Commentary Type

North Korea on the Precipice of Famine

Stephan Haggard (PIIE), Marcus Noland (PIIE) and Erik Weeks (PIIE)


North Korea is once again headed toward widespread food shortages, hunger, and famine. As of this writing, the prospect of hunger-related deaths occurring in the next several months is approaching certainty. This expectation is based on four pieces of evidence, which we outline in this brief:

  • Food balances are as precarious as at any time since the great famine.
  • Access to aid or commercial imports is limited by diplomatic tensions and the world food crisis.  
  • Domestic food prices show the kind of extreme price inflation that is typical of pre-famine or famine settings.  
  • The domestic policy response to the crisis while arguably rational from the perspective of a regime seeking to maintain power and control is exacerbating the situation

The North Korean food crisis, now well into its second decade, presents a difficult set of ethical choices. The very ruthlessness of the regime and the numbing repetitiveness of its food problems make it difficult to mobilize humanitarian assistance. The promise of large-scale American assistance will help over the long run. But in the absence of vigorous action by South Korea and China, the two countries capable of delivering assistance in a timely fashion, famine is likely to once again claim innocent victims.

The North Korean regime will weather this challenge politically by ratcheting up repression, scrambling for foreign assistance, and guaranteeing supplies to core supporters in the army, security apparatus, and party. A resolution of the nuclear stand-off could also pave the way for resumption of economic reform and an increase in the availability of outside aid.

But even though the current crisis is unlikely to be of the magnitude of the great famine of the mid-1990s, the possibility of widespread social distress and even political instability cannot be ruled out. The problem is not simply in the short run: Shortages of crucial agricultural inputs such as fertilizer are setting the stage for continuing food problems well into 2009, and the response to the crisis is once again revealing a deep ambivalence on the part of the regime toward economic reform and opening. The five major parties with an interest in North Korea—South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States—need to think creatively not only about the nuclear issue and the ongoing humanitarian challenge but also about the possibility of a political crisis in North Korea.

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