[KS] KSR 2008-02: _Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform_, by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Tue Jul 15 23:47:34 EDT 2008

_Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform_, by Stephan Haggard 
and Marcus Noland.
New York: Columbia University Press,  2007. 368 pp. ISBN: 978-0-231-14000-3.

Reviewed by Daniel Schwekendiek
Seoul National University
info at daniel-schwekendiek.de

Famine in North Korea has been written by two distinguished experts 
on East Asia, political analyst Stephan Haggard (Laurence and Sallye 
Krause Professor at the University of California, San Diego) and 
economist Marcus Noland (senior research fellow at the Institute of 
International Economics). The book joins four further accounts in 
English that deal comprehensively with social aspects of the North 
Korean famine of the 1990s, two books written for general readership 
(Natsios, 2001; Schloms, 2004) and two research theses aimed at a 
specialist audience (Lee, 2005; Schwekendiek, 2007). The former two 
publications, which are frequently referenced in Famine in North 
Korea, primarily draw their evidence from the experiences of 
humanitarian aid workers involved in North Korea, while the latter 
two, published in departments of economics, make extensive use of 
statistical analysis to investigate social aspects of the famine 
crisis in North Korea.

Given the statistical blackout researchers face in dealing with North 
Korea, Famine in North Korea itself does not make use of new, 
previously unavailable or undiscovered sources: most of the data 
comes from published reports and statistical databases that are in 
the public realm and can be assessed with relative ease by 
researchers in the field. The book also offers much qualitative 
evidence, such as statements from refugees or expert views, and even 
anecdotes,  yet most of what is quoted has been borrowed from other 
sources. Unlike Natsios (2001) or Schloms (2004), Haggard and Noland 
did not conduct their own interviews with United Nations 
representatives, staff members of relief organizations, researchers 
or government officials. Moreover, in contrast to moving stories 
written by North Korean refugees such as This is Paradise! or Eyes of 
the Tailless Animals, the reader cannot be expected to be touched by 
Famine in North Korea, as the book does not offer narrative-emotional 
elements but limits itself to a straight research investigation, 
although the book should be of interest to a non-specialist audience 
as well.

The strength of Noland and Haggard's work lies in the skill with 
which they bring together an extensive variety of secondary 
literature and readily available statistics, which, in turn, are 
interpreted throughout roughly 300 pages and conveyed in some 60 
illustrations. This is an unprecedented collation, which, from a 
methodological point of view, is clearly the most commendable feature 
of the book. The authors provide an overview and analysis of the 
great famine, try to identify those who may have benefited and those 
who were most adversely affected, discuss the present situation, and 
consider prospects for the future. As a comprehensive discussion of 
the famine has been a lacuna in the literature, the book not only 
succeeds in filling this gap with systematically corroborated 
quantitative data, but also offers a comprehensive benchmark for 
further socioeconomic studies on the North Korean famine. Despite the 
lack of new data in Famine in North Korea, the book makes use of a 
vast array of available sources of information: released refugee 
reports, United Nations/DPRK nutritional assessments, macroeconomic 
statistics, data from food aid agencies and trade statistics. 
Statistics are chosen wisely, properly analysed, carefully discussed, 
and presented in balanced fashion, all of this unquestionably making 
the book worth the price of $35.

The book starts: "Beginning sometime in the early 1990s and extending 
into 1998, North Korea experienced famine" (1, emphasis in italics 
mine). This statement is not uncontroversial, as the government only 
announced the "Arduous March" in 1996, after the floods that affected 
the country in 1995 and 1996. These floods led to the devastation of 
large parts of the national harvest and triggered the famine --or so 
runs the DPRK government's explanation of its cause. Haggard and 
Noland's implicit argument that the famine actually started earlier 
makes sense given the finding that the North Korean economy 
completely broke down after the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc in 
1989. The most interesting conclusions made in the first chapters are 
based on food balance sheet exercises:  "If the North Korean 
government had maintained access to commercial (food) imports during 
the first half of the 1900´s, the famine could have been avoided" 
(50). Worst of all, Pyongyang might have used humanitarian aid to 
redirect money from commercial (food) imports to military and luxury 
imports.  If this is indeed the case, the responsibility for the 
famine clearly shifted away from macro-economic shocks or natural 
disasters to the North Korean government.

Furthermore, the book discusses who suffered during the famine 
regardless of overall food availability, and the discussion raises 
the crucial question of the distribution of resources, which is 
largely a matter of the power to access these resources, particularly 
in totalitarian famines (as in the pioneering analysis of Nobel 
Laureate Amartya Sen, who wrote the foreword of the book). In this 
light, the authors extensively discuss the role of the Public 
Distribution System (PDS), the communist government's means of 
allocating resources to the people (and also to keep them under 
political control). The PDS was supposed to play a major role in 
determining the entitlement to food before the onset of the famine, 
when distribution was largely subject to occupation, age and prior 
political loyalty. With the famine, this hierarchy broke down, yet, 
as the authors argue, indirect effects such as geographic residence 
(e.g. in the case of the political or military "core" class who 
primarily resided in the capital) might have determined access to 
food. Farmers are assumed to be better off during the famine, as they 
had direct access to food, leading to hoarding, hiding, 
pre-harvesting, diversion of food, and remittance of food to family 
members (57). In contrast, urban dwellers are assumed to have been 
hit hardest by the famine: they were fully dependent on the PDS, 
which completely broke down during the famine's peak. The issue of 
food aid is comprehensively addressed, where, from an international 
community perspective, the most interesting questions might be 
whether donations were diverted and if so, to what extent and by 
whom. Haggard and Noland suggest that some 30% of the food aid could 
have been diverted (125), and that such diversion did not primarily 
take place on the central level (i.e., by the government in 
Pyongyang), but more likely on the regional level by county 

Another focus of the book is the marketization of the communist North 
Korean economy. Reforms were introduced in July 2002, although a de 
facto marketization of the economy had already taken place during the 
famine, when black and grey markets spread throughout the country as 
a major coping mechanism after the breakdown of the PDS (173). These 
economic reforms likewise created winners, losers, and more 
importantly, high inflation. Among the losers during the reforms were 
urban (male) workers. The situation apparently improved for some 
entrepreneurs, however, such as women engaging in the emerging 
informal economy (191), farmers (204), North Koreans with access to 
foreign currency (from relatives abroad), and those in command of 
power, e.g. military officers and party officials (194).

The book concludes with a discussion on how to treat North Korea in 
the international political arena. Facing the dilemma that "aid to 
North Korea serves to prolong the life of the existing regime" (229), 
Haggard and Noland argue that the discontinuation of food aid will 
most likely not lead to a regime change, as Pyongyang has already 
managed to muddle through harder times; from a humanitarian point of 
view, therefore, there is no alternative other than continuing to 
assist North Korea while encouraging further reforms.

Finally, despite the overall skill with which Haggard and Noland 
treat the topic, a few inconsistencies can be found in the logic of 
the book's arguments. For instance, the authors argue, convincingly 
enough, that North Korea's marketization of its economy cannot really 
be compared to the Chinese model, given structural and macroeconomic 
differences (215). At the same time, the authors state that "in our 
view, the most sophisticated attempts to measure excess deaths (in 
North Korea) put them in the range of 600,000 to 1 million" (76), 
where the authors indirectly give credit to an estimation by Goodkind 
and West (2002), that is largely based on China's Great Leap Forward. 
In a similar vein, they cast doubt on the reliability of the UN/DPRK 
nutritional assessments by considering "deliberate falsification" 
(203) of these technically complex surveys by the North Korean 
government. On the other hand, when discussing the prospects of 
economic reform, Haggard and Noland suggest that a "lack of 
experience and technical capacity" (216) could be the main obstacle 
for the government to reform the country, and cite the anecdote of a 
North Korean official asking a World Bank representative what a bond 
market is. The authors, then, assume a technically omnipotent 
government, manipulating thousands of interviews during comprehensive 
surveys, despite the fact that this government is supposed to lack 
even basic technical knowledge. Even though the book is very well 
written, it would have benefited at some points from being clearer.

In conclusion, this book is an excellent piece of work. It is highly 
recommended for anybody interested in the history of famines, North 
Korean studies, and specifically the great North Korean famine of the 
1990s. Last but not least, I daresay, it should particularly be read 
and reread by the political decision makers in Pyongyang.

Goodkind D, West L. 2001. The North Korean Famine and Its Demographic 
Impact. Population and Development Review 27:219-238.
Lee S. 2005. Food Shortages and Economic Institutions in the 
Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Ph.D. Thesis at University of 
Natsios A. 2001. The Great North Korean Famine. Washington DC: United 
States Institute of Peace Press.
Schloms M. 2004. North Korea and the Timeless Dilemma of Aid. Münster: LIT.
Schwekendiek D. 2007. Human Welfare in North Korea. Ph.D. Thesis at 
University of Tuebingen.

Schwekendiek, Daniel 2008
Review of _Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform_, by 
Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland (2007)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2008, no. 2
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr08-02.htm
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