Missiles over Mouths: Could government policy in North Korea be leading towards a second famine?

by | Apr 8, 2024 | ENVIRONMENT

Hunger is not a natural phenomenon. It is a man made tragedy.

Archbishop Desmon Tutu


If we peel back the thin veil of North Korea’s turbulent history, we see a nation marked by the scars of hunger and economic mismanagement which the government is trying fervently to conceal. The country’s first famine occurred in the 1990s, and was accordingly named the Arduous March or the March of Suffering due to the cataclysmic effect it had on the population. A lack of factual statistics due in part to intentional distortion have meant that the actual death toll of the famine is not known, but it is estimated that anywhere from 2-3 million people died during the period. 


The conditions of human suffering and starvation in North Korea are revealed to us through the stories of brave defectors. A particularly harrowing depiction of life during this time is given by Mina Yoon, who recalls that the harsh landscape meant that very little crops could grow, and families would compete to find anything edible. She estimates that, based on the global standard, more than half of North Koreans would be considered malnourished. As a child, she would be sent to the mountains to dig out some edible herbs, and her family would rely on tree bark and rice roots to survive. Yoon and her family fled to South Korea to take refuge and start a new life. It is the vocalization of memories from survivors and the few available images of malnourished children and barren fields that can help us understand the desolation of life and the environment in North Korea since the 1990s.

A group of between 50 and 100 Korean students stand in matching uniforms, looking at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Monument in Pyongyang, a series of large grey statues and a North Korean flag.

Image: Students visiting the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Monument in  Pyongyang, North Korea. (stephan), Flickr

Fast-forward to look at the situation today, interviews with people living in the region conducted by the BBC continue to reveal the plight of the country’s food shortage crisis, with some reports suggesting that the situation is worse than it was in the 1990s.

A woman living in the capital Pyongyang, given the false moniker Ji Yeon, recounts knocking on her neighbours door with the aim of giving water and checking on their wellbeing. She received no answer, and when the authorities went inside, they found that the family had starved to death. Struggling to feed her children, Ji Yeon went two days without eating and was afraid that she would die in her sleep. She tells the BBC that she had heard of people who had taken their own lives or disappeared into the mountains, unable to cope with the anguish of hunger.


A number of factors and policy failures have contributed to this. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has enforced strict border closures, leading to a deficiency of vital supplies, including comestibles and machinery for the food industry. A man under the pseudonym Chan Ho, told BBC reporters: “[a]t first, I was afraid of dying from Covid, but then I began to worry about starving to death”, and that five people in his village had already lost their lives in this way. According to Amnesty International, since the first famine in the 1990s through to the present, various attempts by the UN and other humanitarian aid agencies to distribute food and other essentials has been impeded by a regime that refuses to cooperate fully with the international community in violation with international law. The cessation of importing food and supplies due to the pandemic and the refusal of international aid has only accelerated North Korea’s isolation and has resulted in the government placing a straitjacket around its own food production/economy. Who is suffocating from the restrictions of this straightjacket? Ordinary civilians who are starving.


Higher on the agenda than tackling food scarcity for North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un, is his nuclear expansion programme. Pushing ahead with nuclear and ballistic missile tests and a spy satellite launch – all of which are banned by United Nations Security Council resolutions – has resulted in pressurizing trade sanctions from the US, the EU and other partners. Despite the unfavorable impact of the sanctions on the economy, Kim Jong-Un uses Machaevillian maneuvering and propaganda techniques to manipulate citizens into seeing military and nuclear spending as necessary for prosperity. In November 2023, North Korea announced a new public holiday, known as Missile Industry Day

A photo of someone reading a newspaper inside a cosy cafe. Their face is obscured by the newspaper and their legs are crossed.

Image: North Korean soldiers. Roman Harak, Flickr.

This new holiday suggests that Kim Jong-Un is bolstering national pride in the country’s missile programme and in the Kim family cult of personality to deflect from his negligence and inability to improve North Korea’s economic climate. Regardless of his acknowledgement at his party’s committee meeting in January of 2024, that a failure to provide people with food and basic living necessities is a “serious political issue”, Kim continues to place the importance of missiles over the mouths of his people.

The legacy of the epoch of mass hunger known as the Great Famine (1845-1852) remains as an imprint on the Irish psyche and our history books. Many Irish people display their empathy for others who are suffering in global contexts through civil demonstrations – this is evidenced by the Pro-Palestinian rallies happening accross the nation in the past few months with thousands of people in attendance. This solidarity is due in part to the parallels we can draw between those facing hardships and injustices abroad and the historical suffering of our ancestors under British rule and through the famine.


Since the famine of the 1990s, North Koreans are more aware of who is causing their hunger, and they are becoming discontented. The former North Korean ambassador to the UK, Thae Yong So, has defected from the country and is advocating for increased dissemination of information from the outside to allow civilians to recognize the inadequacy of the government and take action. He states that “it will be like spraying gasoline on a fire of public anger, eventually sparking a popular uprising that will topple the Kim family regime.”


As descendants of people who lived through unjust governmental policies and the famine that ensues from them, we can use our history to critique and condemn what is happening in North Korea.


If a social explosion is sparked, it is important for us to remember our historical roots, and rally our support to ensure that no more North Korean families will rely on their rice roots to survive.

A banner made up of many black and white images collaged together. Images include protest banners, animals, buildings, and statues.

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