From a realpolitik POV, why does the North Korean regime let their people starve

I’m not asking from a humanitarian POV, because the North Korean regime is evil. I’m asking from a strictly selfish (to the regime) reason.

For one thing, arguably the major thing, malnutrition vastly reduces physical and cognitive health. As a result lots of North Koreans aren’t as capable of fighting in wars as they could be. There also aren’t as many potential scientists to work on the North Korean nuclear, chemical, biological weapons programs, or commit international fraud, or build ICBMs, or work for cyberhacking teams, etc. Their entire national security apparatus could collapse if too many of the public are too mentally and physically sick from malnutrition. Having huge swaths of the country suffer from lowered cognitive and physical health doesn’t help the regime survive.

Malnutrition created and keeps the black markets thriving, which undermine the regime. The black markets empower individual citizens, and they help to spread outside media.

The death of millions in the 90s caused a lot of people to lose faith in the regime.

It costs less than $1/day to provide enough food for one person per day (I’m assuming you can provide enough calories for as little at $0.30 a day or so). Granted this can add up over the course of a year for a nation of 25 million. But with minor reforms, North Korea could have increased their agricultural productivity.

On the other hand, I guess starving people are easier to control as you can take their food away as punishment. They are also more divided as starvation turns friends and families against each other.

But it seems like allowing mass starvation has led to a large decrease in the human capital of the North Korean nation, empowered the black markets and made people lose faith in the regime.

I think you’re assuming that North Korea is, on the whole, run according to sane and rational principles of some kind or another. I’m not convinced that that’s necessarily always a good assumption.

I think it is run on sane and rational principles.

“How can the elite maintain their strangle hold on the domestic population so the elite can maintain their lives of privilege, and avoid any kind of domestic insurrection or foreign invasion”

Using that lens, what the regime does makes sense. They are incredibly evil, but they tend to follow that line of reasoning. Except when it comes to mass starvation, because that undermines the regime but they let it happen anyway.

Are North Koreans starving, though? There definitely were some severe famine problems in recent decades, but it sounds like workarounds have been devised.

Does giving the appearance of absolute economic self-reliance perhaps play into it? That people dying to make the balance sheet look good is considered an acceptable trade-off?

The military and science elite are well cared for, certainly better than the normal population. As for why starvation might be a good instrument for keeping in power, it might be as simple as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Having a starving underclass also helps to control the elites, in that they can see that there’s always a level worse off than you, that you could be demoted to. The thought that, “Yeah, my job sucks, but at least I’m not one of them…” can be quite the motivator.

It’s medieval feudalism. The peasant class exists to provide the nobility with wealth. The health and safety of the peasant class is irrelevant except where it impacts the continued wealth of the nobility.

And just like in medieval times, the nobility does not care one whit for the peasant class. They’re not people - they’re chattel. If the peasants are suffering more now than they were twenty years ago, but the nobility is still happy, why change anything? If the standard of living for the nobility slips, just squeeze the peasants harder.

That’s what sanctions are for - they (in theory) apply pressures that will never form internally.

The control mechanism in North Korea is a series of concentration camps. Entire families for three generations are sent to starve to death in work camps due to a single comment by one family member.

Does the NK regime (aka, the Kim clan) have the means to properly feed the populace and do all the other things it wants to do? Communism/totalitarianism is a notoriously poor way to run an economy, so producing food isn’t anywhere near as easy as it is in the rest of the world. To import food, you need cash.

I think this is the best answer. North Korea is not a fertile field of grain. It’s mountainous and the soil is not particularly good for farming. That means that they are not really agriculturally self-sufficient, but at the same time they don’t have much of an economy in other sectors to produce capitol to trade for agricultural products. The government has certainly tried implementing policies to increase agricultural production and they actually produce more food than the south now, but it’s just not enough for the population and with no real way to trade for more food, they are in a pickle. Bottom line is that I think that if North Korean leadership had a magic wand, they’d gladly wave it and feed their people, but they don’t.

NK is a cult of personality. The model is a tried and true one. You create a pyramid with dear leader at the top who then gives some really nice perks to the people just below him and they give some very nice perks to the level below them who give some pretty good perks to the level below them and so on.

No one wants to lose their perks because the bottom tier is pure shit. As a result they all keep each other in line.

Sure the bottom tier is cranky and not happy at all but they have no means to revolt and if they try there is one tier below them which are concentration camps that not only you go to but your whole family with you and those are hell on earth.

There is nothing rational about the NK leadership. Have you seen the crazy crap Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s dad) put forward?

  • He had a supernatural birth (a new star formed and illuminated the sky and the seasons suddenly changed from winter to spring and a double rainbow appeared)
  • He invented the hamburger
  • The first time he played golf he shot 38 under par
  • He never used a toilet

There are more I think but no, not really a rational guy. That’s what happens when you are surrounded 24/7 by boot lickers. You start believing you really are super-duper special (See: Donald Trump).

With their *sonbun *social heirarchy system, AIUI, it is usually the political undesirables who starve first. The regime might even consider this to be a good weeding out of undesirables in the populace.

Telling fantastical lies about the leader is rational for the leadership. Solzhenitsyn told a story in Gulag Archipelago about a conference for Soviet leaders where at the end of the speeches there was a standing ovation as a tribute to Stalin. All of the leaders stood and applauded for 11 minutes straight until one official stopped and sat down, then all the others immediately followed. That man was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in the gulag. Not because stopping applauding was a crime but because it showed independence and courage.
Telling obvious untruths and having people be forced to believe them weeds out the independent thinkers and forces people to participate in their own subjugation.

*Most *of their people, maybe. But not the dissidents, etc.

And of course, if they simply gave up their nukes, they could have all the food they needed.

Probably not. The total amount spent on the NK nuclear program is between 1 and 3 billion dollars according to most estimates. We’ll split the difference and say 2 billion. Right now North Korea makes about 3/4 of the food that it needs and lacks 1/4 of its total needs. So taking the ‘dollar a day’ estimate that we had earlier, assuming that they already have .75 cents of it, we end up with .25 a day per person to meet everyone’s nutritional needs fully. That’s about 6.25 million dollars a day. So, a quick envelope calculation tells me that if they had never embarked on a nuclear program, they would have had enough money to feed their population for a little under a year. Which is not nothing, but keeping in mind that that money has been spread out over the last 25 years, ending the nuclear program would only give them about two weeks of nutrition a year. Again, better than nothing, but it wouldn’t put a major dent in the problem.

Of course, you could be saying that if they gave up their nukes, all sorts of food aid would be shipped in from the south, you may or may not be right. If so, then it probably would end up being a good investment for them to have pursued nukes, which I don’t think is a good message to send.

Aside from the so-called Arduous March (roughly 1994-98) North Korea has managed to keep its population fed sufficiently to maintain life. There is some malnutrition, but not widespread starvation.

The Arduous March occurred not because of the political or economic systems of North Korea (although they didn’t help the situation) but because of factors beyond the control of North Korea. Those factors include:

  1. withdrawal of Soviet support for North Korea as the USSR dissolved by 1991
  2. withdrawal of some Chinese support for North Korea (China had filled some of the gap left by the USSR breakup) in 1993 due to China having its own issues
  3. devastating floods affecting about 1/3 of North Korea in the summer of 1995, not only destroying crops but destroying emergency food reserves that had been set aside by North Korea for emergencies
  4. additional flooding in 1996
  5. drought in 1997

None of the above were under the control of North Korea and that, combined with a centralized system with some difficulty in responding to rapidly changing conditions, resulted in the Arduous March and perhaps several million dying of starvation and its associated effects (such as increased disease) in those years and many more malnourished. North Korea did start accepting donated foreign aid even from its enemies (explaining it as “tribute” from fearful nations afraid of The Leader’s might and power) so they weren’t complete idiots.

However, North Korea really does operate on a very different system than ours. When things got really tight they started triaging and decided who would get food first. First in line were the top elites and the military, and that should have surprised no one because they are pretty open about stating their priorities. Then then went down the social ladder and yes, the people on the bottom starved. This continued even after foreign aid started arriving because they were going to see that the more valued groups were adequately nourished before sending anything down the line.

At present, North Koreans do not have an abundance of food. Hard facts are hard to find, and range from “there are thousands starving” to “not a lot of food, some malnutrition, but not mass starvation”.

Hunger is much, much less an issue than in the past history of humanity because of both better means of transport and trade being actually global rather than regional or local. Starving areas can (although it doesn’t always happen) compensate for local shortages by receiving food from areas that have a surplus. The big problem North Korea has is that it’s such an international pariah it’s very difficult for it to tap into outside resources.

While hunger has some utility for social control, the people running the place aren’t stupid (evil, by our standards, yes, but not stupid). They are well aware that beyond a certain point a hungry populace becomes dangerous. That’s why they started accepting outside aid in the 1990’s. But when they have a good year and can adequately (if sparsely) feed their own they don’t want outside help because they don’t want people getting the notion that things are better across the border.

Yes. I am also sure the USA would happily bribe them to give up nukes. But just the trade would help, rather than being under several embargos.

The problem with that is that the ruling do NOT want “all the food they need” coming from outside the country. I think they really do want to be as self-sufficient as possible. Becoming dependent on outside aid means the danger of outside influence and control. They don’t want that.

A situation that allows the undesirable portions of their society to starve to death might be seen as a feature and not a bug by them. Can only feed X number of people? Have X+Y people in the nation? Let Y starve to death, problem solved! Even better if the “crisis” is on-going, allowing a continual winnowing of the populace.

And if the discontent isn’t allowed to get out of hand, it’s a source of low-level resentment to be turned against the enemy “other”.

It’s why everyone outside of the Inner Party in 1984 lived a shoddy hand-to-mouth existence: maintain a simmering but manageable hatred to be focused and directed according to the needs of the Party.