North Korean famine

North Korean famine
Arduous March
고난의 행군
Country North Korea
Location national
Period 1994-1998
Total deaths 0.9 to 3.5 million
Observations Economic mismanagement,[1][2] natural disasters[3]
Relief food and humanitarian aid (1994[4]present)
Consequences political shift from Marxism-Leninism to Songun; introduction of private market activity
North Korean famine
Hangul 고난의 행군
Hanja 苦難의 行軍
Revised Romanization gonanui haenggun
McCune–Reischauer konanŭi haenggun

The North Korean famine (also known as the Arduous March or the March of Tribulation) was a famine in North Korea which began in the early 1990s.[5] Estimates state that, from a population of approximately 22 million, between 900,000 and 3.5 million people died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses, with the deaths peaking in 1997.[6]


The Onset of Famine

In the early 1990’s, The Economy of North Korea was on the precipice of collapse. From the 1950’s up until 1989, the agricultural, industrial, and energy sectors grew with infrastructure being consistently reinvested in by surpluses in the national account balance. However, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea entered a period of steep internal industrial decline[7][8]. The government initially responded by intensifying policies that were practiced in the past that focused on increasing physical labor requirements due to limited access to new technology and necessary agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer, and fuel [9]. The country soon instigated austerity measures, dubbed the “eat two meals a day” campaign [10]. These measures proved inadequate in stemming economic decline, unfortunately “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.”[11]. Without the help from these countries, North Korea was unable to adequately respond to the coming crisis.


The economic decline and failed policies provided the context for the famine in the early 90’s, but the floods and storms of the mid 90’s provided the catalyst. More specifically, the floods in July 1995 were described as being “of biblical proportions”[12] by independent observers. As devastating floods savaged the country in 1995-96, arable land, harvests, grain reserves, social and economic infrastructure were destroyed. The United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs reported that “between 30 July and 18 August 1995, torrential rains caused devastating floods in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPKR). In one area, in Pyongsan county in North Hwanghae province 877 mm or nearly a meter of rain was recorded to have fallen in just seven hours, an intensity of precipitation unheard of in this area… water flow in the engorged 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. “[13] The major issues created by the flood was 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, [14], 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 [15]. Due to the declining economy and devastating natural disasters, the DPRK did not have the resources to import food or resources, the people were faced with death and starvation.

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,” [16] unfortunately this reduced expected production of an already ravished harvest by 50%.[17]. People everywhere were affected by the crisis, regardless of gender, affiliation or social class.

Members of the Military

Sŏn'gun, often spelled Songun, is North Korea's "Military First" policy, which prioritizes the Korean People's Army in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the ‘army first’. However, even though the armed forces were given priority for the distribution of food, this did not mean they all received generous rations. [18] In fact, the army was supposed to find ways to grow food to feed itself, and develop industries in order to purchase food and supplies from abroad. The rations received by military personnel were very basic, “ordinary soldiers of the million-strong army often remained hungry, and did their families, who did not receive preferential treatment simply because a son or daughter was serving in the armed forces. [19]


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. [20]Simultaneously, women had the highest participation in the workforce of any other country in the world, calculated at 89%.[21] 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 with staying healthy; maternal mortality rates increased to approximately 41 per 1000, while simple complications such as anemia, hemorrhage and premature births became common due to vitamin deficiency. [22][23]


Children, especially those under two years old were the most likely to be suffering from the famine and poverty of the mid 90’s. The World Health Organization reported death rates for children at 93 of every 1000, babies and toddlers mortality rates were cited at 23 of every thousand. [24] 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 miniscule amount was imported,” [25] unfortunately accurate statistics do not exist because of government policies, and it is likely that the mortality rates were understated.

Sanitation, Energy, and Health System Failure

The threats from famine were compounded by severe damage to health systems and water, sanitation, and energy distribution systems. The DPKR lost an estimated 85% of hydroelectric capacity from damage caused by the flood, along with coal mines, supplies and transport facilities, reducing the ability for the country to produce its own energy. [26] UN officials reported a complex set of problems, commenting that the power shortage problem of 1995-1997

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 Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization)…. About 70% of power generated in the DPKR came from 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. [27]

With breakdowns in the energy sector, and contamination of water sources due to sanitation facility failure, the health care system was unable to cope. Inadequate inputs and power failure combined with out of date training and knowledge about health care techniques and procedures, led to a health care crisis that added to the overall devastation. According to a 1997 UNICEF delegation,

hospitals were clean but wards were devoid of even the most rudimentary supplies and equipment; sphygmomanometers, thermometers, scales, kidney dishes, spatulas and IV giving sets etc. The mission saw numerous patiens being treated with home made beet 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. [28]

With almost the entire infrastructure in some sort of disrepair, the famine escalated to crisis levels.

Estimated deaths

An exact statistical number of deaths during the acute phase of the crisis, from 1994 to 1998, will probably never be fully determined. Independent analysis estimates between 800,000 and 1.5 million people died due to starvation, disease, or sickness caused by lack of food. [29][30]

North Korea On May 15, 2001, Choe Su-hon, one of Pyongyang's nine deputy foreign ministers, at a UNICEF conference in Beijing stated that between 1995 and 1998, 220,000 people had died in the famine. He also gave figures of an infant mortality increase from 27 to 48 per 1,000 people[31]

United States In 1998, US Congressional staffers who visited the country reported that: "Reliable sources estimate that of North Korea's 23 million people, between 300,000-800,000 people have died each year (peaking in 1997) as a result of the food shortages." They went on to say: "Other estimates of the death toll by exile groups are much higher."[32] These higher estimates are sometimes considered problematic as they are based on the experience of North Koreans in the province of North Hamgyŏng. The province was one of the most devastated due to its urban environment and lack of agricultural production. Additionally, the original study warned not to extrapolate the death toll of the famine to the whole of North Korea. The same source goes on to say "The most reliable evaluation, carried out in a doctoral thesis at the University of Warwick by South Korean economist Suk Lee, shows that up to 660,000 people died from starvation and malnutrition-related diseases." It then goes on to say: "However, the truth is that nobody - including the government - probably knows the real figure."[33]

International response

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

Beginning in 1997, the U.S. also began shipping food aid to North Korea through the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to combat the famine. Shipments peaked in 1999 at nearly 700,000 tons making the U.S. the largest foreign aid donor to the country at the time. Under the Bush Administration, aid was drastically reduced year after year from 350,000 tons in 2001 to 40,000 in 2004.[34] 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."

China and South Korea remain the largest donors of food aid to North Korea. The U.S. objects to this manner of donating food due to lack of supervision.[35] In 2005, China and South Korea combined to provide 1 million tons of food aid, each contributing half.[36]

Humanitarian aid from North Korea's neighbors has been cut off at times to provoke North Korea to resume 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.[37] There have also been aid disruptions due to widespread theft of railroad cars used by mainland China to deliver food relief.[38]

Current status

North Korea has not yet resumed its food self-sufficiency and relies on external food aid from China, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea and the United States. In 2002, North Korea requested that food supplies no longer be delivered. [39]

In the mid-2000s, the World Food Programme 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.[40][41]

Agricultural production increased from about 2.7 million metric tons in 1997 to 4.2 million metric tons in 2004.[35] As of 2011, famine continues 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 exacerbate the problem, however.[42]

In 2011, during a visit to North Korea, US ex-president Jimmy Carter reported that one third of children there were malnourished and stunted in their growth because of lack of food. He also said that the North Korean state had reduced daily food intake from 1,400 calories to 700 calories in 2011[43] (a normal food intake for a healthy European is 2,000-2,500 calories per day[44]). Some scholars believe that North Korea is purposefully exaggerating the food shortage, aiming to receive additional food supplies for its planned 2012 mass celebration by means of foreign aid.[45]

Escaped North Koreans report that starvation has returned to the nation.[46] A study by South Korean anthropologists of North Korean children who had defected to China found that 18-year-old males were 5 inches shorter than South Koreans their age. Roughly 45 per cent of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition. Most people eat meat only on public holidays, namely Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s birthdays.[47]

See also


  1. ^ Noland, Marcus (2004). "Famine and Reform in North Korea". Asian Economic Papers 3 (2): 1–40. doi:10.1162/1535351044193411?journalCode=asep. 
  2. ^ Haggard, Nolan, Sen (2009). Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform. pp. 209. ISBN 9780231140010. "This tragedy was the result of a misguided strategy of self-reliance that only served to increase the country's vulnerability to both economic and natural shocks ... The state's culpability in this vast misery elevates the North Korean famine to a crime against humanity" 
  3. ^ "North Korea: A terrible truth". The Economist. 17 April 1997. Retrieved 2011-09-24. 
  4. ^ a b "Humanitarian Aid Toward North Korea: A Global Peace-Building Process," East Asian Review, Winter 2001
  5. ^ Hagard, Stephan and Noland, Marcus (2007). Famine in North Korea: markets, aid and reform. Columbia University Press:New York
  6. ^
  7. ^ United Nations Development Program, Millennium Development Goals and the DPRK, retrieved 21 October 21, 2011,
  8. ^ Woo-Cumings, Meredith (2002) The political ecology of famine: the North Korean catastrophe and its lessons. Online at:
  9. ^ “The River Kumjin Changes its Appearance,” Korea 557 (January 2003), Juche 92, 16-17
  10. ^ “ The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History”, Don Oberdorfer. Warner Books 1997
  11. ^ “Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea”, Hazel Smith, pg 66, United States Institute of Peace, 2005.
  12. ^ “ The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History”, Don Oberdorfer. Warner Books 1997
  13. ^ 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 (DPKR) 1 July 1996-31 March 1997” April 1996, reproduced on
  14. ^ UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, “Consolidated UN Inter Agency-Appeal, 1 July 1996-21 March 1997
  15. ^ UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, “Status of Public Health-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, April 1997” retrieved at
  16. ^ “Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea”, Hazel Smith, pg 66, United States Institute of Peace, 2005.
  17. ^ FAO/WFP, “Food and Crop Assessment Mission to the DPRK,” Rome, December 10, 1997
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ International FIDES Service no. 4144, “Hell on Earth: The Church Must Wipe the Tears,” April 23, 1999,
  20. ^ Smith, Hazel “WFP DPRK Programmes and Activities: A Gender Perspective. Pyongyang: WFP, December 1999.
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ UNICEF, “Situation of Children and Women (1999)
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ ”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).
  25. ^ “Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance, and Social Change in North Korea”, Hazel Smith, pg 66, United States Institute of Peace, 2005.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Ian Davies, quoted in Beal, “Waters of Prosperity”
  28. ^ Unicef, “DPKR Mission Report,” 1997
  29. ^ 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, 1000)
  30. ^ Daniel Goodkind and Loraine West, “The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact,” Population and Development Review 27, no.2 (June 2001)
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ Solomon, Jay (2005-05-20). "US Has Put Food Aid for North Korea on Hold". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2007-08-01. [dead link]
  35. ^ a b "Report on U.S. Humanitarian assistance to North Koreans" (PDF). United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs. 2006-04-15. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  36. ^ "North Korea: Ending Food Aid Would Deepen Hunger". Human Rights Watch. 2006-10-11. Retrieved 2007-08-02. 
  37. ^ Faiola, Anthony (2006-07-14). "S. Korea Suspends Food Aid to North". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-08-02. 
  38. ^ "China halts rail freight to North Korea". Financial Times. 2007-10-18. Retrieved 2007-10-18. 
  39. ^ Woo-Cumings, Meredith (2002). The political ecology of famine: the North Korean catastrophe and its lessons. Online at:
  40. ^ Brooke, James (June 1, 2005). "North Korea, Facing Food Shortages, Mobilizes Millions From the Cities to Help Rice Farmers". The New York Times. 
  41. ^ Buckley, Sarah (September 23, 2005). "North Korea's problem with food". BBC News. 
  42. ^ Branigan, Tania (April 17, 2008). "UN fears tragedy over North Korean food shortage". The Guardian. 
  43. ^ Bristow, Michael Ex-leaders head for North Korea BBC News Asia-Pacific, 25 April 2011, Retrieved 25 April 2011
  44. ^ Epstein, Angela Why Britain is the Fat Man of Europe The Daily Mail Online, Health, 14 November 2006, Retrieved 25 April 2011
  45. ^ North Korea flouts ban on luxury goods, South Korea charges, Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2011
  46. ^ "BBC News - Tales of starvation and death in North Korea". BBC. 2011 [last update]. Retrieved 16 August 2011. 
  47. ^ "The unpalatable appetites of Kim Jong-il". October 8, 2011. Retrieved October 8, 2011. 

External links

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