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sketchy and verifiable data was
even more difficult to attain, but
anecdotal evidence was starting to
mount that the ultra-secretive
country was staring down the bar-
rel of a full-blown famine. Mak-
ing matters worse, summer
floods, which some observers de-
scribed as reaching biblical pro-
portions, pounded the country.
For the first time, the DPRK
had to consider making a serious public appeal for outside
support. There had been overtures to the United Nations
in 1991 and 1994, but those discussions broke down over
the World Food Program’s strict requirements for trans-
parency — and also, some claim, because President Kim
Il Sung personally refused to accept outside help.
This attitude was a foreseeable result of the country’s
principal political belief, “Juche,” which loosely translates
as “self-reliance.” The ideology, which gradually emerged
over time, has three main principles: political independ-
ence, economic self-sustenance and military self-reliance.
Any overt support from the outside, particularly from
countries North Korea considered unfriendly, would un-
dermine Juche and was therefore unacceptable.
It is quite possible that had Kim Il Sung survived longer,
the famine could have grown much worse. But as power
shifted from father to son, and the sheer magnitude of the
disaster became clearer, Kim Jong Il’s government began
to seriously consider accepting our assistance.
Assessing the Disaster
As a director for democracy, human rights and human-
itarian affairs at the National Security Council, I traveled
to Pyongyang during the winter of 1995 with a team of ex-
perts to assess the extent of the humanitarian crisis and dis-
cuss the possibility of American aid. Led by Len Rogers
from the U.S. Agency for International Development, our
delegation included Senate Foreign Relations committee
staffer Munro Richardson and several other officials.
What struck me most about the briefings we received
before departing was how little anyone really seemed to
know about North Korea. I still remember one Korea
watcher telling us to look for fresh graves facing south or to-
ward mountains for an indication of how widespread the
famine was. But never during my two years in North Korea
did I see any evidence of mass gravesites.
Two USAID officials, Jon
Brause and Dave Hagen, had al-
ready traveled to Pyongyang to set
the stage for our visit. Their ef-
forts to facilitate our mission
proved invaluable, and both went
on to contribute greatly to U.S.
humanitarian efforts there.
At the time, all journeys to Py-
ongyang originated in Beijing,
where Air Koryo, the national
airline, operated twice-weekly flights. Blacklisted from op-
erating out of Western Europe, the carrier had a dismal
reputation. But it was our only option. Looking out the
window of the Illyushin Il-62 we were taking, I made my-
self ignore the bald spots on the tires. It didn’t help that the
plane’s interior reminded me of pictures I’d seen of my
grandparents’ cross-continental trips back in the 1950s.
On our arrival in Pyongyang, we were whisked away
into rounds of meetings, most of which focused on our
proposed itinerary. Though our trip was highly orches-
trated, we saw enough to make clear that the country faced
a huge problem. The full extent of the 1995 famine may
never be known, but it appears that between as many as
3.5 million people perished. That would put North Korea
just behind China in terms of 20th-century famine-related
deaths. And taking into account the fact that the DPRK’s
population is a fraction of its neighbor’s, it would rank num-
ber one.
In response, the United Nations, with strong American
support, initiated one of its largest humanitarian operations
in its history. Japan and South Korea, also considered en-
emies by North Korea, soon joined the United States as the
largest contributors to the U.N. relief effort.
My Second Stint in Pyongyang
Nearly a decade later, in 2004, I found myself back in
North Korea, this time as the World Food Program coun-
try representative. Managing a program that I’d helped
create, we were tasked with feeding 6.5 million people,
nearly a third of the country. This time around, however, I
had something else to worry about: my wife and 1-year-old
daughter accompanied me, making us the first American
family ever to reside in North Korea.
Our apartment was in a lime-green high-rise building,
one of several occupied by most of the roughly 250 other
foreigners in the capital. Most ambassadors lived inside
What struck me most about
the briefings we received
before departing was how
little anyone really seemed
to know about North Korea.
M A R C H 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L