April 24, 2007 | The New York Sun

Let Them Eat Nothing

When the Soviet system imploded in 1991, there was great concern that in the immediate aftermath the populations of post-communist nations, suddenly cut loose from Big Brother, might starve. They didn't. Although life was hard, people used their newfound freedoms to cope. But in one of the Soviet-engendered communist states where the totalitarian regime survived — North Korea — the result was famine.

Perhaps because no TV cameras were allowed in, and far too little information was allowed out, the North Korean famine of the 1990s remains one of the most muffled horrors of modern times. By now, however, there have been enough studies, reports, and tales from defectors to confirm that the deprivation in North Korea was catastrophic: One million or more people died, and food shortages continue to this day.

But the true causes of this famine are too often blurred by politics and propaganda. When North Korea's government finally asked for international aid, in 1996, Kim Jong Il's regime blamed what was by then a full-blown nightmare on floods that had hit the country in 1995. Even today, United Nations aid agencies tend to highlight floods, droughts, bad harvests, and such as the main reasons for food shortages. And even among those who correctly blame the regime of Kim Jong Il for the famine, the actual mechanisms are not always well understood.

It is a welcome contribution, then, that scholars Stephan Haggard of the University of California at San Diego and Marcus Noland of the Institute for International Economics have teamed up to write “Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform” (Columbia University Press, 309 pages, $35). Packed with insights into the North Korean system, this book draws on a growing body of publications and testimony about North Korea to provide an indepth account and analysis not only of the famine, but of the ruinous nature of Kim Jong Il's regime.

Written in a dry, scholarly style, this is a book to make the reader think, not weep. But it provides important context for the tragic individual stories that have been seeping for years out of North Korea. Messrs. Haggard and Noland document in careful and clear detail both the logistics and the horrendous human toll of North Korea's political and economic machinery — set up to serve not the interests of the people, but their rulers. The authors warn that given the secrecy and duplicity of the North Korean regime, reliable data are elusive. But when they speculate about numbers and causes, they explain carefully how and why they reach the conclusion that “the state's culpability in this vast misery elevates the North Korean famine to the level of a crime against humanity.” They show that while North Korea's government was unwilling even to acknowledge a crisis until 1996, the famine was already in the making by the late 1980s, as Soviet subsidies began to dry up. By 1991, as resources such as fuel and fertilizer dwindled, North Korea's regime had launched its now-infamous belt-tightening “Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign. Badly engineered efforts to boost farm production resulted in erosion which may have contributed to the floods of 1995. The authors also note that both the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, and his son, the current ruler Kim Jong Il, who took over in 1994, made a specialty of dictating agricultural technique to the collectivized farms — right down to the spacing of seedlings. Terrified North Korean officials may have been afraid to explain to the Kims that production had gone severely wrong.

But once clearly alerted to the extent of the famine, North Korea's regime responded in ways that made an atrocious situation even worse. The regime treated as criminal the behavior with which starving North Koreans tried to save themselves, such as private trade, internal movement, or attempts to flee the country. In 1997, Kim Jong Il unveiled his policy of songun or “military first,” evidently a bid to retain the loyalty of the military by giving it — along with top state officials — first dibs on the country's rations.

Ordinary folks were required to rely on the totalitarian mercies of the state-controlled Public Distribution System, or PDS, which in theory distributed food to all, but by the mid-1990s was running out of food to distribute. Too rigid to adapt to a changing world, the system, at least for purposes of feeding nonprivileged North Koreans, broke down. Forbidden to find alternatives, and in many cases forcibly urbanized by a regime that aspired to Stalin-style heavy industry, many North Koreans were left with below-subsistence rations. In some places, the PDS delivered nothing at all.

This horror persisted even after aid from the free world began to flow, $2.3 billion worth between 1995 and 2005, much of that in the form of food, via the U.N. World Food Program. The authors explain that especially with aid coming in, it would have been easy to ensure enough food for all — had North Korea's government treated this help as a supplement to the country's resources. Instead, Mr. Kim's regime exploited aid as a substitute for national resources. So, while foreign aid ran into what was left of the state-controlled public distribution system, Pyongyang spent its money on military and luxury goods. In 1999, while children were starving, Mr. Kim's government treated itself to 40 MiG-21 warplanes purchased from Kazakhstan.

Messrs. Haggard and Noland explain that if there has been any redeeming aspect to this nightmare, it is that the efforts of individual North Koreans to survive, coupled with the breakdown of the Public Distribution System, led to the “marketization” of some aspects of the country's rigidly controlled economy. Desperate to survive, people began doing business despite the risk of being punished. Markets began to appear, and in 2002 the North Korean regime acknowledged this with measures heralded at the time as stirrings of market reforms. The authors warn, however, that North Korea's erstwhile reforms do not follow the mold of those in China or Vietnam, where at least some change was mandated from the top. In North Korea, the government has been trying to wrestle things back under control – with policies that have included confiscatory levels of inflation, forced loans to the regime, and efforts beginning in 2005 to restore the Public Distribution System.

The warped result is that while there are some markets in food, the economy remains a basket case, prospects for healthy reform remain bleak, and the Public Distribution System “has become mainly a mechanism for distributing aid” — thus reinforcing state control. The authors provide a horrifying picture of the compromises made by aid agencies such as the World Food Program to keep aid flowing into North Korea. Coming in the midst of the current U.N. scandal over cash allegedly forked over to Kim Jong Il's regime, this book ought to raise yet more questions about the compromises the international community has made with Mr. Kim in order to send billions worth of aid since 1995.The authors estimate that by 2005, roughly 30% of foreign aid was being diverted to the personal uses of Mr. Kim and his inner circle.

The flaw in this book comes at the end. Having made a strong case that North Korea's regime is both belligerently resistant to reform and thoroughly responsible for the agonies of the population, Messrs. Haggard and Noland nevertheless come down in favor of doing business with Kim Jong Il. In a concluding review of international efforts through the years to corral Mr. Kim's regime into civilized behavior, including the current Six-Party talks (in which Pyongyang has just reneged on its latest promise to start denuclearizing) they prescribe a policy of aid and engagement in the hope of nudging Mr. Kim toward “incremental improvements in the status quo.”

This coda is a closing flip from their valuable and painstaking economic analysis into an arena of geostrategic wishful thinking. It ignores the ticking clock, as not only North Korea, but Mr. Kim's business partners in such places as Iran pursue their own nuclear extortion rackets and borrow from Mr. Kim's tactics in manipulating the good will of the free world. Nonetheless, as a window to the inner workings of North Korea, this book belongs on the list of required reading.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


Read in The New York Sun


North Korea