The 1990s may have seemed like a boring time for many people in the world, especially historians. When the Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most people around the world breathed a sigh of relief, as it was believed that the threat of nuclear Armageddon had dissipated. It also seemed that Western ideas of democracy and capitalism had won, leading writer Francis Fukuyama to declare “The End of History.”
As much as Fukuyama’s thesis may have been intriguing, it simply wasn’t true. It also wasn’t true that nothing happened in the world after 1991, as all of you reading this know very well. The concept of communism persisted, in some form, in places such as China, Cuba, and North Korea, and it was in North Korea where some of the more interesting—and brutal—post-Cold War incidents took place.
In the 1990s, North Korea was ruled by a man named Kim Jong-Il, who ran his country with brutal efficiency, employing a blend of a Marxist-communist-Soviet style government and system founded on ancient Asian concepts of warlord dynasties. He inherited the rulership of North Korea gradually from his father, Kim Il-Sung, until he died in 1994, which gave Jong-Il complete control of the country and the ability to implement all his ideas.
Many of Kim Jong-Il’s policies were in keeping with those of his predecessors, although he obviously also did some crazy things if he’s on our list here, right? Well, as Kim Jong-Il gained more and more power in North Korea, like his father, and like all of the dictators in this book, he developed a personality cult. He became known as “Dear Leader.” The Dear Leader was faced with many problems after his father died and he dealt with them in the craziest sort of way.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union created economic problems and food shortages in North Korea, but instead of dealing with the situation directly, Jong-Il decided to double down on the policy of Songun, a military-first government policy. The result was a famine that lasted from 1994 to 1998, killing between a quarter of a million and 3.5 million people. We may never know the true extent of the North Korean famine due to the nature of the North Korean government, but we do know that it was devastating.
Besides the immense amount of human suffering and death the famine caused, it also further isolated North Korea from the rest of the world.
Like Father, Like Son
When Kim Jong-Il became the leader of communist North Korea, known officially as the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” he instituted a repressive, authoritarian regime that borrowed heavily from communist ideology and traditional elements of Korean culture. Il-Sung (his father) had cozied up to both China and the Soviet Union, which he needed to do to survive the Korean War, but also to promote the idea of him as the “father” of the North Korea people. Il-Sung drew the concept of the “Father” heavily from Confucianism and ancient Korean ancestor worship.
But make no mistake, Il-Sung was no Ward Cleaver-type father.
Dissenters were regularly punished by being sent to labor camps where they worked on public works projects, often until death. Additionally, to top things off, if the dissenters were a real pain in the butt, then his or her whole family would be sent to the camp with them!
As repressive as the system was, it was orderly and the constant threat of “imperialist” invasions by the “Yankees” and their Korean lackeys in South Korea (disseminated through propaganda messages) kept the people of North Korea in a heightened sense of panic. So if the crops didn’t produce as much as they should, the Soviet Union or China was always there to bail North Korea out.
But once the Soviet Union collapsed, the old North Korean Songun military system became a whole lot less practical.
Kim Jong-Il was designated his father’s successor in 1974, so you’d think he would have learned the nuances of running a dictatorship, but the collapse of the Soviet Union left him without extra resources. A more far-sighted leader would’ve realized that the military threat from the United States was minimal and that he could’ve diverted some resources from the military to food production.
But instead, Kim Jong-Il made the crazy decision of keeping the Songun at its Cold War levels.
Bombs Not Food
There is little doubt that the North Korean Famine could’ve been avoided, or at least mitigated to a major extent, if Kim Jong-Il didn’t keep the disastrous policies of his father. With that said, there are major topographical and climatic differences between North Korea and South Korea that made the famine worse.
North Korea is colder and more mountainous than South Korea, which means that cultivatable land is in short supply and the growing seasons are much shorter. There were also floods and drought in the mid-1990s that exacerbated the situation, but for the most part, the famine was human-made.
As the returns on the crops began to diminish, Jong-Il allocated most of the food to the military, leaving the rest of North Korea’s 22 million people to live on meager rations.
If you were a good little communist worker, you were given 900 grams a day of food, but if you were just a non-party worker, you only got 700 grams. Grandma and grandpa suffered the most, with retired workers only getting 300 grams of food per day.
And the food the people received, which consisted primarily of rice and corn, had very little nutritional value.
Starvation became rampant, especially in the cities, and with the starvation came a host of diseases, including dysentery. Although the peasants didn’t suffer quite as much as the townsfolk, as they were able to grow some of their own food, the famine brought devastation to all quarters of North Korea.
So anyone who dared notice what was happening ran the risk of being sent to a prison camp. Still, the people did notice and—in private—fingers were being pointed at the Dear Leader.
So just like any other capable despot, Kim Jong-Il found a scapegoat.
Kwan-hui, the North Korean minister of agriculture, was accused of spying for the United States and for causing the famine. He was tried and convicted in a show trial and publicly executed by firing squad in 1997.
The North Korean Famine eventually subsided after the international community donated tons of food, but as we’ll see later, the repression and crazy stuff continue today.
Did You Know?
- Kim Jong-Il tried to portray the famine in revolutionary terms as a fight that he called the “Arduous March” or the “March of Suffering.” He compared it to the fight in which his father engaged the Japanese during World War II.
- North Korea became a nuclear power under Kim Jong-Il. Despite signing an agreement with the United States in 1994 to dismantle their nuclear weapons program, just as the famine was beginning, they continued to build anyway.
- Kim Jong-Il was born in 1941, although the precise date and place of his birth are a matter of debate. Korea was occupied by Japan at the time, so many of the records for that period were lost.
- Like most dictators, Kim Jong-Il carefully crafted his public image by always wearing plain, peasant clothes, but he supposedly had more the $4 billion stashed in different European banks.
- Kim Jong-Il died on December 17, 2011, of a heart attack at the age of 70 in the capital city of Pyongyang. The torch was then passed to his son, Kim Jong-Un who is the current leader of North Korea.