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Reviewed by:
  • Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform
  • Jacob Reidhead (bio)
Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland . New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 309 pages, illustrations, tables, notes, references, index. $70.00 cloth, $24.50 paper.

Food and hunger are so fundamental to human experience that studies of them intersect virtually every dimension of social life. As such, the analytical approach employed by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland in Famine in North Korea produces a manuscript that may be read not only as a case study of famine, but a study of North Korean society, offering insights that transcend the immediate topics of food, famine, and aid. The book also contrasts the systems and norms of North Korea and its peers in the international community, underscoring the regrettable absence of diplomatic, economic, and ideological frameworks through which parties involved can readily communicate, negotiate, and cooperate. The authors spend the final chapters of the book discussing these issues and proposing solutions. This practical, actionable orientation infuses the intellectually satisfying volume with optimism and added relevance to scholars, aid workers, and policy makers alike.

Haggard and Noland present their analysis in three sections: (1) proximate causes and effects, (2) the political economy of humanitarian aid, and (3) the prospects for food security and economic reform. Organized in like manner, this review highlights the authors' novel findings in [End Page 159] each section and discusses die broader contributions of these findings to our understanding of North Korean society.

The book's first section examines the proximate causes and specific effects of North Korea's famine. Drawing on Amartya Sen's entitlement theory of famines, the authors construct food balance sheets that disaggregate North Korea's total food volume into its respective sources and quantities. By doing so they are able to account for each dimension of Sen's entidement formula, identify changes across each dimension and how these negatively or positively affected aggregate food entitlement packages, and draw conservative conclusions about the proximate causes of those changes. This exercise yields a number of novel conclusions. One, the North Korea famine was indeed due in part to aggregate food shortages and not merely to redistribution failures as some had suggested. Two, changing trade patterns with China following the collapse of the Soviet Union, namely, China's demanding hard currency for food and energy exports to the DPRK, was the single most proximate trigger of the North Korean famine. Three, diversion of grains by farmers from the state's collective farming regime to underground markets played a greater role in the collapse of the DPRK's public distribution systems (PDS) than did natural disasters, although flooding of agricultural land duly exacerbated already mounting production failures. Four, while there is no evidence that North Korea's government exported food during the years of extreme shortage, the central government did reduce food imports comparable to foreign aid received, effectively allowing that aid to displace, rather than supplement, food necessary for maintaining the yet insufficient aggregate entitlement level.

Just as Nicholas Eberstadt's book, The Population of North Korea, and successive releases of census data have produced de-aggregated, finer-grained images of North Korea's population, Haggard and Noland's book de-aggregates food entitlements across spatial and status variables. The patterns they identify of food distribution in times of scarcity offer concrete examples of the nature and degree of stratification in North Korean society. In The North Korean Revolution, 1945—1950, Charles Armstrong argues that Kim Il Sung's land reform policies essentially revived Chosŏn Korea's three status tiers (yangban, peasants, and underclass) by relocating political enemies and the socially unfit to the northeastern provinces, securing Pyongyang for the politically elite, and leaving the largest, central stratum of peasants to occupy the remaining provinces. Haggard and Noland document the early onset of food shortages and hunger in North Hamgyŏng Province as well as the absence of famine-like conditions in Pyongyang. This narrative is consistent with [End Page 160] Armstrong's thesis and constitutes a rich case study of North Korea's geographically segregated status groups.

The authors are also to be praised...


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