Famine Strikes North Korea Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rigid government control intensified by a series of catastrophic calamities brought on a famine of epic proportions in North Korea during the mid-1990’s. Despite worldwide response, Premier Kim Jong Il failed to implement necessary structural changes to prevent future crises from occurring in his country.

Summary of Event

The emergence of Kim Jong Il as premier of North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in July of 1994, marked the first time a change in leadership occurred in the country since the promulgation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948. Unfortunately, however, the effects of the sixty-year dictatorship of father and then son had precipitated negative economic growth since 1989. In 1995, severe flooding weakened an already vulnerable economy and hastened a devastating famine that killed between 900,000 and 2.4 million people, threatening to topple the socialist state. Famine;North Korea Agriculture;North Korea [kw]Famine Strikes North Korea (1995-1998) [kw]North Korea, Famine Strikes (1995-1998) [kw]Korea, Famine Strikes North (1995-1998) Famine;North Korea Agriculture;North Korea [g]East Asia;1995-1998: Famine Strikes North Korea[09090] [g]Koreas;1995-1998: Famine Strikes North Korea[09090] [c]Disasters;1995-1998: Famine Strikes North Korea[09090] [c]Environmental issues;1995-1998: Famine Strikes North Korea[09090] [c]Agriculture;1995-1998: Famine Strikes North Korea[09090] Kim Jong-il Kim Il Sung Kim Young Sam

Although flooding was the immediate catalyst of famine in North Korea in the mid-1990’s, it was not the sole cause of the crisis. The state’s traditional isolation from the world’s healthiest economies resulted in its limited economic base, ultimately rendering it vulnerable to internal and external forces.

In keeping with his party’s adoption of economic self-reliance, the elder Kim had encouraged his country to grow subsistence crops such as maize, potatoes, rice, and other essentials to discourage exporting from the global economy. (North Korea, however, never attained complete financial independence, as it relied heavily on the Soviet Union and Communist China.) Ironically, rampant malnutrition followed after Kim Il Sung’s relentless drive to achieve self-sufficiency, which resulted in the overuse of North Korea’s prime land (only 1.85 million hectares of arable land exists, with a short growing season that lasts from June to October). Additionally, farmers utilized chemical fertilizers, which further depleted the already taxed soil. The net result yielded worrisome food shortages even before the flooding of 1995.

Appealing to the national will, Kim Il Sung in 1991 announced that his people should consume two meals a day in the name of patriotic self-reliance. Despite his call for solidarity, food riots resulted two years later. North Korea’s state distribution system, in operation prior to the crisis, had been required to provide 600-700 grams of food for the average citizen. The military and state officials were allotted additional grams because of their status. Nonetheless, as the 1990’s progressed, food quotas were rarely, if ever, met, and many trekked to China, desperately searching for food.

Compounding an already unstable economic situation, China, North Korea’s primary trade partner after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, severely limited its foreign exchange and further demanded hard cash for its exports. With a weak economic base and a falling food supply, North Korea could not meet China’s demands and faced almost certain economic ruin.

In July, 1995, severe flooding rocked the already precarious economic environment in North Korea when twenty-three inches of rain flooded premium North Korean soil; the northwest provinces of North P’yŏngan and Chagang were especially affected. An estimated 15 percent of all land destroyed was considered to be of the highest quality. Not only were people malnourished, but also major power outages caused a sharp dip in industrial and agricultural output and adversely affected medical supplies.

In response, individual farmers began to fend for themselves by hoarding grain and concentrating on subsistence rather than communal farming, thereby defeating the ultimate purpose of a socialist economy. In an unprecedented move that summer, the former Hermit Kingdom sought global resources by petitioning individual countries and U.N. agencies.

Even before the floods hit, North Korea had petitioned Japan and South Korea (the Republic of Korea, ROK) for food. Within a year, however, ROK’s leader Kim Young Sam, who promised to contribute 150 tons of rice, appeared to have a change of heart after his party suffered defeat at the polls on June 27. After his initial delivery of rice, Kim Young Sam not only refused further aid but also discouraged other countries from doing the same. Hoping to unite Korea under his republic, he sought to accelerate the demise of his enemy to the north. The ROK’s policy toward North Korea would change in 1998 when Kim Young Sam was ousted from office.

In part, general reluctance to assist the DPRK was a response to the erratic rule of Kim Jong Il, who since his rise to power in 1994 had insulated himself from the citizenry by focusing on a buildup of military forces on one hand and the harnessing of nuclear power for alternate sources of energy on the other—both costly ventures that diverted funds from the needy citizenry. Kim Jong Il’s insistence on developing a nuclear reactor in Yŏngbyŏn (north of P’yŏngyang), under construction since 1982, alarmed the international community, which feared that the reactor would place nuclear weaponry in the hands of this unpredictable leader.

Flooding again plagued North Korea in 1996, followed by a drought in 1997, which had severe negative impacts on the resource-rich areas of North P’yŏngan, South P’yŏngan, North Hwanghae, and Kangwŏn—much of whose land had already been adversely affected by two previous years of flooding. By 1997, North Korea was at the center of a grave crisis, and major donors felt compelled to deliver emergency food despite North Korea’s belligerent behavior.

The World Food Program and the United States supplied the beleaguered country with much of the aid. (According to Senate hearings conducted before the Foreign Relations Committee in 2003, the United States contributed close to 1.9 million tons of food to North Korea.) However, the North Korean government committed grave injustices by failing to oversee the distribution of aid to its citizenry and in refusing to accept responsibility for famine-related deaths. In many cases, goods were diverted and sold illegally at prohibitive prices or redirected to the military; unnamed sources estimate that only 10 percent of products donated were given to their rightful recipients.


The onset of famine in North Korea brought the once-isolated kingdom into the global arena. Although Kim Jong Il broke with tradition by petitioning the United Nations and individual countries to provide assistance to his people, he failed to ensure the equitable delivery of these materials to those in need. Additionally, Kim Jong Il’s emphasis on military preparedness at the expense of his nation’s collective health revealed to the international community of nations the character of this despotic ruler who failed to meet the needs of his people.

The historically closed nature of society in North Korea precludes an accurate tally of the fatalities related to the famine. Analysts have concluded, however, that the North Korean government resisted recommended structural changes despite the evidence of inequities that emerged following the famine. It has been reported that North Korea faced more than a decade of steady economic decline. Although the famine officially ended in 1998, the presence of malnutrition in that nation was still widespread in the early years of the twenty-first century. Famine;North Korea Agriculture;North Korea

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cumings, Bruce. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. A solid study of the development of Korean statecraft, spotlighting the unique history and culture that informed its modernity. Cumings convincingly contends that North Korea forged its own brand of communism separate from that of the Soviet Union. Photo inserts and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodkind, Daniel, and Loraine West. “The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic Impact.” Population and Development Review 27, no. 2 (June, 2001): 219-238. Attempts to present a reliable estimate of the effects of the North Korean famine on the country’s population. Charts and graphs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noland, Marcus, Sherman Robinson, and Tao Wang. “Famine in North Korea: Causes and Cures.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 49, no. 4(July, 2001): 741-746. Through close analysis of available, albeit unreliable statistics, the authors contend that positive change can come about through a transformation of North Korea’s infrastructure rather than through foreign aid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. Rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Journalist Oberdorfer presents a thoughtful analysis of the two Koreas, artificially divided at the end of World War II, which battled internal and external forces that threatened their place in an interdependent world. Photo inserts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. Senate. World Hunger from Africa to North Korea: Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate. 108th Congress, 1st session, 2003. Evaluates the global hunger crisis and recommends further assistance from the United States for areas most in need, such as Afghanistan, Africa, and North Korea.

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Categories: History