Why North Korea Starves: a detailed video of North Korea’s food self-sufficiency quest omits how US hostility distorts that aim

“Why North Korea Starves” (Asianometry, 10 January 2022)

While accurate information about North Korea is difficult to obtain, due to its government’s secrecy, this Asianometry mini-documentary on the country’s attempts in becoming self-sufficient in food production gives a fairly detailed introduction into the history of North Korea’s efforts in this endeavour. The video starts with a survey of the physical geography of the Korean peninsula and why the northern part of that peninsula initially specialised early in industry rather than agriculture while the southern part specialised in agriculture. (The climate of northern Korea is not amenable to growing a wide variety of cereal crops, especially rice, with the result that the growing season is short. Moreover the area is more mountainous than flat.) After Japanese occupation ended in 1945, the new socialist government of Korea inherited an industrialised economy in northern Korea and seized the lands of Korean and Japanese landlords to distribute among Korean workers. The Korean War broke out in the 1950s and devastated the peninsula: Asianometry dismisses the destruction in northern Korea as “pretty bad” but in fact what became North Korea saw practically every city razed to the ground and the loss of some 20% of the population. After the war ended and the peninsula was divided into North and South Korea, North Korea under Kim Il-sung modelled its economic reconstruction on the centrally planned economy of the Soviet Union. Co-operatives and state farms were established with the aim of achieving self-sufficiency in food production and preservation of independence from the Soviet Union. The use of fertilisers and tractors was encouraged. Over the next several decades, as subsidisation by the Soviet Union grew less, North Korea increased its use of fertilisers and double-cropping, as a result becoming more dependent on oil imports while at the same time suffering from serious losses in soil fertility and quality.

As dependence on the Soviets lessened and then stopped, North Korea became more dependent on Chinese aid in the 1990s. When China began experiencing its own problems with grain supply, grain exports to North Korea decreased. There was flooding in North Korea’s western provinces (where most farms were located) in the mid-1990s and food shortages leading to famine occurred in North Korea. North Korea began requesting aid from South Korea and Japan. Though actual statistics are not known, some kind of famine or food supply emergency did exist in North Korea in the 1990s, and possibly some tens of thousands of people (one maximum estimate is even 3.5 million) starved to death.

After the 1990s famine, the North Korean government (under a change of leadership from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il) began allowing its people to cultivate private plots in small gardens. After Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, the government devolved even more decision-making capabilities to farmers on co-operatives and state farms to decide what and when to plant. In the meantime, the country continues to suffer from perhaps aggressive over-cropping and use of fertilisers, with the result that its soil is losing fertility and becoming more acidic. A shortage of tractors and other agricultural machinery – all of which need oil as well – hampers farmers in producing more and meeting grain quotas set by Pyongyang. Deforestation is also becoming a major problem in mountainous regions and results in even more loss of soil and soil fertility, and more frequent and severe, even destructive flooding.

Since Kim Jong-un’s accession to power in 2011, he has promoted a policy of “byongjin” which emphasises the acquisition of nuclear power and a nuclear-powered military strategy over a more conventional military strategy – possessing nuclear missiles may be cheaper than trying to train and fit out an army based on conscripts and reserves who are needed as farm labour during sowing and harvesting periods – together with policies aimed at improving people’s lives and food security. The famine of the 1990s may now be history though the video notes that farms are hamstrung by edicts from Pyongyang that prevent them from adopting farming methods and solutions that would restore soil fertility (such as mixed cropping that includes planting legumes) and relieve the pressure on both the land and on human manual labour. The byongjin policy has tacitly allowed some market-oriented reforms to supplement state-sponsored food distribution networks, with the appearance of private markets and privately owned and run restaurants in Pyongyang and some other cities.

While the video contains considerable detail and analysis of the ecological and economic issues that North Korea must deal with to ensure food security, it either misses or, worse, dismisses, the wider geopolitical reality that North Korea must cope with: the economic sanctions imposed by the US on the country that deny it the agricultural machinery and other related technologies, including improved seeds and farming methods, that would allow farms (privately or publicly owned and run) to increase their productivity and output without needing to take over marginal land or rely more heavily on human labour. More efficient farms would be able to pursue proper soil and water management methods, replenish their soil with natural methods rather than rely on chemical fertilisers, and not need to gobble up less fertile land in hilly or mountainous areas. Human labour would be released from the farms and be utilised more effectively and efficiently: the North Korean army would have less need to rely on farm labourers as conscripts and reservists because these people could become full-time soldiers. North Korea would become less vulnerable to potential foreign invasion during sowing and harvesting times, when the labourers are most needed; these seasons of the agricultural year are the very periods when the US and South Korean military carry out Operation Foal Eagle in which they practise invading North Korea and (since 2015) simulate assassinating North Korean leaders.

Asianometry’s failure to address the underlying geopolitical context behind many national issues in several Asian nations has always been the channel’s great weakness, and none more so than in this video where the impact of the Korean War on North Korea, its politics, culture and economy is waived away. The impact of Operation Foal Eagle military exercises once or twice a year, every year, forces North Korea to prioritise feeding its army, and the conscripts and reservists who must be trained, clothed, fed and supplied with weapons and ammunition, over the rest of the people, to the extent of diverting vast amounts of resources away from proper agricultural and other economic development. For this reason, viewers should treat the video with caution.

Unfortunately we do not know Asianometry’s sources for the information in this video and so again, much of the information (especially if it comes from North Korean defectors who come under the tender mercies of South Korean intel for “debriefing”) has to be regarded with some suspicion of an anti-NK bias.