Calling the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s "one of the three great humanitarian disasters of the decade," USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios discussed the famine's causes and consequences at a Wilson Center meeting launching his latest book, The Great North Korean Famine.

Natsios said that the famine may have killed as many as 2.5 million people—ten percent of North Korea's population. He cited two long-term causes for the catastrophe: (1) North Korea's Stalinist economic system, which provided no incentive for agricultural production even in the face of massive food shortages; and (2) the cessation of highly-subsidized food and oil supplies from China and the former Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War. While the North Korean government has repeatedly attributed the famine wholly to flooding, analysis by the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization and World Food Program found that 85 percent of the disaster was caused by the country's inefficient economic system.

Natsios also outlined several short-term factors that magnified the disaster. In particular, he pointed to the North Korean government's decision "to triage the northeast"—in essence, to block food from the northeastern region of the country in order to ensure subsistence food supplies for the capital Pyongyang, whose support was crucial for the regime. The government also triaged workers in industries that were not supporting the state's survival, such as unproductive mines. In addition, the entire North Korean public food distribution system collapsed when the government cut farmers' rations, leading farmers to hoard up to 1.3 million tons of corn.

Natsios said that the famine utterly demoralized the North Korean populace and undercut the regime's propaganda, forcing it to rely solely on police brutality. He added that the famine also ultimately delegitimized the North Korean government—both because the state could no longer provide food and because the eventual presence of caring and effective international aid workers debunked the regime's rhetoric of self-sufficiency and superiority. However, Natsios criticized the international community—especially the United States—for initially denying the crisis and then not intervening more quickly and decisively.

The Great North Korean Famine is published by the U.S. Institute of Peace. The meeting was cosponsored by the Wilson Center's Asia Program, Conflict Prevention Program, and Environment Change and Security Project.

For more detail on this meeting, visit the Environmental Change and Security Project Web site at

Geoffrey D. Dabelko, Director, and Robert Lalasz, Editor, Environmental Change and Security Project, 202/691-4182