How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea

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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.

Without enough food to go around, the North Korean regime had turned to triage. Pyongyang and the military had to eat, so the government cut rations for farmers instead, slashing the portion of their harvest they could keep to feed their own families. Predictably, there were severe consequences. Faced with the unappealing prospect of going hungry, farmers began hiding their grain. In 1996, the World Food Program found that half the country's corn crop had gone missing. Reports spread of farmers' roofs collapsing under the weight of stashed food. Soldiers were sent to guard the fields at harvest time, but as a United States Institute for Peace report noted, they were easily bribed. After all, the soldiers were hungry, too.

From there, the situation only degenerated. Despite the international community's wariness toward the Kim regime, food aid did begin to flow. But much of it was stolen by well-connected elites, who re-sold the aid at marked-up prices. Farmers started doing the same thing with their own crops. As a result, food prices soared, and the poorest continued to starve.

Farmers stole their own crops. Elites stole the aid. Impoverished Koreans starved. Because the country's statistics are so unreliable, nobody knows the exact number of casualties caused by the famine. But common estimates peg the number of deaths between one million to three million.

THE GHOSTS OF 1994

The great famine finally began to subside in 1998. There were better harvests. The world continued delivering food aid. And North Koreans adjusted to the new private food markets. But history had a habit of repeating itself under Kim. The government set in motion a second, albeit milder, food crisis when it outlawed the private sale of grain in 2005, forcing the country to rely once again on the public food system. The situation worsened once foreign governments cut off aid following the military's first nuclear test.

Then just in October, Reuters published a report on the growing fears about yet another food shortage.

"The country's dysfunctional food-distribution system, rising global commodities prices and sanctions imposed over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs had contributed to what appears to be a hunger crisis in the North, even before devastating summer floods and typhoons compounded the emergency," the wire reported.

There are skeptics who believe that Pyongyang is exaggerating its food problems. The country is known to hold grain for its military, even as rural peasants starve, and according to Reuters, South Korean officials believe it may be stockpiling supplies in preparation of a new nuclear test.

And yet, the echoes of 1994 are haunting. Like his father before him, Kim Jong Il has left the country in the hands of a politically inexperienced son, who has yet to consolidate his own power. Once again, the transition has happened at a moment when the government may not be able to feed its own people. Hopefully, the parallels end there.

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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