Social Changes in North Korea Stemming from Food Shortages


nk.chosun.com

The status of North Korea's food shortages is well known, but what kind of social changes have been taking place in the North as a result of these is little known. Social changes arising from the serious food scarcity in spite of the authorities' endeavors to maintain the Stalinist system may well be described as revolutionary.
Dysfunctional families abound in the North since many husbands and wives leave their homes in search of food. Some who have gone to China to get food have met untimely death or have been implicated in crimes, and an increasing number of them have even managed to find asylum in the South. A second diaspora of the Korean nation, following the one that took place under the Japanese colonial rule of Korea, is occurring.
The food shortages have changed the structure of distribution. Domestically produced food is distributed to the military on a priority basis, foreign-aid food to the upper social echelons preferentially, while the ordinary citizens rely on black markets. Suspension of or an extreme shortfall in the state's food rationing has resulted in developed black markets. The public, who used to equate socialism with a distribution system, now tends to perceive socialism as dead.
The more acute the food shortages are, the heavier becomes the farmers' burden. Unlike laborers, laid off from numerous factories shut down for a lack of fuel and raw materials, who roam the land, farmers who can till land so long as land is available get attached to it even more. The farmers undergo dual hardship because the military, the most powerful force in the North, forces each farming households to donate a pig per year.
An "eat-first" competition over scarcity is turning into a class conflict, becoming a struggle for survival among individuals. Because groups with power eat more first, while the powerless public is always left behind, a sense of hostility towards the upper social echelons prevail in the land.
What the population is most acutely interested in amid the crippling food shortages is how to get food. The citizens can hardly afford to care about anything but food, which constitutes one of the main reasons why Pyongyang has been able to sustain its system in the face of its economic woes.
North Koreans are not permitted to express in words the pent-up wrath they feel from hunger; popular sentiments are stagnant. If one openly protests, "We can no longer put up with hunger," they are prosecuted as a criminal, with the remarks taken for political defiance. Suppressing the feeling of being mistreated in your heart produces rancor, which, in turn, is exposed in everyday life as abuse and fighting between neighbors and colleagues. They are so annoyed in everyday conversations that a prevalent saying has it that a punch is likely to follow an exchange of one or two words.
The food shortages have affected the juche or self-reliance ideology, the ruling set of ideas of the North. Under a situation in which individuals have to be responsible for their own food, the juche ideology's proposition that "the master of one's own fate is oneself" is given a new interpretation. Apart from the authorities' collectivist intention to mobilize the citizens by awakening in them a sense of responsibility that they have to take responsibility for their own fate, the population uses the juche ideology as a justification for its selfishness and individualism.
Selfishness rapidly finds its way in social deviations. The most frequent form of deviation is theft. Citizens interpret acts of theft as taking things away by themselves as the state doesn't distribute them, and hence they don't harbor a sense of guilt. Thieving gives rise to an increase in violence and death. Public security is so unstable that pedestrians can hardly walk along the street at night.
North Koreans often burst out of their strong sense of despair and desperateness, saying, "An abrupt war should break out." Increasing numbers of citizens perceive a war as the shortest cut to putting an end to their plights, whatever the outcome.
North Korea has mobilized the military to rein in such disorder in society. Unless armed troops stand guard, grain in farms is stolen before it is ripe, and not only products but also equipment are taken away from factories. North Koreans call the situation in which public security is maintained by the military "military-first politics." In Western language, however, it is "martial law politics." No signs of resolving the "martial-law situation" have been seen in the North since the food crisis first gripped the land in 1995.

(Suh Jae-jin, Director, North Korean Society and Human Rights Research Center, Unification Research Institute)