A dozen years ago on a visit to North Korea I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar phenomenon. A platoon of soldiers, away from their base for a day of R&R, marched toward me along a broad, marble-floored museum corridor. All of the young men were conspicuously short, several under five feet. I had heard about youngsters stunted by the horrible famine of the mid-1990s but, on previous trips, hadn’t been permitted to see the human evidence.
The setting made the sight especially chilling. The million-square-foot museum warehoused a collection of some 300,000 presents given by foreign dignitaries to founding North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung and – in an annex completed in 1996 – his son and successor Kim Jong Il. As usual, when building its many monuments to the Kim cult, the regime had spared no expense: four-ton bronze entry doors for both buildings; two-story statues of the Kims.
Knowing that food shortages had intensified hugely by 1996, I asked the museum guide why the regime had spent so much on a monument when people didn’t have enough to eat. Her mouth flew open and her eyes widened, but she was ready with a breathless answer to my highly impolitic question: “Precious new gifts were coming in and we could not exhibit them in a poor palace, so we built this palace with our best. It was the greatest desire of all the people.”
Now it’s 2019. At least, one might say, the mid-1990s are long gone. Things must be much better for subsequent generations of North Koreans, right? But the authors of a new 155-page report decline to be upbeat. “Given all we know from the data from inside North Korea, the health and human rights conditions of children remain dire,” they say.
Don’t say ‘famine’
It all began with a refusal to confront facts. Even as late as 1997, the propaganda-focused regime “strongly resisted the term ‘famine,’ saying that the country was simply facing temporary food shortages brought on by climatic reversals,” according to Lost Generation: The Health and Human Rights of North Koreans’ Children 1990-2018, published on Friday by the Washington-based NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Citizens then “were forbidden to talk about famine in North Korea. They could only discuss an ‘adverse impact on food rations,’” says the report, which was prepared by a research team led by W. Courtland Robinson of the Center for Humanitarian Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The report notes that “two studies conducted under UN auspices in 1997 and 1998 showed significant signs of wasting and stunting among young children. But there was little reliable information about the impact of the North Korea food crisis on the population in general, and practically nothing was known about recent mortality rates. Efforts to obtain this sort of data were repeatedly blocked by the North Korean government.”
Some aid organizations began to look at the Chinese border, which North Koreans had been crossing in search of food. In July 1997, World Vision, a US-based NGO, interviewed a few dozen individuals at the China-North Korea border and concluded that 15% of the population in [North Korea’s] northern provinces had died in the previous two years.”
In 1990, the report says, North and South Korea “had comparable life expectancies at birth — 70 and 72 respectively — both of which were above the world average of 65 for that year. By 2017, North Korea’s life expectancy had rebounded to 72 from the peak famine years of 1995–98, when it had declined to around 65. By 2017, however, South Korea’s life expectancy at birth had climbed to 82, while the world average rose to 72.”
The authors note that if life expectancy climbs, “it likely does not suggest that the entire population is living longer, but rather that a smaller proportion of the population is dying in infancy, childhood, or at young ages. Conversely, when life expectancy declines, it generally does so because children and younger adults are dying at higher rates.”
A famine’s effects don’t end quickly, it appears.
“A comparative study of life expectancy in North and South Korea between 1993 and 2008, the two years in which North Korean censuses were conducted, concluded that ‘the mortality rate in 2008 among men and women 10–39 years of age (who experienced their childhood and adolescence in the 1990s)” and that of “women 40–49 years of age (who were of childbearing age in the 1990s) were more than twice as high as the corresponding mortality rates in 1993.’”
Part of the problem was that “as food aid flowed in starting in the mid-1990s, North Korea cut its commercial food imports, which allowed for additional expenditures on other government priorities, including the military.”
“If North Korea had simply maintained its imports, normal human demand would have been met during this period,” as Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said in 2013 UN testimony quoted in the report. “Generating adequate supply was not, and is not, beyond the capacity of the North Korean state.”
Meanwhile, the healthcare system failed – and has been only partially restored. The food rationing system failed, and for the majority was never restored. International food aid was diverted by members of the elite. If you were poor you had to line up at a public market and pay for rice. Many children were from families too poor to pay and had to quit school and go to work alongside their parents:
“A respondent interviewed in South Korea explained how he was constantly bent over from carrying loads of coal that were too heavy: ‘I sold coal either alone or with my mother, and we moved by buses or trolleys. And it was so hard – I carried coal on my back to sell from door to door when I was about 11 or 12 years old.”
In a survey of North Koreans like him who had sought refuge in South Korea from 1997 to 2017 nearly a quarter cited food shortages as motivation.
“The mortality and other demographic impacts of the ‘Arduous March’” – that’s the stirring martial term that the regime eventually chose to describe the famine – “were severe in the 1990s but have also persisted into the 2000s and the 2010s. These impacts have not spared adults by any means, but they have been most acute among children.”
Study leader Robinson’s “overarching conclusion” is that “based on the evidence we have gathered through our own research and based on analysis of other accumulated research and reporting, the North Korean state’s gross failure to protect the basic health, welfare and well-being of the population – including the children – constitutes … a violation of core international human rights treaty obligations.”
Or, the way I would put it: The poor North Koreans had and still have a Kim problem.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.