Few people would doubt that the famine of 1996-2000 was the worst disaster in the history of post-war Korea. However, nobody knows for sure how many people lost their lives.
Stalinist states have never been famous for openness, and important statistical data in North Korea has been classified from the early 1960s. Officialdom always insisted that the North is a “socialist paradise” where nothing could possibly go wrong.
In the mid-1990s, the North Korean officialdom grudgingly changed the pattern. It gradually dawned on Pyongyang that complaints are necessary to attract donors….
In 2001, Goodkind and West, two researchers from the International Center of the U.S. Census Bureau published what is, perhaps, the most reliable estimate available. They used both data released by the North Korean government and materials obtained from the refugees. Their initial estimates range from 200,000 to 3,000,000. To narrow the range, they also used the indirect evidence, including some Chinese materials from the era of Mao-made famines, and the WFP studies of the North’s nutritional situation. This indirect data allowed them to conclude that the Great Famine took between 600,000 and 1,000,000 lives.
The 600,000 or 900,000 do not sound as dramatic as the oft-cited “two million.” But for a country with a population of some 23 million this is a huge number. Some 3-4 percent of the entire population perished in the disaster. For the U.S., it would be equivalent to wiping out some 10 million people–a far greater proportion than America lost in any war during the twentieth century. And the disaster was entirely man-made; the result of deliberate political decisions.
However, the outside world did not care much. The North Korean famine did not become the major news issue, and outside East Asia only a handful of people really took notice. This seemingly strange indifference reflected the silent but dramatic change in the perception of North Korea that took place in the 1990s. No major player in international politics wanted to attract too much public attention to the mistakes and crimes of the Pyongyang rulers. While people were dying, powers great and small were busy playing their political chess games.