July 12, 2012: North Korea is facing yet another hunger year. Last year it was floods, this year it's a drought. One thing that does not get reported much is another serious food problem: the inability to move food or agricultural supplies around the country. North Korea's roads, railroads, and vehicles have been in in decline for two decades, since the end of the Cold War in 1991, and the elimination of Russian subsidies. Russia, which created North Korea in 1945, had been a generous donor of food, fuel, and industrial goods until 1991. The decades of aid was sent to ensure that North Korea remained a shining example of the superiority of Soviet style communism. In other words, North Korean prosperity was all political theater, bought and paid for by annual Russian subsidies. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, as a result of 70 years of bad economics and corruption, there was no reason to continue propping up the North Korean economy. Besides, Russia could no longer afford it.
That resulted in a huge famine in the 1990s, that killed off 5-10 percent of the population and stunted the growth of about a third of the children born in that period. The North Korean government put a priority on maintaining their huge armed forces and preventing another major famine. One of the victims of that decision was infrastructure. Roads, bridges, and tunnels were no longer maintained adequately. Growing shortages of fuel meant that even trains and trucks that were operational could not move. This became a major, although largely unreported, problem on the farm as getting seed and fertilizer, when available, to farmers was often impossible or too late for planting. Moving harvested food was increasingly delayed. Some food spoiled or was stolen.
Priority was given to security and military needs. The North Koreans never mentioned the transportation problems as a cause of the growing hunger. Foreigners (businessmen, foreign aid workers, diplomats) who could travel around did notice that there seemed to be a growing problem with moving stuff, especially if it was lots of stuff. Another item often noted by foreigners was the common practice of moving people by truck, rather than train or bus. The signs were all there, for a long time, and it's becoming more obvious. Foreign aid organizations have noted the problem and asked for trucks, as well as food, to help prevent another famine. But donor nations are wary of giving anything to North Korea. In the past too much aid was diverted to the military, and at the moment the generals are in great need of some new trucks.