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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2002



Why North Korea's people starved

THE GREAT NORTH KOREAN FAMINE: Famine, Politics and Foreign Policy, by Andrew S. Natsios. United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002, $19.95 (paper)

This is a grim and troubling account of the 20th century's fifth great famine, a calamity that swept through North Korea during the 1990s, claiming an estimated 2.5 million lives (more than 10 percent of the national population).

The author argues persuasively that this was a man-made calamity, a symptom of regime failure and the consequence of unsustainable agricultural policies. He sides with Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist, in depicting this as primarily a political and economic problem resulting in severe public health and nutritional consequences. In his view, the Korean people were the victims of a system that sacrificed their lives for the benefit of a Communist Party elite clinging to an outmoded ideology and failed policies. With mass famine to his credit, Kim Jong Il can now claim a place next to Mao and Stalin in the pantheon of grim reapers.

Andrew Natsios, former vice president of World Vision U.S., a nongovernmental organization that played a role in revealing and responding to the famine, had a ringside seat to this tragedy. He expresses accumulated frustration with the inadequate response of the donor community and the politics of aid that prevented a timely and adequate relief effort.

The Clinton administration, in pursuing linkage between famine relief and negotiations on reigning in this reclusive, "rogue" nation, is accused of embracing a "day late, dollar short" policy that contributed to the staggering toll. While Natsios accuses the North Korean government of causing the famine, he contends that the international community inexcusably dragged its feet for far too long in recognizing the extent of the problem and then mounting an appropriate response.

"The Great North Korean Famine" testifies to the suffering of the countless victims, including those who slowly starved, those who died from the ailments that kill so many before they actually starve, and those scarred survivors for whom the famine will always remain a traumatic and pivotal event. Drawing on 2,300 interviews with food refugees who fled across the border into China, eyewitness accounts, public health surveys, information from prominent defectors and various other indicative data, the author makes a convincing case that the famine was real. It is worth pointing out that at the time and even now there is considerable controversy over whether or not there actually was a famine.

Skeptics argue that the regime manipulated world opinion by fabricating or exaggerating the extent of the problem as a way of extracting maximum economic benefit in the form of fungible food aid. Others say that the famine was conjured up by enemies of the regime as a way of discrediting it. Skeptics of all stripes assert that there was no conclusive evidence of mass starvation.

The author confronts these various views, pointing out the difficulties of trying to find out what is really going on in such a repressive and tightly controlled society, governed by party cadres conditioned to look upon all outsiders with suspicion. However, based on his own experience as a food relief administrator with considerable field experience, and the scholarly record on coping strategies of victims in various famines around the world, Natsios leaves little doubt that what unfolded in North Korea during the 1990s was a massive catastrophe.

According to Natsios, there were four main causes of the famine: 1) declining production resulting from poor agricultural policies and practices; 2) the sudden decline in food subsidies from the Soviet Union and China at the beginning of the 1990s; 3) the elimination of food subsidies to the eastern coastal plain in 1994 and 1995; and 4) the reduction in food rations for farmers.

The author discounts the government explanation that the famine resulted from unprecedented flooding, arguing that the regime was eager to cast blame on nature rather than its own shortcomings. He argues that the decline in food production reflected a system already crumbling and that the floods should only have caused a local, limited problem, not nationwide starvation. The reduction in food subsidies to farmers created an incentive for them to divert food and energy away from the public food distribution system, seriously exacerbating what had initially been a localized problem.

Natsios criticizes the North Korean government for basing food rations on loyalty to the regime and withholding rations as a means of punishing presumed enemies. He also questions the morality of famine triage, cutting off food to the hardest-hit rural areas in order to maintain stable supplies to urban areas and key sectors.

The slow and inadequate reaction of the world community and the politicization of food relief lend credence to the author's passionately argued view that humanitarian imperatives were given short shrift. Japan, with huge stockpiles of rice, was in the best position to deliver food aid in a timely fashion but balked at doing so.

Why did the Japanese government waste this opportunity to promote reconciliation with its prickly neighbor and lay the foundation for a reduction in regional hostility? Apparently at the time the government was considering doing so, media reports surfaced about North Korean abductions of Japanese, creating an issue that made it difficult to engage in what could have been a catastrophe-averting effort. Moreover, the subsequent launching of a missile over Japanese airspace understandably infuriated the Japanese government and put food aid on the back-burner.

Natsios notes that the North Korean military consistently launched provocations aimed at donors who might have been persuaded to provide assistance. NGO activists were so frustrated by this tendency that they joked that the military seemed to be on the side of North Korea's enemies, who worried that providing food aid would prop up a troublesome government eager to divert even more of its scarce resources into military programs.

This is a book that will make many of those involved in the donor community very uncomfortable, because it makes a compelling case that the ends do not justify the means: Nobody covered themselves in glory by looking the other way while North Koreans starved. The author bluntly accuses the governments involved of callous realpolitik inconsistent with their presumed values, reminding us that ". . . the ethical question remains as to whether it is an acceptable policy decision to force the regime into collapse by using famine victims as humanitarian hostages. I think it is a repulsive presumption that the deaths of 2 to 3 million innocent people . . . is an acceptable price to pay to rid the world of this regime. The regime remains in place, two and a half million people are dead, and the food aid program was unable to save them because of its timing. . . . All famines in the 20th century occurred under autocratic or totalitarian political systems, so following a policy that says humanitarian relief efforts should be forgone to avoid strengthening a repulsive government would mean that Western nations would never respond to human suffering in famines."

Future historians will be keen to search the archives to ascertain who knew what, and when, about the famine, and for more precise assessments about the extent of the tragedy, in order to judge whether this first monograph on this controversial subject has hit the mark and accurately portrayed the roles of all the participants.

It bears noting that Robert Conquest and Jasper Becker exposed the mass famines engineered by Stalin and Mao in the Soviet Union and China only decades afterward. With the North Korean regime teetering on the precipice, Natsios has stepped forward now to help the world community be better prepared should a similar crisis recur and make it harder to feign ignorance in support of apathy.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.

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