At the Heart of North Korea's Troubles, an Intractable Hunger Crisis

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 6, 2009

SEOUL -- Behind the long-range missile it is preparing to launch and the stockpile of plutonium it claims to have "weaponized," North Korea has an embarrassing and insoluble weakness.

Under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, the country cannot feed its people. Perennially dependent on food aid, North Korea has become a truculent ward of the wealthy countries it threatens. It is the world's first nuclear-armed, missile-wielding beggar -- a particularly intricate challenge for the Obama administration as it begins to formulate a foreign policy.

The "eating problem," as it is often called in North Korea, has eroded Kim's authority, damaged a decade of improved relations between the two Koreas and stunted the bodies and minds of millions of North Koreans. Teenage boys fleeing the North in the past decade are on average five inches shorter and weigh 25 pounds less than boys growing up in the South, according to measurements taken at a settlement center for defectors in South Korea.

Mental retardation caused by malnutrition will disqualify about a quarter of potential military conscripts in North Korea, according to a December report by the National Intelligence Council, a research institution that is part of the U.S. intelligence community. The report said hunger-caused intellectual disabilities among the young are likely to cripple economic growth, even if the country opens to the outside world or unites with the South.

"Baby homes, children homes and boarding schools seem to be in a dire state," one aid worker wrote in a diary last year after touring government institutions for children in a northern province. "Access to food is limited, and children are both socially and physiologically vulnerable."

Hunger and handouts explain North Korea's recent round of fist-shaking against South Korea, which included the military's threat to adopt an "all-out confrontational posture." After a decade of blank-check aid, Seoul decided last year to stop giving food and fertilizer to the North unless it can monitor who the beneficiaries are.

To secure donated food from the West, Kim has had to open his shuttered state to foreign aid experts who have mapped a pernicious pattern of malnutrition in which access to food depends, in many ways, on geographical and political proximity to the ruling elite in the capital, Pyongyang.

Kim is also struggling -- and by many accounts failing -- to contain an outbreak of capitalism and profiteering that food shortages and food aid have helped spread. Since famine killed perhaps a million North Koreans in the mid-1990s, a sprawling, unruly and often corrupt network of private markets has replaced the government as the prime distributor of food.

"People on the outside don't realize it, but North Korea right now is in a drastic state of change," said Jiro Ishimaru, who edits Rimjingang, a journal of reports, photos and videos smuggled out of North Korea by anonymous eyewitnesses.

The government does not release statistics about the markets, and nearly all of them are off-limits to foreigners. But according to estimates by outside economists with access to North Korean and U.N. food data, at least half the calories consumed by the population come from food sold in markets. And nearly 80 percent of household income in North Korea derives from buying and selling in the markets, according to a study last year in the Seoul Journal of Economics.

Inside North Korea, people with trading savvy can now get plenty to eat. But hunger remains widespread. About 37 percent of the population will require food assistance in the coming year, according to a U.N. food assessment in December, and a World Food Program official said the rate of stunting among children younger than 6 has changed little in the past five years.

Human Waste Manure

This winter, North Koreans have been told to achieve food self-sufficiency by their own efforts. As part of a government-ordered mass mobilization, they are making toibee, a fertilizer in which ash is mixed with their own excrement.

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