It is extremely hard to know what North Koreans are really feeling as they mourn the death of Kim Jong Il today. What's clear, though, is that there is plenty to be anxious about. It's not just that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea faces a prolonged period of uncertainty as the Dear Leader's putative political heir, the 27-year-old Kim Jong Un, settles into his new job. There's also the not inconsequential matter of getting enough to eat as North Korea's infamously hard and barren winter approaches.
North Koreans have been starving for years, needless to say. Stories about widespread malnutrition in the country have been making the rounds at least since the early 1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived Pyongyang of a host of vital industrial subsidies, and the resulting collapse of the North Korean economy was compounded by a series of floods and other natural disasters later in the decade. No one knows precisely how many North Koreans died; most of the estimates range between half a million and two. As journalist Blaine Harden notes in his forthcoming book Escape From Camp 14, one million dead in North Korea (pop. 24 million) would translate into roughly 12 million victims in a country the size of the United States.
The survivors, meanwhile, have to contend with the cumulative effects of years of starvation and malnutrition. Studies show that North Korean defectors are routinely several inches shorter and considerably lighter than their counterparts in the South. But even in flush times, the nagging problem of hunger has continued to plague North Korea even as the famines have forced the government to tolerate a variety of bottom-up coping mechanisms developed by ordinary people to shield themselves from starvation. The most prominent: private markets and grassroots trade (much of it illegal) with China. Increased aid from South Korea, the result of a rapprochement between Pyongyang and left-of-center governments in Seoul, also brought a measure of relief for a few years in the first half of the last decade. None of this, of course, really addressed the core problem of the Kim regime's chronic mismanagement of the economy and the environment. But the band-aid was better than nothing.
Now even that small room for maneuver appears to have vanished. A few years ago, worried about a potential loss of political control, Kim Jong Il's minions began cracking down on markets and illicit cross-border trade. Meanwhile, North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006 dealt a blow to those in Seoul and elsewhere who had argued that generous provision of assistance would change the North for the better. Riding the resulting wave of skepticism was the conservative politician Lee Myung-bak, inaugurated as South Korea's president in 2008. Lee announced that he wanted to see the North offer more concessions in return for Southern aid -- a stance that contributed mightily to a cooling of inter-Korean relations.
Another North Korean nuclear test in 2009 didn't help much. And then, in the spring of 2010, a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sunk, killing 46 sailors after an enormous explosion that Seoul and various international observers blamed on a North Korean torpedo. A few months later, as if to avoid any ambiguity in the matter, the North Koreans fired off barrages of artillery shells at a South Korean island. The Lee administration put relations with Pyongyang in the deep freeze and aid from the South, already down to a trickle, dried up.
This summer, floods hit again, washing away cropland and plunging the North into a new state of emergency. A procession of humanitarian aid officials visited North Korea and issued dire predictions about another food crisis in the offing. Statement after statement called upon the governments in Seoul and Washington to donate money for aid.