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DPRK in Crisis, What Do We Know?

This overview of the current situation in the DPRK and its context, was researched and written for Field Exchange by Killian Forde with editorial assistance from Lola Gostelow (formerly Nathanail) SCF (UK) and Anna Taylor, Sphere Project. The provision by agencies of information and resources used to construct this article is gratefully acknowledged. Reports and other source materials used to write this piece are available from the ENN.

Known as the 'Hermit Kingdom' the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), more commonly called North Korea, is a state in crisis. The centrally planned economy is in ruins and media reports of mass starvation have until recently been common.


The current food shortages are inextricably linked to the state of the national economy. The DPRK's economic policy and practices are lead by its ideology of Juche. The philosophy of Juche stresses that the goal for both the individual and the state is self 'sufficiency and independence. However, in the context of their centrally planned economy, and given that the DPRK has no oil reserves and little heavy industry, these Juche goals have proved impossible to attain in recent times. The DPRK has had to look beyond its own borders to build up its economy.

The DPRK economy has been beset with problems since the oil crisis of 1973. In an effort to build up its industrial base DPRK borrowed capital from overseas. DPRK planned to repay these loans through the export of its minerals. Following the oil price hike and subsequent world wide recession. The DPRK's minerals lost much of their value and they were suddenly faced with a massive foreign debt with no way to pay it.. In 1976 the DPRK achieved world wide notoriety when it defaulted on its repayments of foreign debt to western financiers. The pressure on the economy continued to mount, and annually since 1990 the economy has recorded negative growth. The loss of subsidised trade with the USSR and the latter's insistence on hard currency payments further compounded the situation. For these reasons and others (including; the increased liberalisation of China, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the continuing economic sanctions imposed by the USA), the country had by 1995 been left economically isolated, in debt with little foreign currency reserves for imports and with few political or ideological allies for support.

The geo-political significance of DPRK

DPRK is a country still technically at war with both the USA and South Korea. The strategic importance of the Korean peninsula cannot be underestimated. Earlier this year the USA refused to ratify the treaty to ban landmines. One of the primary reasons was that the US government was unable to insert legislation for the Korean peninsula to be exempt from the treaty. The USA has 37,000 troops based in South Korea and carries out joint exercises with the South Korean army. The DPRK government's GNP/ defence expenditure ratio is the world's highest. According to a report from Reuters in Tokyo on 21 August 1997 "The United States has led the international effort to provide food supplies to the North". This has occurred against a backdrop of economic sanctions imposed against the DPRK since 1950. The framework agreement signed on October 2l~ 1994 which authorised the sending of humanitarian aid, came about as a result of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections in 1992, which unearthed evidence suggesting that the DPRK had reprocessed more uranium than they led the IAEA to believe. Also, as part of the framework the US agreed to 'co-operate to replace' DPRK's graphite reactors for the more advanced light-water reactors, which produce less weapons grade plutonium. Fears still exist regarding DPRK's nuclear capacity. In addition, the DPRK has a regular army of 1.2 million and an arsenal of chemical weapons.


Since much of the DPRK is mountainous, only 20% or two million hectares of the country are arable. In line with the Juche goal of self sufficiency, this land is intensively farmed. Food production has been maximised through the use of high yield crops, the expansion of cultivated areas into marginalised lands (including reclaimed and deforested land) and farming on hill terraces. These practices were unsustainable both economically and environmentally. The main crops are rice (which is planted predominantly in the South) and maize (planted mainly in the North).

Farming in the DPRK is carried out either in state or collective farms. There are 1241 State farms which are located mainly near the larger towns or cities. They produce a variety of foodstuffs and breed livestock. Workers on the State farms are direct employees of the State and receive a wage for their work. However the main stay of the agricultural sector are the Collective farms. These are the main food producers in the country. As a microcosm of the state they also provide the educational and health facilities for their areas. Population estimates for the collective farms range from 5 million to 8 million. At harvest all grain is handed over to state control and inhabitants receive an annual allocation.

The Public Distribution System and Market Access

The DPRK has a ration system to distribute food to all those employed in government administration, industry, social services and the state farms. This Public Distribution System (PDS), is designed to provide subsidised and affordable basic commodities (food and fuel). The PDS is estimated to cover 63% to 78% of the population. There are ten ration levels depending ou the persons age, occupation and type of work. According to the DPRK authorities the standard ration in the past was 700 grams for adults, 500 grams for children, 600 grams for old people. These levels have been reduced since 1995, an average of 585 grams of grain per person per day was distributed in that year. From February to April of this year the average ration was 100-150 grams. Other than the ration, there are few alternative options for purchasing food in the DPRK. Although Collective farms have state shops, only basic commodities such as oil and sugar can be purchased. In addition there are free markets in all provinces/cities. These used to be illegal as they are not state controlled, but with current shortages rules are slackened.

Natural disaster

In 1994 the country, already suffering from acute fiscal problems, decreasing agricultural production and increasing food import reliance, received a further setback. Severe hail storms destroyed some of the grain harvest. In the summer of 1995 massive and widespread flooding affected eight of the nine provinces. Rivers broke their banks, destroying communication, power, sanitation and transport infrastructure, irrigation networks were flooded and crops destroyed.

Although an estimated half a million people were displaced from their homes, there were few deaths. The floods caused extensive damage to crops estimated at 1.2 million tons. The adverse weather conditions of the summer of 1996 caused further flooding and crop destruction. In 1997, severe drought was followed by a tidal wave. Three provinces were affected, displacing 29,000 people, contaminating over 100,000 hectares of land with salt water and destroying hundreds of thousands of tons of crops.

Food Shortages

The cumulative effect of declining food output, reduction in trade, the continuing drain on national cereal stocks, a lack of capital to pay for imports and a crumbling economy has undoubtedly led the DPRK to an acute food shortage. Estimates of the current deficit vary. WFP claimed in October 1997 that the DPRK food shortage was 2-2.5 million tons before the 1998 crop year. FAO claimed that the shortfall was 1.9 million tons. The DPRK claimed that the normal "annual demand for unhulled grain in Korea is 7.83 million tons" of which "4.82 million (is) for food". The letter in which this claim is made goes on to state that "the total unhulled grain production in 1996 was 2.5 million tons of which by December 1996 "only 0.24 million is left".

Food Aid Provision

Since April 1997 an estimated 527,794 tons of foodstuffs, donated as bilateral aid, has been sent to DPRK. This figure includes large donations by China, the European Commission, and a wide range of NGOs including IFRC, SKRC, ACT, World Vision International, Caritas and Food for the Hungry. In addition donations through WFP have totalled 395,954 tons, (nearly a third of which came from the USA). The majority of these food stuffs are cereals. During 1997 WFP claim to have assisted 4.7 million North Koreans through distributions to schools and kindergartens. In 1998 WFP hope to scale up their efforts and have mounted their biggest ever appeal requesting some $378 million for 657,972 metric tons to feed 7.5 million people. This compares with their second largest appeal in 1992 when $297 million was requested for 10 African countries.

Agency Statements about the crisis

In public statements agencies involved in the DPRK relief program paint a very bleak picture. World Vision International have claimed that "at least half a million people have died, probably closer to 1 or 2 million'. The German Red Cross have said "the famine in North Korea is one of the worst the world has seen since World War Two" and that "about 800,000 children are chronically undernourished". Caritas claims that "more than a third of the country's children under 6 are malnourished".

DPRK Government figures, in July 1997, put the malnutrition rate of children under five at 37 percent (800,000 malnourished children).

The facts

The problem with these statements is that they have not been based upon rigorous data collection and analysis. Although this does not automatically invalidate these claims, humanitarian agencies have yet to carry out rigorous mortality data collection or representative nutritional surveys. The results of the World Vision International survey carried out in July 1997 which led to a press statement by the organisation in which it was concluded that "at least a half a million people have died" were based on the response to a questionnaire on the Chinese side of the DPRK-China border. The questionnaire sample size was 33 people. Only 19 of those were DPRK nationals, the remaining 14 were ethnic Korean Chinese who had been in the DPRK to visit relations. A much publicised WFP anthropometric data collection was carried out in August 1997. Its findings were reported as 17% of children surveyed in the country being seriously malnourished. The sample size was 3,780 children aged 0-7 years attending 40 nurseries an kindergartens. However, sampling was non-random and not representative. Only four of the nine provinces were covered and the DPRK government selected the nurseries and kindergartens to be surveyed. No household food surveys were authorised. WFP did not uphold the validity of the survey. Executive director Catherine Bertini, whilst admitting that "it is not the random sample we had hoped to carry out" and "we cannot vouch for its scientific accuracy" felt that the "data justifies our continued intervention". However, the survey did reveal a wide variation in level of wasting. In 13 of the 22 nurseries and 6 of the 18 kindergartens, percentages of wasting were 15% or above, while in 9 of the institutions the levels of wasting were below 10%. At the very least this indicated a serious nutritional problem in those institutions surveyed.

Agency access

Until recently no aid agency personnel have been allowed to the northern provinces and southern counties of DPRK. Assessment teams have been obliged to concentrate their assessments on the bread basket of Eastern and mid-South provinces. It was unclear whether the nutritional situation in the other areas was better or worse than in those provinces to which agency personnel were given access. The extent of malnutrition countrywide was, and remains unknown. However, more recently the government claims to have opened up the entire country to international organisations including the politically sensitive northern province of Ryangjang on the Chinese border.

The basis for intervention

The lack of data to support humanitarian intervention on the scale so far undertaken has led many to question the commitment of the humanitarian sector to a shared set of humanitarian principles (such as needs based aid delivery and accountability to both beneficiaries and donors). Other factors have clearly influenced humanitarian response.

First, there is the fear that a hidden famine similar to the one which devastated a politically isolated China between 1958-62, may be occurring. Secondly, intervention may be partly driven by the institutional imperative to identify and mobilise resources in response to the next 'big emergency' (with the concomitant profile and fund raising potential). A third explanation may reside in the DPRK's status as a country of great strategic and geopolitical significance. Those in the humanitarian sector may be aware of, and feel undermined by the political undercurrents of intervention. A number of humanitarian commentators have complained that the response to the DPRK is evidence of a continuing politicisation of humanitarian aid. Brian Atwood of the United States Agency for International Development, admitted "we must recognise than in the medium term, our concerns with regard to North Korea, humanitarian, diplomatic and yes even military are all interrelated".


Although there can be little doubt that there are serious food shortages in the DPRK, there has been much uncertainty about the scale and impact of the crisis. The problems relating to access, assessments, targeting and monitoring have had to be addressed throughout this crisis. Although headway is being made on these issues particularly in the area of access, agencies remain uncertain as to the scale and scope of the nutritional impact of the shortages. Over the past year this crisis has created problems for agencies in terms of how the crisis should be interpreted and what would constitute an appropriate intervention. In other recent emergencies indications of extreme hardship were more overt, e.g. a steady or sudden stream of refugees or IDPs, high rates of mortality and malnutrition. This was not the case in the DPRK. Agencies did not, and to a large extent still do not know what they are dealing with; a famine with widespread mortality, a country with severe food shortages in the near stages of widespread famine or structural socio-economic collapse. All require different responses with the provision of food aid being just one of many potential interventions.

Aid agencies and donors have developed areas of expertise in food security analyses, risk mapping/ household food surveys etc, in an attempt to avoid just being reactive to severe food shortages. The DPRK policy of Juche, its isolation from the international community and its geo-political significance have meant that this was a country which could never easily fit into normal models of humanitarian intervention. There are very limited historical data with which to compare the current situation and there have been few international agencies with experience of operational work in the country. These factors have contributed to many agencies finding themselves in a confused state about what action to take. At the same time, agencies have negotiated with government independently and there has been limited co-ordination. This has meant that agencies have not been able form a clear combined approach or position.

Many in the humanitarian sector have argued that although the model of humanitarian intervention in the DPRK has breached humanitarian principles, this has occurred out of well-founded fear of catastrophe as well as for geo-political reasons. There can be few amongst us who would not have opted to err on the side of caution by providing the resources requested by the DPRK government. However, principles regarding assessment, targeting and monitoring have evolved out of the need to conserve scarce aid resources and to utilise these resources effectively and appropriately. Regardless of the extent of any retrospective analysis it may not be possible to prove or quantify tragedy averted or suffering reduced as a consequence of the support given to the DPRK over past months. Similarly it would be difficult to prove or quantify that the extent of support was inappropriate or wasteful. As analysts begin to examine this experience a number of questions will emerge. For example,

On a more positive note, increasing governmental co-operation particularly in the area of access should lead to greater certainty about how food shortages are actually affecting the DPRK population and which groups are most affected. This in turn should allow more informed and arguably more appropriate future humanitarian responses.

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Reference this page

Killian Forde, Lola Gostelow and Anna Taylor (). DPRK in Crisis, What Do We Know?. Field Exchange 3, January 1998. p9.



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