How Famine Changed N. Korea

By Kay Seok
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SEOUL -- Today in Pyongyang, the New York Philharmonic, the most prominent U.S. cultural institution ever to visit North Korea, performs live on state TV and radio. Many observers have cautiously dubbed this a prelude to a thaw between Washington and Pyongyang. But for North Koreans, a very real thaw, unseen by the musicians, has been transforming life for years.

A famine that killed a million people in the 1990s has driven fundamental societal changes in North Korea. As people struggled to survive, they were forced to defy many restrictions imposed by the state, which has consequently lost much of its control.

Before the famine, North Korea could plausibly be called a hermit kingdom. Citizens had no source of information but state media and were banned from traveling outside their immediate area of residency, except for family weddings and funerals. The state intelligence agency tightly monitored people. Most important, the state dominated food distribution, control that kept people subservient and immobile for fear of losing their only access to sustenance.

Things changed in the early 1990s. After decades of government mismanagement of the agricultural sector and years of natural disasters came the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, an abrupt end to barter trade. North Korea's chronic food shortage grew into a full-fledged famine. At least 1 million of the state's then-20 million citizens starved to death while waiting for rations to resume.

But not everyone followed the state's orders. A massive number of North Koreans -- possibly in the tens of thousands -- sold their belongings, packed their bags and left the cities for the countryside, where food was more readily available. Most of them of course lacked permission to travel. But with even police officers out hunting for food, the authorities were unable to stop the widespread relocations. The state's restriction of movement began to break down.

Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans escaped to China throughout the 1990s to find food and work. Tens of thousands of them were arrested and repatriated as "illegal migrants," while others voluntarily returned home to feed their families and use their new knowledge or skills to make money. These people inevitably brought back news from the outside world, information undistorted by the government's propaganda machine.

Markets began to spring up all over North Korea, replacing the ration system -- now defunct -- as the main source of food. At first, markets operated on the barter system, where desperately hungry people could exchange anything valuable for food, but they gradually developed into places where people bought and sold items to make a profit. Today, in Pyongyang and beyond, the country is teeming with bustling markets. North Koreans are engaged in all kinds of businesses, selling homemade noodles, running express buses and real-estate development, both legal and illegal.

Echoing the words of many other North Koreans, a 60-year-old woman from Wonsan told me, "In North Korea, people now only care about making money."

Some activities motivated by profit-seeking have led to greater access to information: Consider, for instance, the roaring trade in pirated and smuggled CDs and DVDs of South Korean soap operas and movies. After years of watching these stories, many of the North's urban residents have learned that South Korea is far richer and freer than their own country. It is increasingly common knowledge that South Korea is the world's 13th-largest economy and a democracy, while North Korea remains a poor dictatorship.

About a decade ago, most North Koreans "knew" that South Korea was a desperately poor country and that its capital, Seoul, was filled with prostitutes and beggars. They also "understood" that North Korea was a "workers' paradise" going through temporary difficulties because of U.S. sanctions.

Of course, not all is different or rosy in North Korea. Kim Jong Il's government still holds unchallenged power, and it continues to run a prison-camp system that enslaves tens of thousands, including young children. Periodically, it publicly executes people for offenses such as stealing state property or other "anti-communist" behavior. North Koreans also complain of the ever-rising level of corruption and extortion by officials.

But whatever the North Korean government does to return to its pre-famine society, for many North Koreans the changes set in motion by the famine are irreversible. In fact, many North Koreans that I have met, especially the young, say they want more change. They have survived the country's worst disaster in half a century. Compared with their parents, they are far more informed, open-minded and unafraid. And therein lies hope for North Korea's future.

Kay Seok is the North Korea researcher for Human Rights Watch.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company