North Korea is on the verge of famine. According to the United Nations up
to 4.7 million people are at risk of starvation this summer unless North Korea
gets massive food assistance.
Why are so
many North Koreans so close to starving? The pat answer is that floods of agricultural
regions in 1995 and 1996 hurt agricultural production. A better answer is that
North Koreas repressive, backward system of government prevents people
from adapting to changing conditions.
Starvation in the 20th century has almost exclusively been caused by actions
taken by governments, and North Koreas situation is no different. Since
the early 1960s North Koreas has followed an ideology of chuche
— a combination of self-reliance and autarky that has proved stifling to North
Combined with a military and industrial policy designed to shift workers toward
industry and away from agriculture, the North Korean government has done everything
in its power to ensure that any floods or drought will be followed quickly by
widespread famine. North Korea is one of the few places in the world which still
attempts collectivized agriculture and now it is paying the price.
The emphasis on industry hasnt gotten North Korea very far either. Although
some observers note that North Koreas economy has grown quite a lot since
the early 1960s, they fail to note the growth is largely explained by increases
in inputs such as labor and raw materials rather than improvements in efficiencies
and productivity. As a result, North Koreas exports are extremely low
and North Korea is unable to use trade to make up for any food shortages.
The lessons of 20th century famines are clear — excessive state intervention
in the economy in general and the agricultural sector in particular can have