North Korea: Linking Fuel to Famine

I recently came across a book called Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture by Dale Allen Pfeiffer. In his book, Pfeiffer uses the North Korean famine in the mid-nineties as a cautionary tale about what can happen to a nation’s food production when that nation runs low on fuel.

Fossil Fuels Fuel Food Production

The basic thesis is as follows: Food production relies on fossil fuels to transport raw materials to the farm, to distribute products to global markets, to plant and reap crops via agricultural machinery, and to enhance crop yields via fertilizer (the nitrogen-based variety of which requires natural gas to produce). Without fuel, farm productivity declines–precisely what happened in North Korea.

Soviet Collapse Linked to North Korean Famine

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, North Korea’s access to imported fuel from the U.S.S.R. went away almost overnight. The state no longer had ready access to fuel, fertilizer, or agricultural machinery. According to North Korea’s own tally, 2.5 to 3 million people died in the subsequent famine from 1995 to March 1998.

While the North Korean government bears much of the blame for diverting fossil fuel resources from the fields to the military, the data tells a compelling story about how dangerously reliant our modern food production system is on fossil fuels.

Fuel Deficits Can Lead to Famine

Pfeiffer’s book included one chart plotting petroleum consumption with agricultural production, which showed a strong relationship between the two variables. Pfeiffer’s chart was so compelling that I decided to plot several data points on North Korean fuel consumption and food production using the World Bank’s development indicators.

Tractor Inventory Started its Fall with the Berlin Wall

From 1962 to 1987, North Korea increased its tractor inventory. In 1988, the number of tractors stood at 70,000. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, from 1989 to 2007, the number of tractors in North Korea’s inventory declined at an average annual rate of 0.5 percent. North Korea’s tractors were getting old, but the state could not replace them. Subsequently, the government had fewer resources to apply towards food production.

Source: World Bank

Fossil Fuel Consumption Declined After Fall of Berlin Wall

Source: World Bank

North Korean fossil fuel consumption declined at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent from 1989 to 2007. From 1992 to 1995, it declined by nearly 10 percent per year. During the same period, cereal yield also declined by an average rate of over 15 percent per annum.

Rapid Decline in Fertilizer Use Led to Sharp Drop in Yield

Source: World Bank

Of all the effects on North Korea’s cereal yield, the decline in fertilizer consumption appears to have had the most dramatic effect. In 1994, a 67.7 percent decline in fertilizer consumption was associated with a 46.7 percent decline in yield.

Fossil Fuel Starvation Leads to Human Starvation

Source: World Bank

The effect of these lower crop yields was a decline in the population’s growth rate. Since the famine of the mid-nineties, North Korea’s growth rate has never recovered. Granted, most countries are not as isolated or poorly managed as North Korea, but they can still learn from the North Korean experience. Modern food production requires fossil fuels to function. If societies continue to ignore this link and do not seek out ways to start decoupling fossil fuels from food production, they will continue to be at risk from the instability associated with high fossil fuel prices.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Climate Change, Energy Security, Finance and Economics, Food Security, International Security, Policy, Politics, Predictions and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to North Korea: Linking Fuel to Famine

  1. pino says:

    Of all the effects on North Korea’s cereal yield, the decline in fertilizer consumption appears to have had the most dramatic effect.

    Not only the most dramatic, but the most consistent. I wonder, can you tease out the data that shows fossil fuel consumption in the agricultural sector?

    • I wish I could. Unfortunately, I went about as deep as I could go. I imagine the effect would look as dramatic for diesel fuel in agriculture as it was for fertilizer as I suspect the North Korean military reduced its fuel allotment much less than the country reduced its allotment for agriculture.

      We will only ever truly know when North Korea collapses or it attacks South Korea.

      I’m actually surprised the World Bank had this level of detail given North Korea’s secretive nature.

  2. If North Korea collapses, South Korea will be unable to feed all its newly acquired citizens and famine may well spread there.

    • I wouldn’t worry too much about South Korea. Both the U.S. and China likely have detailed contingency plans to handle a collapse, especially since neither side wants North Korea’s nukes to fall into the wrong hands amidst the chaos. Both China and the United States would ensure the Peninsula has enough food to feed both populations.

  3. Derek says:

    Wow incredible data very interesting. No surprise though ever since the soviets pulled out of North Korea things have gone from bad to worse. It is interesting to note though that people seem to think the countries problems are mainly due to the government’s managing of the country but i think (after reading this) that fuel is an even bigger problem or equally important one.

  4. Derek says:

    i do think the nuclear/military spending is just as big of a problem as the lack of fossil fuels though.

  5. I travel to the DPRK annually and the effects of the lack of fuel on agriculture are evident. I go to the DPRK during the harvest and what strikes me is that the country has little ability to move food. Storage of harvested grains is local, not out of planning but out of necessity. Tractors are scarce even at harvest and it is related to fuel. Trucks moving food are rarely seen – trucks are rarely seen and many that are on the roads are wood-gas contraptions belching smoke (particularly on the east coast).
    This is grain storage in a local hotel:

    Likewise drying is done by hand and is not automated.

    The officials I have spoken to on the farms have said that petrol is essential for the harvest and it is a large part of the problem. I have so often seen crops being moved by ox cart.

    You may see harvest photos in North Korea at Flickr and more of the thousands of photos I have taken in North Korea.

    • Ray,

      Your pictures are beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

      One thing that really struck me is that the bark is still on most of the trees in your photos. I have heard that in the mid-90s the famine was so bad that the bark of most trees had been stripped by hungry people for food.

      BTW, how on earth did you get inside North Korea with a camera?

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