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North Korean famine

Arduous March
(고난의 행군)
Country North Korea
Location national
Period 1994-1998; 2000-Present
Total deaths 0.24 to 3.5 million
Observations Economic mismanagement,[1] natural disasters,[2] collapse of the Soviet bloc, military-first policy
Relief food and humanitarian aid (1994[3] – present)
Consequences Militarization of economy; spread of limited market activity; food aid from South Korea, China, United States, Japan and the European Union[4]
North Korean famine
Chosŏn'gŭl 고난의 행군
Hancha 苦難의 行軍
Revised Romanization gonanui haenggun
McCune–Reischauer konanŭi haenggun

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.[5]

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, but were not its direct cause. 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.[6][7] Recent research suggests the likely number of excess deaths between 1993 and 2000 was about 330,000.[8]


  • Arduous March 1
  • Background 2
    • Floods 2.1
  • Widespread malnutrition 3
    • Military 3.1
    • Women 3.2
    • Children 3.3
  • Public distribution system 4
  • Failure of sanitation, energy and health systems 5
  • Estimated deaths 6
  • Black markets 7
  • International response 8
  • Post-famine developments 9
    • Stunted growth of North Koreans 9.1
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

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."[9]

As part of this state campaign, uses of words such as famine and hunger were banned because they implied government failure. Those citizens who said deaths were due to the famine could be in serious trouble with the authorities.[10]


The great famine, known in North Korea by the officially mandated code words konanŭi haenggun (The March of Suffering), was a central event in the country's history, forcing the regime and its people to change in fundamental and unanticipated ways.[11]

The famine of the 1990s was not the first in North Korea's history. The agricultural potential of the northern part of the country was historically inferior to that of the southern region, and hence the division of Korea produced a negative effect on the food supply of the northern areas. If this inherent weakness was further aggravated by crisis conditions, such as war, drought, floods, or a sudden unfavorable change in North Korea's balance of trade, famine was likely to break out. The first case of famine occurred during the Korean War. By early 1952, the government's food reserves had run out, and in May, Foreign Minister Pak Hon-yong told the Communist diplomats that about one-quarter of the rural population was starving. Many people actually died of hunger. Thanks to external aid (50,000 metric tons of flour and 20,000 metric tons of artificial fertilizer from the Soviet Union, 10,000 metric tons of food from China), the authorities could provide extra food rations for workers, technical experts, and officials. The government also lent villagers 40,283 metric tons of food and seed grain, distributing only 10,946 metric tons for free. Government Decree No. 161, issued in September 1952, exempted certain groups of the rural population from the agricultural tax in kind, and partly cancelled their debts. These exemptions, however, affected a mere 5 to 7% (at most 14%) of the peasantry.[12]

The second famine occurred in the first half of 1955, at which time the North Korean regime pursued a policy of rapid industrialization, and sought to introduce Collective farming. In the summer of 1954, the rainy season was shorter and colder than usual, and sunny weather was rare in the autumn. These adverse meteorological conditions seriously damaged the rice crop; in North Hamgyong Province, as much as 70 to 100% of the crop fell victim to the vagaries of weather. Government policies further aggravated the crisis. In October 1954, Government decree 21 prohibited private grain trade in order to stamp out "speculation", and in November, the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea resolved to speed up collectivization. These measures discouraged rural producers, and due to the high agricultural taxes, in many places the peasantry was left with hardly any grain reserve. In January 1955, rice started to disappear from state shops and the free market, and by the spring the situation became so grave that deaths from starvation began to occur, particularly in hardest-hit North Hamgyong. The government was compelled to appeal to the Soviet Union and China for emergency aid. In April, Soviet and Chinese grain shipments began to arrive, but the food crisis continued to worsen until June, when the North Korean leadership rescinded the decree that banned the private grain trade, and increased investments in the agricultural sector. These reform measures, which finally alleviated the situation but turned out to be temporary, were introduced on the insistence of the Soviet leaders, who, as North Korea's aid donors, still had considerable leverage over the DPRK.[13]

In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union 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.[14] When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, trade between the two countries ceased altogether and the North Korean economy collapsed. Without Soviet aid, the flow of inputs to the North Korean agricultural sector ended, and the government proved too inflexible to respond.[15] As a result, food production decreased precipitously.[16]

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.[17]

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." [18]

The country soon instigated austerity measures, dubbed the "eat two meals a day" campaign.[19] These measures proved inadequate in stemming the economic decline. According to Professor Hazel Smith of Cranfield University,[20]

... 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.
— Hazel Smith, Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea

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.[21] 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.[16]


The economic decline and failed policies provided the context for the famine in the early 1990s,[16] but the floods and storms of the mid-1990s provided the catalyst. Specifically, the floods in July 1995 were described as being "of biblical proportions"[22] by independent observers.

As devastating floods ravaged the country in 1995, 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."[23]

The major issues created by the flood were not only the destruction of crop lands and harvests, but also the loss of emergency grain reserves, as much of it was stored underground. According to the United Nations, the floods of 1994 and 1995 destroyed around 1.5 million tons of grain reserves,[24] 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.[25]

Due to the declining economy and devastating natural disasters, the DPRK did not have the resources to import food or resources, and people were faced with death and starvation. The floods, however, did not have a statistically significant impact on the nutritional status of North Korean children at that time.[26]

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."[27] This reduced expected production of an already ravaged harvest by 50%.[28]

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.[29]

Rice and maize production of North Korea from 1989 to 1997
Year 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
Rice milled (per 1 million tons) 3.24 3.36 3.07 3.34 3.56 2.18 1.40 0.98 1.10
Corn harvested (per 1 million tons) 4.34 3.90 4.20 3.72 3.94 3.55 1.37 0.83 1.01


Sŏn'gun, often spelled 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 they all received generous rations.[31]

The army was supposed to find ways to grow food to feed itself and 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."[32]


Women suffered significantly due to the gendered structure of North Korean society, which deemed women responsible for obtaining food, water and fuel for the family, often including extended family.[33] Simultaneously, women had the highest participation in the workforce of any country in the world, calculated at 89%.[34] Therefore, women not only had to remain in the work force but also obtain supplies for the family. 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.[35][36] It was estimated that the number of children per woman declined by about 0.3 during that period.[7][37]


Children, especially those under two years old, were the most affected by the famine and poverty of the period. The

External links

  1. ^ Noland, Marcus (2004). "Famine and Reform in North Korea". Asian Economic Papers 3 (2): 1–40.  
  2. ^ "North Korea: A terrible truth".  
  3. ^ a b "Humanitarian Aid Toward North Korea: A Global Peace-Building Process," East Asian Review, Winter 2001.
  4. ^ a b Staff (January 2013) Quantity Reporting – Food Aid to North Korea World Food Program, Retrieved 2 February 2013
  5. ^ Hagard, Stephan and Noland, Marcus (2007). Famine in North Korea: markets, aid and reform. Columbia University Press:New York
  6. ^ a b Noland, Marcus, Sherman Robinson and Tao Wang, Famine in North Korea: Causes and Cures, Institute for International Economics.
  7. ^ a b c Spoorenberg, Thomas; Schwekendiek, Daniel. 2012. "Demographic Changes in North Korea: 1993–2008", Population and Development Review, 38(1), pp. 133-158.
  8. ^ a b Daniel Goodkind, Loraine West, Peter Johnson (28 March 2011). "A Reassessment of Mortality in North Korea, 1993-2008". U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. Retrieved 8 November 2014. 
  9. ^  
  10. ^ mapping a hidden disaster: Personal Histories of Hunger in North Korea
  11. ^ p.153 They Think They're Normal
  12. ^ Balázs Szalontai, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in North Korea: The Forgotten Side of a Not-So-Forgotten War. In: Chris Springer and Balázs Szalontai, North Korea Caught in Time: Images of War and Reconstruction (Reading, U.K.: Garnet Publishing, 2010), xiv-xv. Downloadable at .
  13. ^ Balázs Szalontai, Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era: Soviet-DPRK Relations and the Roots of North Korean Despotism, 1953-1964 (Stanford: Stanford University Press; Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2005), pp. 62-74. Downloadable at .
  14. ^ NOLAND, ROBINSON & WANG, supra note 137, at 3; HAGGARD & NOLAND, FAMINE, supra
  15. ^ NOLAND, supra note 105, at 3; see also HAGGARD & NOLAND, HUNGER AND HUMAN RIGHTS, supra note 70, at 14; See NOLAND, ROBINSON & WANG, supra note 137, at 5.
  16. ^ a b c d e  
  17. ^ (p. 153 They Think They're Normal)
  18. ^ (Frank, "Economic Reforms in North Korea (1998–2004) p. 10")
  19. ^ "The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History", Don Oberdorfer. Warner Books 1997
  20. ^ "Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea", Hazel Smith, p. 66, United States Institute of Peace, 2005.
  21. ^ HAGGARD & NOLAND, HUNGER AND HUMAN RIGHTS, supra note 70, at 14.
  22. ^  
  23. ^ UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, "United Nations Consolidated UN Inter-Agency Appeal for Flood-Related Emergency Humanitarian Assistance to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) 1 July 1996-31 March 1997" April 1996, reproduced on
  24. ^ UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, "Consolidated UN Inter Agency-Appeal," 1 July 1996-21 March 1997
  25. ^ UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, "Status of Public Health-Democratic People's Republic of Korea, April 1997"
  26. ^ Schwekendiek, Daniel (February 2008). "The North Korean standard of living during the famine". Social Science and Medicine 66 (3): 596–608.  
  27. ^ a b "Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea", Hazel Smith, p. 66, United States Institute of Peace, 2005.
  28. ^ FAO/WFP, "Food and Crop Assessment Mission to the DPRK," Rome, December 10, 1997
  29. ^ Schwekendiek, Daniel. "A socioeconomic history of North Korea", Jefferson and London, McFarland Publishers, 2011, p. 60
  30. ^ 『UNDP[1998]』
  31. ^ John Powell, "Testimony to the Sub-committee on East Asia and the Pacific of the US House of Representatives, 2 May 2002," reproduced as "Special Report, North East Asia Peace and Security Network," May 20, 2002.
  32. ^ International FIDES Service no. 4144, "Hell on Earth: The Church Must Wipe the Tears," April 23, 1999,
  33. ^ Smith, Hazel "WFP DPRK Programmes and Activities: A Gender Perspective. Pyongyang: WFP, December 1999.
  34. ^ United Nations Development Program and Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection. "Report of the Second Thematic Round Table Conference for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea". Found in Annex K: Labor Force and Employment. Geneva: UNDP, June 2000
  35. ^ UNICEF, "Situation of Children and Women (1999)
  36. ^ Dilawar Ali Khan, "Democratic People's Republic of Korea: Improving the Quality of Vasic Social Services for the Most Vulnerable Children and Women," mimeo, UNICEF Pyongyang, April 2001
  37. ^ Spoorenberg, Thomas. 2014. "Fertility levels and trends in North Korea", Population-E, 69(4), pp. 433-445.
  38. ^ "Winter Set to Be Cruel in North Korea," ABC World Today, November 23, 2001, on Statistics for 1993 from UNICEF, Situation of Children and Women, (1991).
  39. ^ Marcus Noland (March 20, 2006). Transition from the Bottom-Up: Institutional Change in North Korea (PDF) (Report). p. 6. 
  40. ^ Brooke, James (11 December 2003) As Donations Fall, U.N. Plans to Reduce North Korea's Food Aid The New York Times, Retrieved 31 January 2013
  41. ^ Václav Havel; Kjell Magne Bondevik; Elie Wiesel (October 30, 2006). Failure to Protect – A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea (PDF) (Report). DLA Piper and U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. p. 17-21. 
  42. ^ David F. Von Hippel and Peter Hayes, "North Korean Energy Sector: Current Status and Scenarios for 2000 and 2005," in Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula, ed. Noland, 89.
  43. ^ Ian Davies, quoted in Beal, "Waters of Prosperity"
  44. ^ Unicef, "DPKR Mission Report," 1997
  45. ^ W. Courtland Robinson, Myung Ken Lee, Kenneth Hill, and Gilbert M. Burnham, "Mortality in North Korean Migrant Households: A retrospective Study," Lancet 293 no. 9175 (July 24, 2000)
  46. ^ Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West, "The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact," Population and Development Review 27, no. 2 (June 2001)
  47. ^ The resource above is based on Andrew S. Natsios states, "From 1994 to 1998, 2-3 million people died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses, and the famine has generated a range of social and political effects." Natsios, "The Politics of Famine in North Korea"
  48. ^ Final Report
  49. ^ "'"North Korea 'loses 3 million to famine.  
  50. ^ Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 72–76
  51. ^ a b (They Think They're Normal p. 155)
  52. ^ a b Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)
  53. ^ Im Jeong Jin (28 October 2010). "Servi-Cha: the Lifeblood of the People's Economy".  
  54. ^ David Kang, "They Think They're Normal: Enduring Questions and New Research on North Korea", International Security, Vol. 36 No. 3, Winter 2011/12, pp.141-171
  55. ^  
  56. ^ "NK is no Stalinist country". The Korea Times. 2011-10-09. Retrieved 9 October 2011. 
  57. ^ Solomon, Jay (2005-05-20). "US Has Put Food Aid for North Korea on Hold". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 1 August 2007. 
  58. ^ a b "Report on U.S. Humanitarian assistance to North Koreans" (PDF).  
  59. ^ "North Korea: Ending Food Aid Would Deepen Hunger".  
  60. ^ Faiola, Anthony (2006-07-14). "S. Korea Suspends Food Aid to North".  
  61. ^ "China halts rail freight to North Korea". Financial Times. 2007-10-18. Retrieved 18 October 2007. 
  62. ^ Woo-Cumings, Meredith (2002). The political ecology of famine: the North Korean catastrophe and its lessons. Online at:
  63. ^ Brooke, James (1 June 2005) North Korea, Facing Food Shortages, Mobilizes Millions From the Cities to Help Rice Farmers The New York Times, Retrieved 30 January 2013
  64. ^ Buckley, Sarah (September 23, 2005). "North Korea's problem with food".  
  65. ^ Branigan, Tania (April 17, 2008). "UN fears tragedy over North Korean food shortage".  
  66. ^ Bristow, Michael Ex-leaders head for North Korea BBC News Asia-Pacific, 25 April 2011, Retrieved 25 April 2011
  67. ^ Epstein, Angela Why Britain is the Fat Man of Europe The Daily Mail Online, Health, 14 November 2006, Retrieved 25 April 2011
  68. ^ North Korea flouts ban on luxury goods, South Korea charges, Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2011.
  69. ^ "BBC News — Tales of starvation and death in North Korea".  
  70. ^ "BBC News — Are North Koreans really three inches shorter than South Koreans?".  
  71. ^ Kim, Hyung-Jin (5 June 2013). "Activist: Smiling NKorean defectors told of misery".  
  72. ^ "The unpalatable appetites of Kim Jong-il". October 8, 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  73. ^ The Chosun Ilbo (English Edition): Daily News from Korea – 20,000 N.Koreans Die of Starvation
  74. ^ Williams, Robb (28 January 2013) North Korean cannibalism fears amid claims starving people forced to desperate measures The Independent, Retrieved 30 January 2013
  75. ^ "Korea, Democratic People's Republic (DPRK) | WFP | United Nations World Food Programme – Fighting Hunger Worldwide". WFP. Retrieved 8 March 2013. 



Analogous famines:

See also

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.[73] 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.[74] However, the World Food Program reported malnutrition and food shortages, but not famine.[75]

Escaped North Koreans reported in September 2010 that starvation had returned to the nation.[69] North Korean pre-school children are 3 to 8 cm (1.2 to 3.1 inches) shorter than South Koreans.[70] Roughly 45% of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition and the population of kotjebi persists.[71] Most people eat meat only on public holidays, namely Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's birthdays.[72]

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[66] (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[67]). Some scholars believed that North Korea was purposefully exaggerating the food shortage, aiming to receive additional food supplies for its planned 2012 mass celebrations by means of foreign aid.[68]

Stunted growth of North Koreans

Agricultural production increased from about 2.7 million metric tons in 1997 to 4.2 million metric tons in 2004.[58] In 2008, famine continued to be a problem for North Korea, although less so than in the mid to late 1990s. Flooding in 2007 and reductions in food aid exacerbated the problem.[65]

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 to help rice farmers.[63][64] In 2012, WFP reported that food would be sent to North Korea as soon as possible. The food would be processed by a local processor and delivered directly to North Korean citizens.

North Korea has not yet resumed its food self-sufficiency and 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.[62]

Post-famine developments

Humanitarian aid from North Korea's neighbors has been cut off at times 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.[60] There have also been aid disruptions due to widespread theft of railroad cars used by mainland China to deliver food relief.[61]

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.[58] Such supervision would ensure 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.[59]

Beginning in 1996, the U.S. also began shipping food aid to North Korea through the United Nations Bush Administration, aid was drastically reduced year after year from 320,000 tons in 2001 to 28,000 tons in 2005.[57] The Bush Administration took criticism 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."

Food aid by year (thousands of tons)
Donor 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 Total
S. Korea 150 3 60 48 12 352 198 458 542 407 493 80 431 59 23 3,314
China 100 150 151 201 280 420 330 212 132 451 207 264 116 3,015
U.S.A. 22 193 231 589 351 319 222 47 105 28 171 121 1 2,400
Others 394 380 501 361 198 248 571 168 143 201 125 20 26 145 61 71 47 3,661
Total 544 505 904 791 1,000 1,231 1,508 1,178 944 845 1,097 307 721 375 298 95 47 12,390

Initial assistance to North Korea started as early as 1990, with small-scale support from religious groups in South Korea and assistance from UNICEF.[3] In August 1995, North Korea made an official request for humanitarian aid and the international community responded accordingly:[4]

International response

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 in 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.[56]

With the desperation derived from famine and informal trade and commercialization, North Koreans developed their black market, and moreover, they were surviving by adapting.[54] Some experts have described the process as "capitalism from below" or "natural death of North Korean Stalinism".[55]

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.[53] The people of North Korea were becoming less reliant on their government and came to trust the Kim family less.[52]

At the same time, the years of famine were also marked by dramatic revival of illegal, private market activities, and furthermore led to what little pluralism North Korea has today. Smuggling across the China–North Korea border boomed, and up to 250,000 North Koreans moved to China. Amartya Sen had mentioned bad governance as one of the structural and economical 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.[52]

Black markets

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.[7][8]

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.[51]

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.[51]

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 to secure additional food aid.[49] The most sophisticated estimates 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[50]

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 dead from the North Korean food shortage at between 900,000 to 2.4 million between 1995 and 1998."[48] Higher estimates range from 2-3 million.[6]

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.[47]

An exact number of deaths during the acute phase of the crisis, from 1994 to 1998, will probably never be fully determined. Independent analysis estimates that between 800,000 and 1,500,000 people died due to starvation, disease, or sickness caused by lack of food.[45][46]

Estimated deaths

With almost the entire infrastructure in some sort of disrepair, famine escalated to the crisis level.[16]

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.[44]

Inadequate medical supply, water and environmental contamination, frequent power failures, and outdated training led to health care crisis that added to the overall devastation. According to a 1997 UNICEF delegation,

was not due to a shortage of oil as only two of two dozen power stations were dependent on heavy fuel oil for power generation... and these were supplied by KEDO (the 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.[43]

UN officials reported that the power shortage from 1995 to 1997

Damages from famine were made worse by severe damage to health care, water, sanitation, and energy system. DPRK lost an estimated 85% of its power generation capacity due to flood-induced damage to infrastructures such as hydropower plants, coal mines, and supply and transport facilities. The ability of the country to produce energy was heavily compromised.[42]

Failure of sanitation, energy and health systems

In a contentious attempt to alleviate the plight, the North Korean government suggested "alternative foods" regime for people to sustain themselves on. For example, small bricks of bark, leaves and grass were added into diets.[41]

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

Year Changes
1987 Reduced 10%
1992 Reduced another 10%
1994 450 grams/day down to 400 grams/day
1997 128 grams/day

However, the extended period of food shortage put a strain on the system, and spread the amount of food allocation 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.

Category Amount allocated
Privileged industrial worker 900 grams/day
Ordinary worker 700 grams/day
Retired citizen 300 grams/day
2~4-year-old 200 grams/day

The structure is as follows (the World Food Program considers 600 grams of cereal per day as a "survival ration"[40]):

The food shortage was augmented by efficiency of the public distribution system.[39] The system distributed food according to political standing and degree of loyalty to the state.

Public distribution system

Accurate statistics do not exist because of government policies, and it is likely that the mortality rates were understated.[16] The famine resulted in a population of homeless, migrant children known as Kotjebi.

[27] Understandably, "undernourished mothers found it difficult to maintain exclusive breast-feeding, and no suitable alternative was available. Infant formula was not produced locally, and only a minuscule amount was imported."[38]

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