Famine in North Korea Redux?

Peterson Institute Working Paper
WP 08 – October 2008
Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland

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Abstract: In the 1990s, 600,000 to 1 million North Koreans, or about 3 to 5 percent of the precrisis population, perished in one of the worst famines of the 20th century. North Korea is once again poised on the brink of famine. Although the renewed provision of aid is likely to avert a disaster on the scale of the 1990s, hunger-related deaths are already occurring and a dynamic has been set in motion that will carry the crisis into 2009. North Korea is a complex humanitarian emergency characterized by highly imperfect information. This paper triangulates quantity and price evidence with direct observation to assess food insecurity in North Korea and its causes. We critique the widely cited UN figures and present original data on grain quantities and prices. These data demonstrate that for the first time since the 1990s famine, the aggregate grain balance has gone into deficit. Prices have also risen steeply. The reemergence of pathologies from the famine era is documented through direct observation. Although exogenous shocks have played a role, foreign and domestic policy choices have been key.

Keywords: Famine, North Korea
JEL codes: Q1, O1, P2

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