North Korea Struggling to Survive in the 1990s: A Country Torn Between Famine and the Atomic Bomb

Poverty in North Korea

By the mid-1990’s North Korea was on the brink of collapse, unable to feed his starving population Kim Jong-il announced a new ‘army first’ policy prioritising supplies.

By the mid-1990s North Korea was already struggling to feed its population, the public rationing system had all but collapsed, with the government taking the decision near the beginning of the decade to exclude certain economically and politically unimportant areas such as the north-east of the country, but worse was still to come. Grain production reached its lowest point during the two years of flooding in 1995 and 1996, during which time the country saw harvests of 3.4 and 3.7 million tons respectively. To make up its enormous food deficit North Korea was forced, in total contradiction to Juche, to appeal to the international community for aid. Most of the aid came from South Korea, China, Japan and the United States, but the European Union also contributed.

North Korean Society

Before discussing the number of victims of the famine, which is in any case very contested and difficult to evaluate owing to the secretive nature of the regime, it is worth highlighting that not all of the country was affected in the same way. Similarly to China under Mao, North Korean society is divided into political castes which categorise the population according to their perceived loyalty to the regime. Since 1967 all citizens have been allocated between three large castes which are also sub-divided into various categories. The first caste comprises 28% of the population and is made up of the political elite as well all of the inhabitants of Pyongyang. Around 45% of North Koreans, notably the working class and peasants living outside of the capital make up the second caste. This section of the population finds itself under constant supervision and requires special authorisation to enter the capital. Lastly, 27% of the population is classed as hostile by Pyongyang, these people are generally those whose ancestors collaborated with the Japanese or who are known to have family in South Korea. They are monitored more closely than the rest of the population and are more likely to end their days in a work camp.

Death-toll of the North Korean Famine

According to the World Food Group, between 1995 and 1998 North Korea received 3.3 million tons of grain, which does not explain how such a significant part of the population perished in the famine. It is impossible to discern exactly how many people died during the famine, at least not until the regime either opens up or collapses. North Korea officially recognises a death toll of 250,000 whereas certain NGO’s connected to the country talk about several million deaths.

While it is difficult to work out the exact death toll, there are other indicators which can be used to study the effects of this famine. The birth rate fell by 50% between 1995 and 1997 and, according to a UNICEF report, in 1998 62% of North Korean children suffered from chronic malnutrition, and 16% from acute malnutrition. Additionally, the central government admitted that life expectancy had fallen by six years during the 1990’s.

Pyongyang Blames the Famine on Natural Disasters

The North Korean regime is content to place all the blame for the famine on natural disasters and to present itself as the innocent victim of circumstances beyond its control, but it is evident that discredited ideology of Juche and an economy built around the principle of self-sufficiency had left the country in ruins long before the first natural disaster struck. Also, even though the government can hardly be blamed for the massive rainfalls of the mid-1990s, it is wholly responsible for the process of deforestation and levelling of hills that, whilst it created more arable land, also robbed the country of natural flood defences.

During the 1990’s, when its economy had ground to a halt, its population was dying from hunger and the country depended on humanitarian aid to survive, North Korea continued to maintain an army of 1.2 million men, the fifth largest in the world at the time. In 1996, a year in which, according to most sources around one million North Koreans died from hunger, Kim Jong-Il announced his new ‘army first’ policy. This decision was interpreted as an abandonment of his starving population and led to accusations that Pyongyang was diverting humanitarian aid towards the army. There is scant evidence to support this claim however, it is more the case that the Pyongyang elite and the army have priority on local grain production, especially rice, and that the rest of the population is dependant on the corn, wheat and potatoes provided by the international community.

North Korea’s 1.2 Million Strong Army

It is estimated that North Korea spends around 25% of its GDP on defence, including the army, missile development and its nuclear programme. Another criticism levelled at the regime, apart from the systematic diversion of aid away from those most in need, is that if Kim’s government had used part of its military budget to buy grain and fuel on the international market then the effects of the famine would have been less keenly felt.

Nevertheless, for a country that was virtually bankrupt and suffering a humanitarian crisis, its military capability was Pyongyang’s trump card. Arms sales to countries such as Libya, Iran, Iraq and Egypt during the 1990’s although they served to further isolate the regime, provided it with a vital source of foreign currency. Whilst the funds were certainly useful and guaranteed the immediate survival of the regime, the North Korean leadership realised after the collapse of the USSR that it needed to possess its own nuclear deterrent in order to ensure long-term survival. Pyongyang had seen how in the early part of the decade the United States had attacked without hesitation non-nuclear countries such as Iraq or Serbia and felt increasingly vulnerable now they were no longer protected by the Soviet nuclear ‘umbrella’.


  1. Pierre Rigoulet, “Corée du Nord, Etat voyou”, Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 2003.
  2. Philippe Grangereau, “Au pays du grand mensonge”, Le Serpent de Mer, Paris, 2001.
  3. Andrew Natsios, “United States Institute of Peace Report”, 1999.