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North Korea’s 1990s Famine in Historical Perspective

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North Korea suffered from a horrific famine in the mid and late 1990s. The immediate cause of the North Korean famine was the widespread flooding in August 1995 that destroyed much of the nation’s rice crop. The summer monsoon rains that come each year were especially heavy. Starting on June 26, it rained for ten days, dumping as much as twenty-three inches on parts of the country. Satellite photos suggest that a quarter of the nation’s rice paddies were under water. (note 1) The dimensions of the catastrophe are not fully known, but between 1995 and 1999, hundreds of thousands perished from causes directly or indirectly related to food shortages. Estimates of the number who died run as high as two million; a more probable figure is that between 600,000 and one million of the total population of twenty million people perished in the famine. (note 2) This was a truly appalling number, amounting to 3 to 5 percent of the total population. (note 3)

North Korea’s famine, although precipitated by a natural disaster, was primarily political in its origins, but almost all modern famines have been political in the sense that they were caused by war, upheavals, or misguided state policies. Wartime preoccupation and bureaucratic bungling brought about the Bengal famine of 1943. Ethiopia’s famines in the 1970s and 80s were the result of the conjuncture of bad weather with the forced collectivization and massive relocations carried out by the radical socialist government that came to power in 1974. Mass famines resulting from failed policies happened in other Communist regimes. Historians estimate that between six and eight million peasants perished in the collectivization of agriculture carried out under the Soviet Union’s First Five-Year Plan in Russia between 1928 and 1932. At least one million out of a population of six million died in Cambodia under Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979—mostly from hunger. The Great Leap Forward in China from 1958 to 1962 resulted in the greatest famine of modern times—twenty million may have died from starvation in rural China; some calculations are even as high as thirty million or more. Proportionately, the scale of North Korea’s famine, if we assume 3 to 5 percent died directly from food deprivation, may be no greater than in the Soviet Union or in China and considerably less than Cambodia. (note 4)

 

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