Who lives, who dies in a never-ending energy crisis. Book review of Nothing to Envy. Ordinary Lives in North Korea

[ The source of much of this information comes from Barbara Demick’s 2010 “Nothing to Envy. Ordinary lives in North Korea”.  But first I summarize why and how energy shortages led to the hardships chronicled in Demick’s book. Related posts:

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

North Korea and Cuba were the first countries to lose oil, the lifeblood of civilization.  Since we will all share that fate, it’s interesting to see what happened, though keep in mind that how severe the consequences are will depend on the carrying capacity of the region you’re in, how much civil order can be maintained, and the effectiveness of the leaders in power (i.e. see “Lessons Learned from How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” that compares California to Cuba).

There are enormous differences between the fates of Cuba and North Korea. Cuba had many advantages — a benign climate with year-round rainfall where three crops a year could be grown, a culture of helping one another out, and Castro prevented middlemen and speculators from charging astronomical amounts for food.  For a detailed understanding of what happened in Cuba read this Oxfam analysis.

North Korea couldn’t be more opposite – a cold mountainous nation with only 15% of its land arable, and dictators so crazy and cruel they’re almost unmatched in history.  North Korea might be the only nation with more prisoners per capita than America.   There are many kinds of prisons, from detention centers to hard-labor camps, to gulags where your children, cousins, brothers, sisters, and parents would also be sent to for a crime you committed for generations to come.  About 1% of the population– 200,000 people –permanently work in labor camps. The threat of these prisons has made it impossible for organized resistance to happen.

It’s hard to escape, and if you do, then your relatives end up labor camps. Other nations aren’t keen on refugees – South Korea fears a collapse of North Korea and being overrun by 23 million people seeking food and shelter, and China has their own problems with 1.2 billion poor people.

The consequences of peak energy in North Korea are worse than what’s likely to happen initially in America, though some regions of the United States are likely to suffer more than others.  On the other hand, when times get hard, group-oriented cultures that depend on a large network of people tend to do better than highly individualist cultures, which is as you can learn more about in Dmitry Orlov’s Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century.

The only good aspect I could find about North Korea was that the women there are less repressed than in the past. A century ago Korean women were so completely covered in clothing that the Taliban would find no faults.  In one village north of Pyongyang women wore 7 foot long, 5 feet broad and 3 feet deep wicker hat constructions that kept women hidden from head to toe.  Perhaps even more than Muslim women Korean women were imprisoned in family compounds and could only leave at special times when the streets were cleared of men.  One historian said that Korean women were “very rigidly secluded, perhaps more absolutely than women of any other nation”.

After the Korean War ended, North Korea lost most of its infrastructure and 70% of its housing.  It was amazing that Kim Il-sung managed to create a Spartan economy where most were sheltered and clothed, had electricity, and few were illiterate.  Grain and other foods were distributed as well.  In autumn each family got about 150 pounds of cabbage per person to make kimchi, which was stored in tall earthen jars buried the garden so they would stay cold but not freeze and hidden from thieves.

North Korea became utterly dependent on the kindness of other countries for oil, food, fertilizer, vehicles, and so on.

What happens when the oil stops flowing? 

In the early 1990s North Korea suffered a double blow at a time when they were $10 billion in debt.  China wanted cash up front for fuel and food while at the same time the Soviet Union demanded the much higher price of what oil was selling for on world markets

The nation spun into a crash. Without oil and raw materials the factories shut down.  With no exports, there was no money to buy fuel and food with.  Electric plants shut, irrigation systems stopped running, and coal couldn’t be mined.  The results were:

  • Power stations and the electric grid rusted beyond fixing
  • The lights went out.
  • Running water stopped so most went to a public pump to get water
  • Electric trams operated infrequently
  • People climbed utility poles to steal pieces of copper wire to barter for food
  • There were few motor vehicles
  • And few tractors, farming was done with oxen dragging plows

Hunger struck, which made people too exhausted to work long at the few factories and farms that were still surviving.

Oil is liquid muscle. One barrel of crude oil (42-gallons) has 1,700 kilowatts of energy.  It would take a fit human adult laboring more than 10 years to equal one barrel of oil.

Perhaps this is why many nations have had no choice but to rely on muscle power after an economic crash or during a war, which means putting many people to work on farms.  After the energy crisis, North Koreans over 11 were sent out to the country to plant rice, haul soil, spray pesticides, and weed.  This was called “volunteer work”.  Now that they couldn’t afford to buy fertilizer, every family was expected to provide a human bucketful of excrement  to a warehouse miles away. The bucket was exchanged for a chit that could be traded for food.

Like Mao’s crazy schemes, North Korea’s dictators lurched from one mad idea to another — one day it was goat breeding, the next ostrich farms, or switching from rice to potatoes.

Food staples were grown on collective farms, and the state took the harvest and redistributed it.  The farmers weren’t given enough to survive on, so they slacked on their collective fields to grow food to survive on, making the food crisis even worse.   In the end, it was people in cities with no land to grow their own food on who ended up starving first.  Every year, rationed amounts of food went down.

People were told the United States was at fault, and propaganda campaigns encouraged Koreans to think of themselves as tough, and that enduring hunger without complaint was a patriotic duty, and kept everyone’s hopes up by promising bumper crops in the coming harvest.  The Koreans deceived themselves like the German Jews in the 1930s, and told themselves it couldn’t get any worse, things would get better. But they didn’t.

Worse yet, instead of spending money on agriculture, the defense budget sucked up a quarter of the GNP.  One million men out of 23 million people were kept in arms – the 4th largest military in the world.

The only place to get food became the illegal black market, where prices were terribly high, sometimes 250 times higher than what the state used to sell food for.

Natural disasters made harvests even worse – in 1994 and 1995 Korea was struck with an extremely cold winter and torrential rains in the summer that destroyed the homes of 500,000 people and rice crops for 5.2 million people.

People began picking weeds and wild grasses to stretch out meals, as well as leaves, husks, stems, and the cobs of corn.  Children can’t digest food this rough and could end up in a hospital, where doctors advised the rough material be ground up fine and cooked a long time.  It wasn’t long before malnutrition led to increasing numbers of people with pellagra and other diseases.  Hospitals soon ran out drugs and other supplies.

Who died?

Children under five.  Mothers couldn’t produce enough breast milk, nor was there baby formula, regular milk, or even ground up rice.   Children were the most vulnerable from poor diets. A minor cold would turn into pneumonia, diarrhea into dysentery.

Then the elderly.  First those over 70, then people in their 60s and 50s.

Even men and women in the prime of their lives began to die.  Men first because they have less body fat.  Also, the strongest and most athletic because their metabolisms burn more calories.

The most innocent.  People who wouldn’t steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. The simple and kind-hearted who did what they were told.  It’s said that the survivors of Auschwitz didn’t want to see each other again because they’d all done things they were ashamed of.

Death was certain for people who didn’t have the initiative to do something.

Chronic malnutrition makes it hard to fight infections, and people grow more susceptible to tuberculosis and typhoid.  Once starved enough, antibiotics stop working, so curable illnesses become fatal.  Hunger changes body chemistry to wildly fluctuate resulting in strokes and heart attacks.

The city of Chongjin had always suffered epidemics because its sewage system let untreated feces into streams.  Once electricity stopped working, running water became so unreliable that people stored water in large vats which bred typhoid bacteria.  Between a lack of soap and antibiotics it wasn’t long before typhoid epidemics broke out.

By 1998 about 10% of the population had died from famine, and in some areas 20%, up to 2 million people.  The numbers would have been much higher if North Korea hadn’t received $2.4 billion in food aid between 1996 and 2005.

The North Korean government began to execut people for just about anything: stealing copper wire, goat, corn, or cattle theft, anyone stealing or hoarding or selling grains on the black market, adultery, prostitution, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and so on.  Thousands of people were thrown into prisons and many didn’t survive.

Who survived?

People did not passively die.  When the public food distribution ended they did whatever they could figure out to feed themselves.  Some made bucket and string traps to catch small field animals, used nets to catch sparrows, stripped the sweet inner bark of pine trees and ground it into a powder to replace flour. Acorns were mashed into a paste.  Kernels of undigested corn were pulled out of the feces of farm animals.  Shipyard workers scraped the slime off the bottom where food had been stored and dried the foul-smelling goop on roofs to get tiny grains of uncooked rice out.  Others dug shellfish out  and ate seaweed.  When making cornmeal, the husk, cob, leaves and stem were thrown into the grinder. Grass was added to make stews look like they had vegetables.

People rested instead of moving around to preserve their calories.

To stay alive, you had to suppress any impulse to share food.

You had to stop caring, to be able to see a dead body on the street and walk on by, and not stop to help a beloved neighbor’s 5-year-old on the verge of death.  Indifference was a survival skill.

At this point, just about everyone looked at what they owned and could sell to get food. Usually within 5 years most people had run out of possessions to sell, and even sold goods that helped them survive like bicycles for transport or sewing machines to make clothes to sell.

One of the most valuable items a person could own was a hand mill to grind corn, because there was no electricity for electric grinders.  People would come for miles to have their corn ground manually.

Some walked around the edges of their city looking for shellfish, birds, or berries, but most cities were concrete jungles, and people needed to go much further in their search for food.  In the city of Chongjin families hiked 3 miles to a collective orchard to look for fruit that had fallen and rolled under the fence surrounding the orchard.  As food dwindled, children cut school to go to the orchard and squeezed through the wire fence to get fruit.  When there was no more fruit to be scavenged, people went further out from the cities looking not just for food, but for firewood. Farms began to hire armed guards.

Children climbed walls and dug up vegetables and kimchi pots buried in private gardens. As the famine worsened, hungry soldiers began raiding people’s gardens as well.

In smaller towns and villages, people crammed the narrow spaces between homes with peppers, radishes, and cabbages, those with flat roofs put pots of vegetables on top.

Some raised pigs or made tofu.  Many women made cookies because they only took 10 minutes to bake, a lot less time than bread, at a time when firewood and anything else that would burn was hard to find.  Cookies made a quick meal for hungry people on the move.  When many made the same goods, having the best personality counted.

As coal and wood ran out, and electricity very rare, many foods people had made to trade for rice couldn’t be done anymore.

Even dandelions and weeds grew scarce.  Hot pepper, salt, and other flavorings that might have made weeds, ground sawdust, and inner bark flour palatable were expensive.  Oil was unavailable at any price, making cooking even more difficult.  It wasn’t long before North Korea’s frog population was wiped out by over-hunting.  People ate grasshoppers, tadpoles, cicadas, and dogs.

Many hung out at train stations, hoping to go somewhere better.  The homeless began to live at the train stations, most of them children or teenagers, often because the parents and grandparents had starved themselves to death first to keep the children alive. Many orphans roamed fearing others would steal from them, or even eat them, as rumors of cannibalism spread.  Train stations were a place many dead bodies could be found.

Train stations also were full of prostitutes, often young married women desperate to feed their children.   The only payment they asked for was food. Those with apartments nearby could get money or food letting prostitutes briefly rent out a room.

Cities that relied on the falling apart roads and rail lines had to pay the most for food, especially rice, the main staple.

Those with keys to abandoned factories dismantled them and made everything from the machinery to the wood doors into other sell-able products.

Women made sneakers from discarded rubber, built carts from old tires and doors.

Some found books on Oriental medicine and picked mountain herbs.  Doctors performed abortions because families couldn’t afford babies.

Food aid agencies did a survey in the summer of 2008 and found that two-thirds of people were still picking grass and weeds to survive on.

Despite all the crackdowns on the black market, by 2009 there were some who’d made so much money they were becoming almost middle class. Kim Jong-il solved that problem by invalidating the currency in circulation and issuing new bills as a to confiscate the cash people had saved.  The new currency was so worthless that the most money you could convert was $30, instantly throwing anyone who’d done well back into poverty.  The economy crashed even lower, and starvation became common again.

Supply chains broke down

Just about anything you could think of grew scarce –  there were no bricks, cement, glass, or lumber.  When windows broke they were covered with boards or plastic.  Supply chains were broken.  One school, desperate for glass, devised a scheme to sell the famous pottery of their town for salt in Nampo, sell the salt at a profit, and use that money to buy glass from the only factory in North Korea that still made glass.

A clothing factory that made uniforms started to have trouble in 1988 when shipments of fabric were delayed. Sometimes this was because there was no anthracite coal which was a raw material used to make the fabric (vinalon), or there wasn’t electricity at the factory.  Management tried to keep the women busy by sending them out along railroad tracks to collect dog shit for fertilizer. Other days they’d look for scrap metal along the tracks or in the effluent coming out of the pipes at the steelworks.

How to be a Dictator

If you want to be a dictator this book is a good how-to manual.  Kim Il-sung went further than most dictators by fostering a cult of personality that made him into a God so he could harness the power of faith by invoking religious sentiments in the people. He took the cult of personality to an extreme – everyone had to have a photo of him on a blank wall with nothing else, and use a white cloth that could be used for nothing else to keep the photo clean.  Surprise visits of the Public Standards Police ensured this was the case.

He also terrified everyone with the threat of going to prison.

Children didn’t celebrate their own birthdays, only Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s, whose birthdays were national holidays and often the only time people got meat.  After the energy crisis, these would were the only days when there was electricity, and children got about two pounds of sweets.  Children were expected to stand in front of the portrait while enjoying their treats.

Korean teachers are required to play the accordion to motivate children, or “voluntary hard labor” in the fields or a construction site.

Further Reading

Inside North Korea’s Environmental Collapse. Phil McKenna 06 Mar 2013. pbs.org

Pfeiffer, Dale Allen. 17 Nov 2003. Drawing Lessons from Experience; The Agricultural Crises in North Korea and Cuba. From the Wilderness.









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