Notes on Starvation

There is more to a food crisis than shortfalls in aggregate food acquisition. Often times the country has enough food to feed the people, but still end up with starvation within its borders.

I outlined in a recent article on Asia Times Online three non-food factors that affect food security

  • Transportation infrastructure
  • Inflation and food prices
  • Political system

Marcus Noland looked to the Irish Potato Famine as an important case study.

The transportation network across Ireland was underdeveloped and presented an impediment to internal trade.  Moreover, incomes in western Ireland were relatively low. So cultivators on the more fertile east side of the island could earn more money by exporting their crop across the sea to Britain than by hauling the potatoes across the island to be sold to their poorer relations 

Likewise, North Korea struggles with the delivery of foodstuffs to people in need. In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and took with it the supply of cheap, subsidized oil. Since then North Korea has been dealing with a major fuel shortage – as a result, along with frequent power outages throughout the country, motor vehicles are unable to carry the goods to some parts of the country. This includes food.

Inflation and rising cost of grains pose another challenge to food security. High demand for food is bound to raise the price, but Pyongyang’s monetary policies in the last few years have significantly exacerbated market conditions. The policies of devaluing the currency (winter 2009/10) and then increasing the money supply by allowing easier access to bank deposits are bound to result in inflationary conditions. As a result food prices rose significantly throughout 2011 and briefly fell in the first half of 2012 (possibly because of emergency food assistance from China) before steadily climbing in May and June.

The shortsighted monetary policy also serves as evidence of North Korea’s failed political system. Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen often wrote about the connection between liberty and food security

the rapid expansion of agricultural output in China under the economic reforms carried out from 1979 onward has, with much justice, been seen to be closely related to the freeing of markets and the unleashing of productive opportunities connected with profit incentives … [at the same time,] public policy to combat hunger and starvation – including rapid intervention against threatening famines – may depend on the existence and efficiency of political pressure groups to induce governments to act

Indeed, the two states of being go hand in hand.

There is a dangerous notion, propagated by scholars like Victor Cha, that North Korea’s economic hardships and the proliferation of small private enterprises will eventually topple the regime. Dangerous because 1) it is not true; peoples in famine conditions have never overthrown their governments (see Khmer Rouge and Soviet Ukraine); 2) it leads policymakers to opt for an indefinite waiting game while people starve.

Famine in North Korea is a multifaceted crisis and is entirely the result of bad policy – but to abandon the people because of the errors of their government is counterproductive.

The recent UN Overview of Needs and Assistance outlined some successes that its agencies accomplished including better sanitation facilities and disease prevention – these are tremendous assets to establishing the foundations for the people of North Korea to one day achieve food security. If governments of the world are uncomfortable directly funding food donations, then there are other areas where UN and other humanitarian agencies could use the resources.

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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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