North Korea on the Precipice of Famine

by Stephan Haggard, University of California, San Diego
and Marcus Noland, Peterson Institute for International Economics
and Erik Weeks, Peterson Institute

May 2008

North Korea is on the brink of famine. The aggregate food picture appears worse than at any time since the famine of the 1990s. The margin of error between required grain and available supply is now less than 100,000 metric tons. Local food prices are skyrocketing faster than world prices. The regime has soured its aid relationships with key donors, and its control-oriented policy responses are exacerbating distress. Support for aid has been further eroded by evidence of diversion of food aid to the military and the market. Hunger-related deaths are nearly inevitable, and a dynamic is being put in place that will carry the crisis into 2009.

The long-run solution to North Korea’s chronic food insecurity problems is a revitalization of industry, which would allow North Korea to export industrial products, earn foreign exchange, and import bulk grains on a commercially sustainable basis. In the short run, North Korea should openly acknowledge the growing crisis and conclude negotiations with the World Food Program and other donors so that assistance can begin to flow. The United States can provide aid in ways that maximize its humanitarian impact while limiting the degree to which aid simply serves to bolster the regime. It should also exercise quiet leadership with respect to North Korean refugees.

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