Starvation has the North Korean government very scared. More urban dwellers are now being sent to the countryside to help out with farming. Its a normal practice for communist nations to send people from the cities to the countryside to help with the planting and harvesting of crops. But this year, an even greater number of volunteers are being sent, apparently every physically able adult except for those caring for young children, those who are members of the security forces, or essential members of the government. Some 70 percent (15 million) of the population lives in cities. It appears that over twenty percent of the urban population is being sent off to do agricultural work, at least on the weekends. Only 18 percent of the land in mountainous North Korea is fit for farming. In the last few years its been noticed that, where possible, urban inhabitants are growing food on any available land.
Since 2003, the government has legalized black markets for food. Currently, it costs about 13 percent of the average monthly wage to buy a pound of rice at those markets. The government only provides about nine ounces of grain per person a day, at subsidized (affordable) prices. Thats less than a thousand calories. For the average North Korean, thats a starvation diet. South Koreans who can travel to North Korea have noticed the children are smaller than in the south, and the young men entering the army in the last few years are noticeably smaller than those of the previous generation. The famine began in the early 1990s, when the end of the Cold War brought an end to food imports from Russia. This was compounded by several years of bad weather, and failed crops, in North Korea. A generation of North Koreans has grown up on short rations.
Many countries have sent food to North Korea, but that has been reduced in the last two years because of North Koreas hostile foreign policy, insistence on going forward with its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs and evidence that much of the food aid was being diverted to the military, or the black market.
North Korea has tried to open up its economy, but most available resources have gone to industry, not agriculture. This year, however, the government has said it is increasing investment in agriculture by 29 percent. North Koreas GDP increased 1.8 percent in 2003 and 2.2 percent last year. But without more food, this growth will come to a halt. North Korea has been trying to trade a reduction in its weapons programs for more food and economic aid from its neighbors, and the United States. But the north is playing hardball and hard to get. The north wants a lot, probably more than the potential donors are willing to give.
The communist government is also worried about maintaining public order. In the last decade, over a million North Koreans have risked prison or execution to flee to China. The government is concerned that, instead of trying to flee, the population will simply turn on the government, as happened in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. If such a revolution comes, it wont be difficult for the people to pick out those who belong to the government leadership. They are the ones who look well fed.