Current Affairs

Digging Deeper to the North Korean Food Scarcity

There was news of a North Korean Food crisis happening early this year where they are facing their worst harvest yet. There may not be enough food to feed the population; around 10.1 million people are already suffering from food insecurity and that number is bound to increase. Due to the poor harvest, the already-tiny daily rations people are receiving will be reduced even more from 380g to 300g of grain per person. Also, due to the food shortages, many people are facing under-nutrition, to the point that children are facing stunted growth.

Why North Korea facing such a huge food crisis? The answer may not be as straightforward as blaming the climate or sanctions (though they are part of the answer). It could be more deep rooted in history; things and events that created such a weak foundation in the country.

But first, let us explore the current triggers for this food shortage.

Environmental Triggers

North Korean recently experienced a series of dry spells and low and unpredictable rainfall, which led to soil dryness and insufficient water for irrigation for crops. From January to May 2019, the country only received about 56.3 mm of rainfall, which is about 33% of the average rainfall in these five months. Furthermore, there was a lack of snow cover, leaving crops exposed to the freezing cold. These factors combined caused devastation to the food crops.

The warmer weather is likely to continue for the next couple of months which will affect the harvest yields in September. So, not only are the last winter and spring crops harvested are not enough, the food shortage is likely to continue throughout the year. There were also bouts of floods and heat waves which continue to wreak havoc to the crops.


The sanctions that have been placed on North Korea have not made the situation any easier. The US-led sanctions are mainly for fuel, food and medical imports which greatly affected the state of the country. The US, China, Japan and other countries put in place these sanctions so that they exert maximum pressure on North Korea to give up their pursuit for nuclear supremacy. Indeed, it is affecting the country, but possibly not in the way others hoped for. Instead of giving up their nuclear ambitions, North Korea continues to pursue it at the cost of their own people.

Fuel sanctions has a part to play in this food crisis. Without fuel, the North Korean agricultural sector could not thrive, let alone survive as they need the energy to power up agriculture machinery, irrigation, transport and grain storage. Whatever remaining fuel and energy that is left from the sanctions is channeled to the nuclear program while the rest of the country literally starves.

This is what is currently happening to North Korea. But we wonder why only recently is there so much news about the food shortages happening. Does that mean in the past, they did not have much problems at all? For that, we need to examine how they managed their food distribution in the past.

Cold War Era Food Security

After the Korean War, the Soviet Union, China and North Korea held close diplomatic ties together as they were under the Communist bloc. The Soviet Union and China continued to provide support to North Korea in the form of military and humanitarian aid.

In the late 1950s, North Korea believed (and continue to believe) in the ideology of Juche, which about self-reliance, thriving without the assistance of international aid. They believe in attaining that self reliance through agriculture and manual labour. It was centrally planned by one party (or rather one leader) and relied on the masses to provide the labour. However, even though they believed that, they still relied on imports from the Soviet Union and China to help grow their agricultural sector as only 20-30% of land in North Korea is arable. The cheap fuel that they received from the communist bloc to process and store the grains and create chemical fertiliser to boost production. As a result, in 1974, they announced that they harvested seven million tons of grain, claiming that agricultural productivity had grown exponentially. Whether that figure is true or not, it implies due to the aid received from the communist bloc that they were able to achieve such feats.

Food Distribution System

As part of the Juche system, North Korea attempted to become more self-sufficient in terms of food. They did not want to rely on overseas food supplies and looked towards feeding themselves. Food grown by the farmers was given up to the central government where they redistribute it back to the rest of the people.

The population was stratified according to their occupation which determined the amount of food rations they received from the government. The elites and those in the military typically received much more food portions as compared to farmers, office workers or students. The elderly and young children received lesser amounts while political prisoners, not surprisingly, received little to none, almost to the point of starvation. Despite that little amount of land in North Korea being arable, this system managed to survive due to the aid received from the communist bloc as they were able to boost productivity and feed the population.

So, where did things start to go wrong?

The Ending of the Cold War

Things began to go downhill due to the ending of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was broken up and experienced political and economic instability. They were not able to carry on supporting the communist bloc and began to demand payments from North Korea for all the aid they had given to them. Not surprisingly, North Korea were not able to pay as the costs were too much. And in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, the special imports, aid and concessions stopped flowing to North Korea’s agricultural sector. As a result, North Korea faced an economic and energy crisis as there were much lower aid coming in and fuel was much more expensive.

This led to a decrease in food production as they did not have the resources to make more fruitful harvests. And due to their isolationist policies, they refused to import food, fuel and other forms of aid in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the decreased amount of the food, the country faced with widespread food shortages, leading to a decrease in food distributed amongst the masses. They started the campaign “Let’s eat two meals a day!” in a bid to lower domestic consumption within the country.

Widespread Famine- “The Arduous March”

In 1995, due to the El Nino phenomenon, there was massive floods that caused devastation to the land, crops, grain reserves, and power stations causing a great famine. Torrential rainfall of up to 877mm fell in a span of a couple of hours which cause the Amnoc River to overflow and flood and destroy the electrical and agricultural infrastructure, including the grain reserves. More floods occurred in 1996 and there was a drought in 1997 which further destroyed the crops and rendered their hydropower stations useless. The lack of fuel and power led to the breakdown of the railway system, leading to a coal shortage as there are no means of transporting the supplies. The entire power and agricultural infrastructure collapsed.

To make matters worse, there was corruption amongst the elites and military in the public distribution system. When they realised that there was not enough food to go around, the government allowed the military and the elites affiliated to the government to help themselves to the remaining food while the rest of the country starves. Farmers were instructed to give up more food for the government so in return, they hid the food for themselves. This further reduced the amount of food available for the rest of the people.

In a bid to alleviate the famine, North Korea appealed for aid via the United Nations in 1996. Aid indeed began flowing into the country but were redistributed amongst the elites and the military instead for the masses. With the farmers hiding their own crop and the military and elites stealing the aid for themselves, those in between are left to forage for grass and wild food to satiate their hunger. And oftentimes, these wild foods caused more health problems instead of making them feel better. Some people also began to flee from the crisis to China and South Korea.

Throughout this great famine of 1995 to 1998, an estimated of 600000 to 1 million people died. Undernutrition and malnutrition affected a huge proportion of people where it is highly likely there would be a generation of children that would experience physical and mental development issues.

Impacts of the Past Actions

North Korea never recovered from the past socio-political structure and the disastrous famine. They continue to rely on foreign aid, and sanctions and the politics are making it hard to feed the entire population. Though their food production has rebounded, it continues to be unreliable as the food shortages continue to plague the nation till now. The public distribution system is still there, distributing food to everyone but at much smaller portions than the UN recommended caloric intake. Markets have sprung as a means to procure necessities from other people, something that the central government was trying to prevent.

The past actions and the famine that occurred in the past had laid waste to the North Korean infrastructure such that when another disaster or event occurs, it will hit them extremely hard. Think of it as someone with a compromised immune system catching a cold; they will feel the effects much worse. As such, the agriculture and power (in terms of fuel) foundations in North Korea are already weakened so trying to mitigate the consequences from such events is extremely difficult, almost impossible even.

Final Thoughts

The North Korean food shortage happening now does not have one specific cause to take the blame. It is indeed due to the environmental triggers and the sanctions placed on the country. But one cannot ignore its history of deep seated economic, resource mismanagement, ideology and corruption which weakened the country from within. Such that, they would not be able to recover fully from any disaster nor even go back to its ‘golden age ‘. 

Tell us what you think about this predicament North Korea is currently facing. Leave a comment below, we would love to hear your opinions!

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