[Marxism] Why North Korea Was a Global Crisis Canary

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 18 07:21:13 MDT 2008

Mother Earth's Triple Whammy
Why North Korea Was a Global Crisis Canary
By John Feffer

Gas prices are above $4 a gallon; global food prices surged 39% last 
year; and an environmental disaster looms as carbon emissions continue 
to spiral upward. The global economy appears on the verge of a TKO, a 
triple whammy from energy, agriculture, and climate-change trends. Right 
now you may be grumbling about the extra bucks you're shelling out at 
the pump and the grocery store; but, unless policymakers begin to 
address all three of these trends as one major crisis, it could get a 
whole lot worse.

Just ask the North Koreans.

In the 1990s, North Korea was the world's canary. The famine that killed 
as much as 10% of the North Korean population in those years was, it 
turns out, a harbinger of the crisis that now grips the globe -- though 
few saw it that way at the time.

That small Northeast Asian land, one of the last putatively communist 
countries on the planet, faced the same three converging factors as we 
do now -- escalating energy prices, a reduction in food supplies, and 
impending environmental catastrophe. At the time, of course, all the 
knowing analysts and pundits dismissed what was happening in that 
country as the inevitable breakdown of an archaic economic system 
presided over by a crackpot dictator.

They were wrong. The collapse of North Korean agriculture in the 1990s 
was not the result of backwardness. In fact, North Korea boasted one of 
the most mechanized agricultures in Asia. Despite claims of 
self-sufficiency, the North Koreans were actually heavily dependent on 
cheap fuel imports. (Does that already ring a bell?) In their case, the 
heavily subsidized energy came from Russia and China, and it helped keep 
North Korea's battalion of tractors operating. It also meant that North 
Korea was able to go through fertilizer, a petroleum product, at one of 
the world's highest rates. When the Soviets and Chinese stopped 
subsidizing those energy imports in the late 1980s and international 
energy rates became the norm for them, too, the North Koreans had a rude 

Like the globe as a whole, North Korea does not have a great deal of 
arable land -- it can grow food on only about 14% of its territory. (The 
comparable global figure for arable land is about 13%.) With heavy 
applications of fertilizer and pesticides, North Koreans coaxed a lot of 
food out of a little land. By the 1980s, however, the soil was 
exhausted, and agricultural production was declining. So spiking energy 
prices hit an economy already in crisis. Desperate to grow more food, 
the North Korean government instructed farmers to cut down trees, 
stripping hillsides to bring more land into cultivation.

Big mistake. When heavy rains hit in 1995, this dragooning of marginal 
lands into agricultural production only amplified the national disaster. 
The resulting flooding damaged more than 40% of the country's rice paddy 
fields. Torrential rains washed away topsoil, while rocks and sand, 
dislodged from hillsides, ruined low-lying fields. The rigid economic 
structures in North Korea were unable to cope with the triple assault of 
bad weather, soaring energy, and declining food production. Nor did 
dictator Kim Jong Il's political decisions make things any better.

But the peculiarities of North Korea's political economy did not cause 
the devastating famine that followed. Highly centralized planning and 
pretensions to self-reliance only made the country prematurely 
vulnerable to trends now affecting the rest of the planet.

As with the North Koreans, our dependency on relatively cheap energy to 
run our industrialized agriculture and our smokestack industries is now 
mixing lethally with food shortages and the beginnings of climate 
overload, pushing us all toward the precipice. In the short term, we 
face a food crisis and an energy crisis. Over the longer term, this is 
certain to expand into a much larger climate crisis. No magic wand, 
whether biofuels, genetically modified organisms (GMO), or 
geoengineering, can make the ogres disappear.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, "We are all Americans" briefly 
became a popular expression of solidarity around the world. If we don't 
devise policy choices that address energy, agriculture, and climate, 
while replacing the idolatry of unrestrained growth at the heart of both 
capitalist and communist economies, the tagline for the 21st century may 
be: "We are all North Koreans."


More information about the Marxism mailing list