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Section One Famine


Researcher at MSF-Crash, François Jean died on December 25th 1999. He wrote numerous books and articles, some published in Revue Esprit. He worked particularly on Afghanistan, Caucasus, North Korea and analyzed the evolution of humanitarianism without compromise.

CHAPTER ONE Famine And Ideology


Originally published in Commentaire, No. 42, summer 1988, p. 444-449

The black earth was sown with bones
and sprinkled with blood
for a harvest of sorrow
in the land of Rus’

The Tale of Igor’s Armament (12th century)

These prophetic lines open a recent work devoted to one of the most neglected aspects of contemporary history: famine.Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow (Oxford University Press, 1986). Famine we see on our TV screens from time to time is all the more intolerable because it seems a vestige of a long-ago age. But this is far from the case. During the 20th century famine caused as many deaths as did conflicts between nations. How many of us, indeed, are aware that one famine in Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus alone killed as many peasants as all the combatants killed during World War I? How many, for that matter, realize that deaths resulting from the “Great Leap Forward” were as numerous as those of the Second World War—civilian and military alike? How many of us, finally, know that the toll of the 1984–85 famine in Ethiopia is probably as heavy—though heaven only knows for the moment—as that of the Iran-Iraq conflict? We end this ghoulish tally, worth reciting only to allay our astonishing ignorance of these events. The sheer scale of the Ethiopian disaster wasn’t sufficient, it would seem, to hold our attention for very long. Compared to war, deeply rooted in the Western imagination as the symbol of absolute evil, famine touches our awareness only sporadically. Tragic images of starving children break our hearts, soon to vanish in the onrush of the news cycle.

In this inconvenient encounter with uttermost distress, reflection seems superfluous. Indeed, with thousands of studies devoted to wars and conflict, it is hard to enumerate even a small number of books on famines, most familiar only to specialists. To be sure, many of these tragedies slipped by unnoticed because the facts were long concealed. It was necessary to wait until the war’s aftermath and its flood of refugees, along with de-Stalinization and its half-truths, for the Ukrainian slaughter to appear in its fullest dimensions. Similarly, the most prescient fears of “China-watchers” concerning the toll of the 1959–61 famine would not be confirmed until 20 years later, with the availability of previously unpublished demographic data. Yet even as witness accounts pile up and catastrophes become clearly legible in the official statistics themselves, indifference prevails over fresh evidence. The burden of forgetting weighs especially heavy, because it buries historical lessons essential to our understanding of this century’s worst famines.

Politically-Induced Famines

Just as war-making has, to a large extent, spread beyond the battlefield over the last half century, famine also has worsened significantly in its dimensions and destructive capacity. The number that starved in the Russian famines of 1891, 1906, and 1919, which never exceeded 3 million across all Russian territories, scarcely approaches the number threatened by the 1921 famine in the Soviet Union (13 million), or that of 1933 (almost 30 million in Ukraine alone). The mortality rate recorded at the time of the Ukrainian famine was unprecedented, as well: one-fifth of the population died in this breadbasket of Central Europe. Similarly, the number of victims of the Great Famine exceeded—and by a large margin—the victims claimed by the Chinese famines of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The ordeal of the “dark years” of 1959–61 saw the emergence of a new type of famine that not only struck in every part of the country, but did so for three years running, an unprecedented phenomenon. Finally, the Ethiopian famine of 1984–85 probably caused three times the number of deaths than the earlier famine in 1972–1973. In any event it was nothing similar to the Sahelian famines, with victims numbering in the thousands, not hundreds of thousands.

To be sure, these famines were less a consequence of climate than of politics; certain Chinese and Ethiopian leaders have indeed acknowledged as much. Nor were these famines linked to a state of war—except in Ethiopia, which was a war between the State and the peasantry. Only one side was armed, though, and all the victims were peasants. Breaking with a thousand-year tradition of retail massacre, the 20th century ushered in the era of mass extermination. Ordinary carnage has given way to magnificent projects of “social prophylaxis” in which orchestrated elimination of the “old” society has, on occasion, been taken to its most extreme consequences. For famine has not only changed in scale, it has changed in nature. What was once a timeless scourge, a natural calamity, has become a phenomenon of the modern age and an act of government; no longer part of the toll of war, it has become an offering on the altar of ideology.

The Ethiopian famine provides a remarkable illustration of this development. The result of drought, war, and the regime’s policies, it is a situation of uncommon complexity combining the traditional attributes of previous famines with newer features that reached their consummate form in the USSR and, later, in China. The same ordeal now unfolds 50 years later, under the incredulous gaze of TV-watchers viewing it through meterological lenses. Not that the events are all similar in their cause, scale, or ramifications, but they proceed from the same view of reality, the same vision of the future, the same exaggerated urge to transform society. Apart from obvious distinctions, the same logic is at work—one that would plunge the three countries into unprecedented disasters.

Politically-Inspired Famines: The Numbers

Estimates of the toll of the 1984–85 Ethiopian famine run from 600,000 to 1 million dead, a “bracket” roughly equal to losses in the Iran-Iraq conflict between 1980 and 1986. For the two world wars we based our conclusions on the Soviet specialist B. Ourlanis. This data has been challenged at times for overestimating Soviet losses, in the opinion of most analysts, but offers the advantage of providing a global summary. Ourlanis estimates the number of soldiers killed in combat in 1914–18 at 6 million, and the excess mortality associated with World War II in Europe at 26 million (not counting the millions of victims of Nazi concentration and extermination camps). For the Great Leap Forward, the demographer G. Calot estimates the number of victims of the Great Famine (1959–61) at 28 million, based on data provided by China after the 1982 census.

For the Ukrainian famine (1932–33), the absence of official data makes analysis difficult. Based on a comparison of the censuses of 1926 and 1939, and assuming “normal” demographic growth during that period, the most conservative observers (R. Conquest, J. Mace, etc.) put the number of victims of the rural terror at 14.5 million in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, with 6.5 million of these associated with de-kulakization, 1 million linked to collectivization in Kazakhstan, and 7 million due to the 1932–33 famine (6 million of that number in Ukraine and the North Caucasus). This assessment clearly underestimates the true toll: the 1939 census was actually preceded by a never-published 1937 census whose authors were promptly liquidated for having “diminished the USSR’s population figure.” One can imagine that their 1939 successors would not have wished to take any risks and set to work filling in the gaps … As Stalin said, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the vanishing of thousands is a statistic.” With the statistics duly “corrected,” the famine was thus reduced to the status of “hypothesis,” and vanished from memory.

The Party and the Peasant

Utopians view the peasant either as angel or animal: a repository of the nation’s soul, an identity figure embodying the mythical values of a golden age not yet corrupted by monetary exchange and colonial domination—or the opposite: “totally devoid of social consciousness” according to Gorki, who excoriated the “animal individualism of the peasant.” The Khmer Rouge carried the first view, held dear by exponents of authenticity, to the point of madness. City dwellers and peasants alike were engulfed in a lunatic project of social regeneration. The second view, which lay behind the Soviet slaughters, merits closer attention because it is at the core of that hysteria for development which contained the seeds of Ethiopia’s ordeal.

Avant-garde revolutionaries, to be sure, have no monopoly on contempt for “backward,” individualistic peasants, perceived as incapable of acting rationally. It is just as intrinsic to the development rhetoric wielded by clients of state patronage to legitimize its power and justify its policies. In many countries the peasantry is seen as a shapeless mass, useless except as a resource to be tapped for the nation’s construction and industrial development. However, in some cases this contempt, widely shared among third world industrializing elites, is paired with intent to transform persons and societies. In an indirect appeal for a capitalism that would hasten technological progress and social differentiation, Marx gave a perfunctory assessment of peasant life as “animalizing”; it was quickly converted into a menacing scarecrow by teachers of true socialism, great and small. With the image of the kulak now superimposed over that of the mujik, the primitive peasant was transformed into a class enemy, to be dealt with using the radical measures Stalin described in April 1930: “Our policy is to liquidate the kulak as a social class. We have tolerated these bloodsuckers, these scorpions and vampires. Now we have the opportunity to replace them with the economics of our kolkhozes and sovkhozes.” Exit the reactionary, inefficient peasantry; enter mechanized, “scientific” agriculture. We know the consequences of this tremendous upheaval, but the human disaster it represented is too often forgotten. Peasants ended up propped atop tractors or stacked in open graves. Repression of the countryside took the form of mass deportations and unprecedented famines.

More than a half century after the great transformation decreed by Stalin, the cult of the tractor and the myth of the agricultural factory remain intact. As a vehicle of progress the tractor is to socialist agriculture what the magic wand is to fairy tales: sputtering and backfiring in all its modernity, bristling with red flags, and draped with propagandists, it proclaims to the village the new era its leaders promised, plowing the furrows of the radiant future to come across horizons depicted in revolutionary lithographs lining the traffic intersections of Kiev or Addis Ababa. This faith in technology is accompanied by an unflagging infatuation with large-scale industrial agriculture. Colonel Mengistu’s official statements are akin to those of Stalin in their vision of a future centered upon large agricultural complexes crisscrossed by tractor stations, work brigades, and housing cooperatives … In the meantime, the debates over the pace and logistics of collectivization that pitted Bukharin against Stalin have vanished and been replaced by a radical approach. Stroumlin’s maxim “Our task is not to study the economy but to change it”—which condemned Bukharin and other “bourgeois-kulak ideologues” to early purges—can now be cited in preambles to the Bulgarian manuals that nourish military-progressive dreams of predigested formulas for sweeping development.

However, in fact this pseudo-industrialization quickly developed into out-and-out bureaucratization, the would-be economies of scale into large-scale waste—as Khrushchev acknowledged in 1953 when he declared that scientific agriculture produced less grain per inhabitant than the mujiks of old, with their wooden plows. Colonel Mengistu likewise admits that state farm productivity is no greater than that of traditional peasants … then goes on to urge speeding up collectivization. Clearly the leadership in Addis Ababa has comprehended neither the suicidal character of its policies, nor the failure of Soviet agriculture, nor even the renewed questioning of China’s people’s communes—the last projected phase of Ethiopian cooperatives.

The lure of the Stalinist model owes less to its efficiency—highly dubious—than to the fact that it furnishes a program for development and a structural framework that is highly reassuring to leaders hungry for progress. It is also due to the opportunities it offers for social control in countries where the peasantry is for the most part “un-captured.”

In most cases, collectivization has primarily been an instrument for the policing or extraction of resources; in addition to its ideological motivations, it has been a ready instrument for tightening the state’s grip on populations and their production. It is significant that whenever the process was accelerated, in the USSR as well as in China, it was due to problems in food supply. Collectivization, along with famine, seems in every case to have been the crowning phase of a project aimed at subjugating peasants, once and for all, to the power of the state and the party.

Ukraine: Extermination by Hunger

This desire to control, coupled with an utter inability to comprehend how a rural economy functions, degenerated into all-out war with the peasantry. In this way, the 1921 famine in the USSR was due less to climate than to the exactions of “War Communism.” This massive famine, which claimed more than five million victims, was the outcome of a deadly cycle of confiscations, revolt, and repression that would have been utterly lost to memory were it not for the legendary figure Makhno. Requisitioning of harvests—misleadingly termed surpluses—left peasants totally destitute in the face of climate crisis, plunging them into famine. The scale of the disaster and the precariousness of the situation prompted the Communist Party to resolve on a pause in its repression of the countryside. The New Economic Policy (NEP) provided a structure more favorable to peasant production, until sub-par quota deliveries associated with dissuasive pricing policies led to a severe regime response. In 1925, 30,000 activists descended on the countryside to seize grain quotas claimed by planning authorities. The sweeping confiscation was a success for the government: the requisite quantities were indeed collected and the party thereby concluded it was easier to seize grain by command than to obtain it via market forces. By contrast, peasants saw these extortionate measures, which recalled only too well the methods of War Communism, as confirmation that the NEP’s liberalization measures were unreliable. Production incentives, already weakened by frequent policy changes, suffered lasting damage. The consequent decline in production was soon followed by new requisition campaigns based on the assumption that kulaks, now elevated permanently to the status of saboteurs, retained huge grain reserves in their possession.

While peasants were being deported or collectivized en masse, the countryside, bled white by the “Bread Procurement Commission,” sank into deep poverty. Despite all efforts, grain collections were below quota every year, hardening the party’s determination and reinforcing the cycle of repression. In the summer of 1932, collectivized and bled dry, Ukraine once again faced unachievable goals. One last “battle for production” was launched under the aegis of the GPU [predecessor of the KGB], officially responsible for eliminating saboteurs, prohibiting any resupply of kolkhozes that had not fulfilled their quotas, and ensuring the success of the harvest—newly designated the “sacred and inviolable” property of the state. From that point forward Ukraine’s fate was sealed. The winter of 1933 was horrifying; hordes of emaciated peasants could be seen combing the countryside, unearthing animal carcasses outside well-stocked warehouses. Militia fired on sight at the starving caught digging in the frozen soil in search of grain or potatoes. Militants searched relentlessly among the dead and dying for “hidden wheat,” bashing in walls, knocking on floors, and harassing survivors, who were suspected—by virtue simply of having survived—of diverting government assets for their personal benefit. Survivors’ accounts are replete with extraordinary scenesMiron Dolot, Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985). such as these, the crowning moment of a policy designed to liquidate peasants as a social class and Ukrainians as a nation. The Ukrainian tragedy is a remarkable illustration of a famine deliberately created and coldly planned up to its ultimate consequences. It was probably the first of the disguised genocides in which millions of people were eliminated, in silence, in the very heart of Europe.

Herriot’s Perspicacity

Denial of the facts, backed up by a healthy dose of disinformation, was enough to securely reassure a public little inclined, naturally, to accept the unacceptable. Still, as occurred later during the Holocaust, proof of the worst was very soon confirmed. Despite a blackout imposed in Ukraine there was no shortage of witness accounts; these were systematically denied by the Soviet authorities. Offers of aid were rejected as imperialist propaganda. Trips were organized in order to refute the “lies of the bourgeois press,” and former French Prime Minister Édouard Herriot was invited to tour the trompe l’oeil scenes of Potemkin villages, where GPU agents disguised as peasants bestirred themselves cheerfully. After viewing this skillfully orchestrated production, Herriot, only too willing to be convinced, felt entitled to declare, “You’ll pardon me if I shrug my shoulders when they claim the Ukraine is being devastated by famine.” A shrug of the shoulders for 6 million dead … In fairness to Édouard Herriot, others—without the benefit of ignorance—assented obligingly to the operation.Marco Carynnyk, “The Famine the Times Couldn’t Find,” Commentary 76, November 1983. See also James W. Crowd, Angels in Stalin’s Paradise: Western Reporters in Soviet Russia, 1917 to 1937 (University Press of America, 1982). “Enlightened” opinion of the day all but asked to be deceived.

Ethiopia: Headlong Rush

Nothing of the sort occurred in Ethiopia. The famine there was ultimately acknowledged, and international assistance actively solicited. Clearly the Ethiopian famine is more the outcome of the combined effects of drought and war than of a deliberate use of hunger to crush the peasantry. In Eritrea and Tigre the long-running conflict between Addis Ababa and guerilla movements left peasants at the mercy of drought and plunged them hopelessly into famine. In these regions especially sensitive to the vagaries of climate, the ravages of war and the army’s exactions have disrupted agricultural production, weakened rural social structures, and paralyzed relief operations. Over the years famine has come to be used as a weapon, food aid a trump card to weaken opposition movements and control populations. The situation is not new: throughout history famine has come in the wake of tanks and at times has gone before. Still, famine would never have reached this degree of severity if those regions untouched by the conflict had not already been weakened by the regime’s social experiments. For 10 years all of Ethiopia has been mired in chronic food scarcity and increasing dependence on international aid. The situation derives neither from a hostile climate, unforgiving soil, nor the alleged primitivism of Ethiopia’s peasantry. Quite the contrary; peasants are reacting quite logically to the prices allowed, the opportunities available, and the structures imposed on them … by withdrawing into subsistence agriculture. Across the country, compulsory quota deliveries, proliferating taxes, and the collectivization of landholdings have discouraged production, throttled the peasantry, and deepened its vulnerability to drought. In many respects the Ethiopian famine of 1984–85 resembles that of 1921. No NEP followed in the aftermath, however, despite repeated warnings by Soviet experts worried by the grandiose objectives of the 10-year plan launched in September 1984, in the very midst of the period of famine. In a September 1985 report submitted to the Ethiopian authorities,Considerations on the Economic Policy of Ethiopia for the Next Five Years, report prepared for the Ethiopian National Central Planning Committee. Soviet experts advocated new policies more favorable to peasant agriculture. But their recommendations—astonishingly close to those of the World Bank—were not adopted by Ethiopian leaders. Far from reevaluating their strategy, they resolved instead on a program of shock therapy intended to radically transform rural Ethiopia. Taking advantage of a vulnerable society, its social institutions weakened by famine and the reliance on international aid as a source of supply, they undertook in record time to displace a large portion of the rural population for resettlement in new collective structures.François Jean, Ethiopia, On the Proper Usage of Famine (Médecins Sans Frontières, 1986). In the space of a few months, 600,000 starving persons were forcibly transferred from the north of the country to the south, and 3 million peasants were compelled to abandon their lands and gather in numerous villages, under the militia’s surveillance.

This massive, militant eruption of activity, which has already claimed more than 100,000 victims and whose worst consequences are now evident, carries echoes of the rationale for the Great Leap Forward. There was the same refusal to be constrained by reality; the same headlong rush towards utopia; the same avalanche of monumental objectives, with total collectivization seen as a shortcut to progress; and the same frenzy to transform, in the belief that revolutionary enthusiasm could compensate for an absence of preparation, capital, or competence.

China: Fatal Utopia

Inaugurated in 1958 in an atmosphere of near hysteria, the Great Leap Forward envisaged that grain and steel production would double in one year and England would be outperformed in fifteen. The masses were entrusted with the execution of these miracles and duly shepherded by hundreds of thousands of cadres, sent into the field to instruct peasants in agriculture. Millions of people were uprooted from their lands amid a deluge of grand hydraulic projects and mini-blast furnaces that proved in the end to be little more than fiascoes. The “metamorphosis of rivers and mountains” aggravated the flooding it was meant to prevent. The “battle for steel” prevented peasants from tending to their harvests—in sum, this dual industrial and agricultural leap was a triumph of absurdity. The frenzied obsession with productivity led to a collapse in production; the “victorious struggle against nature” led to unprecedented famine.

All across China efforts to implement the slogan “more, faster, better, and cheaper” in every domain quickly devolved into general frenzy. Fearful of being denounced for right-wing tendencies, the more pragmatic cadres had no choice but to redouble their activism, throwing their regions into a vast competition for the status of model, or “Sputnik,” province.Jean-Luc Domenach, The Origins of the Great Leap Forward: The Case of One Chinese Province, trans. A.M. Berrett (Oxford: Westview Press 1995).In this atmosphere of one-upmanship, objectives proliferated, statistics soared, propaganda became panegyric, and reality itself was buried beneath triumphant official communiqués. Even as China collapsed into famine, senior and junior cadres brainwashed themselves and each other amid a profusion of eclipsed goals, “hydraulicized” provinces and “steel” villages … It would take three years—and 28 million dead—for the veil of rhetoric finally to drop. In the final reckoning, political delirium weighed just as heavily on the scale as economic disaster; the catastrophe never would have reached such proportions if leaders had not been such prisoners of their own delusions.

In Ethiopia, at least, the response of the international community acted as a circuit breaker, obliging the regime to momentarily rein in its project for reconstructing the countryside. Population transfers were suspended in 1986–87 to dampen controversy sparked by the expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières. As it turned out, the respite was only temporary. Population transfers have now been relaunched using the new famine as a pretext and humanitarian organizations expelled thanks to the intensifying conflict in Eritrea and Tigre. Regime policy remains unchanged amid these alternating “pauses to consolidate” and phases of mobilization, leading the nation further into a spiral of oppression and famine.


CHAPTER TWO Ethiopia: A Political Famine


Originally published in Politique Internationale, No. 39, spring 1988, p.89-100

The respite, it turns out, was to be short-lived. Three years after the tragedy of 1984–85, famine once again threatens Ethiopia. Since September 1987, authorities there have been appealing for tons in relief supplies from the international community, evoking a grim sense of déjà vu … Even in September 1984, the annual fall festivities marking the progress of the revolution were troubled by rumors—at the time suppressed—of widespread poverty in the countryside. From the creation of the Workers’ Party in 1984 to the founding of the Democratic Republic in 1987, alarm bells of famine have attended every step in the construction of the New Ethiopia. This stubborn coincidence puts the customary blaming of drought in a questionable light. In 1984 Ethiopia was the emblematic image on our TV screens of an Africa in crisis, foreordained by a sort of destiny of climate to endless catastrophe. Now after a million dead, millions of refugees and displaced persons, millions of tons in food aid, and a new famine, questions have arisen. Drought can certainly provoke localized subsistence crises. But drought alone cannot fully explain tragedy on such a scale.

Drought leads to famine in Ethiopia because rural society is vulnerable to climate risk; it is vulnerable because it is being weakened by the conflict between Addis Ababa and guerilla movements and is being sacrificed on the altar of (unproductive) development and the “radiant future” to come.

This year, once again the map of zones menaced by famine covers precisely that of zones of conflict: Eritea, Tigre, and North Wallo. In these regions especially sensitive to the vagaries of climate, the ravages of war and the army’s atrocities have brought tragic consequences. Over the last 10 or even 20 years, the destruction of harvests and livestock, pillaging of villages and rural markets, and attacks on supply routes and convoys have hindered production, disrupted trade networks, and delayed crucial readjustments between zones of surplus and zones of shortage. The war that ravages Eritrea and Tigre is both a vehicle of famine and an impediment to relief operations, a problem magnified by the fact that the rich agricultural regions of the central west can no longer meet the needs of the regions threatened. Ever since Colonel Mengistu took the nation’s fate in his hands, the food situation has deteriorated steadily. Revolutionary Ethiopia has become mired in chronic food shortage and growing dependence on Western aid. One-half of the relief supplies requested of the international community in September represented a structural deficit. If the trend that started in the 1970s continues, a “normal” year’s needs may reach two million tons of grain in 1990.

These developments do not derive from a hostile climate, unforgiving soil, or rapid population growth, at least not for the most part. They are principally the result of regime policy. For 10 years nothing has been done to support the Ethiopian peasantry; scarce resources available for agriculture have been squandered in vain on state farms and cooperatives. Individual peasants, responsible for 95 percent of total production, have not merely been neglected but actively discouraged by pricing and distribution policies that verge on racketeering. Far from promoting conditions that would favor increased production, the regime is instead determined to effect more ways of extorting surpluses. Across the country, compulsory quotas, increased taxes, and confiscations of grain reserves have discouraged production and throttled the peasantry and increased its vulnerability to drought.

The Rulers’ Rationale

These disastrous policies are most assuredly not the product of a collective death wish among Ethiopia’s leadership. Rather they are the reflection of very clear priorities: feed the politically sensitive population of the capital, bankroll a stronger state apparatus, and meet the army’s needs. They also reveal a deep contempt for traditional peasants, thought to be incapable of acting rationally. In truth, by going back to subsistence agriculture, the peasantry is reacting quite logically to the opportunities available, the prices allowed, and the structures imposed on them … Paradoxically, this reaction only confirms the biases of the military men in power: even when freed from their “feudal-bourgeois” shackles, peasants remain mired in tradition, hostile to progress, incapable of perceiving “their” interests. In the heroic struggle to enlighten the New Ethiopia, peasants are viewed as being in the way. According to Colonel Mengistu, “there is no alternative to peasant collectivization.”Report of the Central Committee of the Ethiopian Workers Party, April 8, 1985 (BBC—translated from Amharic). In this view, the only way to bring science and technology to the countryside is to reconfigure landholdings into massive agro-complexes. Gathering peasants into large production units is the only way to build discipline and productivity. More important, it is the only way to bring their production under control. A flawless rationale; and it is ruthlessly applied. “Backward” peasants—individualist, potentially insurgent—must be rounded up, reeducated, and ultimately converted into model tractor operators. Colonel Mengistu’s speeches echo Stalin’s in their visions of a future Ethiopia crisscrossed by a network of machine and tractor stations, work brigades, and housing cooperatives.

This splendid agenda does not seem threatened by the failure of state farms. In Colonel Mengistu’s view, if the collective sector is less productive than individual peasants, this is precisely because the latter have not yet been sufficiently collectivized. According to a circular argument only Ethiopia’s leaders are able to parse, the remedy is to move quickly to increase the acreage of state farms and speed up the resettling of peasants into producers’ cooperatives. Even the Soviets betrayed some anxiety when, in a September 1985 report to the Ethiopian authorities,Considerations on the Economic Policy of Ethiopia for the Next Five Years, report prepared by Soviet experts under the direction of V.V. Sokolov for the Ethiopian National Committee for Central Planning. they emphasized the need to maintain the dynamism of small peasant farmers intact. Colonel Mengistu ignored their recommendations, opting instead for a headlong rush into massive population displacements and resettlements.

A Regime In Quest Of Funds

Ethiopia is probably the only African nation where a revolutionary rhetoric coinciding with a radical project of social restructuring is in the process of actual implementation. It is also the only state that has prepared itself to reach this goal. In Ethiopia, with its ancient traditions of bureaucracy and state dominance, the new regime has progressively acquired the tools it needs to control masses of its citizens. The regime’s takeover began in 1978 with the repression of 20,000 peasants’ associations; it was further consolidated in 1984 with the creation of a vanguard party of 30,000 cadres duly trained by the Soviets, and completed in 1987 when a people’s democratic republic was established with a new constitution and redrawn territorial boundaries. Still, Colonel Mengistu’s regime has neither the financial resources nor the margin of security it needs to radically transform the countryside at the cost of a breakdown in production. The regime expects those resources to come from Western nations.

The East and the West have long played nursemaid to Ethiopia, dividing tasks in a certain manner familiar from previous instances: the West provides budgetary support and increasing amounts of food aid, mainly in the form of donations; the Soviets deliver arms, gasoline, or materials for tractor facilities, mostly as loans or barter in exchange for staple foods.Still, on January 25, 1988, the Soviets did announce a contribution of 250,000 tons of grain, making them, with the United States, the chief donors. During the 1984–85 famine Soviet food aid was negligible (roughly 10,000 tons of rice). In 1985, for example, the figure for arms purchases from the USSR was equal to total expenditures by Western governments on relief aid for victims of famine. While content with the resources their allies provide, Ethiopia’s leaders understand there are limits to this economic aid.

Since the early 1980s the regime has actively sought Western support. A team from the International Labor Office was brought in to assess Ethiopia’s needs in the hope that a favorable report from an international organization would draw donor attention. The project did not furnish the results anticipated: the commission’s members—though carefully composed of experts sympathetic to the socialist alternative—were unsparing in their criticism. Highlighting the disastrous results of policies pursued and noting that the leadership firmly intended to continue on the same path, the commission simply advised it not to rely on Western aid.BIT, Socialism from the Grassroots: Accumulation, Employment and Equity in Ethiopia (Addis Ababa, 1982, unpublished). In fact, with the exception of (extensive) assistance provided in the context of emergency operations, Ethiopia is among the least favored African governments in terms of development aid. Some find this objectionable; confusing the cause with its result, they censure the West for keeping the country in poverty by denying it resources it needs to develop. These oddly blind advocates of a further injection of resources now propose that we finance the repression of rural areas—by way of atonement! Still, how can they fail to see that aid without conditions serves only to insulate the regime from the disaster it is inflicting on its people and … to supply it the means to carry on doing so? Clearly the best support we could offer the Ethiopians would be to link aid to a radical change in direction.

The Aid In Question

Donors are aware of all this and want reforms that offer hope of positive results in return for their support. How forcefully those wishes are expressed varies greatly. The firmest position is that of the United States, which provides humanitarian assistance alone. At the opposite pole, Italy finances “Ethiopian-style development” without compunction, whether from some larger strategy or mere impulse it is not clear. Between these two poles, donors range from the World Bank, which demands reforms, to the Swedish Agency for Development, which supports projects considered “neutral.” In between is the European Economic Community (EEC), which refrains from setting conditions and instead prefers to talk of a “policy dialogue.”

After five years of in-depth discussions the World Bank still awaits a change in policy. During March 1986 meetings to allocate funds granted Ethiopia under the third Lome Convention, the EEC secured promises. Doubtless it would have been satisfied with promises alone; France and Great Britain preferred to wait until these materialized. Even the Swedish, who operate in a region actively being redeveloped, are beginning to think it no longer possible to ignore the circumstances surrounding their projects. Since 1986, when they registered their concerns on the resettling of peasants in new villages, the ban on private commerce, and the introduction of cooperatives, they have been following the World Bank’s example and planning their withdrawal by the end of 1988 if no change is perceived by that date.

Still, negotiations have made progress; they focus, instructively, on the concept of quotas. It is clear the two parties do not share the same perspective: donors seek to stimulate production while Colonel Mengistu, his gaze lifted towards the radiant future to come, thinks to control it. His position was amply expressed in a 1981 speech: “When we planned our nation’s development, it was with the strategic objectives of our revolution in mind …. Some people have forgotten that the sole foundation of our revolution is the ideology we represent. Some tend to overlook this point, mistaking redevelopment for an end in itself.”Colin Legum, ed., African Contemporary Records: 1981-1982 (New York: Africana Publishing Co., 1981).

The leadership’s thinking is transparent, unless one lapses into an applied Kremlinology that sees “pragmatists” and “ideologues” struggling for the upper hand. Pragmatists do indeed exist, and their convictions are reinforced whenever donors show firmness. But until now there has been no concrete evidence to support the notion that any such movement towards liberalization—meaning a lesser degree of terror—might be taking place. None of the signals periodically emitted—causing analysts to wonder: NEP? or is collectivization being challenged?—have found the faintest echo in official speeches. In September 1987 Colonel Mengistu reemphasized that “efforts to build socialism cannot bear fruit in agriculture unless the private sector is replaced by a socialist sector.”Blaine Harden, “Ethiopia Faces Famine Again, Requests Massive Food Relief,” The Washington Post, September 14, 1987.

Yet all it took was Ethiopia’s expressing a willingness to respect its commitments for the EEC straightaway to proclaim the coming release of 239 million ECUs promised under Lome III a “success.”Ethiopia is the first beneficiary to receive community aid under Lome III. Because the amount of aid was pre-set (primarily based on population and level of development), current discussions center on the utilization of funds. The Ethiopian regime was known to be anxious to reach an accord with its financial backers, even if this required a tactical retreat on its part. European authorities were known to be impatient to speed the payout of funds allotted Ethiopia. Still, it is regrettable that in the end the “policy dialogue” yielded little more than technical measures with scant hope, for now, of actual implementation.

The More Things Change …

Prudence is all the more in order now that population displacement and “villagization”Population displacements and “villagization” are very different in their scale of activity: population displacements involve the transfer of peasants north to resettlement camps situated many hundreds of kilometers from the south. In contrast, “villagization” is a local operation in which populations that traditionally have lived in scattered settlements are resettled in new villages. are once again on the agenda. In reality villagization never stopped. At most the pace was slowed to placate donors: from December 1985 to December 1987 more than six million peasants were forced to abandon their lands and resettle in new villages under the watch of the militia. Population displacements involving the forced transfer of 600,000 northern peasants towards the supposedly “fertile, virgin” south did have to be suspended, on the other hand, for a “pause to consolidate” amid controversy following the expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières in December 1985.Médecins Sans Frontières was expelled from Ethiopia for publicly denouncing the conditions in which population displacements were being carried out, which flouted principles the regime had set forth (voluntary participation, non-separation of families, the displaced were to be in a good state of health, etc.)

It would appear the time has come to move to the next stage. In November 1987, even as Ethiopia issued repeated appeals for Western aid, the National Coordinating Committee for Villagization announced its new 1988 goals to cadres: three million peasants are to be resettled in new villages and 300,000 people are to be called on to begin training in the socialist mode of production on the new southern frontier. With curious inevitability, each crisis occasions a renewed acceleration of the process. Just as in 1984, when the “discovery” of famine was accompanied by brutally implemented population displacement and resettlement programs, so the new threat of famine is prompting a large-scale relaunching of operations. The coincidence is not accidental. Famine in Ethiopia is more than second nature; it is a mode of governing. Though never desired by the leadership, famine has nonetheless allowed it to reach its goals more quickly. Famine provides the resources for the regime to effect profound change in a society of decaying institutions, to justify the upheavals taking place, and to obtain from the international community the tools it needs to transform the countryside.

1984–1985: Booby-Trapped Aid

The experience of the last famine is enlightening in this regard. The regime obtained on an emergency basis the development aid it had previously been refused. What is worse, the famine could have been controlled and limited, as developments in Ethiopia and Kenya in 198384 demonstrate.John M. Cohen, “Role of Government in Combating Food Shortages,” in Drought and Hunger in Africa, ed. M. Glantz (Cambridge, 1986). These two countries, relatively alike in their geographic configuration, agricultural potential, and rainfall conditions, were indeed both struck by a serious drought that led to similar food shortages. Yet Kenya emerged from this difficult period essentially unscathed, while Ethiopia descended into a disaster without precedent. The Kenyan “non-event” attracted little notice, of course, and no one marveled at this very odd famine that would spare Kenya only to hit Ethiopia the harder. Yet there was no great feat in the Kenyan “miracle.” Simple recognition of the threat early on, combined with the political will to avoid the catastrophe, were all that was needed. As a result the problem never developed into a crisis. It was treated as a priority by existing institutions; food supplies, imported from the first months of 1984, were regularly dispatched to villages via normal trade channels, and peasants were able to return to their fields with the coming of the first rains.

In Ethiopia, by contrast, sophisticated emergency warning systems, expert committees on natural disasters, and other extensive emergency response mechanisms could not compensate for months of dissembling and indifference. In fact, it took almost a year and tens of thousands of victims for the regime to finally acknowledge the “drought” and authorize journalists to film—under surveillance—hordes of starving people stranded at distribution centers. As we know, the images were deeply moving, prompting the largest relief operation ever. Kenya, on the other hand, was forgotten. It could not produce images of abandoned villages, massive migrations, masses of starving people, or emaciated children. While Kenya imported two-thirds of its needs, at great cost, Ethiopia hit the international-aid “jackpot.” Not that it acted in deliberate manipulation: Ethiopian leaders were clearly too busy with preparations for the revolution’s 10th anniversary celebrations to concern themselves with the famine or international public opinion! Nevertheless, the example highlights one of the paradoxes of aid; at times it means rewarding the most irresponsible or the most criminal of regimes, allowing them to cash in on the consequences of disastrous policies, pursue them with total impunity, and even accelerate a process that generates refugees, famines, and … more relief aid.

The problem is by no means theoretical. In 1984 and 1985 aid essentially enabled the funding of population displacements and resettlements. It also made it possible to offset a drop in production the following year caused by the radical upheaval. By officially refusing support to these operations while turning a blind eye to the way aid was being used, donors have let themselves become ensnared in a deadly cycle. Whether through blindness or consent, they made it possible to finance the “great leap forward” mandated by Ethiopia’s leadership; in so doing they condemned themselves to foot the bill for these social experiments indefinitely, in order to care for its victims. Thus assured of a comfortable safety net, Colonel Mengistu could redouble efforts to “create a new constructive man for the new society”Fisseha Desta (Vice President of the Republic and of the Council of State, Workers Party politburo member), Address to Last DERG Conference, (trans. from Amharic by the BBC) September 3, 1987. with no concern for the economic impact. The human impact, however, was appalling. One hundred thousand people are dead who could have been saved had donors not resigned themselves, in their silence, to condoning the violence, blackmail, and diversion of relief aid. None of the principles solemnly proclaimed for the benefit of donors were ever respected.

Intoxicating Success

The regime has since acknowledged the most visible atrocities, denouncing the overzealousness of local cadres. Likewise, Colonel Mengistu has been willing to placate donors with the promise that future population displacements will take place on a wholly voluntary basis. It is hardly astonishing that such declarations would be offered in appeasement. What does surprise is that they should continue to find a receptive audience, as we see nowadays in the responses of certain obliging analysts, quick to exonerate the leadership and circulate its allegations of individual misconduct. When the time came to relaunch the regime’s program in the presence of invited journalists and donors, noble declarations and the smiles of departing first volunteers were enough to hearten some observers, who were visibly impressed by such “laudable efforts”Statement by Professor Minkowski on his return from Ethiopia, AFP, January 20, 1988. to promote development. The military-industrial complex, identified with a hated imperialism, has now been replaced by a military-progressive complex that cultivates the image of vanguard liberators anxious to guide “a little people, impoverished but worthy” along the road of development.

In many ways the benign label “development”—a fig leaf for the most criminal of undertakings—has a truly numbing effect. Well-advertised benevolent intentions are supposed to excuse a priori some of the “regrettable” consequences of the struggle against dependence and underdevelopment. Yet, how is it possible not to see that the bizarre goals set for cadres—compelled to reach their quotas for deliveries, resettlement, villagization, and collectivization with forced enthusiasm—by their very nature lead to coercion and abuse? Clearly, these excesses are not so much the result of the special tenacity of local authorities as they are the logical product of a system that seeks to lead an entire society on a forced march towards an absolute, compulsory Good.

This is not yet clear to some analysts, however, who continue to maintain that Ethiopia only means to apply solutions long prescribed by donors themselves. To be sure, since 1973 the World Bank has endorsed limited population displacements to deal with problems in a few regions. However, its concern has been with soil conservation, not the reconfiguration of rural areas. Once again donors are mistaken as to the regime’s intentions. But there is an ample supply of witness accounts that leave no doubt as to the operation’s true objectives. Dawit Wolde Giorgis, longtime political analyst of the regime for financial donors, supplied a loose interpretation after his defection:Dawit Wolde Giorgis, head of the Ethiopian organization in charge of relief aid (RRC), defected in November 1985 during a tour of Western capitals. His successor as head of the RRC, Berhane Deresa, in turn sought refuge in the United States on June 6, 1986, during the United Nations’ special session on Africa. “The goal [of population displacements] is to create the nucleus of new collective farms …; villagization has the same goal. Social control and mobilization is the only political process now taking place in Ethiopia.”See “Let Them Eat Dust,” African Events III, August 1987.

What to Do?

Western aid must be kept carefully separate from such a process. This is true for development aid, the intent of which surely is not to reinforce policies that condemn the country to an ongoing state of catastrophe. It is just as true for emergency aid intended to provide relief to the starving, not to fund a lunatic project of social transformation. If donors are to avoid being trapped in a bureaucratic logic, they would be well advised to draw these conclusions. Development aid should be suspended until these experiments are abandoned.

Emergency aid, however, is needed now more than ever. At a moment when famine threatens millions of Ethiopians, it is vital to avoid another slaughter. Nevertheless, it must be with the assurance that this aid, mobilized on the victims’ behalf, is not deflected from its target. This means monitoring its use and ensuring that it reaches the hungry.

At present these two imperatives are jeopardized by the war. Guerilla activities are achieving important victories in Eritrea and Tigre, and a counteroffensive is being readied. The regime has recently compelled the departure of NGOs working in the north of the country, and the renewed outbreak of fighting is paralyzing relief operations. Food aid unloaded at Ethiopian ports can no longer be directed to zones threatened by famine. Airlifts are inadequate; the distribution of supplies, henceforth under government control, will affect only provincial capitals, while rural areas remain out of reach of international aid. With the forced exit of humanitarian organizations, millions of peasants are now abandoned, without witnesses, between war and famine.



North Korea: A Famine Regime

Originally published in Esprit, February 1999

In the spring of 1995, several months after the end of a crisis triggered by Pyongyang’s threatened withdrawal from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, North Korea was back in the headlines with a request for food aid. A disbelieving world thus learned that this tightly sealed nation, on the brink of possessing a nuclear weapon and long-range missiles, was also a nation drained dry, incapable of feeding its people and dependent on international aid for survival. North Korea has been on international life support for four years now. The food emergency, first characterized by officials as the result of flooding in 1995–96, then of drought in 1997, set in motion one of the largest food aid programs financed by the international community in the past decade.

For the past four years, the rare humanitarian organizations authorized to travel in North Korea have speculated on the dimensions of the crisis. Some speak of an acute food shortage; others depict a situation of famine that, according to estimates, would have caused between many hundreds of thousands and more than three million deaths over recent years. The degree of uncertainty is a clear consequence of the nation’s impenetrable facade. The North Korean regime has now lifted a corner of the veil, of course, in its request for international aid, but it continues to conceal the gravity of the situation. In this country, isolated from the world and wrapped in a siege mentality, all economic and social data—even hospital patient registers—are considered state secrets. Moreover, the few humanitarian organizations present in the country are subject to strict monitoring and are unable to freely evaluate the situation. They may on occasion see cases of acute malnutrition, but they can only observe what the regime allows to be seen.

Beneath such difficulties of assessment, however, speculations about the dimensions of the crisis reveal a deeper flaw in our perception of the process of famine in North Korea.

An Atypical Famine

Famine may be one of the most neglected aspects of contemporary history. Compared to war, deeply rooted in the Western imagination as the embodiment of adversity, famine touches our awareness only sporadically. Images of starving children flash around the world on TV screens, only to vanish in the onrush of the news cycle. In this inconvenient encounter with uttermost distress, commentary of any kind would appear superfluous. With thousands of studies devoted to wars and conflict it would be hard to list even a small number of books on famines; most are familiar only to specialists. But our ignorance exacts a heavy toll; it blinds us to the lessons of history, condemning us not to see, or else not to understand, the famines of the present day. The famines that took place 25 years ago passed us by like comets before amazed TV watchers sporting protective eyewear. Since that time, with some interval between, events in Ethiopia have again opened our eyes to the issue.François Jean, Ethiopie, du Bon Usage de la Famine [Ethiopia: On the Proper Usage of Famine] (Médecins Sans Frontières, 1986). But the notion that modern famines frequently are the result of the combined effects of drought and war, while perfectly accurate, does not exhaust the question. While continual references to “hunger as a weapon” lock our attention on nations in conflict, other famines may remain hidden from view. “The hand of fate” … the “ravages of war” … famine eludes our understanding in such fashionable clichés. For several years now, our iconic images of famine have come from Somalia or Sudan. By this yardstick there could be no famine in North Korea, because it cannot furnish the images we instinctively associate with such a tragedy. What strange sort of famine could this be, with no massive migrations or starving hordes crowding distribution centers, no de-structuring of society, no destabilization of political authority?

Yet circumstances such as these are not unprecedented. Quite the contrary—they are common features of the worst famines of this century. In Ukraine in 1933, six million people perished silently in the breadbasket of Eastern Europe, hermetically sealed off by cordons of militia.Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow (Oxford University Press, 1986). Similarly, famine took the lives of 30 million people in the Chinese countryside between 1959 and 1961, before migrations from starving villages towards the cities forced Mao to reign in the ideological frenzy of the Great Leap Forward.Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts, John Murray (1996). In both cases strict control over information and the population enabled authorities to firmly reassure an international public that otherwise might have been agitated by refugee accounts. After viewing productions skillfully orchestrated for their benefit, an Édouard Herriot in Ukraine or a François Mitterand in China felt entitled to deny any famine existed at all. Indeed, it was necessary to wait until the aftermath of the Second World War and its flood of refugees, as well as de-Stalinization and the partial truths it uncovered, for the slaughter in Ukraine to appear in its fullest dimensions. In like manner, the most prescient fears of China watchers concerning the toll of the 1959–61 famine would not be confirmed until 20 years later, when previously unpublished demographic data became available. North Korea is not the first country to experience a famine amidst genuine skepticism abroad. If not for refugee accounts and questions raised by those close to the reality in North Korea, one could easily doubt whether anyone is dying of hunger at all in this kingdom of self-reliance.

But comparisons to Ukraine in the 1930s or China during the Great Leap Forward can also be misleading. Beneath surface similarities, North Korea’s famine has features that distinguish it from every other modern famine.

In contrast with most of the famines of the 20th ce\ntury, North Korea’s is not associated with a situation of conflict. North Korea is, of course, still technically at war with the United Nations, but a peace agreement was reached in 1953 and the famine is not, as in Somalia or Sudan, the end result of a conflict and its ensuing train of devastation. This suspended war is a key contributing factor in the deteriorating situation, however, because it has a deep impact on the setting of priorities and the allocation of resources. North Korea devotes more than a quarter of its GDP to defense, maintains an army of over one million men, and has for 40 years run an economy—with tunnels filled with strategic stocks and specialized steelworks facilities—that is inefficient but geared nonetheless towards reunifying the nation by military means. A perpetual state of mobilization for imminent conflict is intrinsic to the regime’s legitimacy. It is as if North Korea could not exist if it were not encircled by a hostile world. This isolationism is a key element in the country’s present impasse.

The North Korean famine is also dissimilar to famines under other communist regimes in that it is not the consequence of a crash project of social transformation. The acute food shortages that arose in Mongolia at the beginning of the 1930s, in Vietnam from 1955 to 1956, or in Cambodia from 1977 to 1979—and particularly the widespread famines that ravaged Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and China—were the direct result of radical changes in landholding patterns and harshly increased state levies on the peasantry.François Jean, “Famine et Idéologie” [Famine and Ideology], Commentaire, vol. 11, no. 42 (summer 1988).And the Ukrainian tragedy was the crowning phase of a policy of collectivization and requisition, aimed at eliminating both peasants and Ukrainians and subjugating survivors to state and party authority once and for all. The calamity of the 1959–61 famine, which not only struck every corner of China but did so for an unprecedented three years running, was directly linked to the frenzied obsession with productivity and the ideological one-upmanship characteristic of the Great Leap Forward. Nothing at all similar took place in North Korea, where famine has occurred under a stable regime, firmly in power for a half century, which has not embarked on any radical change of course in recent years. But the fact that the current crisis cannot be traced to recent political decisions does not simplify the search for solutions. The problem is a structural one.

Finally, and in contrast to other famines of this century—especially those of the USSR and China, which hit primarily rural societies—North Korea’s famine has occurred in a country with a majority urban population and an economy based principally on heavy industry.Nicholas Eberstadt, “North Korea as an Economy under Multiple Severe Stresses: Analogies and Lessons from Past and Recent Historical Experience,” Communist Economies & Economic Transformation, vol. 9, no. 2 (1997).This hampers the population’s ability to fall back on a subsistence livelihood as well as the regime’s capacity to extract from the countryside the resources urban dwellers need for survival. City dwellers cannot plant rice on their balconies; they have been wholly dependent on government-distributed resources (food, clothing, etc.) for three generations. Still, if the state tries to wring from peasants more than they can produce, it risks triggering famine and jeopardizing future harvests. There are no simple answers in such a situation. The problem is systemic; it is a product of deficiencies in the now bankrupt North Korean economy.

Chronic Scarcity

Any attempt to analyze the North Korean situation is frustrated from the outset by a lack of data. Since the 1960s the country has been subjected to a statistical blackout unrivalled in contemporary history; by comparison Enver Hoxha’s Albania would have passed for a paradigm of transparency. Moreover, the majority of analysts are forced to work from data published by the Bank of Korea based on estimates by information services and filtered politically by the government in Seoul. The more diligent observers try to interpret economic developments in North Korea by careful analysis of its foreign trade, which they seek to reconstruct from data published by major trade partners.Nicholas Eberstadt, “The DPRK’s international trade in capital goods, 1970-1995: Data from ‘Mirror Statistics,’” The Journal of East Asian Affairs, vol. XII, no 1 (winter/spring 1998).

In the agricultural sector, as well, the cult of secrecy has produced long statistical gaps during the 1960s, the early 1970s, and the end of the 1990s. The rare data published on the occasion of New Year’s addresses or after seven-year plans more closely resembled paeans to the march of socialist agriculture—until the sheer magnitude of economic stagnation, which deepened after the suspension of aid by Eastern-bloc regimes, forced the regime to lift a corner of the veil and reveal the fact of its agricultural shortages as part of its request for international aid. Grain production thus gives the appearance of having soared—from 1.9 million tons in 1946 to 4.8 million tons in 1961, 7 million tons in 1974, and 10 million tons in 1984 and 1995—before collapsing to 3.76 million tons in 1995, the year of the first request for international aid.Philip Wonhyuk Lim, “North Korea Food Crisis,” Korea and World Affairs, vol. 21 (winter 1997); Kim Woon Keun, “The Food Crisis in North Korea: Background and Prospects,” East Asian Review, vol. VIII, no. 4 (winter 1996).

This pattern prompts two observations and poses a question. The first observation is that the regime’s rhetoric has been not altogether divorced from reality: it is consistent with the bell curve of the nation’s economic development. Initial successes based on an extensive mobilization of resources were followed by more or less rapid setbacks, due to autarchic policies and structural obstacles. The second observation is that the bell is probably flatter than indicated, beginning its downward curve in the second half of the 1980s. Clearly this statistical series is more a product of political propaganda than of economic data. And, in North Korea, propaganda is ubiquitous to the point that it actually furnishes keys to interpretation: the heavy-handed recycling of the old ‘60s slogan “Rice = Socialism” (to become “Rice = Communism” 20 years later), along with repeated promises of Korean chicken-in-a-pot (soup with meat and rice) in New Year’s addresses, as well as the “Let’s eat just two meals a day” campaign—launched in the midst of an otherwise abundant period statistically—have fueled doubts since the early 1990s concerning the successes proclaimed in official addresses.

The difficulty lies in knowing whether this exaggeration is principally meant for foreign consumption or is part of a process of self-induced brainwashing. Here, again, the sermons of the Great Leader can at times provide surprising insight into the reality behind the one-upmanship, whereby senior and junior cadres alike brainwash themselves and each other in a profusion of obliterated targets, surpassed quotas, and record harvests. In a 1974 address to agricultural cadres, Kim Il Sung castigated cooperative farm authorities for the exaggerations in their reports.March 31, 1975 address to agricultural officials in South Pyongyang province, in Kim Il Sung, Jojakjib [Works], vol. 30 (1987), quoted in Hy-Sang Lee, “Supply and Demand for Grains in North Korea,” Korea and World Affairs (1994). In North Korea, status and social standing depend on the ability to fill production quotas set at the next level up. There is an inherent tendency in such a system to exaggerate at each level—still more so in a climate of endless mobilization drives. Despite, or indeed because of this activist atmosphere and this triumphal obsession with productivity, it is doubtful whether North Korea ever produced 10 million tons of grain; estimates for the end of the 1980s vary between 5 and 7 million tons and, for the beginning of the 1990s, between 4 and 5 million tons.Heather Smith, “North Korea: How Much Reform and Whose Characteristics?” Brookings Discussion Papers, no. 133 (July 1997).

Given what is known about the country’s demographic development and the (Spartan) rations allocated to the population by the state, there is every reason to believe that by the early 1990s agricultural production could no longer meet the needs of the population as the regime defined them. It appears the deterioration was rapid. In 1991 the shortage was probably already on the order of millions of tons. It then grew steadily deeper, reaching an average of more than two million tons per year around the mid-1990s, which is when the call for international aid went out. At first rations were reduced; later the regime drew on reserves built up as a consequence of Kim Il Sung’s mania for stockpiling resources in the event of imminent war. Next, it extended its practice of begging to include “imperialist” countries and requested international aid. Taking this attempt to reconstruct events a bit further, it would appear that the food problem in North Korea began well before the floods of 1995. It built up over time, a product of policies implemented over a 50-year period.

A Bankrupt Economy

The land in North Korea is not very conducive to agriculture. A mountainous country situated in the northern latitudes, it has a brief agricultural season and only 2 million hectares of arable land, 1.5 million of which is used for grains—half for rice and half for corn since collectivization began. Added to these natural limitations are the characteristic flaws of planned, collective-agriculture economies: poor resource allocation, an inefficient system of distribution, and, most of all, the lack of any structure of incentives for peasants, who from 1958 on have been settled on government farms and in production cooperatives. To compensate for the lack of economic incentives the regime relies on ideological mobilization and science-based agricultural methods.

Though neither the Ch’llima Movement“Flying Horse”: the North Korean version of the Great Leap Forward. at the close of the 1950s nor the “Three Revolutions Teams”This movement, similar to China’s Cultural Revolution, sought to intensify revolutionary ardor and shake up bureaucracy by sending students and cadres out into the field. Its initiation in 1973 under the supervision of Kim Jong-il marked the accession of Kim Il Sung’s son as the Great Leader’s designated successor. introduced in the countryside since 1973 would seem to have generated the surge of frenzied enthusiasm or the profound radicalization of either the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution in China, North Koreans have for the past half century been subject to an ideological mobilization practically unrivaled in intensity over such a lengthy period. Since the introduction in the 1960s of the “Chongsanri” method, which advocates the intensive, individual indoctrination of peasants by local cadres, the goal has been to augment agricultural production and achieve self-reliance in food production, transforming individualist, “backward” peasants “devoid of social consciousness” into model workers. The theoretical framework for these three revolutions—ideological, technological, and cultural—is set forth in Kim Il Sung’s 1964 “Rural Theses.” Their practical application proceeds from ad hoc advice distilled from the Great Leader himself in the course of his countless field visits.

In this canon of teachings—the “Juche” farming method”—lies the essence of the “eternal” president’s all-encompassing wisdom; it is an elementary primer of scientism and Stakhanovism. Kim Il Sung was an apostle of a practice derived from Lyssenko’s theories, which achieved a popularity in China during the Great Leap Forward as far-reaching as the disaster that later ensued. Under the theory that plants of the same species cannot be in class conflict, and therefore have no reason to struggle amongst themselves for light or nutrients, members of agricultural cooperatives were forced to use high-density planting. Likewise, the Great Leader became an advocate of transplanting corn—a worthwhile innovation to be sure in this country of long, severe winters, but one that requires sending manpower into the countryside at key points during the agricultural calendar. No surprise, then, that North Korea should be the sole practitioner of this farming method, which relies on intensive mobilization of the labor force. The nation is unrivaled in this respect, with a labor force participation of over 70 percent, equal to China’s at the end of the Maoist era. Lastly, Kim Il Sung’s fascination for terrace farming and obsession with expanding arable land area have resulted in enormous terracing projects—but also in mountain deforestation, an important factor in the country’s high vulnerability to flooding.

Apart from the consequences of deforestation, however, the Great Leader’s directives have not in themselves led the country to ruin. On the contrary, North Korea appears to have avoided most of the failures other communist regimes have encountered in the early stages of a breakneck journey towards socialist agriculture. From what we know, the lightning collectivization of the countryside between 1954 and 1958 amidst the ruins of the Korean War did not lead, as in the USSR or in Vietnam, to the collapse of the rural economy. North Korea also appears to have been spared the eruptions of frenzied activity of Mao’s China, where it was believed revolutionary fervor could compensate for an absence of preparation, competence, or capital. North Korea seems to have managed its progress towards a more scientific agriculture without notable deviation, via a “technological revolution” based on the four cornerstones of irrigation, electrification, mechanization, and chemicalization.

This quest for self-reliance, through modernization of the countryside and industrialized agriculture, was conducted in very nearly “classic” form: a succession of seven-year plans, a torrent of electrified villages and irrigated land, and tons of grains per hectare and tractors per hundreds of hectares. But early successes were soon frustrated by the rigidities of a highly centralized economy in which all investment decisions are dictated by the leadership. In a system where the Great Leader literally has a hand in everything—from decisions to replace grain factory compressors to whether or not to develop a given type of improved seed or a given sophisticated technology for coal gasification—resource-allocation decisions must follow a Byzantine course of visits to factories or cooperatives. Moreover, the straitjacket of self-reliance has induced the manipulation of scarce resources as well as perpetual trade-offs between either industry and agriculture or the economy and the army, depending on the circumstances: growth and militarization in the 1960s and 1970s, stagnation in the 1980s, and then the ensuing collapse. A tractor factory might have switched to producing tanks at the end of the 1960s, then tractors for export at the end of the 1970s, and then, most likely, nothing but spare parts or scrap metal.

The progress of this industrial agriculture, which consumes copious amounts of inputs—mainly in the form of energy—for fertilizer factories, pumping stations, or agricultural machinery, is closely linked to other developments in the national economy. In a modern, complex economy—and North Korea’s economy is certainly that—problems encountered in one sector have repercussions on economic activity as a whole. Agricultural development was very soon brought up short by the North Korean economy’s inability to generate, from exports, foreign currency to buy raw materials, equipment, and the energy needed to run it. Until the end of the 1980s, concessionary trade with the Soviet bloc camouflaged the weaknesses inherent in this economic autarchy. With preferential trading terms eventually coming under fire and, later, the break up of the USSR, the mirage of North Korean self-reliance evaporated. Between 1989 and 1992 oil imports from the USSR plunged from 500,000 tons to 30,000 tons.

The end of Eastern-bloc aid destabilized industry, transportation, and, in a sort of vicious circle of effects, the entire economy of the nation, which was now unable to generate sufficient wealth to import the products it required to function and sustain the population. The food crisis gripping North Korea cannot in the end be traced to its agricultural sector, which despite inhospitable policies has performed fairly well, given a natural environment little conducive to self-reliance. In the final analysis, the food crisis is the outgrowth of an energy crisis and, above all else, a scarcity of foreign currency.

When Food Self-Reliance Leads to Famine

An analysis of North Korea’s foreign trade confirms both how precarious the situation has always been and its recent deterioration. In a system that deems foreign trade a necessary evil, foreign trade volume has steadily dwindled, until in 1994 it represented an absurdly narrow share—the smallest in the world—of about 10 percent of the estimated GDP.Young Namkoong, “Trends and Prospects of the North Korean Economy,” Korea and World Affairs, vol. 20, no. 2 (summer 1996).Furthermore, this trade centers on a small number of partners, a reflection of the country’s isolation, of course, but also its formidable capacity to extract unheard-of commercial terms of the kind that discourage potential exporters. The regime is past master in the art of squeezing the resources it needs for its survival out of friends (USSR, China) and even enemies (Japan, South Korea, the United States). In the 1960s Kim Il Sung skillfully exploited the Sino-Soviet split to raise the ante, then in the 1970s turned to the West for about as long as it took to bounce a check, before securing concessionary trade terms from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In spite of this unique form of trade, closer to de facto aid, North Korea has long recorded sizable, chronic trade deficits and can no longer offset either Chinese exports at concessionary prices, or politically-motivated South Korean imports, or even money transfers from Koreans in Japan, which have dropped sharply over recent years.These transfers, long estimated at several hundred million dollars per year, now represent little more than a few tens of millions of dollars per year, in all likelihood. See especially, Shim Jae Hoon, “Disillusioned Donors,” Far Eastern Economic Review (December 4, 1997). North Korea has accumulated over $10 billion in foreign debt, equal to 50 percent of its estimated GDP and is utterly without credit worthiness internationally. From 1972 to 1995 the trade deficit was close to half a billion dollars per year on average.

Upon closer examination of this chronic foreign trade deficit, the food sector offers a surprising picture. Between 1972 and 1995 food was the only sector in which imports and exports were in balance, to such a degree that North Korea regularly secured surpluses—even in 1995, the year it first requested international aid. Given the general characteristics of North Korean foreign trade displays, such a marked contrast over such a long period is likely no accident; it derives from deliberate policy. Trade in food products seems subject to a rigid accounting concept of self-reliance—as if North Korean authorities have been under instructions not to spend more than they earn in food trade. If this interpretation is valid, then North Korea has made a clear political choice not to use its precious foreign currency to purchase grain on the world market, even in bad years.

As part of this general policy of self-reliance, the regime has engaged in a perpetual trade-off between expensive exports and cheap imports in an effort to offset the growing food shortage. The pattern of food trade does indeed attest to deteriorating circumstances in the course of the last 20 years; grain represented no more than 1 percent of food-product exports during the 1990s, compared to 70 percent in the 1970s. Over the years, regime officials appear to have tried to secure the maximum nutritive value in exchange for whatever they had left to sell in the food category.Nicholas Eberstadt, “Food, Energy and Transport Equipment in the DPRK Economy: Some Indications from ‘Mirror Statistics,’” Asian Survey (March 1998). They traded rice, with a high market value, for wheat flour (30 percent cheaper) during the 1970s. Then in the 1980s they traded rice for imports at concessionary prices to offset a growing quantitative shortage. Later there was no corn left to export, not even to obtain poor-quality corn … Now North Korea sells mushrooms and seafood to Japan, at very high prices, to buy biscuits or cognacIn 1996, in the midst of famine, imports of French cognac and Armagnac increased by 780 percent compared to 1995. for the governing elites and cheap grain for the rest of the population.

But the drying up of preferential trade terms in the mid-1990s brought an end to this “caloric trade-off”—which appears to have been the external complement to domestic rationing. Although North Korea managed to acquire an average of over a half million tons of grain per year on the world market from the mid-1980s on—perhaps even starting in the 1960s if one accepts some of Kim Il Sung’s assertionsHy-Sang Lee, “Supply and Demand for Grains in North Korea”, op. cit.—this subsidized self-reliance would be abruptly undercut by mounting impatience in China, North Korea’s chief supplier of grain in the early 1990s. Weary of trade with North Korea at concessionary prices tantamount to de facto aid, after repeated warnings, China finally made its displeasure felt by temporarily shutting off the faucet.China’s decision seems to have been based on the desire, voiced by Beijing since the start of the decade and made official in 1993, to normalize bilateral trade, using dollars and at world-market prices. This may have been triggered, if official explanations are to be believed, by the poor harvests recorded in 1993 in the northeastern provinces bordering North Korea, due to a cold snap. But primarily it reflects Beijing’s annoyance with a regime eager to promote propaganda against “revisionists” and other “traitors to the cause of socialism” or quite prepared to play the nuclear card—at the risk of unleashing an arms race likely to upset the balance of power in the region—in order to fashion itself as a negotiating counterpart to the United States. In any event, China very quickly gauged the possible repercussions of such a restrictive policy (i.e., the refugee camps hastily set up in border areas) and in 1995 returned to supplying grains at concessionary prices. The subsequent collapse of Chinese grain exports, from 800,000 tons to 300,000 in 1994, was probably what precipitated the crisis, months before the summer floods of 1995. North Korea’s sudden incapacity to offset its structural food shortage with purchases of cheap grain triggered the mechanisms of international aid. In spite of the magnitude of the problem, North Korea remained straitjacketed in self-reliance: it refrained from buying the food it needed to feed its population on the world market and once again secured a surplus from trade in food products in 1995. After drawing on its stockpiles of reserves throughout 1994, Pyongyang sent out an initial request for aid in the spring of 1995; South Korea and Japan responded generously. After the “natural disaster” in the fall of that same year, the United Nations became involved, launching one of the largest food aid programs of the past decade.

A Policy of Engagement …

North Korea has been dependent on international aid for four years now. The regime has adapted itself quite well; after years of poor-quality grains, it is once again importing rice, and in large volumes. Foreign food trade is still in balance and, now that free imports have taken the place of imports at concessionary prices, the regime can still brandish the banner of food self-reliance … Likewise, through nuclear blackmail, Pyongyang was able to obtain two light-water reactor stations in October 1994 and, as they awaited activation, 500,000 tons of oil per year that would conveniently offset the loss of Soviet imports. Again, acknowledging its “agricultural troubles” permitted North Korea to receive sizeable amounts of aid to replace—or rather to augment, since Beijing had resumed its program in the meantime—Chinese exports on preferential trading terms. Unprecedented though this avowal of failure may have been, it is no radical departure from past form. It is consistent with the longstanding practices of a regime that is beyond master of the tactics of unpredictability. From nuclear threats to floods, from missile experimentation to famine, North Korea has continually exploited its nuisance capacity—be it as threat or as vulnerable victim, on the verge of exploding or imploding—to wring the resources it needs to survive from its friends and now its enemies.

For their part, the countries concerned have readily responded to this request for aid, showering ever increasing quantities of food aid on Pyongyang over the last four years. The chief impulse for this involvement is fear of a North Korean implosion. For, while each of these nations looks forward to the imminent end of this totalitarian system, they dread a sudden collapse. All analyses are shaped by fears of instability and the spread of refugees, of political uncertainty and its strategic implications, and of the economic consequences of reunification. This is particularly so in South Korea, where the costs of German reunification were studied with added concern because the demographic comparisons and economic gaps are more unfavorable by far in the Korean case. Seoul, Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo dread the scenario of an abrupt North Korean collapse, leading to an “emergency reunification.” For different reasons, therefore, each of these countries has pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” aimed at preserving stability on the peninsula and nurturing developments likely to facilitate a soft reunification of the two Koreas. Ex-South Korean president Kim Young Sam, comparing North Korea to an airplane rapidly losing altitude, has said the goal is to avert a crash and encourage a soft landing.

International engagement bases itself on the assumption that the current crisis presages the regime’s imminent collapse. Even avoiding the sort of prognostications that enthralled many analysts at the time of Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, this view is debatable. True, there is no lack of historical examples to show that serious economic troubles can lead to political upheaval. But no plausible theory exists to support a link between economic collapse and political change, particularly in totalitarian countries. The examples of the Soviet Union and China prove the contrary: that, far from weakening a regime, famine can contribute to the process of consolidating power. This is obviously not the case in North Korea, where famine has indeed occurred under a mature and no doubt enfeebled regime but one that is also stable, having firmly held power for a half century. The fact that we have so little data on the situation amply demonstrates, if that were necessary, the tight hold the government has over society and the absence of any forum for expression, let alone dissent, open to the population. Beyond the lack of data, however, the question is whether donor countries and entities truly understand how the regime is presently reacting to the crisis and managing it.

Betting on a soft landing assumes that, confronted with this economic impasse, it would be in the interest of North Korean leaders to implement the reforms needed to get the economy started again and that, in the short term, it would be in the regime’s interests to feed the neediest in order to avoid population displacements and expressions of discontent—even revolt. In sum, the countries involved are proceeding on the theory that their notion of avoiding a crisis through a gradual opening up of society is consistent with the North Korean regime’s priorities, if only because of a mutual concern over stability. The second assumption underpinning this policy of engagement is that international aid might encourage a dialogue over exactly what kind of political reforms the international community would be able to support during a transitional phase that would ease the system’s gradual evolution.

For the North Korean regime, as well, the current situation is deeply ambiguous. For, while it has once again demonstrated its unrivaled capacity for obtaining the means of its survival from abroad, the cutoff of aid from Eastern-bloc countries did cause the leadership to turn to the “imperialist” nations. This fork in the road in its tradition of extortion poses a genuine challenge to a reclusive regime that keeps its people in complete isolation and draws legitimacy from how it deals with the hostile, squalid world outside. Any prospects for reform should be assessed in that light. Though it is quite likely that some North Korean leaders are at least conceptually aware of what reforms are needed to escape their predicament, they do not appear ready to run the political risks involved. Just as Seoul attentively followed the German reunification process, Pyongyang, too, watched—first in perplexity, then in horror—as the reform process in the Eastern-bloc countries led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the events in Tiananmen Square. The lessons they derived were all the more pointed given the very narrow margin for error in this divided country; any loss of control would lead not only to the fall of the regime but the disappearance of North Korea via absorption. In such a context, a posture of isolation and defiance towards the outside world is viewed as a key factor in the system’s survival. The regime’s primacy rests on ideology, and there is no reason to believe it will commit to reforms that might weaken its control over society.

… And “Humanitarian Aid”

International aid to North Korea has chiefly taken the form of emergency humanitarian relief, for two reasons: first, because it came in response to a request from North Korean authorities formulated in those terms. Officially, international assistance was meant to alleviate the consequences of the 1995–96 flooding and, later, the 1997 drought. And allusions to the natural disasters in North Korea have indeed become somewhat of a regular feature in United Nations reports. Bureaucrats at the international organization are doubtless not fooled by this rhetoric of climate, essentially generated by diplomatic considerations. Nonetheless, one cannot avoid being struck by the remarkable parallels between regime propaganda and the stilted language of the United Nations—there is the sense, at times, that certain officials have been convinced by their own rhetoric. The second reason is that the humanitarian label enables donor countries to sweep aside any domestic reluctance to support the North Korean regime. In Washington, particularly, the Reagan doctrine that “a starving child knows no politics,” declared during the 1984–85 Ethiopian famine, made it possible to secure the support of a Congress hostile to any form of aid to this communist country, still technically at war with the United States. In South Korea as well, humanitarian concerns cleared the path—after much hesitation—for aid to the other Korea, before the election of Kim Dae Jung and the introduction of a policy of engagement—the “sunshine policy”—provided a more favorable context for initiatives towards the North.

Humanitarian aid has thus become a key element in diplomatic maneuverings between North Korea and the “international community,” particularly in the context of multilateral talks between Pyongyang, Seoul, Washington, and Beijing to reduce tensions on the peninsula and work towards the possible signing of a peace treaty, 45 years after the truce accord of Panmunjom. Though it denies it, the United States uses humanitarian aid as a carrot and stick to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and make concessions, as demonstrated yet again by the release in October 1998 of 300,00 tons of food aid just prior to the renewal of talks. Pyongyang, on the other hand, tries to raise the ante by making the delivery of ever increasing quantities of food, or more recently grain, a precondition for joining the negotiations.

Though international aid is first and foremost a policy instrument, humanitarian concerns are not, for that reason, entirely absent. All the participants hope aid will ease the plight of the neediest groups. Faced with a closed nation in a state of paranoid relations with the outside world, donor countries have encouraged UN agencies and NGOs to intervene so as to ensure that aid to the “flood victims” truly reaches those for whom it is intended and is not used by the regime as an instrument of power or to feed the army. Furthermore, donor countries are hoping that an enhanced international presence, together with more and more mutual contact on the ground, will foster a climate of confidence and inspire a growing openness in the country. Pyongyang, on the other hand, sees these same humanitarian organizations as a collective Trojan horse, fearing they will have a “spiritually polluting” effect or weaken its control over society. While the regime has been obliged to accept the presence of a dozen humanitarian organizations in order to obtain aid, it goes to great lengths to limit their freedom of action.

North Korea is a dramatic example of aid under murky conditions; the few humanitarian organizations authorized to work in the country are unable to determine the extent of the famine and are therefore reduced to blindly distributing aid. Despite every effort, the organizations present in the country since 1996 have never been able to implement two core principles of humanitarian action: assessing needs with complete independence and freely monitoring the distribution of aid. As a result they cannot guarantee humanitarian aid is truly reaching starving groups. They have been reduced to managing what is, in effect, economic aid to North Korea. The issues of needs assessment and monitoring distribution are indeed of central concern to the international community, but there is still little pressure exerted, perhaps because donor countries view humanitarian aid merely as an instrument to further the policy of engagement. Pyongyang understands this full well; it reacts virulently against even the mildest attempts to monitor food distribution. In January 1996 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “If biased interests continue to impede relief to North Korea by politicizing humanitarian issues, we will do without international aid.”

Concealed Famine

This attitude is a key factor in North Korea’s famine, which arose out of a breakneck pursuit of total self-reliance. Likewise, refusal to allow access of any kind allowed the famine to spread. There is no doubt that with better access to information and a quicker response, North Korea could have averted the famine. No matter where it hits, famine cannot spread without the aid of indifference or deliberate concealment.François Jean, “Famine et Liberté de la Presse” [Famine and Freedom of the Press], Séminaire International de L’information [International News Weekly] (Reporters Sans Frontières, October 1989). In North Korea, as previously in the USSR or China, no one can say exactly to what extent the manipulation of information kept residents of the capital and its ruling elites in the dark as to the magnitude of the problem. Word of the famine doubtless now circulates in North Korea, along with that of China’s comparative affluence—a new and crucial development in this mobilized society, isolated from the world. But, if cadres do understand the seriousness of the situation, they will not speak frankly about it; they are creatures of the system’s success. And international organizations, acting in response to the narrative of natural disaster, observe cases of acute malnutrition but are unable to identify which groups are threatened. A few manage, nevertheless, to experience some portion of the reality first hand but dare not speak out for fear of losing access to the country. A virtual smokescreen is thus created, enveloping the identities of the starving and thwarting efforts to provide relief. Information is useless unless it circulates—it congeals in bureaucratic jargon. In the course of its own famine, China revealed the devastation propaganda could produce; it took three years—and 30 million dead—for the fog of language to finally clear. The crisis never would have attained such magnitude if leaders had not been so deeply ensnared in their own illusions. Nor would the famine ever have attained such intensity if realistic data had existed to offset the official rhetoric.

Information circulates more freely in North Korea than it did in the China of the Great Leap Forward, however. Though the regime stubbornly endeavors to conceal the seriousness of the situation, some problems were acknowledged at length and international aid actively solicited, with clear success. Since 1995, Pyongyang has been the recipient of ever increasing quantities of food aid—more than $1 billion worth over four years—and the latest appeal from the United Nations for a sum of $376 million represents the second-largest international program of relief aid—after Yugoslavia—launched in 1999. At present, food aid and concessionary trade terms appear sufficient to bridge the food shortage. Trade with ChinaAccording to unconfirmed data, China committed to sending 500,000 tons of grain, 1.3 million tons [sic] of gasoline and 2.5 million tons of coal annually until the year 2000. Heather Smith, “The Food Economy: The Catalyst for Collapse?” in Economic Integration of the Korean Peninsula ed. Marcus Noland (Institute for International Economics 1998). See also Scott Snyder, “North Korea’s Decline and China’s Strategic Dilemmas,” Special Report (United States Institute of Peace, 1997). and South Korea essentially serves as a supplement to international assistance. But the history of modern famines shows that famine can come about under stable conditions, even where there is a food surplus, as was the case in Bengal in 1943 and even in certain provinces of China during the Great Leap Forward. In other words, the defining feature of famine is not necessarily a shortage of food—though that may be one explanation—rather, it is the fact that some categories of the population have no access to food.Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines (Oxford University Press, 1981). The central issue in a famine situation, then, is how resources are distributed to the neediest groups.

Governing authorities in democratic countries pin their credibility on their ability to implement redistributive policies and assist population groups threatened by crisis on a large scale. When information circulates freely—moreover, when it is a basic component of a pluralist political system—not only does government have data on which it can act, but this very data can force it to act, via pressure from the media, opposition parties, and public response. As Amartya Sen points out, “It is hard to cite an instance of famine occurring in a country with a free press and an active opposition as part of a democratic system.”Amartya Sen, “La Liberté Individuelle: Une Responsabilité Sociale” [Individual Freedoms: A Social Responsibility], Esprit (March 1991). See also Amartya Sen, “Pas de Bonne Èconomie Sans Vraie Démocratie” [No Sound Economy Without Real Democracy], Le Monde (October 1998). Nothing of the sort exists in North Korea, whose leaders seem unready to sacrifice the regime’s priorities to protect a portion of the population. The problem in North Korea today is not so much the availability of resources as it is one of distribution. With international aid, it appears North Korea now possesses the means to avert famine. If it does not do so, it is out of a conscious political choice to abandon a portion of the population to its fate, rather than have it exposed to foreign view and contact.

Scarcity and Rationing

When international aid arrives in North Korea it is turned over to authorities there and then channeled through the Public Distribution System (PDS). The lack of any real opportunity over the past four years to evaluate the situation and monitor distribution has fueled questions and debate over North Korea’s use of aid. The PDS’s effectiveness is not at issue. For 40 years it has supervised the flow of food and supplies to the country’s entire population. Neither is the diversion of aid, so often noted in the army’s case, the problem. Food continues to be distributed—as it always has been—according to the regime’s priorities. What is really at issue is the assumption that the regime places priority on feeding “vulnerable” population groups. Like questions about the scale of the famine, debates over the regime’s use of aid demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of how the North Korean system operates.

Rationing is both a standard operating procedure and a means of social control in North Korea. In this closely supervised, perpetually mobilized society, the state provides for all of society’s needs. Wages and taxes play only a marginal role, and the population is wholly dependent on a planned, centralized system of resource allocation. Each individual is dependent on his or her work unit for access to housing, clothing, education, health care, cultural life, etc. Similarly, the entire population (except for peasant members of cooperatives) is dependent on the state for the distribution of grain, according to a complex scale that factors in social status, job, age, etc.

North Korean society is probably one of the most hierarchical in the world. As a police state, it is certainly one of the most formidable as well; its citizens are the objects of constant surveillance. Continually updated individual files determine each person’s social status and position. Indeed, nowhere in the world are inequalities so deeply hardwired within an individual’s “pedigree” as in North Korea. From birth individuals are classified according to their family history or their parents’ status. Honor goes to children whose grandfathers died fighting for their country; they will attend the finest schools and become “pillars of the revolution.” Woe to anyone whose grandfather was on the other side in the Korean War. His or her child will be stigmatized. Persons with cousins living in South Korea will always be under suspicion. Society is thus organized in concentric circles around the Great Leader’s family, with the families of counterrevolutionaries consigned to purgatory. At the Fifth Workers’ Party Conference in 1970, Kim Il Sung introduced a system of classification that organized society into three classes—a core class, a suspect “wavering” class, and a hostile class—and 51 categories.Asia Watch, Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1988).Since that time the system has been modified during periodic phases of reclassification, but every individual’s status is still determined by political loyalty and family history. This complex hierarchy governs every aspect of social life. Obviously it determines opportunities to rise to senior positions in the party and the army—but it also affects access to material goods. Class membership leads not only to privileged access to education and promotions to positions of responsibility but also to the perks and privileges these entail: cars, special stores, heated apartments, health care, etc.

Food distribution involves enormous disparities, as well, and is closely regulated. Other criteria enter in besides class, such as age or type of work. These determine grain (or, in the past, fish or meat) allowances to the very gram. In the 1970s daily ration levels ranged from 800 grams of rice—for workers in heavy industry, military aviation, or senior party officials—to 200 grams of a mix of poor-quality grains for those trapped in groups classified as hostile and condemned to waste away. Here again, conditions altered after a series of “patriotic withholdings” deducted from rations in the 1970s and 1980s and later with drastic cuts ordered under the “hard march” of recent years. With no grain to distribute, the PDS’s role began to diminish in the early 1990s. Later, rations were reduced even in Pyongyang and the army. Then, in the mid-1990s, the PDS ceased to function completely in certain regions and for certain population categories.Sue Lautze, The Famine in North Korea: Humanitarian Responses in Communist Nations (Feinstein International Famine Center, Tufts University, June 1997). Some groups were dropped from the system, particularly those who were “tainted” socially, or worked for idle factories, or lived in remote regions—more often than not these things coincide. In the climate of acute scarcity that emerged during the 1990s, this non-egalitarian system of resource allocation had tragic consequences for some population categories.

Famine and the System

As circumstances worsened in the mid-1990s, the rationing system hit bottom. Faced with shortages of such magnitude, the regime tacitly abandoned all efforts to feed the entire population. With the centralized system of resource allocation unable to carry out its functions, its responsibilities devolved to the provincial and local levels. This de facto decentralization had a particularly sharp impact on certain regions, which appear to have been cut off from distribution channels and left to their fate. The accounts of refugees who managed to reach China reveal that, for example, distribution of supplies was suspended from 1994 onwards in the provinces of Hamgyong, Yanggang, and Chagan. Because most of the refugees were natives of these border areas we have little data on other regions, but it would be no great surprise if these remote, sparsely inhabited provinces were among the hardest hit. There are several reasons for this: inadequate transportation and lack of fuel for supplying these provinces, which are distant from the capital and the agricultural regions of the southwest of the country; or too few influential apparatchiks to secure distribution; or too many persons of no importance in these traditional regions of exile. Most important: the absence of any economic advantage—due to idle factories and closed mines, subsistence agriculture—in these mountainous regions in the northern latitudes …

Nevertheless, the famine is not circumscribed geographically. First, because in a country where individuals are assigned to work units, where all displacement is monitored, and where only the privileged are authorized to live in Pyongyang, geographic location often merely mirrors and coincides with political classification. Second, and most important, because even in neglected regions, favored categories of citizens have continued to receive some small amount of food. The food shortage may have virtually drained the distribution system dry, but it has not caused it to disappear entirely. The regime adapted itself to scarcity without allowing its priorities to be undermined—if anything, they were reaffirmed. Rather than undermine the dogma of food self-reliance by importing food or trying to establish a safety net for the most vulnerable, the regime concentrated its meager resources on groups that were the most instrumental to the system’s survival and the functioning of the economy. Paradoxically, the flow of international aid through these official channels revitalized them to some degree, and may have reinforced this discriminatory approach. Perhaps there was no other choice in a country where every aspect of social life is controlled by the regime. In North Korea, famine is deeply woven into the fabric of privilege the regime has constructed. It is a social, not a geographic, fact.

Traditionally favored groups continued to receive their rations, however reduced, throughout the 1990s. This is obviously the case for army and party cadres, who also have access to special stores, can obtain special currency, and, above all, possess a key resource in this context—political leverage—which not only allows them to get by, but to profit from the situation. Similarly, those employed in strategically valuable factories—either military related or likely to generate foreign currency—are considered a workforce to be sustained at any cost. In the end, the army still receives top priority—all the more so due to its steadily enhanced role since Kim Il Sung’s death. Members of agricultural cooperatives are the only population category not dependent on state grain allowances. Beyond the portion allotted them at harvest time, they have since the 1980s been allowed any surpluses over and above quota amounts belonging to the state—at least in theory. Everything, of course, depends on how production goals are set, given the tendency to one-upmanship. Nevertheless, except in cases of poor harvests, peasants are rather less badly off than laborers or employees, if only because they can cultivate their own patches of land or illegal plots in the hills. Generally speaking, the most vulnerable population groups appear to be inhabitants of rural areas not employed in agriculture or city dwellers dependent on state-distributed rations and not employed in strategic sectors. Pyongyang residents are still spared; though living in buildings without heating or fuel is hardly comfortable, the capital remains the regime’s showcase, where members of hostile classes are not authorized to live. But in the stricken smaller cities, a world of dilapidated buildings and idle factories, those people not considered politically loyal or economically useful no longer receive food and are left to their fate.


This population, which was dependent on the state for three generations and is now left to fend for itself, has had to improvise in order to survive; in just a few years bartering and trading have become widespread. Peasant markets, previously authorized to operate three times a month, are now held daily in cities and at roadsides, selling grains at prohibitive prices, plants and shellfish gathered here and there, furniture, and anything else people are driven by poverty to sell. Products from China are also sold—medicines or clothing brought over the border. This small-scale trade, just barely tolerated by the authorities, has become the main alternative for the people who have been cut off. But in the end, many cannot get by on these transactions—a kind of shabby echo of the caloric trade-offs the regime practices in its trade abroad—which will just barely provide them a bit of cornstarch for their soup. Some die in silence from hunger, illness, and exhaustion. Others, often survivors of shattered families, turn to migration as a last resort. In a society where leaving one’s family and work unit means losing every kind of support and social standing, very few take to the road. In a country where neither work nor ration allowances are available outside of the official system, no one knows where to go. In a system where every displacement is closely monitored, this mobility seems nevertheless to be tolerated. Perhaps it is because these migrants and, often, these abandoned children, have become phantoms. The regime simply averts its gaze; these displaced persons, beyond reach of international aid, have vanished from society—they do not exist in the North Korean system. Some make it to China, where they stay a few days or a few months. They try to find food, medicine, assistance, or work, then usually return to help their families. These refugees or migrants who have been able to reach China are the only North Koreans with whom it is possible to speak freely.Interviews conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières with refugees at the Chinese border in April and August 1998. See “Corée du Nord, Récits d’une Famine Cachée” [North Korea, Accounts of a Hidden Famine], Libération (September 1998); see also surveys conducted by the Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement among North Korean refugees in China, 1997–98. They are doubtless not typical of the country’s population as a whole: first, because they often come from the border regions and second, because they have left their families and work units, a step very few can bring themselves to take. But they do accurately reflect the fate of persons cut off from support, the vulnerable populations humanitarian organizations speak of and for whom international aid is, in theory, intended. There are perhaps—no one knows—five to six million people cut off from support in North Korea, a quarter of the country’s population. In recent years they have died by the hundreds of thousands. If nothing changes, they will continue to die by the hundreds of thousands in the years to come.