ICE Case Studies: Korea Famine

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North Korea and Famine

Number: 58

Mnemonic: KORFAMIN

Name: Jennifer S. Wolf


1. Abstract

Three years of rough weather, including hailstorms in 1994 and widespread flooding in both 1995 and 1996, have created an emergency food situation in North Korea, that is seriously imperiling the population. While North Korean officials have long tutored their population in a philosophy of self-reliance (juche)this isolated nation is beginning to open its door to the international community, desperate to comfort its starving people. The American government is worried that famine might cause a desperate North Korean government to indulge in some sort of military stunt(12). Other sources hold, should the famine become even more uncontrollable, or should the policy of studied aggression towards the outside world go seriously awry, then the army may yet try to grab outright control of the government (11). Hunger in this instance may not only be characterized strictly by economics, but in fact by political indicators.

2. Description

This section has been broken down into three areas. The first discusses the political, economical and environmental agents which have aggravated the food crises. The second part illustrates the disastrous effects of flooding in the area. Flooding has acted as the catalyst for economic and environmental disaster in North Korea. In this section, a map is provided to point out the flood affected areas. Also, tables have been incorporated to further analyze food supplies. A comparison is drawn from before and after the food crisis. Finally, the third section highlights the national ideology of self-reliance. Otherwise known as "juche," this belief system may be forcing the North Koreans to not accept the complete amount of economic aid from its foreign counterparts.

Political, Economic and Environmental Agents:

Events Which Have Aggravated the Food Crisis

Twenty-four million people in North Korea need food aid due to a three-year spell of natural disasters. North Korea has found itself landed in an unprecedented crisis: the collapse of the socialist market, the nuclear standoff and the subsequent economic woes, including a looming famine. The loss of the socialist market adversely affected the North Korean production of grain partly because phosphor and potash were all imported: the two are vital fertilizer or manure ingredients along with nitrogen and partly because fertilizer production required petroleum (34). In other words, their unavailability proved an enormous disadvantage to the North Korean effort to raise the productivity of the otherwise less fertile soil.

Flooding and its Effects

The situation was compounded by tensions with the United States and then by the successive years of natural disasters. In 1994, a hail storm struck the key granaries in North and South Hwanghae Provinces on the West Sea coast, wiping out 1,020,000 tons of grain. The following year, the same rice growing area were inundated by the worst floods in one hundred years, with some 3,000,000 tons of grain washed away. This was not the end of the story, however. The summer of 1996 saw downpours flooding the disaster areas again, causing extensive damage.

The 1995-1996 floods caused a shortfall of 2,500,000 tons of food in 1995 and in 1996. In addition, the floods have wrecked many of North Korea's extensive underground facilities such as coal mines, bomb shelters, secret missile sites, and other military and civilian sub-terrain infrastructures. Some experts estimate the overall damage by the floods to be at least $30 billion-a staggering figure for a small socialist country(17). In turn, these floods have had a number of 'ripple' effects. For instance, the flooded regions have North Korea's best coal mines. These mines were of course inundated causing coal production to plummet. This affected the power generation (some 30%-40% reduction) which affected industrial production, and so on. As a result, the people of North Korea have had to endure unheated homes as well as hunger for three years now.

Flood Affected Areas

The following tables exemplify the significant changes in the level of food availability beginning in 1961 and continuing through 1990. From Table 1 and Table 2, we can see that food availability for human consumption has increased dramatically since 1961. However, this has been through the aid of its foreign counterparts with exports to North Korea.

1. Food Availability Level
Period Food availability
for human consumption
(calories per caput per day)

2. Food Availability Change
PeriodAverage annual rate of change(%)
  Per caput food
Food available for
human consumption
1961-63 -1969-713.05.42.4
1969-71 -1979-811.02.81.8
1979-81 -1988-900.61.91.3

As you can see in Table 3, the level of exports has remained incredibly low with 1 in the period between 1961 and 1963 and then 2 from 1988 to 1990. However, the level of imports has continued to increase, beginning with 11 from 1961 to 1963 and rising rapidly with a level of 51 from 1988 to 1990. In addition, food production has also dwindled dramatically with 89 in 1961 to 1963 and 49 in the 1988 to 1990 period.

3. Food Supply Structure
Period Percentage of Food Supply Imports /
Domestic Supply
By originBy destination
ProductionImports Domestic SupplyExports

In Table 4 we see a great percentage change in its average relative level of domestic food supply. In the 1960 period, this number was at a high of 7.9% the late 1980s and early 1990s have demonstrated a rapid decline with a 4.2% figure.

4. Domestic Food Supply Change
Period Domestic Food Supply
Average Relative Annual
Change (%)
ProductionImport Export
1961-63 - 1969-71
1969-71 - 1979-81
1979-81 - 1988-90

Table 5 and is broken down into areas of food and production. What is of paramount importance to note is that this table illustrates North Korea's dependence on crop production for food intake. The crops in this table are represented by rice and maize. These are North Korea's main staples of food. While food production does take place in other areas such as livestock and fishery, crops remain the vital source of food production and the source of domestic food supply.

5. Sector Shares In Food Production, Food Trade And Domestic Food Supply
Period Sector
Crops Livestock Fishery
Share (%) in total Food Production
Share (%) in total Food Imports
Share (%) in total Food Exports
Share (%) in total Domestic Food Supply
FAO 1994

The Realties of Juche

Because North Korea employs a nationwide public distribution system, steadily diminishing rations mean that nearly the entire population has been weakened by slow starvation and all the food could run out at the same time. The government provides 100 grams per person daily (half a bowl of rice), which is one-sixth the ration normally distributed to refugees in other crises (6). Even at these minimum levels, North Korea is coming close to exhausting its food supplies. Can a country be on the brink of famine but have a government that is too proud to ask for food effectively? Indeed a national ideology of self-help and self-reliance has guided citizens in the past to provide for their own needs by their own work. Help comes from within, this ideology maintains, not from the ouside world. Success in self-reliance has helped the North Korean people exercise indignities for decades such as the Japanese occupation. However, the demise of the Soviet Union and its economic transformation into a market economy has significantly disturbed its trade relationship with North Korea. Trade with the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China dried up in place of barter. Instead, these countries are looking to other nations with similar economic situations. Aid and credit in the name of socialist solidarity disappeared along with the allies who provided it. North Korea,as a result, has suffered from these significant economic, political and ideological transformations of its former allies.

Grain harvests held steady through 1993 even though the agricultural base was vulnerable. Nevertheless, today, only 20% of the land is arable. Purchases of grain from China and Thailand came nowhere near to making up for failed harvests. The same is true for 1997. The one million tons of needed grain are nowhere in sight. Without the support from its foreign counterparts, women have been reduced to eating their placentas after giving birth; families eating grass, weeds and bark; orphans whose growth has been stunted by hunger and diarrhea; and children going bald from lack of nutrition. There is no care available at this time. These in fact are all pre-indicators of widespread famine. While the country may not be starving yet, it soon could be.

Trapped in a web of political isolation and enmity and thus far maintaining a record of self reliance, the North Korean government finds it difficult to ask for outside help. According to Hannelore Hensel, the emergencies director of the German Protestant aid agency Diakonischeawerk, "...the North Koreans are prisoners of the conviction that 'We can do it ourselves"' (14). Adding to this dilemma is their reluctance coupled with the re-examining of the legacy of "the Great Leader," Kim I Sung- both out of respect for the past and out of caution about "Dear Leader" Kim Jong. Also, requesting help from the United States according to North Korea makes them vulnerable to political concessions. This notion has been addressed by USAID's Brian Atwood who remarks ". . . we have been careful to maintain a strict separation between our response to an immediate humanitarian crisis and our desire for political progress at the Four Party Talks. . .North Korea is still far from embarking on a transition to open the government and responding to an open market. Moreover, we must recognize that in the medium term, our concerns with regard to North Korea-humanitarian, diplomatic and yes, even military--are all interrelated," he said (38).

In retrospect, the tragic Ethiopian famine of 1985, during which about one million people died (6), was the result of a 35% food deficit. The impending famine in North Korea may be several times worse, with millions of people currently facing starvation and a 55% food deficit. While the international community is undergoing momentous change, North Korea too is being forced to alter its policies towards global actors. Although she has strictly adhered to the doctrine of "juche" for a number of years, environmental degradation may force North Korea to respond to a globalizing political economy. Granted, as Atwood has formerly stated, "North Korea is quite far from embarking on democratic soil" (38). While she does not wish to form ties with her democratic counterparts, she soon may have to extend a desperate hand to the international community. This will be the only way for North Korea to attack its current famine crisis.

A detailed look at the impacted regions

3. Duration

In Progress [1994-PRESENT]

The detrimental situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea began in 1994 and continues to destroy thousands of lives. Thus far, the reality of starvation is a daily reminder to the citizens of this flood stricken nation and will most likely continue for many years to come.

4. Location

a. Continent- ASIA

b. Region - EAST ASIA


5. Actors: North Korea, South Korea, China, USA

Although North Korea is currently the only nation being affected, concern has been raised in the United States to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's desperate attempts to battle the hunger crisis. For instance, only 20% of North Korean land is arable. This means that North Korea must spend its money on food for its citizens. However, the government is not providing its people with food. Instead, politicians are spending money on weapons. Today it maintains one of the largest and best-equipped militaries in the world. This is an important issue addressed in the Four Party Talks. Among the attendees were South Korea, the United States, North Korea and China. For more information on the Four Party Talks, please see the following websites:

(1)Korean Embassy

(2)Press Statement, Madeleine Albright

According to the missile resources, North Korea represents the most serious future missile threat among the developing countries. For years North Korea has been developing both a nuclear weapons capability and a series of increasingly longer-range ballistic missiles, some of which it has sold abroad. North Korea also operates aggressive chemical and biological weapons programs. Over the past 15 years, North Korea has produced its own 300 km Scud-B, a 500 km Scud-C, and the 1,000 km Nodong with a separating warhead, which poses a direct threat to Japan and U.S. bases located there. North Korea is also developing two multi-stage missiles known as the Taepo-dong 1 and 2. The TD-1 looks like a Nodong first stage with a Scud second stage, while the TD-2 has a first stage similar to a large Chinese CSS-2 and what appears to be a Nodong second stage. The two missiles originally were estimated to have ranges of 2,000 km and 3,500 km,respectively, but additional information has increased those estimates considerably. (45)

South Korean intelligence sources, quoting a Russian assessment, said the TD-2 will be deployed by the year 2000 with a range of 10,000 km. The Defense Intelligence Agency has been quoted as estimating the range of the TD-2 at 7,500 km, while acknowledging that with a smaller warhead it could reach 10,000 km. If the 7,500 km estimate is correct, the TD-2 could reach Hawaii and all of Alaska. The longer-range estimate would cover the western states almost as far east as Chicago. (45) According to Barry Rothberg's article, "If North Korea builds nuclear weapons, Japan will folllow," many analysts see North Korea's apparent efforts to accelerate its nuclear program as a response to adverse changes in its external environment that have had serious internal repercussions for the North Korean economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union largely cut Pyongyang off from its major source of modern military hardware. The demise of the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet bloc also eliminated the source of about 60 percent of North Korea's two-way trade, mostly bartered goods, and created a severe economic crisis that has made it difficult for the North to support its massive military forces.(4) The economy contracted by 10-15 percent during the past year (46).For this sole reason, some have begun to question the motives of the North Korean government. Could it be that the socialist government in its desperate attempts to control starvation, somehow resoret to military action?

Another concern that has been raised is illegal migration to North Korea's neighbors-China, Russia and South Korea. Famine conditions in North Korea are jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of thousands of the country's population, leading to a migration emergency. While there has been a lack of action on the part of these neighboring nations, it does threaten to compound the current crisis. Thousands of North Koreans are crossing these borders illegally as they widen their search for food. This could in turn begin to effect the economic situation in these bordering countries.

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem:Habitat Loss

After decades of militaristic Communist rule coupled with economic and agricultural mismanagement, natural disasters have aggravated the current food crisis to an even greater level. According to the U.S.aid group, World Vision (44), between 500,000 and 2 million North Koreans have died from starvation. And, Oxfam, an international organization specializing in water treatment estimates that 38% of children under the age of five are malnourished. This figure holds to approximately 600,000 children. Many are surviving by gathering wild plants. Moreover, hospitals and clinics lack drugs. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently cited that reported cases of tuberculosis are up to 50 percent. And these are only the reported cases. In addition, diarrhea is a major problem and diseases such as cholera and typhoid are likely to become widespread due to lack of proper sanitation systems, destroyed by the flooding. These health problems could eventually cause conflict with bordering nations. If North Koreans continue to illegally flee into foreign territories, they could in fact add to the spread of diseases throughout.

7. Type of Habitat: Temperate

North Korea expereinces cold, dry winters and short, hot humid summers.

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Combinations of Act and Harm Sites

(modified from Christopher Stone,The Gnat is Older than Man, 1993,p.37.)
Site of Act Site of Harm Example
North Korea North Korea North Korea Famine

The North Korean situation can fall under two categories. First, it is an A ---> A grouping because natural disasters in the country have affected the North Korean people. With minimal resources available, food has not been divided equally. In fact, the government has deliberately rationed more food to its military.

It can also be considered an A --> B grouping. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the climate, the Four Party Talks and U.S. food aid have all directly affected the North Korean position in the international community. (Please see #12 which illustrates this in a causal loop diagram). From another standpoint,if North Koreans get desperate enough for food, they could revolt against other nations militarily. To an extent, there has been some A --> B relationship thus far. For example, desperate and hungry North Koreans have illegally migrated to neighboring countries in China, Russia and South Korea. This attempt could damage neighboring economies if they are unknowingly supporting North Korean refugees.

According to Max Ruston, as North Korea faces the threat of famine and economic collapse, its fate is causing increasing concern in the international community. There is little agreement over how the country will cope with its problems and that North Korea poses an increasing threat to the stability of Northeast Asia. While experts outlined a series of possible scenarios for North Korea's future, one of those scenarios involves the immediate collapse of the North Korean government. However, according to Professor Robert Scalapino of the University of California at Berkeley, "such a problem could create more problems than it resolves" (39). He says that an immediate collpase would exact a very heavy price on South Korea and indirectly on others. Another scenario discussed is the possiblity that "deteriorationg economic and political conditions in North Korea could prompt that country to attack South Korea in a last, desperate attempt to retain autonomy" (39). Although this is unlikely, it is still an issue being dealt with by global actors.

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: INTERSTATE

10. Level of Conflict: WARTHREAT

11.Fatality Level: HIGH (500,000-2,000,000)

Although North Korea is currently not a hostile environment, the potential for conflict is quite high. If citizens become desperate enough, fighting could break out due to a scarcity of natural resources available. In addition, if government authorities begin to feel suffocated by these disasters, they might be compelled to act irrationally and take revenge upon its neighbors or even other parts of the world for that matter. For instance, North Korea has not complied in the past with regards to nuclear testing. And while North Korea is suffering from drastic food shortages, it still has one of the largest militaries in the world. Under this premise foreign counterparts are expressing concern over protecting their country from a desperate North Korea.

It has been reported that the desperate need for food by North Koreans have resulted in the military receiving a greater rationing of food than its civilian counterparts. In turn, World Vision figures estimate that between 500,000 and 2 million civilians have died due to starvation. Of these figures, approximately 600,000 are children. North Koreans have not yet retaliated against their government. They still hold tremendous regard for their leader and believe that this regime is desperately trying to comfort its starving people.

IV.Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: INDIRECT

While North Korea suffers from political isolation and economic and agricultural mismanagement, a scarcity of food has resulted from natural disasters such as widespread floodings, typhoons and hail storms. This could lead to conflict.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: REGION

14. Outcome of Dispute: IN PROGRESS

While the problem persists in North Korea, a compromise is an idealistic choice for this tiny socialist-governed nation. North Korea is indeed concerned that if she yields to accepting economic aid from her foreign counterparts-including the United States-then she is subject to political and economic concessions. Adhering to her system of self-reliance, North Korea may be unwilling to conform to these principles. The United States' Director for USAID, Brian Atwood, asserts that accepting foreign aid will not automatically mean that North Korea must adopt a democratic constitution. The U.S. is primarily concerned with the humanitarian aspects of this dire situation. Concessions may result at a much later date. For now, saving lives is the foremost issue of concern.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

Diayou Islands

Niger Tribal War

Rwanda and Conflict

Spratly Islands Dispute

Sudan Civil War and Environment

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

American Red Cross

BBC News

Catholic Relief Services


North Korea Report

Relief Web

The North Korean Famine

World Vision International


(1) Action by Churches Together (ACT).."My Stomach Hurts, I'm Hungry." www.relief

(2) Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) "30,000 Homeless After North Korea Hit By Tidal Waves."

(3 ) Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) "Japan to Extend Food Aid to North Korea."

(4) Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) "NKorea's Food Shortage Predicted to Reach 2-2.5m Tonnes."

(5) BBC News. "North Korea Faces Starvation."

(6) Campaign to Stop Famine in North Korea. "Things Korean."

(7) Campaign to Stop Famine in North Korea. "Wide-Scale Starvation is an Urgent Threat But May Still Be Averted."

(8) Catholic Relief Services. "Catholic Relief Services Particpates in Historic North Korea Famine Relief Effort."

(9) Chelala, Cesar, The Lancet, "Food Situation in North Korea Continues to Cause Concern." April 5, 1997 v 349; 1006.

(10) Daily Yomiuri."Government to Send Food Aid to North Korea."

(11) Economist, "Korea's Twin Crises." February 22, 1997; 42-45.

(12) Economist, "The Politics of Hunger." January 27, 1996; 32.

(13) FAO. "Korea Rep."

(14) Frerichs, Jonathan. Christian Century, "Starving-Off Camera." July 2-9, 1997; 613-614.

(15) IFRC "North Korea in Brief 19 September 1997."

(16) IFRC."Nutritional and Health Report."

(17) ISM Corporation. "The El Nino and North Korean Famine."

(18) Korea Herald. "Grain Supply System Disrupted in North Korea."

(19) Korea Herald. "Russia Sends Second Aid Shipment to North Korea."

(20) Korean Overseas Information Service." Food Grain Situation in North Korea. 1995-1997.

(21) Latest News on North Korea's Famine. "The Silent Disaster."

(22) New York Times.

(23) New York Times. "The Internet Campaign to Help North Korean Flood Victims."

(24) North Korea Report. "Drought Hits North Korea."

(25) North Korea Report. "World Vision Survey Claimes 15% of North Koreans Have Died From Famine."

(26) Online Forum."The North Korean Famine."

(27) Oxfam. "Emergency Briefing: North Korea."

(28) Oxfam. "Emergencies Bulletin-DPR Korea, October 1997."

(29) PK Special Appeal. "PK Special Appeal: 800,000 Malnourished North Korean Kids Are Crying Out for Your Help!"

(30) Reuters."Aid Group: North Korean Famine Worse Than Thought."

(31) Reuters."North Korea Faces Huge Grain Deficit."

(32) Reuters."U.N. For N. Koreans, Worst Is Still to Come."

(33) Soros Foundation. "North Korean Famine Creates Migration Emergency."

(34) The People's Korea. "Prospects of North Korean Agriculture."

(35) UNDP. "UNDP Grants USD 4 Million for the Rehabilitation of Agriculture in North Korea." www.

(36) UN Department of Public Information (DPI). "UN Food Agency Calls for Greater International Response to Needs of Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

(37) UN Department of Public Information (DPI). "WHO Warns of Acute Health Situation in Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

(38) US Agency for International Development (USAID). "Administrator Atwood's Remarks on North Korea."

(39) Voice of America. "Evolution or Collapse."

(40) Voice of America."International Assistance is Paying Off."

(41) Voice of America."UN Warns that North Korea Faced Continued, Serious Food Shortages."

(42) Voice of America."US Accused of Using Food Aid As Political Weapon."

(43) Voice of America. "Starvation in North Korea."

(44) World Food Programme (WFP). "WFP Emergency Report No. 44-DPR Korea."

(45) World Vision International." North Korea Update, 28 October 1997."