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  May 23,  

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The Koreas

North Korea's Kim-made famine

By Aidan Foster-Carter

In eight months of writing this column for Asia Times Online, I've yet to tackle one of North Korea's most notorious problems: its chronic famine. Or food shortage, as some sensitive souls prefer to call it (a case of "diplomacy by terminology"). This silence wasn't for any lack of concern: more a question of where to start in so vast a topic, which will need more than one article to do it justice. Here the main focus is on what happened and why. A later piece will consider current trends and what can be done.

Let's begin with a rare and welcome event: perhaps the first ever detailed data from the horse's mouth. On May 15, Choe Su-hon, one of Pyongyang's nine deputy foreign ministers, quantified the grim truth at a Unicef conference in Beijing. Almost a quarter of a million people - 220,000 to be exact - died of famine between 1995 and 1998. As a result, and also due to medical shortages, average life expectancy fell from 73.2 in 1993 to 66.8 in 1999. Showing who exactly bore the brunt, infant mortality (under 5s) almost doubled from 27 to 48 per 1,000 people. Choe also gave data on a related disaster: his country's wider health care crisis. In 1994, 86 percent of people had access to save drinking water; by 1996, only 53 percent did. And the rate of vaccination against polio and measles fell from 90 percent in 1990 to just 50 percent by 1997.

So far, so good. Any figures from North Korea are always welcome, negative ones all the more so - as a sign that Pyongyang is starting to face unpalatable truths. But only up to a point. For one thing, that deaths total, appalling as it is, is at the low end of outside estimates. These range from 270,000 all the way up to 3 million - which would mean one in eight North Koreans have died in the past six years, a hardly imaginable holocaust. For what it's worth, my own guess is that about a million have perished.

But rather than bat numbers around - we know they're big, and bad - what matters is to ask why this horror happened, and how to stop it. The official version stresses two causes: cruel nature, and fickle comrades. Both are true, but neither is the whole truth - especially the latter. What Pyongyang glibly calls "loss of socialist markets" - implying they'd once had paying customers, who jilted them - really means that in 1991 Moscow abruptly pulled the aid plug. That sent the whole North Korean economy into free-fall, halving national income and exposing Kim Il-sung's vaunted self-reliance as a delusion. Unkind of the Russians - but they wouldn't have done it if the Great Leader had paid his bills. The effect on farming was to end the flow of cheap fuel for tractors and of chemical fertilizer ingredients.

Regarding the weather, the party line is on firmer ground. In most years since 1994, North Korea has been hit by flood or drought. This pattern of meteorological extremes continues. Currently the peninsula is enduring its longest ever drought - hard on the heels of its coldest winter in half a century, one which most North Koreans (hardy souls: they have to be) endured without heating. As in a Greek tragedy, one can almost imagine irate gods hurling thunderbolts to punish the Kims' arrant hubris. Their subjects suffer.

But what Pyongyang won't admit is that the impact of natural disaster would have been much less on a rational farm system following sensible policies. For a start, the goal of self-sufficiency - never met - was mad, in a land 80 percent mountainous. In old Korea, the south, itself not exactly flat, was the ricebowl. Just as crazy was the means, which focused on boosting output of the two main grain crops, maize and rice, at the expense of everything else: other grains, fruit, vegetables, root crops, pulses, and livestock.

Foreign aid workers, who only got access after 1995, reckon this unbalanced diet was already breeding malnutrition by the 1980s. It also harmed the land, in two ways. Overdosing on inorganic fertilizer at first raised yields, but again by the 1980s had exhausted the soil. So the emphasis switched to terracing ever-higher up hillsides: a crazy place to try to grow maize, exacerbating already severe deforestation. Needless to say, farmers who owned their land and sold to market would never have been so dumb. It takes collectivized agriculture, its goals imposed as edicts from on high, to mess up as big-time as this.

In 1995, nature struck back - and how. Pounding rains destroyed the flimsy terraces, sweeping earth loosened by loss of tree cover in great torrents of gunge that surged down narrow valleys - ending up dumped on the plains, so destroying good crops too in a double whammy. The avalanches hit irrigation works also, while (less avoidably) the rains overwhelmed hydroelectric power plants and flooded coal and other mines. North Korea has yet to recover from that terrible summer, let alone those that ensued. Choe Su-hon priced the damage at USD$15 billion, more than a whole year's gross national product.

All this would have been a cruel blow to any country. But nature knows no DMZ. Flood and drought have hit South Korea too. Some people drowned, and more lost property - yet nobody starved. That is the difference between sensible socio-economic systems, efficient and flexible, and stupid ones. In this sense, North Korea's famine like most others must be seen as man-made: to be more exact, Kim-made.

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