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Let There Be Light, and Food to Feed the People: A Week Out in North Korea

If you can’t feed a hundred, people, feed just one.

Mother Teresa, founder of The Missionaries of Charity

By Yuyang Xu

Slowly, the train passed the Yalu river, and I was in North Korea.

North Korea gave me a beautiful welcome gift. Mountains were covered by countless green trees and crystal clear streams flowing down the hill like tears on the cheek of Goddess Venus. The sky was breathtakingly blue in North Korea, with random clouds drifting through the sky like wandering sheep. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I had ever seen, it looked like a paradise.

Suddenly, this scene of paradise turned into hell. When the train approached a small village in rural North Korea, many North Korean people—men, women, older people, and even children with women who appeared to be pregnant—stood on another railway track beside ours. They were in shabby clothes and looked extremely malnourished. Some of them even looked like skeletons covered by a thin layer of skin.

Some of the crowds beside the railway looking for food.

They were digging through grass beside the railroad tracks, despite there being barely any grass. The reason for such a struggle was apparent: they had nothing to eat.

This article will provide my eyewitness account in North Korea of food shortages in the country just before the North Korean government shut its border entirely due to the spread of COVID-19. A second year into the pandemic, the economic situation in North Korea can only worsen. This deteriorated economy fuelled the food shortage in this country that plagued millions of ordinary North Koreans.

Let’s dial the clock back and see the historical context of hunger in North Korea. After the end of the Korean war, the North Korean economy was heavily dependent on aid from the Soviet Union. The country acquired the natural resources it needed from the Soviet Union at a lowered market price. Moreover, North Korea was able to obtain a significant amount of aid both directly and indirectly from the Soviet Union. Trade with the Soviet Union accounted for 60% of North Korea’s total trade with foreign nations in 1988. North Korea’s heavy reliance on the Soviet Union continued until the end of the cold war.

The collapse of the Soviet Union revealed the vulnerability of the North Korean economy. For decades, dependent on the Soviet Union, the country did not have the industrial equipment and techniques required to cultivate its land and produce food for its people. This situation has persisted until now. This corresponded to what I observed in North Korea: endless barren lands left uncultivated in the countryside. As far as I observed, there was also a significant lack of modern farming equipment. Livestock, mainly cows, carried out most of the transportation in rural areas. There was only one time that I saw an actual tractor, which seemed to be from the 1960s.

A tractor on the field in rural North Korea.

Once, when I was chatting with a Chinese businessman who was engaged in the business of selling plastic products to North Korea, he said: “Did you see those plastics on the ground that covered that little vegetable thing? Even those kinds of low-end industrial products need to be imported from outside (of North Korea).”

The train took more than three hours to take me from the border of China to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Pyongyang is the biggest city in the country, accompanied by people and traffic. However, things in Pyongyang seemed off.

An intersection close to the Pyongyang station.

Things in Pyongyang seemed unnatural. Pyongyang looked like what George Orwell described in “1984”—, the city itself felt like a giant propaganda project, with the portraits of the Kim family everywhere, in addition to the Juche tower, standing in central Pyongyang, manifesting the country’s quasi-political ideology. Moreover, compared to what I saw in the countryside, Pyongyang was  worlds apart. No one seemed starved on the streets of Pyongyang, or at least they seemed much better off than those in the countryside. People were going around like what you could see in some other cities around the world, except for their monolithic color of clothing and the Soviet-style architecture. Pyongyang was a showcase of North Korea, and it seems to convey a part of North Korea that its government wants a foreigner like me to see and remember. However, what I saw hardly convinced me, given the difficult situation I observed in the countryside. From my hometown, there is a saying: “You don’t know whether it is true or not until you see it with your own eyes.” I could hardly believe my eyes in Pyongyang, and I could even hardly believe this was the same country. Increasingly, I felt it was crucial to question whether what I saw in Pyongyang applied to many other parts of the country.

A glance of Pyongyang’s skyscrapers.
Pyongyang in the morning, with Juche tower on the left side of the photo.

To have a better understanding on North Korea’s problem of food shortage, I needed to learn about how food is being distributed in the country through its centrally-planned economy. There is a vital system at the heart of the North Korean economy and the country’s functioning. The system, inherited from the Soviet Union, is called the Public Distribution System (PDS), and it is the symbol of North Korea’s planned economy. After the Soviet Union collapsed, it remained unchanged in North Korea. Controlled by the North Korean government, the PDS decides the amount of food an individual North Korean citizen receives by calculating the amount of work the individual does alongside other factors. For example, someone working in the country’s heavy industries sector receives more food than a household worker. The basic logic under this distribution of food is that the more physically demanding the work is, the more food the worker gets. A person whose job is heavily physically demanding can receive the highest ration of 900 grams of grain per day. The PDS also rations food based on other factors, and one of the most important factors is the worker’s importance to the state. The more important the work is to the state, the more grain the worker receives. Considering the importance of government workers residing in Pyongyang, it was no surprise that they could obtain more food through PDS and seemed much more well-nourished. The design of PDS is against the basic functions of a market of food, where the price, supply, and demand have effects on each other to ensure the functioning of the market. To some extent, these characteristics of a food market guarantee the safe supply of sufficient food to the demand side, namely the country’s people.

However, PDS has consistently failed to meet its ration targets to the North Korean people since its inception. PDS delivered an average North Korean citizen with 700 grams of grain per day for workers in 1955. However, according to PDS’s basic rationing formula, the ration target was 900 grams of grain daily for physically demanding workers and 300 grams for children. Meanwhile in 1992, PDS only delivered 492 grams of grain per day to North Korean workers, significantly lower than the ration target. The promise of feeding North Korean people with PDS seemed like a mirage, a lie made by the authorities.

The PDS nearly collapsed when in the 1990s, Soviet Union’s disintegration cut off its aid to North Korea completely. Moreover, North Korea had to purchase resources at market price, which was unbearable for the North Korean economy since the country had previously purchased resources from the Soviet Union at a much lower cost over a long time. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the North Korean economy. Soon the economic catastrophe started to affect the country’s food distribution system: PDS. Then began the famine in North Korea in the 1990s. There were signs of food shortage at the end of the 1980s. The PDS system’s rations to people have reduced by 10 percent since 1973. Then food riots started to take place in the country in 1993. During the famine in the 1990s, countless people in North Korea starved to death. The total death toll was estimated to be between 2.5 million and 3.5 million deaths. People suffered. According to one of the North Korean defector’s testimonies on Seoul Public Hearing: “My [older] sister’s dying wish was to eat noodles, but there was no money to buy even one bowl of noodles. She died in 1997. My younger sister died just one month later. Her dying wish was to eat a slice of bread. My younger brother had been working at the Koowon coal mine from 1995, but he was so weak he was fired. He died of malnutrition on the train on the way back home. I found his body.” No food was coming out of the PDS system, and North Koreans resorted to black markets called “jangmadong” to feed themselves, which became an alternative to the PDS system. Such an alternative persists today with no sign of the end of hunger in the country.

Mosaic mural of Kim Il Sung, the founding father of North Korea, in Pyongyang.

The sharp contrast between rural and urban North Korean made me wonder. I believed the existence of a system of food rationing that symbolizes the planned economy and national will of North Korea was only part of the story. There must be other factors that contribute to the food problem in this country. In order to gain more understanding on the issue of food shortage in North Korea and to have more first-hand witnesses, I had to leave Pyongyang. With this idea in mind, after a few days in Pyongyang, I headed to Kaesong, a city on the edge of the border of North and South Korea: the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

On the road to Kaesong.

The bus I rode tumbled on the road to Kaesong. The road was wide but there was almost no traffic. There were no people on the roadside as well. This part of North Korea seemed like a no man’s land. With a huge can of diesel on the back, the bus rode into the morning mist.

When the mist gradually faded away, I saw some people far out on the side of the road. Apparently digging something, and I could only see the contour of their body in the mist. As the bus got closer to those people, I could see them clearly. They were terrifyingly thin, with sunburnt faces. I could barely see the contour of their limbs on their bellies through their shabby clothes. They were, just like the people I saw back on the train, digging for grasses to eat. There were, again, men, women, older people, and children. They were fathers, mothers, grandparents, sons, and daughters. Plagued by hunger, infants were constantly crying on the back of mothers. As the bus rode closer, many of them raised their heads, and they were watching the vehicle passing by as if they were watching me sitting on the bus. I could see their eyes for one moment— where I could not see hope, neither was desperation. It was only black, nothing else. The same scene repeated several times on the way to the DMZ, and I was kindly, yet repeatedly told by my nervous North Korean guide “not to take photos.” Though no photo was taken, I would never forget that scene, which haunted me even after returning home.

It is nearly impossible for those people to change their lives by themselves because there is another half of the story of hunger in North Korea, which is about a system that has a significant impact on North Korean economic and social lives. The system is called “Songbun,” namely the “composition of a person’s mind upon their birth.” “Songbun” is a social classification system, or in other words, a caste system, that dictates every aspect of the North Korean planned economy and life of an ordinary North Korean citizen. It determines a person’s right to access social and economic resources based on their ancestral background and is one of the most important factors of how much food is distributed by the PDS to a North Korean person. People with lower “Songbun” will be discriminated against regarding the quantity and quality of foods. The idea of Songbun can explain the sharp contrast of the food situation between Pyongyang and other parts of North Korea. People with higher Songbun are concentrated in Pyongyang, while people with lower Songbun are concentrated in other places such as North Hamgyong province and other parts of the country. According to the United Nations, although foods were supplied more than sufficiently to Pyongyang, little to no food was sent to other parts of the country. This is because some provinces like North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, and Ryanggang were populated by people with very low Songbun status. These people are deemed unimportant and irrelevant to the North Korean government. The Songbun system, along with the PDS, combined with North Korea’s mismanagement of its economy, created a deadly mixture of hunger and inequality regarding access to food and other resources within the country.

After an uneventful visit to the DMZ, I headed back to Pyongyang. It was my last day in North Korea. As the sun sunk below the mountains surrounding Pyongyang, the city was covered in golden sunshine, the final beams of the sun in the day. After that, it was another night, just like countless dark nights the country and its people had been through. The night was so dark that lights illuminated only the Juche tower and the portraits of the Kim family. In my room in Yanggakdo International Hotel, I was incredibly frustrated. Over the past week, I witnessed one of the most severe violations of human rights in the history of humanity. Countless people were deprived of food and hope yet struggling for their lives. Though I could never have contact with the average North Korean person during the journey, I nevertheless had the opportunity to peek inside this hermit kingdom called North Korea, and what I saw was shocking.

The effects of North Korea’s toxic combination of planned economy and caste system, in addition to the government’s mismanagement over the state, are outrageous. The dysfunction of the nation’s economy is the direct domestic factor that leads to the food shortage in North Korea. However, the North Korean people, abandoned by their government, do not deserve to live like this. If enough food and opportunities are provided, their lives can be emancipated from this endless suffering. □

My last day in North Korea, the sun was setting above Kim Il Sung square.

Work Cited

  1. The United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, February 2014.
  2. ROK Ministry of Unification, “Food rations by class: Understanding North Korea 2005”, Education Centre for Unification, March 2006, pp. 245-247.
  3. Submission to the Commission: Andrew Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine (Washington, D.C., United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002).
  4. Lee Suk, “The DPRK famine of 1994-2000: Existence and Impact”, KINU, 2005.
  5. Victor Cha, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (Ecco, 2012), p. 186.
  6. Ahn Jong-Chui cited in Lee Suk, “The DPRK famine of 1994-2000”, p. 8.
  7. “North Korean defector tells of food riots”, The Guardian, 23 August 1993. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/world/1993/aug/23/northkorea.
  8. “How Did the North Korean Famine Happen?”, Wilson Center, April 30, 2002. Available from https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/how-did-the-north-korean-famine-happen

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