A New Famine in North Korea?

According to a recent Asia Sentinel article by Todd Crowell, there could be a new famine in North Korea.

Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Asiapress in Osaka who is cited in the article, notes

Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed the position of supreme leader, the media in North Korea and visiting foreigners have reported on the beautifully developing capital, Pyongyang. But in the shadow of the ‘gorgeous’ capital a hidden famine has broken out

The article estimates that 20,000 people have died of starvation in South Hwanghae province alone during the transition year of 2012. Crowell relays information coming from within North Korea on how commissary officers are “ransacking villages and dwellings looking for hidden stockpiles.” The same source also notes that food situation in the region is worse than during the famine of 1994-98.

It is true that the construction boom in Pyongyang hides the relative destitution of the population living outside the capital. I have also made the claim before that the evident development in Pyongyang suggests serious problems in the distribution of capital and other resources in the country.

In the last article, we expressed skepticism regarding the report by the UN on the reduction of the state’s grain import needs and the massive decline in uncovered food deficit (total shortage – food imported) in the face of reduced inputs to agriculture.

If Todd Crowell is correct and famine conditions equivalent to or worse than the mid-1990s have returned, then the numbers in the November 2012 CFSAM report have serious implications. Assuming production did not increase from 2011/12 and given that Pyongyang imported less food than before, one cannot ignore the possibility that the 232,000 metric ton decline in food needs is derived not from increased production but from involuntary underconsumption by the people.

This is consistent with the report from December 2012 where North Koreans in China told NPR that they could not afford the food in the markets despite there being plenty of food. And the inflation in the country is certainly not helping the situation.

As Amartya Sen emphasized time and time again, the situation in North Korea is much less about whether the country can acquire enough aggregate grain to feed the people, but rather if the people can overcome the entitlement loss resulting from Pyongyang’s ravenous appetite for resources.

It is wholly possible that the situation is not as bad as it is described by Ishimaru and Crowell. Regardless, the fact remains that the country is facing serious shortage underconsumption – the question is scale and how to best overcome the problem.

Pyongyang must find a way to increase the purchasing power of individuals without inflating the price of food. Repeating our past suggestion, one possible solution may be to allow people in the agricultural sector to have greater control over both the means of production and the final output of their labor. This, in conjunction with bolstering markets and other institutions in the “vertical” chain of production would incentivize increased production and income while also facilitating the distribution of food.

And here we come back to the sad realization that more than a technical issue – the biggest stumbling block towards building food security in North Korea is politics.

More to come.

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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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