How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea

What kind of disastrous economic policy results in the death by starvation of up to 3 million people in a nation with the population of Texas?

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Reuters

When North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died of a coronary this weekend after 17 years in power, the homuncular tyrant left his country much as he found it -- poor and desperately hungry.

For the last two decades, North Korea has grappled with food crisis upon food crisis, the result of a dysfunctional government and its erratic leader. In 1994, the year Kim inherited North Korea's reins from his late father, the country was in the midst of a severe agricultural decline. The newly minted despot transformed it into a famine that would claim as many as three million lives. Food shortages have plagued the country ever since.

It begs the question: How did one man starve a nation of roughly 23 million people? The answer: By clinging to a broken economic system designed to do little but ensure his own survival.

Understanding the origins of one of the world's greatest hunger crises

Agriculture has always been a dicey proposition in North Korea, where the cold, mountainous terrain is short on high-quality farmland. A normal economy could cope by importing food. But during the 1980s, the North Korean government embarked on a policy of radical self-sufficiency known as juche. Farmers were expected to overcome mother nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population. To do it, they relied on heaps of chemical fertilizer. But that crutch was yanked away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The demise of the USSR threw North Korea's entire economy into chaos, and agriculture was among its most important casualties. Without imports of cheap fuel (self-sufficiency had its limits), the country's industrial base fractured, and production of fertilizer dwindled. Farm yields plummeted, and the government started a campaign urging citizens to consume less. Its cheery slogan: "Let's eat only two meals a day."

It was against this background that the Kim Jong Il took power. The country was at a crossroads, says Marcus Noland, a leading expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. With the USSR gone, the prospects for a small, isolated, neo-Stalinist regime looked rather grim. The government could have opened up its economy, much like Vietnam did with great success. Instead, North Korea chose to stay frozen in time.

"The mystery is why the North Koreans did not understand the historical magnitude of the change around them," Noland says.

One Cold War relic in desperate need of reform was the country's food distribution system. Crops such as rice and corn were raised on collectivist farms, then doled out by the state. The process served a political purpose by funneling cheap food to the country's outsized military, as well as citizens in the capital of Pyongyang, which together made up the base of Kim's power. But it was also ready to collapse.

AFTER THE COLD WAR, THE FARMER WAR

In 1995, when the globe first learned about the North Korean famine, massive floods decimated as much as 15% of North Korea's farmable land. Local officials began hoarding food they were charged with distributing. And a fuel shortage made it impossible to move crops around the country. The government appealed to the United Nations World Food Program for humanitarian aid, blaming the floods for the disaster. Yet even as he sought help from abroad, Kim deepened the crisis at home by stumbling into a war with his country's farmers.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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