“Slon” internet magazine published an article by A. Lankov titled “How many people actually died of starvation in North Korea” that caused quite a stir in some circles. The scientist, who is hardly a proponent of Pyongyang, dared to challenge the commonly-held view that three million people died and pointed to more modest data indicating 240,000 to 600,000 deaths and described how the numbers were generated.
It’s true, that talk about imminent starvation in North Korea has become common place, and seems to be repeated almost every year. However, in the Russian press there is almost no research that examines the 1995-1997 catastrophe and its consequences in detail. The fact is that on the one hand, the situation after the food crisis could be called a “rollback of civilization” but on the other hand, this rollback is due to reasons completely unrelated to the North Korean regime.
The cataclysms began June 26, 1995 with rain. Some areas received more than half a meter of precipitation over 10 days. By the time the rain stopped in the middle of August, the crops were a complete loss, and the total damage caused by floods was estimated at 15 billion dollars. According to North Korean data, 1.5 million tons of grain were lost, the topsoil on 330,000 hectares of land was destroyed, and 5.4 million people lost their homes. Roads and power lines were damaged, and soil erosion significantly damaged the topsoil.
The flood of 1995 could be considered the largest and most severe of the 20th century, but 1996 saw flooding that was just as severe, and then in 1997 the torrential rains were replaced by drought.
The crisis hit the agriculture and energy sectors the hardest, which already had been suffering from a lack of cheap fuel. The coal mines that power the thermal power stations were flooded. Flooding and mudslides damaged power plant equipment, and the subsequent drought basically deprived the country of hydropower.
Several misconceptions cropped up around the disaster. The most common was that the incompetent policies of the North Korean leadership deliberately lead the country to starvation and millions died. Meanwhile, the circumstances that led to this famine are a rather interesting example of a situation where a great misfortune had not one, but a lot of small causes, not all of which are related to the policies of Pyongyang.
The zero reason is the particularities of North Korean agriculture. We must remember that although Korea seems to be a small country, it is about as long as Italy from north to south. The natural and climatic conditions of the northern and southern parts of the peninsula are different. In the north, the climate is harsh and continental, and mountains cover a majority of the territory. The agricultural cycle is complicated by the climate and the small tillable acreage (only 20% of the territory in North Korea is suitable for agriculture), and working on it requires an investment, particularly in fertilisers.
In addition, the soil found on the Korean Peninsula is not very fertile. Some places in the South have red soil, the rest of the land is even worse. This means that high yields can be achieved only by constantly fertilizing the soil, however a lot of fertiliser is required and it should be of a modern type. Furthermore, North Korea really has no way to start large-scale domestic production of fertilisers that can cover the needs of the country. It is dependent on imported raw materials.
Traditionally, the breadbasket of the country was always the South. And when Korea was divided, the leadership of the North started to ensure its food security through their own acreage. In view of the terrain, this led to widespread terrace farming, which is often mentioned as one of the mistakes of the regime. People say that if the slopes of the mountains had been covered with trees, the landslides would not have been so disastrous. However, these allegations are based on false assumptions. North Korea is accused of increasing the use of terrace farming, as if it has an abundance of conventional acreage. But it does not. The terraces were simply the lesser of two evils. They had the choice of farming the mountain slopes, or dying of hunger.
It is also important to note that this cultivation method is very energy intensive. Water for irrigating the rice field terraces has to be lifted up with pumping stations, which requires a substantial amount of energy.
So now we are coming to the first causes of the hunger, which can truly be called errors of the Korean leadership. The author would include here the collectivisation that reduced home gardens to a size that was much smaller than even during the Soviet Union’s collectivisation period. And the system of agricultural management was based on psychological incentives instead of material ones. Impressed by the speed with which the economy of the DPRK recovered after the war of 1950-1953, the government was convinced that such growth could continue. But you don’t run a marathon the same way as a sprint.
There was another mistake that, however, was not obvious until the problems started — spending strategic reserves on grandiose projects of the late 1980’s. After the successful 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Pyongyang tried to compete by hosting the International Festival of Youth and Students in 1989, constructing a skyscraper and a number of other projects purely to enhance the prestige of the country and promote its ideology.
In order to analyse the situation another detail is important. Although North Korea proclaimed a policy of self-reliance, it did not succeed in building a self-sufficient economy. As a result, even though North Korea was not a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, its economy was tied up with the border regions of the USSR. And even though the Soviet Union supported the North Korean economy largely due to ideological, and not economic, reasons, at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korean and Russian companies were very deeply intertwined.
Therefore the collapse of the Soviet Union was unpredictable (from the point of view of planning an “escape exit”) and uncompensated. The rupture in the economic ties that happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union, can be called the second cause of the famine. North Korea was asked to pay in hard currency and at new prices, and then ideology began to interfere in this economically disadvantageous cooperation with the poor partner. This time the new ideology dictated that any connection with the “bastion of totalitarianism” was not encouraged in Russia — especially considering the mutual illusions that gained sway during the first stage of Russian-South Korean economic cooperation. For example, in 1990 the volume of trade between the USSR and North Korea was $2.5 billion, but by 1991 it had already dropped to $365 million and it continued to decline, reaching a minimum of $38.5 million in 2000.
For North Korea, this meant almost a complete halt to fuel and fertiliser shipments, which certainly had an impact on crop productivity. In addition, by this time North Korea had already appeared on the list of “rogue states,” so it became even more difficult to get the necessary resources from abroad.
In fact, the reduction in the consumption levels, the campaign for transitioning to two meals a day, and so on started right at the beginning of the 1990’s, agriculture in North Korea began to slow down without energy flowing in from the outside and, especially, fertilisers, and the structure of society made it impossible to dramatically increase the number of farmers. The authoritarian regime tried to cope with this problem, using the army as an all-purpose labour reserve and mobilising urban residents to work in the fields, but such one-time events couldn’t replace permanent agricultural workers.
How long North Korea would have lasted in such a “power saving mode” without a force majeure is an interesting question and worth discussing. The author believes that the situation would be much like today’s, when they do not have complete food self-sufficiency, but there also is no hunger in the classic sense.
Here we need to step back for a bit. In today’s world, hunger is not due so much to the absence of the necessary amount of food in a particular region, but to the difficulty of delivering it to areas that have a food deficit. When there are droughts or floods in developed countries, they can solve the problem by purchasing food from other countries. But North Korea did not have any foreign currency reserves, or an export-oriented economy, with which it would have been possible to receive food in exchange for something else. A policy of “priority growth in heavy industry” allowed North Korea to defend itself, but made it impossible to produce export goods that would have had a market and been competitive.
(To be continued…)
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies, Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.