Food shortages[edit]

The food shortage was caused as a direct result of the massive flooding and a mix of political failure and poor amounts of arable land in the country.[42][43][47][48] In 2004, more than half (57%) of the population had not enough food for them to stay healthy. 37% of the children had their growth stunted and 1/3 of mothers severely lacked nutrition.[49][50]

In 2006, the World Food Program (WFP) and FAO estimated a requirement of 5.3 to 6.5 million tons of grain when domestic production fulfilled only 3.825 million tons.[51] The country also faces land degradation after forests stripped for agriculture resulted in soil erosion.[52] Harsh weather conditions that dented the agricultural output (wheat and barley production dropped 50% and 80% respectively in 2011) and rising global food prices stressed greater food shortage, putting 6 million North Koreans at risk.[53]


Crisis and famine[edit]

Main article: North Korean famine

From 1994 to 1998 North Korea suffered a famine. Since 1998 there has been a gradual recovery in agriculture production, which by 2013 brought North Korea back close to self-sufficiency in staple foods. However, as of 2013, most households have borderline or poor food consumption, and consumption of protein remains inadequate.[38]

In the 1990s, the North Korean economy saw stagnation turning into crisis. Economic assistance received from the USSR and China was an important factor of its economic growth. In 1991 USSR collapsed, withdrew its support and demanded payment in hard currency for imports. China stepped in to provide some assistance and supplied food and oil, most of it reportedly at concessionary prices.[citation needed] But in 1994 China reduced its exports to North Korea. The rigidity in the political and economic systems of North Korea left the country ill-prepared for a changing world. The North Korean economy was undermined and its industrial output began to decline in 1990. Deprived of industrial inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides, and electricity for irrigation, agricultural output also started to decrease even before North Korea had a series of natural disasters in the mid-1990s. This evolution, combined with a series of natural disasters including record floods in 1995, caused one of the worst economic crises in North Korea’s history. Other causes of this crisis were high defense spending (about 25% of GDP) and bad governance. It is estimated[citation needed] that between 1992 and 1998 North Korea’s economy contracted by 50% and several hundred thousand (possibly up to 3 million) people died of starvation.[46]

In December 1991, North Korea established a “zone of free economy and trade” to include the northeastern port cities of Unggi (Sŏnbong), Ch’ŏngjin, and Najin. The establishment of this zone also had ramifications on the questions of how far North Korea would go in opening its economy to the West and to South Korea, the future of the development scheme for the Tumen River area, and, more important, how much North Korea would reform its economic system.

North Korea announced in December 1993 a 3-year transitional economic policy placing primary emphasis on agriculture, light industry, and foreign trade. However, lack of fertilizer, natural disasters, and poor storage and transportation practices have left the country more than a million tons per year short of grain self-sufficiency. Moreover, lack of foreign exchange to purchase spare parts and oil for electricity generation left many factories idle.

The 1990s famine paralyzed many of the Marxist-Leninist economic institutions. The government pursued Kim Jong Il’s Songun policy, under which the military is deployed to direct production and infrastructure projects. As a consequence of the government’s policy of establishing economic self-sufficiency, the North Korean economy has become increasingly isolated from that of the rest of the world, and its industrial development and structure do not reflect its international competitiveness. Domestic firms are shielded from international as well as domestic competition; the result is chronic inefficiency, poor quality, limited product diversity, and underutilization of plants.[citation needed] This protectionism also limits the size of the market for North Korean producers, which prevents taking advantage of economies of scale.

Economic planning[edit]

North Korea, one of the world’s most centrally planned and isolated economies, faces desperate economic conditions.[57] Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment and shortages of spare parts. Industrial and power output have declined in parallel. During what North Korea called the “peaceful construction” period before the Korean War, the fundamental task of the economy was to overtake the level of output and efficiency attained toward the end of the Japanese occupation; to restructure and develop a viable economy reoriented toward the communist-bloc countries; and to begin the process of socializing the economy. Nationalization of key industrial enterprises and land reform, both of which were carried out in 1946, laid the groundwork for two successive one-year plans in 1947 and 1948, respectively, and the Two-Year Plan of 1949-50. It was during this period that the piece-rate wage system and the independent accounting system began to be applied and that the commercial network increasingly came under state and cooperative ownership.

The basic goal of the Three-Year Plan, officially named “The Three-Year Post-war Reconstruction Plan of 1954-56“, was to reconstruct an economy torn by the Korean War. The plan stressed more than merely regaining the prewar output levels. The Soviet Union, other East European countries and China provided reconstruction assistance. The highest priority was developing heavy industry, but an earnest effort to collectivize farming also was begun. At the end of 1957, output of most industrial commodities had returned to 1949 levels, except for a few items such as chemical fertilizers, carbides, and sulfuric acid, whose recovery took longer.

Having basically completed the task of reconstruction, the state planned to lay a solid foundation for industrialization while completing the socialization process and solving the basic problems of food and shelter during the Five-Year Plan of 1957–60. The socialization process was completed by 1958 in all sectors of the economy, and the Ch’ŏllima Movement was introduced. Although growth rates reportedly were high, there were serious imbalances among the different economic sectors. Because rewards were given to individuals and enterprises that met production quotas, frantic efforts to fulfill plan targets in competition with other enterprises and industries caused disproportionate growth among various enterprises, between industry and agriculture and between light and heavy industries. Because resources were limited and the transportation system suffered bottlenecks, resources were diverted to politically well-connected enterprises or those whose managers complained the loudest.[citation needed] An enterprise or industry that performed better than others often did so at the expense of others. Such disruptions intensified as the target year of the plan approached.

Until the 1960s, North Korea’s economy grew much faster than South Korea’s. Although P’yongyang was behind in total national output, it was ahead of Seoul in per capita national output, because of its smaller population relative to South Korea. For example, in 1960 North Korea’s population was slightly over 10 million persons, while South Korea’s population was almost 25 million persons. Annual economic growth rates of 30% and 21% during the Three-Year Plan of 1954-56 and the Five-Year Plan of 1957-60, respectively, were reported.[citation needed] After claiming early fulfillment of the Five-Year Plan in 1959, North Korea officially designated 1960 a “buffer year”—a year of adjustment to restore balances among sectors before the next plan became effective in 1961. Not surprisingly the same phenomenon recurred in subsequent plans. Because the Five-Year Plan was fulfilled early, it became a de facto four-year plan. Beginning in the early 1960s, however, P’yongyang’s economic growth slowed until it was stagnant at the beginning of the 1990s.

Various factors explain the very high rate of economic development of the country in the 1950s and the general slowdown since the 1960s. During the reconstruction period after the Korean War, there were opportunities for extensive economic growth—attainable through the communist regime’s ability to marshall idle resources and labor and to impose a low rate of consumption. This general pattern of initially high growth resulting in a high rate of capital formation was mirrored in other Soviet-type economies. Toward the end of the 1950s, as reconstruction work was completed and idle capacity began to diminish, the economy had to shift from the extensive to the intensive stage, where the simple communist discipline of marshaling underutilized resources became less effective. In the new stage, inefficiency arising from emerging bottlenecks led to diminishing returns. Further growth would only be attained by increasing efficiency and technological progress.

Beginning in the early 1960s, a series of serious bottlenecks began to impede development. Bottlenecks were pervasive and generally were created by the lack of arable land, skilled labor, energy, and transportation, and deficiencies in the extractive industries. Moreover, both land and marine transportation lacked modern equipment and modes of transportation. The inability of the energy and extractive industries as well as of the transportation network to supply power and raw materials as rapidly as the manufacturing plants could absorb them began to slow industrial growth.

The First Seven-Year Plan (initially 1961-67) built on the groundwork of the earlier plans but changed the focus of industrialization. Heavy industry, with the machine tool industry as its linchpin, was given continuing priority. During the plan, however, the economy experienced widespread slowdowns and reverses for the first time, in sharp contrast to the rapid and uninterrupted growth during previous plans. Disappointing performance forced the planners to extend the plan three more years, until 1970. During the last part of the de facto ten-year plan, emphasis shifted to pursuing parallel development of the economy and of defense capabilities. This shift was prompted by concern over the military takeover in South Korea by General Park Chung Hee (1961–79), escalation of the United States involvement in Vietnam, and the widening Sino-Soviet split. It was thought that stimulating a technological revolution in the munitions industry was one means to achieve these parallel goals. In the end, the necessity to divert resources to defense became the official explanation for the plan’s failure.

The Six-Year Plan of 1971-76 followed immediately in 1971. In the aftermath of the poor performance of the preceding plan, growth targets of the Six-Year Plan were scaled down substantially. Because some of the proposed targets in the First Seven-Year Plan had not been attained even by 1970, the Six-Year Plan did not deviate much from its predecessor in basic goals. The Six-Year Plan placed more emphasis on technological advance, self-sufficiency (Juche) in industrial raw materials, improving product quality, correcting imbalances among different sectors, and developing the power and extractive industries; the last of these had been deemed largely responsible for slowdowns during the First Seven-Year Plan. The plan called for attaining a self- sufficiency rate of 60-70% in all industrial sectors by substituting domestic raw materials wherever possible and by organizing and renovating technical processes to make the substitution feasible. Improving transport capacity was seen as one of the urgent tasks in accelerating economic development—it was one of the major bottlenecks of the Six-Year Plan.

North Korea claimed to have fulfilled the Six-Year Plan by the end of August 1975, a full year and four months ahead of schedule. Under the circumstances, it was expected that the next plan would start without delay in 1976, a year early, as was the case when the First Seven-Year Plan was instituted in 1961. Even if the Six-Year Plan had been completed on schedule, the next plan should have started in 1977. However, it was not until nearly two years and four months later that the long-awaited plan was unveiled—1977 had become a “buffer year.”

The inability of the planners to continuously formulate and institute economic plans reveals as much about the inefficacy of planning itself as the extent of the economic difficulties and administrative disruptions facing the country. For example, targets for successive plans have to be based on the accomplishments of preceding plans. If these targets are underfulfilled, all targets of the next plan—initially based on satisfaction of the plan—have to be reformulated and adjusted. Aside from underfulfillment of the targets, widespread disruptions and imbalances among various sectors of the economy further complicate plan formulation.

The basic thrust of the Second Seven-Year Plan (1978–84) was to achieve the three-pronged goals of self-reliance, modernization, and “scientification.” Although the emphasis on self-reliance was not new, it had not previously been the explicit focus of an economic plan. This new emphasis might have been a reaction to mounting foreign debt originating from large-scale imports of Western machinery and equipment in the mid- 1970s.[original research?] Through modernization North Korea hoped to increase mechanization and automation in all sectors of the economy. “Scientification” means the adoption of up-to-date production and management techniques. The specific objectives of the economic plan were to strengthen the fuel, energy, and resource bases of industry through priority development of the energy and extractive industries; to modernize industry; to substitute domestic resources for certain imported raw materials; to expand freight-carrying capacity in railroad, road, and marine transportation systems; to centralize and containerize the transportation system; and to accelerate a technical revolution in agriculture.

In order to meet the manpower and technology requirements of an expanding economy, the education sector also was targeted for improvements. The quality of the comprehensive eleven-year compulsory education system was to be enhanced to train more technicians and specialists, and to expand the training of specialists, particularly in the fields of fuel, mechanical, electronic, and automation engineering.

Successful fulfillment of the so-called nature-remaking projects also was part of the Second Seven-Year Plan. These projects referred to the five-point program for nature transformation unveiled by Kim Il Sung in 1976: completing the irrigation of non-paddy fields; reclaiming 1,000 square kilometres of new land; building 1,500 to 2,000 km² of terraced fields; carrying out afforestation and water conservation work; and reclaiming tidal land.

From all indications, the Second Seven-Year Plan was not successful. North Korea generally downplayed the accomplishments of the plan, and no other plan received less official fanfare. It was officially claimed[citation needed] that the economy had grown at an annual rate of 8.8% during the plan, somewhat below the planned rate of 9.6%. The reliability of this aggregate measure, however, is questionable. During the plan, the target annual output of 10 million tons of grains (cereals and pulses) was attained. However, by official admission[citation needed], the targets of only five other commodities were fulfilled. Judging from the growth rates announced for some twelve industrial products, it is highly unlikely[original research?] that the total industrial output increased at an average rate of 12.2% as claimed. After the plan concluded, there was no new economic plan for two years, indications of both the plan’s failure and the severity of the economic and planning problems confronting the economy in the mid-1980s. From 1998 to 2003, the government implemented a plan for scientific and technical development, which focused on the nation’s IT and electronic industry.[58]


Growth and changes in the structure and ownership pattern of the economy also have changed the labor force. By 1958 individual private farmers, who once constituted more than 70% of the labor force, had been transformed into or replaced by state or collective farmers. Private artisans, merchants, and entrepreneurs had joined state or cooperative enterprises. In the industrial sector in 1963, the last year for which such data are available, there were 2,295 state enterprises and 642 cooperative enterprises. The size and importance of the state enterprises can be surmised by the fact that state enterprises, which constituted 78% of the total number of industrial enterprises, contributed 91% of total industrial output.[citation needed]

Labor force (20 million) – by occupation:[59]

  • Agricultural: 37%
  • Industry and services: 63%

External trade[edit]


Graphical depiction of North Korea’s product exports in 28 color-coded categories.

Statistics from North Korea’s trade partners is collected by international organizations like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund, and by South Korean organizations such as the National Unification Board.

It is also estimated that imports of arms from the USSR in the period 1988 to 1990 accounted for around 30% of the DPRK’s total imports, and that between 1981 and 1989 the DPRK earned approximately $4 billion from the export of arms, approximately 30% of the DPRK’s total exports in that period. The nominal dollar value of arms exports from the DPRK in 1996 is estimated to have been around $50 million. North Korea’s foreign trade continued to deteriorate in the 1990s. After hitting the bottom of $1.4 billion in 1998, it recovered slightly. North Korea’s trade total in 2002 was $2.7 billion: only about 50% of $5.2 billion in 1988, even in nominal US dollars. These figures exclude intra-Korean trade, deemed internal, which rose in 2002 to $641 million.

In addition to Kaesŏng and Kŭmgang-san, other special economic areas have been established at Sinŭiju in the northwest (on the border with China), and at Rasŏn in the northeast (on the border with China and Russia).

International sanctions have impeded international trade to some degree, many related to North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction. President Obama approved a new executive order in April 2011 that declares “the importation into the United States, directly or indirectly, of any goods, services, or technology from North Korea is prohibited.”[60]Operational sanctions include:



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