31.10.2013 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Famine in North Korea: Causes and Myths. Part 2


Source: Korea Press

First, agriculture “washed away” and the terraces on the mountain slopes were particularly affected. This appears to be why the largest number of deaths from starvation is from the northern mountainous regions.

Second, mud flows virtually destroyed the transportation and communication infrastructure, which gave rise to whole host of problems associated with evacuation, food delivery, etc.

Third, many coal mines flooded, which created additional problems in the electrical power sector, since the main fuel there is coal. 

So, North Korea suffered a severe blow and was not able to handle it on its own. Under normal circumstances, the international community would intervene in such humanitarian catastrophes, but in the case of North Korea, ideology again played a role. After all, natural disasters in the Far East are traditionally seen as a sign that the heavens are displeased with the current regime. In addition, North Korea had a formal period of interregnum, when Kim Jong-il observed a three-year mourning period for his father. At the time of the death of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il was seen by many experts as an incompetent playboy who would likely not be able to retain power in such difficult conditions.

That is why many believed that North Korea would collapse very soon on its own accord. So, it was thought that it wasn’t necessary to try very hard to help them. That’s at least how South Korea acted. First they smugly announced an assistance program (despite the fact that the actual amount of aid from South Korea was small and basically was raised through the efforts of NGOs). They demanded, however, unacceptable conditions that would have been de facto interference in the internal politics of the country. So when Pyongyang refused to accept, they began to lobby for economic sanctions against North Korea to stop all deliveries of food.

It seems they calculated “the worse, the better.” A representative of the conservatives who later held a respectable diplomatic post openly told the author that, in seeking to restrict the flow of food aid to Pyongyang, they were pursuing a specific policy goal. In a crisis, the North Korean masses would begin to speak out against the regime, which would leave them to fend for themselves, and if the boat was correctly shaken, the communist state in the north would collapse. Then the nation, in his opinion, would have united before the end of the term of Kim Young-sam, who would have gone down in history not only as the first civilian president, but also as the “destroyer of the DPRK” (no matter at what price). So, the actions of certain circles in South Korea and deliberate refusal to render aid can be considered the fourth cause of hunger.

The North Korean government also made some tactical mistakes. They did not let NGOs into the country who knew Korean and could have freely navigated the situation and monitored the distribution of aid. North Korean authorities saw them as potential spies and put as many obstacles up as they could. Meanwhile, foreigners regarded these obstacles as a sign that the aid was being spent inappropriately and that the local authorities were trying to hide it. The consequence was a series of rumours that a large part of the aid was given to the party and the army and did not reach the common people, even though, according to the leading Western experts, the aid was never misappropriated. 

Then, although Pyongyang was forced to acknowledge the famine, the country tried to hide the humanitarian aid under the strategy of “self-reliance”. The products they received were often repackaged to hide the foreign labelling, and the DPRK media insisted that the assistance from Japan was not humanitarian aid (which is what Tokyo intended), but instead funds transferred to the country from Japan as compensation for crimes committed in Korea during the colonial period. Because of this, those suppliers who were largely interested in publicising their assistance to the DPRK quickly wound down their programs.

All of this was not helped by the lack of knowledge that foreigners have of Korean society. For example, experts know that in traditional Korea there are no cemeteries, because people bury their dead on the mountain slopes and in other favourable locations according to Feng Shui. In a disaster this can lead to an epidemic, and the government tried to organise burials in mass graves. So bodies were dragged to the road, where they were supposed to be loaded onto trucks and transported to the burial site. But for the uninitiated eye it looked like a mass of dead bodies that were just lying right on the streets and roads.

However, the most notable mistake the northerners made was the Confucian desire of the authorities to save face. When the representatives of European humanitarian organisations were in the disaster area, rather than showing them the worst-hit areas, the North Koreans took the poor and needy out of sight, removed the dead bodies lying around everywhere and let the foreigners communicate only with ideologically sound members of the Party or the military. The reaction to these Potemkin villages was predictable.

 One gets the impression that if just one of the above problems had been removed from the scales, the situation could have tipped towards a far less tragic outcome. Moreover, none of the causes of the crisis prevail over the others enough to describe it as the main cause of hunger. If we consider the degree to which the leadership is responsible, then it is clear that it bears some blame, but to say that Kim Jong Il is the main one responsible for the hunger is to succumb to propaganda. There were enough mistakes, and technical solutions that didn’t work as they should, but the situation should not be seen as a deliberate attempt to bring the country to its knees. 

On the other hand, Yeltsin and Kim Young-sam do not bear the whole responsibility, but from my personal point of view those who chose to do nothing in a critical situation and decided “the worse, the better” bear some responsibility for what happens because they certainly could have guessed the outcome. 

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”.