The disastrous famine of the 1990s, known in the official North Korean parlance as the “Arduous March,” attracted a great deal of the international attention. However, this was not the first famine in North Korea history. The previous famine happened exactly 60 years ago, culminating in late spring 1955.
Unlike the Arduous March, the 1954-55 disaster was barely noticed at the time. After the end of the Korean War, the North Korean government was remarkably efficient in controlling the DMZ, so few if any defectors could tell the outside world about the ongoing crisis. The official press, with only one exception, remained silent too, devoting the newspaper pages to countless enthusiastic reports about alleged “great successes” and the “unprecedented triumphs” of the North Korean economy. Last but not least, the crisis did not develop into a prolonged disaster: It was over by the end of 1955.
However, back in spring 1955, behind the closed doors of the foreign embassies there was little illusion about the scale and gravity of the situation. The North Korean officials themselves briefed the foreign diplomats about the crisis, often with remarkable frankness. It helped that all foreign diplomats at the time represented the “fraternal countries,” many of whom were also actual or potential aid donors.
So far, it seems that Balazs Szalontai is the only scholar to have wrote about the 1954-55 food crisis at any length. He dedicated to the crisis some parts of his remarkable – and somehow underestimated – book Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era: Soviet-DPRK Relations and the Roots of North Korean Despotism, 1953-1964 where he used the materials from the Hungarian diplomatic archives (Hungary had an embassy in Pyongyang at the time). However, some recently available Soviet documents provide, presumably, a great deal of additional information.
The 1954-55 was still the time when the Soviet diplomats had nearly unrestricted access to all North Korean material. It helped that a significant part of the top North Korean officials consisted of the former Soviet Koreans, dispatched to North Korean in the late 1940s to act as both advisers and controllers of the emerging communist regime. In the late 1950s, these people were largely purged by Kim Il Sung, but back in 1955 they were still powerful and ready to provide even the most sensitive information to their Soviet contacts. They obviously did so due to their double loyalty: While closely associated with North Korea, they still saw themselves as loyal Soviet citizens, ever ready to assist Moscow’s representatives. No doubt, this remarkable openness, to put it mildly, was one of the reasons why Kim Il Sung, who had a very different ideas of his country’s relations with the Kremlin, did not trust these people.
However, in 1955 it was not only the Soviet Koreans who talked about the problems. As we shall see, Kim Il Sung himself had little illusions about the situation and the reasons behind it. In July 1955, when briefing the recently appointed Soviet Ambassador Ivanov on North Korea’s internal situation, Kim Il Sung stressed the gravity of the food problem and said: “because of poor harvest in many provinces, this year many farmers starved.”
Indeed, the food situation deteriorated noticeable in December 1955 when the farmers across the country began to run off-the-food reserves. By March 1955 rice could not be found at the state shops any more, since the government did not provide supplies. Meanwhile, the market price of rice skyrocketed: According to the Hungarian reports, in late spring 1955 the usual market price was 400 won per kilo, while the normal price in autumn 1954 was 50-60 won per kilo. On the 31st of March, 1955 Illarion Pak, an ex-Soviet Korean, the former deputy minister of agriculture who at the time was the chairman of the Chagang province People’s Committee, told Soviet diplomats that the grain price at the markets exceeded the pre-crisis level five or six times over, or even more. As we know, the price hike culminated in May, so Illarion Pak’s observation agrees remarkably well with the Hungarian Embassy intelligence.
… in the course of Kim Il Sung rule the nutritional situation in the country was steadily worsening
The workers of the state enterprises and other state employees were somewhat privileged, since by 1955 they had long been eligible for food rationing. Their rations were reduced nonetheless. The Soviet sources provide a slightly different date about the size of the grain rations the urban dwellers received in spring 1955. The contacts of the Soviet diplomats mentioned the 500 grams or 600-700 grams of rice as a dangerously reduced ration – admittedly, they emphasized that nothing but grain could be purchased by the workers. Remarkably, they saw this level as a near starvation diet. However, in the subsequent decades, since the late 1970s, the very same level became the norm: in the 1980s, before the collapse of the public distribution system, the average worker received some 540 grams of grain a day (the nominal ration was 700 grams, but it was subjected to some official deduction). This gives some additional weight to the idea, based on the measurement of the average height of the North Koreans, that in the course of Kim Il Sung rule the nutritional situation in the country was steadily worsening.
Even the most privileged institutions suffered. For example, in late March 1955 the then-head of the North Korean official foreign tourism agency complained that the restaurants under his supervision were allocated merely 70 kg of rice a day while the normal requirement would be some 250 kg. It was a sign of serious problem, since the restaurants in question served the foreign tourists and other high-level visitors who brought the vitally needed hard currency.
In attempts to ameliorate the situation, the North Korean authorities banned the sale of grain at the market. It is not clear when the ban was first introduced, but by late March it was already in operation. Obviously, the 1955 ban did not last for long, but it was a sign of things soon to come. In December 1957 the North Korean government introduced the total ban of the free sale of grain which has technically remained in force ever since (albeit in real life it ceased to be enforced in the late 1980s).
… the disaster was much exacerbated by the local authorities who provided the central government with grossly inflated reports
The Soviet informants were remarkably uniform when they talked about the famine’s origin. The bad weather was its primary reason, but the disaster was much exacerbated by the local authorities who provided the central government with grossly inflated reports about the harvest.
This reminds of the developments which led to the Chinese Great Famine of the early 1960s: In China the seeds of the disaster were planted by the combination of the Stalinist-style collectivization policy and the natural tendency of the local officials to tell their superiors what the latter wanted to hear. The same deadly combination of the forced collectivization policy and bureaucratic lies resulted in the disastrous Soviet famine of the early 1930s.
LIES, DAMNED LIES AND STATISTICS
The dangerous tendency to reports only good news (or to make up such news if necessary) exists in virtually all bureaucracies, but in the centralized Leninist party-states it is made worse by the near absence of the alternative information channels. Since press reports only what it is ordered to report, and no alternative political forces exist, the party officials are remarkably free to shower their bosses with hyper-optimistic assessments of the situation. Unless some highly visible disaster exposes the real state of things, the self-delusion can persist for long time.
The Soviet documents talk about misreporting quite frequently. For example, the above-mentioned Illarion Pak in March 1951 estimated that the reports from the local authorities exaggerated the 1954 harvest by some 50-70 percent – while the actual harvest was on the average some 2 tons per chongbo (a unite of measurement equal to 0.99 ha), the officials reported a much higher level of 3-3.5 tons per chongbo. In April 1955, Kim Il Sung, while addressing the top party functionaries, claimed that the 1954 harvest was merely 2.3 million tons, even though the inflated initial reports, lodged by the local bureaucrats, had led the central government to believe that the harvest would be to the tune of 3.0 million tons, and worked out the tax requirements accordingly.
The then standard level of grain taxation, to be paid in kind, was established 23-27 percent of the harvest. On the top of this grain tax, the farmers were also required to sell a certain part of the harvest to the state at grossly undervalued official purchase prices (in Chagang province, for example, it was expected that a farming household would sell some 10-15 percent of the harvest).
In the fall of 1954, the tax grain was delivered in the required amount, and obligatory grain purchases were made as well, even though in some cases local officials, as their supervisors quietly admitted, resorted to beatings of the less than enthusiastic taxpayers. However, as a result of tax collectors’ hard-won success, farmers were left with very little to eat in the winter of 1954-55. As Song Jin-pa, a prominent North Korean journalist, explained to a Soviet diplomat on the 29th of March, 1955: “They took all grain the poor and mid-level farmers had, while the affluent farmers who still had a bit of grain (after paying the grain tax and delivering obligatory grain purchases) were banned from selling it. This made all groups of farmers unhappy.”
As we see below, the misreporting was probably not the only cause of the 1955 famine. The persistent efforts of the top officials to put all blame on their junior colleagues do often look like deliberate attempts to find a plausible scapegoat. This trend can easily seen in the remarks of Pak Chong-ae, the former Soviet undercover intelligence operative and a close associate of Kim Il Sung at the time. In January 1955 when the famine was still in its initial stages, she told the Soviet charge d’affaires: “The entire responsibility is on the local administrative bodies which misinformed the government about the total harvest. Fortunately, we, the Central Committee and the government, discovered this in time and took measures.” The latter remark supposedly should make everybody appreciative of the top leaders’ supreme wisdom.
However, it seems that the food crisis was not created only by the combination of bureaucratic lies and bad weather. In both China and Soviet Union the major outbreaks of famine were results of the forced collectivization. The farmers were ordered to enter the cooperatives (the state-run farms in everything but name). Being reluctant to join and uncertain about the future, the farmers reacted by slaughtering and/or selling cattle as well as more expensive equipment. They preferred to sell oxen or ploughs, but not to surrender them to the state free of charge. The situation was made worse by the general havoc every major re-organization of property relations unavoidably produces.
This mechanism is well studied in the case of Russia and China, but it seemingly was present in North Korea as well. This hypothesis cannot be confirmed by the study of the local documents, still unavailable, but it is confirmed by a contemporary estimate made by a very well-informed observer and analyst. This observer was nobody else but the Prime Minister and Party Chairman Marshal Kim Il Sung himself. On April 4, 1955, while secretly briefing the then-Soviet ambassador about the grave situation in the North Korean agriculture, Kim Il Sung said frankly: “In the agriculture there are very unfavourable developments, related to the collectivization which has encompassed 38 percent farming households already. When joining the cooperatives, farmers kill or sell cattle whose numbers recently decreased significantly.” This was, perhaps, the remark only Kim Il Sung himself could make in those days – for any other such observation would be way too subversive.
Unlike the 1990s famine when the North Korean farmers did not show much signs of resistance and usually died quietly, in 1954 the situation was different. The regime was still in its political adolescence, and has not managed to train people to be sufficiently docile and obedient. So, signs of discontent were present, and frankly discussed in the confidential conversations.
In February 1955, Pak Yong-bin, a Soviet Korean and a Politburo member, briefed a Soviet diplomat about outbreaks of rural discontent. He mentioned the anti-government posters and leaflets, which appeared at some provinces. He also mentioned some “open riots,” provoked by the famine, even though he did not mention specifically when and where such riots occurred. In late March Illarion Pak said that on the previous winter “the farmers were so desperate that they were ready to start a revolt.”
Officially, no food problems existed in North Korean at the time, and it was tantamount to high treason to hint otherwise
However, all these talks were highly confidential, since in their open access media did not admit that the famine was happening in North Korea. According to the Hungarian reports, on April 26, Rodong Sinmun published an article which admitted that the country was experiencing severe food shortages. The article put the blame for the crisis on the consumers themselves who allegedly were not economical in using the available foodstuff. However, in merely an hour since its publication, the Rodong Sinmun issue with suspicious article was recalled. Officially, no food problems existed in North Korean at the time, and it was tantamount to high treason to hint otherwise.
Nonetheless, unlike the late 1990s, the North Korean government reacted swiftly. The tax and purchase quotas were reduced, some ambitious investment projects delayed and the allies were asked to provide additional assistance. So, by late 1955 the crisis was over. In a sense it might have been even a good lesson: while the North Korean government did not abandon the collectivization policy, it opted for a much slower advance – and, as a result, the subsequent years was the time of food shortages, but not of famine.
The disastrous famine of the 1990s, known in the official North Korean parlance as the “Arduous March,” attracted a great deal of the international attention. However, this was not the first famine in North Korea history. The previous famine happened exactly 60 years ago, culminating in late spring 1955.Unlike the Arduous March, the 1954-55 disaster was barely noticed at the time. After
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.