Summary of literature on Food Security: Woo-Cumings’ “The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons”

Meredith Woo-Cumings. “The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons.” ADB Institute Research Paper Series No. 31, January 2002.

The focal point of Meredith Woo-Cumings’ argument rests on challenging Amartya Sen’s position that famine has more to do with the politics of food distribution rather than the insufficient stocks of food.

She presents four arguments (two main and two subsidiary points):

  1. No simple correlation between political regime type and famine;
  2. Climatic change and aberrational weather have a greater impact on famine than the political system.
  3. There is a need to shift from Sen’s “entitlement protection,” guaranteeing subsistence wages to the vulnerable, to creating the basis for sustained development;
  4. We need to consider the long term impact of famine, including its power to force changes that the political leadership could not have envisioned.

To provide an empirical example of her hypothesis, Woo-Cumings presents North Korea as a case study. This presents an especially interesting case because “a developing country with comparatively high rates of industrialization and urbanization [had] collapsed into famine and global mendicancy” (3).

In particular:

  1. Famine occurred 40 years after collectivization (unlike in the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam)
  2. DPRK leadership had been concerned about famine since the inception of the state in 1948 and the state had seemingly achieved food self-sufficiency by the 1980s
  3. DPRK was an industrialized state
  4. The Public Distribution System (PDS) was not only egalitarian but had long term experience in distributing food to areas of need.

Here Woo-Cumings notes that Sen’s assessment of famines is incompatible with studying the North Korean case because he “conceives famine as an extreme progression along a spectrum of poverty and deprivation, but not as a cataclysmic breakdown of a social system” (5). Distinguishing famine from chronic hunger and malnutrition, Sen posited that speedy intervention can prevent famines as it occurred in India in 1967, 1973, 1979 and 1987. Thus the Nobel laureate economist saw the ability of people to command food through legal means (aka entitlements vis-a-vis the state) to be a key insurance against famine.

Woo-Cumings notes that Sen presented two ways people starve:

  1. When the endowments contract through crop failure, death of livestock, etc
  2. exchange entitlements shift when food prices rise or wages fall

But in his analysis, Sen placed greater emphasis on the latter. In his seminal work, Poverty and Famine:

Starvation is the characteristics of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat. While the latter can be a cause of the former, it is but one of many possible causes

However, Woo-Cumings asks how this explains individual starvation aggregating into a mass collective famine. She rejects Sen’s evidence that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) suffered from the famine because the “government’s immunity to public pressure” alongside an “information failure” caused by a controlled press that duped both the public and deluded the government (12). She points to famines in China and North Korea as possible consequences of an agrarian revolution, which after a while created a “mass base of egalitarian frugality that can tip over to famine with severe drops in food availability” (8).

She cites David Arnold’s analysis that Sen’s model for famine is applicable in “a highly differentiated and elaborately stratified agrarian society” but not in egalitarian ones like North Korea and China (8). Barrington Moore seems to support this argument in Social Origins of Dictatorship and Development where he sees Indian agriculture as a very special case, different from the systems in China, the Koreas and Vietnam. In addition, he notes that each system had its formative crises but were able to eventually develop beyond India’s poverty and subsistence level consumption, leveling a direct attack on Sen’s assessment on the merits of the Indian experience over the Chinese.

For Woo-Cumings the biggest factor leading to famine in the modern era has been environmental and ecological. Following Mike Davis’ analysis in Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World, Woo-Cumings sees the North Korean famine as a terrifying concoction of the changes in the climate and the internationalized market system.

She underscores one climatic disaster in particular: ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) – giant oscillations of ocean temperature and air pressure in the equatorial Pacific that directly affect normal rainfall patterns over much of the globe. While the El Nino cycles are natural (early cases dating back to 1728) with an average incident every 42 years, two of the three largest (1982-83, 1997-98) occurred 14 years from one another. Furthermore, the El Nino of 1990-95 was the longest in historical and paleo-climatic records – Woo-Cumings forwards the Greenhouse Effect as a possible cause of the acceleration.

Indeed, she goes on to cite Y.Y. Kueh’s argument that enormous grain losses during the 1959-61 period during China’s Great Leap Forward was caused by large-scale weather anomalies. Using David Arnold’s position that a society does not act entirely out of character even when there is a devastating crisis, Woo-Cumings argues that if there was food deficit in only certain parts of communist China and Korea, the state would have relied on built-in systems to deliver the needed grains. The fact that there was a breakdown in the system means that the policy failures of the state was magnified by forces of the environment such as ENSO (19).

Shifting the focus back to the DPRK, the case of North Korea’s famine is a strange one – the agricultural crisis occurred after the industrial crisis, which was the direct consequence of the trade and energy regime collapse in 1991. Estimates for the deaths in the famine range between 200,000 and 3.5 million – it’s difficult to clearly assess the situation because of North Korea’s opacity.

A short chronology:

1990 – Grain production is said to have been at 8 million tons. Based on studies, the basic food need for North Korea is believed to be between 5 and 6 million tons of grain. For bare subsistence, just under 5 million tons.
Sometime early 1990s – North Korea asked 500,000 tons of rice from South Korea. The request was subsequently dropped
1992 –  Pyongyang launched the “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign
1994 – North Korean news began to admit the existence of hunger and DPRK officials at Geneva speak urgently about the food crisis. It is estimated that North Korea may have had a two million ton deficit in food.
Dec. 1995 – Food and Agricultural Organization warns the coming of a massive famine
1995-1996 – close to a million tons of food imported
1996 – grain production fell to an all time low of 2.5 million tons
1996-1997 – over a million tons of food imported
1997 – The World Food Programme witnessed malnutrition and described the country as “walking the edge of a major famine.”
1997-1998 – over 1.3 million tons of food imported
2001 – grain production at 3.8 million tons

While many point to North Korea’s over-centralization and the absence of an incentive system as core components of the crisis, Woo-Cumings points out that North Korea had a far more decentralized system than China. The crucial coup de grace was the system that was built on the ruthless exploitation of land unsuited for agriculture that was driven by an energy-intensive forms of cultivation (24). The per capita energy use in North Korea in 1990 was apparently 71 gigajoules, twice that of China’s and similar to South Korea’s per person consumption.

North Korea only had few sources of energy: subsidized imports from the USSR, domestic coal mines and hydroelectric dams. Subsidized imports came to a sudden halt with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and other forms of domestic energy were severely damaged in the floods of 1995 and 96, subsequent drought and the tsunami in 1997.

Coalmines were flooded (some mines producing the best quality coal, near Anju, were on the coast below sea level to start with). Hydroelectric production was affected by floodwaters that damaged turbines and silted up reservoirs, then by drought that reduced water supplies below the levels needed to generate power. Electric transmission and distribution lines were damaged, as were roads and transportation equipment. Heavy erosion and scavenging for food denuded landscapes, reducing the availability of biomass for energy use.

At the time of Woo-Cumings’ article, the energy supply in North Korea was down 50% from where it had been in 1990.

The simple fact of the matter is that North Korea may never become self-sufficient in food production, but they achieved a near impossible task by heavily fertilizing the land using urea and ammonium sulfate, both petroleum based fertilizers. North Korea did at one point produce 80-90% of its own fertilizer (600,000-800,000 tons in years before 1990), but since 1995, domestic production has dropped to less than 100,000 tons per year. This means that agriculture is currently operating at 20-30% of normal levels of soil nutrient inputs.

The over-reliance on chemical fertilizers is derived from two sources:

  1. the political goal of food self-sufficiency
  2. the legacy of Japanese chemical industry in northern Korea which left behind the fertilizer factory in Hamhung which was the second largest in the world during WWII.

The success of the North Korean project hinged on the energy subsidies it received from the Soviet Union, which stood at around $400 million between 1980 and 1990 alongside $4 billion in trade deficits that Moscow financed between 1985 and 1990. Naturally, the collapse of the Soviet Union dealt a crushing blow to the North Korean economic system.

On top of this the flood in 1995 displaced 5.4 million people, destroyed 330,000 hectares of agricultural land, erased 1.9 million tons of grain and billed the North Korean state $15 billion in flood damages. The catastrophe was exacerbated by the state’s policy of bringing more marginal land into production which increased soil erosion. At the same time, the floods were followed by drought and more devastating climatic phenomenon which leads Woo-Cumings to maintain that North Korea, on top of feeling the consequences of bad long-term agricultural management, was also at the center of a global ecological disaster that resulted from an anomalous sea surface temperature.

The 1997-1998 El Niño had a long reach, stretching from Syria to Mongolia to PRC and North Korea, and also to Southeast Asia, devastating several developing economies that were mostly hapless against the most unusual climatic abnormalities. A particularly severe winter in Tibet wiped out an estimated 20 percent of all livestock. In Mongolia it produced a summer drought that left the animals unable to fatten for winter, and eventually killed some 3 million livestock. In Indonesia, an extended El Niño-associated drought aided the devastating fire that ripped through its tinder-dry forests, causing an estimated forest damage of 17,600 square miles. In Tajikistan, famine threatened its six million people, in what was deemed to be the worst drought in a half-century.

Woo-Cumings believes that the biggest impact of the famine was creating a transitional economy in North Korea, much in the same way the failure of the Great Leap Forward led to changes in the Chinese command economy. As people became more responsible for feeding themselves in the wake of the PDS collapse, an informal economy developed to meet the needs of the people. This may, in due time, empower the people.

In conclusion, Woo-Cumings recognizes the difficulty of creating an overarching theory of famine. Citing Peter Garnsey: Each food crisis, similarly, was an individual event. Nonetheless, she notes the fundamental and underlying importance of food acquisition and aggregate supply in a world that is increasingly facing challenges from the broken ecosystem.

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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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8 Responses to Summary of literature on Food Security: Woo-Cumings’ “The Political Ecology of Famine: The North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons”

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