The State and Hunger: North Korea’s political Geography

The Mail (citing undercover reporters with Asia Press) reported the existence of cannibalism in North Korea, the last pure fascist-Marxist hybrid state left in Asia (perhaps the world). The article suggests that a ‘hidden famine’ is occurring in the country’s main breadbasket provinces and that some 10,000 people have already died. Causes of the potential famine are listed as a drought in the breadbasket areas and the confiscation of the remaining food by the government to give to the capital city, Pyongyang. While the brutality of the North Koran regime has been long documented by a variety of NGOs, this isn’t the first time that North Korea has experienced famine. The article notes that the North undertook an “Arduous March,” a delightful euphemism, for a famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands (if not a million) people.

This real human tragedy highlights important geographic links. First, there is the importance of understanding countries at a sub-regional level. A drought in a mountainous area might cause local food shortages, but it probably doesn’t have much impact on the food situation in the country at-large. Agriculture, as we all know, is typically concentrated in more temperate climates, with good soil, with reliable access to fresh water, and groups of people to work the land. These requirements aren’t typically available on mountainous slopes, though it is possible (as the Inca proved) to support substantial communities given time and effort. The North Korea case highlights the importance of a drought in an agricultural belt, lowering agricultural output in your breadbasket necessarily has a wider impact on your food situation in the entire country.

Next, there is the importance of understanding state actions during a food shortage, which reveal and highlight the political geography of the state. In North Korea’s case, confiscating food from the breadbasket provinces and redistributing them to the capital highlights the importance that the state places on the residents in the capital city. One could potentially argue that the regime is willing to let its farmers starve, with the outcome of them not able to work the land, then to let residents in the capital go hungry or starve. If we return to the organic state concept, the North Korean state (and probably most states) identify the capital city as the focus of their power – it must be protected at all costs.

Together the potential famine in North Korea highlights the importance of understanding the natural and social causes of hunger. On the one hand, physical phenomena, like droughts or flooding, can have a grave impact on local food supplies, often causing starvation and death. But these phenomena are, by their very nature, somewhat localized especially when discussing a countrywide scale. The human impact on starvation is often left out of the discussion, confiscating food, withholding food supplies, or poor political decisions often complicate “natural” disasters. Another good study of the human/political impact on famine is the Bangladesh famine of 1974 (shortly after independence) where government mismanagement of foodstocks exacerbated a local crisis. There’s probably a political element to the focus on natural causes, its easier (and politically safer) to blame the natural environment than to accept blame that your political system shares a large fault.

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