How Kim Jong Il Starved North Korea
@ the Atlantic
Agriculture has always been a dicey proposition in North Korea, where the cold, mountainous terrain is short on high-quality farmland. A normal economy could cope by importing food. But during the 1980s, the North Korean government embarked on a policy of radical self-sufficiency known as juche. Farmers were expected to overcome mother nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population. To do it, they relied on heaps of chemical fertilizer. But that crutch was yanked away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The demise of the USSR threw North Korea’s entire economy into chaos, and agriculture was among its most important casualties. Without imports of cheap fuel (self-sufficiency had its limits), the country’s industrial base fractured, and production of fertilizer dwindled. Farm yields plummeted, and the government started a campaign urging citizens to consume less. Its cheery slogan: “Let’s eat only two meals a day.”
It was against this background that the Kim Jong Il took power. The country was at a crossroads, says Marcus Noland, a leading expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. With the USSR gone, the prospects for a small, isolated, neo-Stalinist regime looked rather grim. The government could have opened up its economy, much like Vietnam did with great success. Instead, North Korea chose to stay frozen in time.
I keep forgetting to ask my South Korean bosses what they think about Kim Jong Il’s death. I’m sure their opinions would be very interesting.