Page 69 of our book consists of a table about the distribution of food in North Korea in 1997-98. No sex, no intrigue. As it turns out, however, that table makes a point that is central to our explanation of North Korea's horrific famine, which killed up to a million people in the mid-1990s.Read an excerpt from Famine in North Korea.
Famine is commonly thought of as occurring when there is not enough food to go around, and shortages do play a role. But Amartya Sen made an important observation for which he received the Nobel Prize: distribution matters. The poor can starve even if food is in relatively ample supply if they don't have enough money to buy it. Something similar happened in North Korea, though the root cause was politics, not economics.
The official explanation for the famine is that North Korea experienced devastating floods in the mid-1990s. The famine was, in effect, a natural disaster.
However, food supplies had begun dwindling and mortality rates creeping up before the floods, as a result of misguided economic policies and the collapse of Soviet support. Yet the rigidly authoritarian regime made little effort to offset declining harvests either by purchasing grain in the world market or appealing for humanitarian assistance.
Contrary to socialist principles, misery was not shared equally; the table on p. 69 shows this starkly. Life would have been tough under any circumstances. But in reality the privileged residents of Pyongyang — including the party cadres, government officials and top military personnel — were treated far better than others. Some provinces were cut off from grain supplies from the state-run public distribution system altogether, and were later denied aid when it began to flow in.
Our book is not just about the famine. We analyze the difficulties the humanitarian community has encountered in closed country, the diversion of aid, and the surprising effects of the famine on the process of economic reform. Out of the struggles of families and enterprises to secure food, markets began to develop, transforming the economy from below.
We also discuss the difficult ethical issues that engagement with the North Korean regime poses. But the findings reported on p. 69 in fact underline a core point of the book: this tyrannical regime failed to provide food to its people and distributed the food that it did have in unequal ways that protected the elite at the expense of the masses with disastrous consequences.
Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Series.