John Feffer’s Dubious History of the Great North Korean Famine

John Feffer provides a deeply informed and lucid account of all these matters, full of insight, pointing the way to constructive solutions that are within our grasp.”
Noam Chomsky

It’s no simple thing to be a North Korea apologist these days, and that’s never been truer now that any intelligent observer can see that the food situation in the North is getting worse fast. There are several converging reasons for this: expulsion of (most of) the World Food Program, the loss of much of this year’s crop to flooding, and now, the bite of sanctions that may tempt Kim Jong Il to squeeze the proles harder than ever. Things are about to get a lot worse in North Korea, and when they do, the world will have to make a decision about what it will give and just how much transparency it will demand.

John Feffer, who has a well researched piece at the Asia Times, is both of those things: an apologist for North Korea and an intelligent observer, and he’s trying to set the North Korean regime up to get through that famine intact, presumably with help from other nations. He has a problem, however: most people no longer believe that that help will go to those who need it, and Feffer, to his credit but also out of necessity, acknowledges that:

The right to food, which humanitarian organizations emphasized in their pperations, has become yet another arena in which critics have castigated Pyongyang’s record. A former rationale for engagement has morphed into an argument for disengagement.

Put differently, one of “engagement” proponents’ main arguments is biting them. Hard. Thus, Feffer is writing this four-parter, the first part of which answers this question:

Was the DPRK famine the result of unexpected external causes such as weather, unanticipated failures of state and local policy, or easily foreseeable system breakdown?

Feffer ends up answering his own question this way:

As such, neither as a result of policy errors nor as a function of natural disasters can the ensuing famine be construed as a deliberate or a desired outcome for the North Korean government.

Nor can the DPRK leadership be accused of “culpable slowness” in its response to the unfolding crisis…. North Korea was willing but ultimately unable to ward off famine. If anything, it is the international community that reacted with culpable slowness, for it took two years before international donors responded on a significant scale to Pyongyang’s requests.

I wish I had time to go through the entire long piece, but I don’t, and really don’t need to. I don’t disagree with the majority of the facts in the meaty center of the piece. I tend to agree with some of the specific reasons Feffer cites — excessive reliance on pesticides and fertilizers, lack of fuel — for why food production fell. His defense brief cites much of the same evidence as my own indictment, though I suggest skimming over his diversionary set-ups about the sovereignty of small nations, where Feffer tries to contrive an intricate and relativistic defense to the charge of starving people who didn’t have to die.

My disagreement with Feffer is mostly about what he does not mention before concluding that the starvation of two million people was more everyone else’s fault than Kim Jong Il’s, without denying that bad agricultural policies played some role.

* Feffer can’t meet Noland and Haggard’s argument that Kim Jong Il reacted to the arrival of food aid by choosing to buy and import less food. Was that due to a criminal misappropriation of priorities or a simple lack of money for food imports? I’ll address that in a moment.

* Feffer doesn’t specifically address the accusations of numerous NGO’s — most recently, Refugees International and Human Rights Watch — that North Korea selectively deprives members of the “hostile” class of food and medical care. To varying degrees, the NGO’s accuse the regime of doing this intentionally. Noland and Haggard seem to think it’s more a matter of corrupt officials skimming off retail amounts food to local markets for financial gain, but recent evidence from a resistance “guerrilla camera” tells us that at least some of the diversion is wholesale. Feffer glosses right over this. It’s pretty hard to explain an omission that glaring, given how well researched some parts of his article are, and the fact that those accusations are in some of the very sources Feffer cites.

* Feffer points that North Korea couldn’t grow enough food for everyone. That’s true, but it’s only a partial answer. What he doesn’t mention is that North Korea had enough cash sitting around during those years to buy food for everyone. Instead, it decided to use that cash to buy weapons and feed a massive military force. Consider these statistics: at its high-water mark, the World Food Program appealed for approximately $200 million to buy food for its 6.5 million North Korean recipients, about one-third of North Korea’s population. During the same period, North Korea’s annual defense budget was approximately $5 billion (with a “B”). According to South Korean intelligence sources, their arsenal of Nodong and SCUD missiles cost $260 million, which is more than enough to cover a one of the WFP’s annual appeals (they’ve supposedly just ordered 17 more Taepodong-2’s, at an additional cost of $425M, instead of covering their food shortfall for two more years). There are other large purchases I can’t quantify: 18 new submarines since 2004, a thousand more artillery pieces since 2001, an undetermined number of new MiG’s and MiG parts since 1998, and of course, two nuclear weapons programs. Noland and Haggard put it this way:

Rather than using humanitarian assistance as an addition to domestic production and commercial sources of supply, the government has used aid largely as balance-of-payments support, allowing it to allocate the savings in commercial imports to other priorities, including military ones and luxury imports for the elite. For example, in 1999, at the same time that it was cutting commercial grain imports to less than 200,000 metric tons, the government allocated scarce foreign exchange to the purchase of 40 MiG-21 fighters and 8 military helicopters from Kazakhastan.

Meanwhile, two million people starved to death, and they didn’t all die at once. Which leads you to wonder what John Feffer has said about U.S. defense spending. Wild guess, anyone?

* Feffer mentions, but doesn’t answer, allegations by Andrew Natsios and others that North Korea “triaged” the nation’s food supply — and thus, the famine’s effects — by closing off certain regions (see map) of the country, which cut off food supplies to those regions. Natsios estimates that one such decision killed 300,000 people in the Northeast in just a few months.

Feffer is probably right that North Korea did not deliberately contrive the famine as a means of class extermination with malice aforethought, but I don’t know who has really argued that, given how little we know about Kim Jong Il’s public policy deliberations. I don’t believe that a regime that obsessed with its image would have preferred famine over other more efficient and less embarrassing ways to kill a lot of people. But by failing to address the evidence I cite above, Feffer fails to refute the implication that Kim Jong Il, who has publicly mused that he could reconstruct a “victorious” society without 60% of its population, seized on the famine for political purposes, and made a cold, calculating decision that MiGs, nukes, and submarines mattered more than two million members of the “hostile” class.

Does anything suggest that Kim Jong Il’s priorities will be different when the next Great Famine comes?


  1. I suggest, contrary to Mr. Feffer’s claim to the contrary, that North Korea was NEVER self-sufficient.

    After the crash of the Soviet Union, which brought an end to ‘concessionary oil prices’ and a market for the North’s worthless products, along with the Chinese demanding hard currency in their trade, things ‘went to hell in a handbasket’ for the Kim Family Regime.