Contrary to the myth that North Korea starved because they diverted resources to their nuclear program, this piece by Jordan Weissmann in the Atlantic shows that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the inability of North Korea to abandon its inefficient food distribution system that led to 3 million people starving back in the 1990's:
The demise of the USSR threw North Korea's entire economy into chaos, and agriculture was among its most important casualties. Without imports of cheap fuel (self-sufficiency had its limits), the country's industrial base fractured, and production of fertilizer dwindled. Farm yields plummeted, and the government started a campaign urging citizens to consume less. Its cheery slogan: "Let's eat only two meals a day."
It was against this background that the Kim Jong Il took power. The country was at a crossroads, says Marcus Noland, a leading expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. With the USSR gone, the prospects for a small, isolated, neo-Stalinist regime looked rather grim. The government could have opened up its economy, much like Vietnam did with great success. Instead, North Korea chose to stay frozen in time.
"The mystery is why the North Koreans did not understand the historical magnitude of the change around them," Noland says.
One Cold War relic in desperate need of reform was the country's food distribution system. Crops like rice and corn were raised on collectivist farms, then doled out by the state. The process served a political purpose by funneling cheap food to the country's outsized military, as well as citizens in the capital of Pyongyang, which together made up the base of Kim's power. But it was also ready to collapse.
In 1995, when the globe first learned about the North Korean famine, massive floods decimated as much as 15% of North Korea's farmable land. Local officials began hoarding food they were charged with distributing. And a fuel shortage made it impossible to move crops around the country. The government appealed to the United Nations World Food Program for humanitarian aid, blaming the floods for the disaster. Yet even as he sought help from abroad, Kim deepened the crisis at home by stumbling into a war with his country's farmers.
At one point, the UN reported that half the corn harvest was missing - hoarded by farmers or stolen by government officials. And the food aid given through public and private sources was seized by the elites and resold at astronomical profit.
A dysfunctional state that is organized around the idea of keeping the Dear Leader alive and happy - can it get any worse for the North Korean people?