Life in the Hermit Kingdom

Since 1995, North Korea has suffered from a devastating famine induced by the nexus of climatic events (both floods and droughts) and overzealous agricultural and economic policies. Since inception, the famine has killed upwards of 2 million North Koreans, or roughly 10% of the aggregate population. Confirmation is difficult, however, because of the exodus of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from North Korea, stymied in their efforts and too frustrated with the government’s corrupt and inhuman practices. In 1998, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) withdrew from North Korea, followed by Oxfam in 1999 and CARE in 2000.

In 1998, the World Food Program (WFP) conducted a study of child malnutrition in North Korea. The results showed that 15.6% of children were wasted and 63.8% were stunted. In its current report on North Korea, the WFP estimates that approximately 55% of North Koreans are malnourished, with the heaviest concentration in the Sino border provinces. Residents of these provinces bore the brunt of the famine; mortality in some villages was as high as 20-25%.

Exacerbating the crisis, residents of these provinces are generally relegated to the hostile class and, accordingly, receive the least — if anything at all — from North Korea’s inequitable food rationing system. By comparison, residents of Pyongyang and members of the military (i.e., the core class) remain reasonably well fed, often by siphoning off or diverting international aid. Consequently, in 2000, Action Against Hunger became at least the fifth major international NGO to suspend operations in North Korea, citing the DPRK’s failure to (i) provide a transparent food distribution system and (ii) grant access to the country’s most vulnerable people.

Notwithstanding these concerns, international aid has poured into North Korea since the famine began, through food donations administered principally by the WFP and energy assistance through the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). The United States has been the largest donor over this period (with the possible exception of China, whose contributions are unknown), providing more than $1 billion of assistance from 1995-2003.

The final insult to the hostile and wavering classes is that they are also subject to arbitrary and extrajudicial punishment. In a recent report by David Hawk, an estimated 150,000-200,000 North Koreans (generally from the hostile and wavering classes) are currently imprisoned in Soviet-style “gulags,” or forced labor camps, where they are held for “trumped-up political ‘crimes,’ such as reading a foreign newspaper, singing a South Korean pop song, or ‘insulting the authority’ of the North Korean leadership.” Stemming from North Korea’s Confucian roots, up to three generations of a purged political prisoner’s relatives, and those otherwise guilty by association (such as neighbors or all the residents of the same apartment block), may also be sentenced to a lifetime of hard “slave” labor with no judicial process whatsoever.