The peninsula on which both North and South Korea are located was under Japanese rule until the end of World War II in 1945. At that point the United States began occupying the southern half and the Soviet Union took over the northern half. The two countries' inability to agree on unification led to the formation of two separate governments in the north and south. War broke out between them in 1950 and ended in 1953, with a permanent demilitarized zone separating the two countries; this area has been called the most dangerous place on earth. From the end of the war until his death in 1994, Kim Il-Sung, who called himself (and demanded that all North Koreans call him) "Great Leader," ruled North Korea. Following his death, leadership went to his son Kim Jong-Il, who is known as "Dear Leader." Between their two periods of leadership, the father and son created a cult of personality and amassed military strength that enriched them and the country's upper class and left North Korea's ordinary citizens in such severe poverty that in the late 1990s as many as three million died of starvation (estimates vary; the North Korean government claims 600,000 died, while some nongovernmental organizations and human rights watchdog groups say one million). Human rights abuses abound in the country as well. In fact, North Korea is known for having one of the worst records in the world for the treatment of its own citizens.
It is also one of the most secretive societies in the world. Even photographs from inside the country are rare. Because everything is so tightly controlled by the authorities, valid statistics are generally nonexistent, although some nongovernmental organizations do manage to obtain data, and the government of South Korea keeps statistics as well. According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification (2006, http://www.unikorea.go.kr/en/index.jsp), the average annual income in North Korea was $818 in 2003. Because poverty numbers and other human development information provided by the government of North Korea are known to be inaccurate, the country is not ranked by the UNDP Human Development Index. In the early 1990s authorities were believed to be inflating the numbers to receive more foreign aid. By the late 1990s they were downplaying the severity of the problem. As of December 2005 the government was denying the presence of starvation in the country and planning to expel all nongovernmental aid organizations (Jehangir Pocha, "Cult of Ideology: North Korea Struggles to Save Face by Resisting Crucial Foreign Aid," December 5, 2005, http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2420/).
Death Camps, Famine, and the Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons
For his article "A Gulag with Nukes: Inside North Korea" (July 17, 2005, http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization-institutions_government/north_korea_2686.jsp), Jasper Becker interviewed refugees from North Korea who had firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of the country, from slave labor camps to the palaces of Kim Jong-Il. Becker refers to these refugees as "escapees from the last slave society left in the world." David Hawk of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea concurs. In The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps—Prisoners' Testimonies and
Satellite Photographs (2003, http://hrnk.org/HiddenGulag.pdf), Hawk estimates that 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans are held in penal colonies throughout the country. The prisoners are people who may or may not have committed crimes but are perceived as criminals by authorities. Relatives of the prisoners are abducted and imprisoned as well. Detainment for alleged criminals is frequently lifelong, and there is no legal recourse. In fact, the accused are never actually arrested or charged with anything. They are simply snatched off the street and taken to interrogation facilities, where they may be tortured into confessing. Family mem-bers—usually parents, children, and grandparents—are kept in separate camps for "reeducation"; eventually, they may be released. This notion of "guilt by association" dates back to 1972, when Kim Il-Sung proclaimed that the blood lines of prisoners should be wiped out for three generations.
Prisoners detained in the camps are fed a starvation diet, meaning they are given the least possible amount of food to keep them alive and allow them to perform brutally difficult labor at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week. According to Sung Hun Han's article "Poverty Line in North Korea" (2005, http://www.bepress.com/peps/vol11/iss1/3/), adult prisoners are given the same amount of food that is allotted in the government's grain rationing program to two- to four-year-old children. The below-subsistence diet causes long-term physical deformities, and the dangerous working environment results in high numbers of amputations and disabilities. Additionally, feeding prisoners the absolute bare minimum creates an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion among them, making them fight each other for extra scraps of food and the clothing of those who have died. They are also known to turn each other in to the guards for indiscretions. Punishment is either confinement in a boxlike structure whose size makes both standing and lying down impossible, causing circulation to be cut off and slow death, or prisoners are killed by hanging or by a firing squad in front of other prisoners.
According to the Korea Institute for National Unification's annual White Paper on Human Rights in North Korea, 2004, North Korea operates a rations system, under which all citizens receive food, clothing, medical care, housing, education, and pensions directly from the government. The thinking behind the system is that it will instill gratitude in the people, yet, because of the small amount of goods they receive, they are being kept from becoming lazy and frivolous. The grain distribution system had collapsed by the 1990s, with citizens receiving less than one-third the amount they needed to survive. In late 1996 grain rations were stopped altogether, leaving people to acquire their own food, mostly from the black market. Those who lacked the resources to buy food off the black market faced starvation. In fact, from 1996 to 1999 millions did starve to death in one of the largest famines in modern history. Exact figures are unknown because of the North Korean government's strict control of all information entering and leaving the country, but as many as three million people are believed to have starved to death, mostly children.
In 2004 the government loosened its control of food supplies slightly by allowing some markets to operate privately and expand their selection of goods. Some farms were also privatized. However, in October 2005 authorities reversed these policies and again prevented the sale of grain in markets. The decision to expel all aid organizations from the country by the end of 2005 because they were creating an atmosphere of "dependency" and because the harvest was allegedly expected to improve alarmed international agencies, who warned that another famine could be imminent without emergency food aid. With tensions escalating over North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, the United States announced in May 2005 that it would suspend all food aid to the country, although U.S. officials denied they were using food as a political tool. At issue for the United States and other countries, as well as for aid organizations such as the United Nations World Food Program, is the limited amount of monitoring allowed by North Korea. Questions of whether aid actually reaches the country's neediest people or is intercepted and distributed to military officers has long been a point of contention for those who provide relief. Regardless, the North Korean government will not allow agencies to monitor or report on the progress of their programs within the country.
In Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea (2005), Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea contend that the famine of the mid- to late-1990s was not simply a matter of bad weather patterns devastating crops, as the North Korean government has insisted. Instead, Haggard and Noland believe—along with many other researchers—that the famine was a preventable tragedy that was caused by the failed agricultural and social services system. In essence, the disaster is widely considered to have been a man-made famine. Certainly, North Korea has experienced extreme weather for more than ten years. Aidan Foster-Carter reports in "North Korea's Kim-Made Famine" (May 23, 2001, http://www.atimes.com/koreas/CE23Dg02.html) that the country has been in a cycle of drought and flood since 1994. However, Foster-Carter explains that a program of ill-advised agricultural techniques, combined with the system of collective farming, have proven disastrous to the country.
North Korea is 80% mountainous. To advance it ideology of complete independence, leaders cut the country off from trade and instead cleared land for farming
higher and higher into the mountains. This "terracing" had two consequences: severe deforestation left the valleys vulnerable to landslides, and tenuously arable land was made even less fertile with the overuse of harsh chemical fertilizers. Furthermore, a government-imposed commitment to raise corn and rice, to the exclusion of most other crops, had left much of the population malnourished long before the events of the 1990s brought the situation to its crisis. So when the unusually heavy rains began in 1995, the terraced farms were washed away down the mountains, onto the fields in the valleys, destroying all the crops. This pattern is ongoing.
Haggard and Noland report that during and since the famine the North Korean government has blocked humanitarian relief efforts. When it has allowed aid to filter in, it has diverted its own funding away from feeding its people and instead focused on increasing its militarization program. The roots of the food crisis are, however, in the division of Korea into north and south. Historically, the northern region was devoted to industry and the southern to agriculture. When the peninsula was officially broken up into the two countries after the Korean War, the North developed policies devoted to strict self-reliance, which isolated it from its main source of food in South Korea. The Soviet Union and China stepped in as trading partners to some degree, but the collapse of the former and the economic transformation of the latter further alienated North Korea and left it with even less foreign economic support.
Many observers believe that behind the decade-long food crisis and the general state of poverty in North Korea is the country's pursuit of a nuclear program and the overall attention to increasing military might at all costs. North Korea has sought a nuclear program since the Korean War, when the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons against the North as part of its support of the South (Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, "North Korea's Nuclear Program, 2005," May-June 2005, http://www.thebulletin.org/article_nn.php?art_ofnmj05 norris). The continued U.S. military presence in South Korea, as well as North Korea's allegiance to the Soviet Union throughout the cold war, further spurred the North's nuclear ambitions. It is not known for certain whether or not North Korea has nuclear weapons or enriched uranium, as both North Korean and U.S. leaders claim. However, according to Norris and Kristensen, North Korean leaders may see the sale of weapons and/ or components to rogue governments as one way to deal with its people's ongoing impoverishment.