivating people to buy goats and milk. (Weebly)

The one element that I majorly inferred from above is how the presiding authority is showcasing casualness in times of such acute malnutrition.

Suggesting people buy meat when they are struggling to strive for a day’s meal seems to worsen the situation furthermore with such mass levels of hunger.

Disparity in Budgeting

The nation devotes 25% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the military.

The related expenses were well hidden in economic expenditure, focusing on the policy of Shogun - military-first politics.

The South Korean President, Kim Young Sam stated that the 150,000 tonnes of rice donated by them were evenly distributed amongst the military.

The resultant pressure on the non-defense sectors was thus natural.

The collapse detailed all around agriculture with the shortage of :

  1. Petroleum: disrupted production of two eminent fertilizers made from it, i.e. Urea and Ammonium Sulphate

  2. Coal: shutting down of coal fertilizer plants

  3. Machine Parts and Fuel: blighted through the agricultural machinery

  4. Electricity: disabled use of the same in irrigation and powered water pumps

Structural and Organizational Implications

The authority concentrated on the over-centralization of the policies. Agricultural administration was largely based on “State farms.

A North Korean child with a shovel.
A North Korean child with a shovel. (East Asia Forum)

The state farms were held by the government and farmers were to be paid fixed prices, whereas the cooperative farms were owned by communities with subset functionalities.

Continuous cropping subsequently eroded the soil and acidified its utility.

Deforestation caused rapid washing away of the agricultural field, adding more to the crisis river silting ultimately led to flooding.

Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen argues for “entitlement failure” to be one of the causes.

The deprivation of the vulnerable groups to obtain incomes or entitlements was the root cause rather than the disrupted food supply.

The authoritarian nature of the administration scared the farmers to hide grains, furthering the shortage.

The North Korean Map.
The North Korean Map. (Asia Society)

The Public Distribution System (PDS) was in charge of rationing the food grains to the gentry rather than a market. It ensured 6 months of distribution to :

  1. State farmworkers

  2. Cooperative farmworkers (depending on on-site production)

As the famine grew, PDS became incapable of controlling the hoarding through informal markets.

Their prices were soaring higher than the control prices and sold in secured bags.

The government kept denying aid from humanitarian agencies.

Mortality rates

These are obtained from majorly two direct sources :

1. North Korean Government Crude Death Rate (CDR)

This report was released unexpectedly by the government in 1999. Referring to the journal article of Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West, 1994 was placed as the base rate of mortality because this year was just before the flooding of 1994.

The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact.
The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact. (Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West)

2. Survey Data of Famine Refugees

This data was inferred from the North Korean refugees who escaped starvation:

550 of them were interviewed from 15 Chinese villages, as they were asked about their households and relatives from mid-1994 to mid - 1998.

The statement by Ms. Kim I mentioned above was one of them. Keeping aside some of the temporal patterns the death rates were the same.

The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact.
The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact. (Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West)

I would like to mention Mina Yoon’s experience, in brief, to draw the reality of the dreads faced by children who were most affected by the famine.

“Only when you lose all energy and end up in a sickbed do you realise that you haven’t eaten well.”

Her sister went to kindergarten when the famine started taking shape. She collapsed and started losing her eyesight. Her friends helped her out with the collection of a specific herb, whose soup could have been a possible cure. Sadly it didn’t work, and her mother had to write to their father, who was away for military work. He gradually could manage to send some pig liver which fortunately worked.

As hard times intensified, farmers would be already digging edible herbs to curb hunger. Food made from rice root tasted awful, but she had no other choice. Their mother planted cucumber in the backyard, which generally took a lot of time to grow. They were forbidden to eat it unless they shared one with siblings. She fought the urge to eat that at least a dozen times and more.

3-year-old Song Chul being fed vitamins supplied by United Nations.
3-year-old Song Chul being fed vitamins supplied by United Nations. (History)

How did North Korea Recover?

The World Food Programme and individual nations like United States, China, Japan, South Korea, etc., have sent enormous aids, provided with the restrictions imposed as they are highly subjected to North Korean exceptionalism.

The humanitarian agencies, as mentioned earlier, blame the government for diverting the resources for the military.

Many of the victims just decided to abandon their nation as they packed their belongings and shuffled out.

The restrictions though severe, were not functional because the police officers themselves might be hunting their dinners for the night.

The rations received from the state were never enough.

Many markets have sprung up in contrast to the restricted ration system. Initially, this started as the barter system where hunger-stricken people exchanged their valuables with grains.

Now the situation has transformed enormously where big businesses are operating from homemade noodles to real estate development.

 Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.
Pyongyang, capital of North Korea. (World Nomads)

Why is Kim Jong warning about impending famine now?

At Eighth Party Congress, Kim Jong Un (North Korean leader) used the phrase “arduous march” to refer to the similar difficulties that could occur to the nation following the recent contagion of Coronavirus and the United States sanction to abandon Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Given the nation’s already tattered health care system, the disease’s outbreak can create further complications.

Kim Jong-Un delivering a closing speech at Sixth Conference.
Kim Jong-Un delivering a closing speech at Sixth Conference. (HRW)

Literature on Arduous March

Though the liberal air to write novels might be non-existent in North Korea, being a bibliophile myself, I managed to find some you can refer to for understanding the ground reality. Some facts might perplex your way of perceiving how the authority works in that region and push you to question the same.

The Great North Korean Famine: Famine, Politics, and Foreign Policy by Andrew S. Natsios.
The Great North Korean Famine: Famine, Politics, and Foreign Policy by Andrew S. Natsios. (Amazon)

The author tried to trace the causes of the famine which stood well hidden by the authority as 3 million people starved their way in it. He is filled with millions of questions, but with the help of minimal sources such as emails received from NGOs, the testimony of refugees, and owns encounters, he presents a disturbing picture. A regime that sacrificed its gentry to stay aligned with its rigidity and pride.

Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform by Stephan Haggard & Marcus Noland.
Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform by Stephan Haggard & Marcus Noland. (Amazon)

Both the authors have statistically calculated the origin, causes, detailed response of the nation to the aid provided and the effect of the same on its current economic policies. The famine, according to them, showcases the dreading consequences of a tyrannical rule, which would even reject humanitarian help from outside and let its people succumb to their never-ending hunger.

Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea (Contemporary Asia in the World) by Sandra Fahy.
Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea (Contemporary Asia in the World) by Sandra Fahy. (Amazon)

The oral testimonies collected by the author from farmers, soldiers, and students have helped her frame out the psychological strategies chalked out by the people to cope with the famine. The horrors and hardships of their everyday lives have been efficiently penned by Sandra.

Concluding my words with hope...

...for the little girl who doesn’t have to draw pictures on the sand for her father to figure out that her hunger cannot be contained anymore as she succumbs to it and dies.

...for mothers who don’t have to blame themselves for being unable to provide for their children’s little tummies.

...for children who can hop their way to schools rather than hills for collecting herbs that would sustain their plight of starvation.

...for fathers away for work not ever receiving letters about their children dying slowly in absence of grains back at home.

Children in North Hwanghae province.
Children in North Hwanghae province. (Flickr)

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The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact - Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West

The Origins of the Great North Korean Famine: Its Dynamics and Normative Implications - William J. Moon (University of Maryland, Baltimore)

Famine and Reform in North Korea - Marcus Noland


Mayuri Chaudhuri is an Indian-based History Honors Graduate and a Content Writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability, who is seeking cognizance to varied issues in the world through the power of a pen. Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.


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