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.