Starving Soldiers Deplete North Korea’s Meager Harvest

I got too busy to keep an eye on Good Friends’ updates for a while,  but on my commute home last night, I managed to eke out the time to read some items that caught my interest.  Overall,  people continue to die by the dozens, though not yet by the hundreds or thousands.  The starvation seems localized, yet those localities are distributed across the country, including the regions surrounding Pyongyang. 

But what I’m watching for most keenly is a sign that  this grim vigil  can eventually end, so I watch for  signs that disillusionment will become defiance, an exceedingly difficult thing  in such a totalitarian society.  Once again, Chongjin is the flash point:

On August 24, small teams with three to four security officers conducted intense investigations in the market area in the name of maintaining order. It was inevitable that a fight broke out between these security teams and female peddlers who were struggling to earn a living. In the beginning, the peddlers seemed to be losing, but female peddlers nearby quickly joined forces, and it turned into a big brawl. The word about the fight spread so fast throughout the region that the residents are not reluctant to admit that the fight was the second incident that shook the city of Chungjin since the March 4 incident. The fight brought a public outcry in the area by those female peddlers who did not participate in the fight and those from other markets in the city. This incident also caused anger toward the authorities on the part of the husbands and brothers of the female peddlers. Naturally, this incident has placed the authorities under strain.  [link]

The result of this, if you believe that Good Friends has sources inside  the local party meetings that followed, was  much anger and self-criticism followed by a suspension of the police harassment of the traders.  Elsewhere, mine workers appear to have gone on strike for back wages and food rations:

Recently, three workers at Eunryoul Mine of South Hwanghae Province fell ill in a single day. They collapsed due to long term starvation and hard labor. A troop of workers who were infuriated went to the management office and angrily demanded, “We cannot be patient anymore, give us unpaid wages and promise a food supply.” Up to now, Eunryoul mine has provided wages only once and a food supply only twice.  [link]

In some areas, the authorities are feeling the limits of their power to antagonize desperate and angry people, which now creates division within the regime about whether to temporarily relax control or crack down hard at the risk of inflaming matters even more. 

Otherwise, the regime is trying to sustain the intensity of its  inspections too root out foreign influences  and public executions of accused lawbreakers.  It’s also rumored that the relatives of those who have defected to the South will be relocated to more “restricted” areas of the North, which will probably also be areas where less food is available.

The ultimate question is really this:  when things turn ugly, how will the men with the guns react?   If we are to believe even half of these reports,  the soldiers are going hungry, too.  This report is from Kangwan-Do, a front-line area that ought to have preferential treatment:

The food that is distributed into the military base is often robbed by the military officials, leaving low-ranked soldiers short on food. Thus, soldiers generally hope to avoid being placed in the Unit 1. An ex-soldier who recently finished his military duty from the Unit 1 says that he survived on eating grass-meals (풀밥) two times a day. If we observe the health conditions of the soldiers in Unit 1 of the Division 46, 40-50 out of 100 people are undernourished.   [link]

The soldiers get by by stealing from everyone else, and everyone else is powerless to stop them:

In this summer, the cornfields in these villages looked like battlefields. After hard work and not being fed properly, the soldiers swept through the cornfields that belonged to the farmers. They even took corn that was not ripened yet, destroying the cornfields. The Farm Management Committee visited the commanding unit numerous times to report such incidence and request for countermeasures, but was no use. Instead, what they heard was that “farmers should think of this as support to the nation’s assault group who’s carrying on an important mission right now. The farmers think of this group as nothing more than thieves.  [link]

[In]  Ahnbyun County, a group of hungry soldiers were caught stealing corn on the field by a guard. These soldiers beat up the farm guard before returning to their army base. The soldiers’ beating was so severe that the farm guard died in that evening. The following day those soldiers were arrested while cooking the corn they stole. [….]

Soldiers of the 10th Regiment, 5th division of 5th Corps stationed at Cheolwon, Kangwon Province have been fed only twice a day since last spring. Fortunately this month, some rice has been distributed. However the amount is so little and the soldiers traded the rice for corn because they get a larger volume of corn than the rice. The amount of rationed rice is barely enough for a meal. Consequently the hungry soldiers go to a nearby village and steal corn from the field. The stealing was so rampant that farm managers complained to the army authorities to no avail. A military officer admitted, “We have attempted to draw soldiers’ attention many times. But we have to recognize that the soldiers are fed only twice a day.   [….]

While guarding a corn field on a farm in Ohyun-ri, Yeonahn County, South Hwanghae Province, a farmer was killed and the another severely injured by soldiers attempting to steal some corn. Even though the farmers could guess that the perpetrating soldiers belong to the artillery regiment of the 4th Corps, there was no solid evidence to accuse any of the soldiers. After the afore-mentioned unit denied that any soldiers went outside the camp that day, no one was arrested. The farmers of other farms in the area also suffer from these thefts. They have had to assign more than fifty farmers with teams of seven farmers to rotating guard duties. Their only job is to guard the crops but it is beyond their capabilities at times. When many laborers and soldiers in large groups come and take what they want, it is impossible to stop them all. By the time they report it to the police station, all of them have run away. [link]

Suspecting military personnel involvement, police investigators went to the commanding officers at the training camp. When questioned, the officers denied allegations and refused to assist the police, saying “there is no evidence that our soldiers stole the cow. You should have more proof before suspecting any military personnel. An altercation ensued when the military officers were quoted as yelling, “How dare you suspect our soldiers with this crime!” According to the police report, soldiers at the training camp beat the police investigators and damaged their bikes. Appeals to the commanding general met with the same resistance and defiance to take action.  [link]

In the latter case, several soldiers were eventually sent to labor camps for the theft.

This pre-harvesting of crops is yet another reason why we should expect next  year’s harvest to be disastrously low.  Starving people pre-harvest crops, eat their seed corn, sell their equipment,  and eat the oxen they use for plowing.  Hunger begets hunger. 

This must be having some effect on military recruitment and morale:

In the past, there were many students who wanted to serve in the military because of the possibility of becoming a highly-ranked general, but these days, the primary reason is food. Han Kyung-soo, 41 years old, explained this trend: “Parents see people coming back from military with thin bodies but the fact that they are still sending their children to serve in the military explains how hard their living really is. However, there are still more parents who do not want to send their children to serve, thinking their children will starve to death there.   [link]

Good Friends’s dispatches are also filled with reports of corruption by military officials, factory managers, and prosecutors,  largely driven by hunger, and too numerous for me to quote anyting in particular.  In the provinces, even the elite are going hungry, and those who perpetuated the system of terror  are wasting away.  Even engineers at  Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport,  which I toured here with Google Earth, are said to be  stealing  fuel to survive.  There are also  continuing reports of drug arrests.

So how worried is the regime about its control?

General Assembly of the National Party Cell Secretary (전국당세포비서대회) is scheduled to be held in October. Ten thousand cell secretaries, which will be biggest meeting ever, are expected to attend. This meeting resumed last year after a 14 year hiatus. The objective of this meeting is to discuss the food situation. The food situation has taken an unfavorable turn; the Central party lost its support of the people. They are concerned about a possible public movement in the near future because of the shortage of food.

At the meeting, the Central party will emphasize the role of the cell secretaries who are responsible for educating people. This will allow the cell secretaries to have the people under control. North Korea anticipates a food crisis this coming winter. This might lead people to a movement (protest). They will hold the biggest meeting of 10,000 participates to prevent people from a movement. One official of Central Party said, “The objectives of the general assembly of the National Party Cell Secretaries this year is to indoctrinate people in dogmas as to a projected food crisis. After this meeting is over, the control of people will most likely be tightened.”  [link]

If you ask, some people will tell you that they question the accuracy of Good Friends’s reporting, but while I don’t make much of their analysis or projections, I’ve never seen their factual reporting disproven.  Of course, it’s not as if we often have anyone else’s word to take.

Related:   According to this report, some North Koreans are doing a brisk business in smuggling grain into the country, which  is important — it’s a modest but important alternative means of supply that the regime can’t  manipulate for its own political purposes.   Curtis Melvin thinks that this method of importing food may be more effective at reaching “restricted” areas of the country than international food aid, which I don’t doubt.


  1. It’s a little awkward to see these young Noko Jeans guys enjoying themselves in Pyongyang and eating hamburgers when people starve to death in other parts of the country. But I guess what they’re doing is positive in the long run.


  2. I’m somehow missing the “positive in the long run” aspect of profiting from slave labor and sharing the spoils with the oppressors. Maybe someone can explain to me how the last 10 years of “engagement” and investment made North Korea less hungry, less miserable, and less dangerous to the rest of the world. We’ve been hearing for the whole time how a new, improved, reformed North Korea is just around the corner. Guess what? It isn’t. The people in charge of that regime don’t think in those terms. They think in terms of screwing everyone they can — investors, other governments, each other, and above all, the rest of the North Korean people. Feed the beast and it will merely consume more victims.

    It doesn’t take much cash to sustain a tiny oligarchy, so even a modest investment like this one mostly serves to sustain a repellent system. The good news? Like so many before him, this guy will probably lose his life’s savings, which will be a lesson to others. The bad news is that there’s always another sucker with more money burning a hole in his pocket than conscience.


  3. ^ Which is why I am conflicted with people who travel to the DPRK to see the mass games or just to experience it. Yes I know that we get a lot of info from travelouges depicting Pyongyang, especially if the person happens to sneek past a minder and discover something unkown to outsiders. However every time people travel to the DPRK they are basically helping KJI stay in power by financially supporting the regime, even if they are against it.


  4. What’s more, the information is completely repetitious and of very low quality. North Korea may be the only country where you may be able to have a more authentic experience on Google Earth than an actual visit.


  5. On Joshua’s 9:54 comment…

    This is why some — NGOs — need to be working very hard to subvert this government and bring it down. Every effort should be in the process right now to motivate and organize the North Koreans to save themselves in the long run.

    As I’ve said often in the past — the outside world has done the math of misery and balked at ending this. The POTENTIAL body count of non-North Koreans if complete collapse comes bothers them more than the still-running massive body count of just North Koreans….

    As long as the North Koreans don’t bring the regime down, more generations will suffer and suffer and suffer and die and die and suffer….

    While the outside world vacilates between how much or little regime-sustaining aid it gives the Kim clan.


  6. I always wondered what would happen to a travler if they were to dicslose to a minder that before visiting the country they researched North Korea on google earth and already knew most of the terrain including KJI’s palaces and military sights from satellite view. Would the north Koreans jail them for espionage or will they have the mental capacity to realize that outside of North Korea practically anyone in the world has the luxury of using google earth to view the country.


  7. ^ Then again, if a traveler were to ask such a thing mentioning military sites then their mental capacity should also be in question.