“Starvation” is one of the words most frequently associated with North Korea after the country’s tragic 1990s famine.
The famine led to a growing influx of North Korean citizens leaving for South Korea and other countries, thus providing researchers with a direct source for economic analysis of the early 1990s, when a million people (some say more) are estimated to have starved.
However, other aspects of these developments – the famine and subsequent migration – have not been considered in Western scholarship. A notable exception comes from the work of Sandra Fahy, assistant professor of anthropology at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Fahy’s book Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea (Columbia University Press) is forthcoming in spring 2015.
The North Korean famine caught Western media by surprise; reports from the 1990s described the extent of the problem in relation to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, but few had an understanding of the exact scale of the problem. Even fewer could guess what the widespread food shortage could mean at societal level in North Korea.
“Many in the international community perhaps silently hoped that the famine would bring social change,” Fahy said. “It did, but not as may have been hoped (revolution, regime change).”
In the last decade a wealth of studies has revealed that the famine was largely due to a combination of climatic conditions and decades of mismanagement. But what did such a massive state failure mean for the average North Korean family?
“North Korea could have averted the famine, but prioritized other things,” Fahy said. “I had expected North Koreans would have been angry, annoyed, judging of the state for failing to provide food for them (as it promised to do).
“They were angry after the fact, in South Korea and China, but when I asked them to recollect meaningful moments of their lives in North Korea they did not have anger toward the state.”
Such assessment echoes the findings of other scholars as diverse as Christine Hong, B.R. Myers and Sonia Ryang, who argue that the idea of a North Korean state purposefully starving its citizens does not always find validation among those who left the country.
“…we should not presume that those who defect are always and necessarily the worst off,” she said. “The gradual aspect of famine meant that people were never sure that a ‘crisis’ was happening, it crept into their lives slowly and by the time it was very severe for them individually it was often too late (or too politically impossible, perhaps also the will was not there) to do anything.”
Fahy uses anthropology to study how the behavior and the social ties of North Koreans changed during those years, in personal relationships and collective ones.
Also, by analyzing the language used by North Koreans to describe the reality of food shortages she provides an alternative picture for the reader.
“…if they were planning on going to the black market, for instance they didn’t use the word amshijang (black market); they used the word baekwhajom instead – they called it the department store,” she said. “They used humor and word play with great skill to communicate what they need, just as any of us do.”
In fact, one of the most significant by-products of the famine has been the emergence of a new class of breadwinners, which is almost entirely female.
According to the North Korean government the food shortages have been under control since 2005, around when the DPRK decided to send back many of the foreign aid workers stationed in the country.
Human rights groups argue that this is far from the truth, and periodically, estimates of an incoming food shortage surface in both media and academia. One of the indicators of how bad the situation is, until recently, was found in the increasing number of North Koreans who managed to reach Seoul.
For those who left, however, the equation between their struggle at home and their disillusion with the leadership is not to be taken for granted:
“Many North Koreans I met with felt a deep ambivalence about leaving the North,” she said. “Yes, it’s a corrupt state, but they are connected to family, friends, community – it is everything they have known for most of their lives, so departing is not the ‘achievement of liberation’ that it is often depicted to be in the international community.”
Read part one of the full interview with Sandra Fahy here, with part two coming tomorrow.
Picture: Eric Lafforgue
“Starvation” is one of the words most frequently associated with North Korea after the country’s tragic 1990s famine.The famine led to a growing influx of North Korean citizens leaving for South Korea and other countries, thus providing researchers with a direct source for economic analysis of the early 1990s, when a million people (some say more) are estimated to have starved.
Gianluca Spezza is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies (IKSU), University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK. His work has been published and interviewed on The Guardian, BBC, Newsweek Korea, and DR among others. He writes about North Korea, international organizations, international relations and national identity. Email him at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter @TheSpezz