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At least, that's what some North Koreans say, only half in jest. Few expect a humanitarian disaster - a famine, say - to bring anything good to any society. But in North Korea, the famine in the mids that killed a million people also led to positive change. In the very struggle people waged to survive the famine, the state lost much of its control over their daily lives. North Koreans became more self-reliant and inventive; they found ways to survive, and also to make money, replacing the almost defunct ration system with a growing market economy.
Traveling outside one's immediate area of residency was banned, except for family weddings and funerals. The state intelligence agency ran a tight monitoring operation against its own people, tasking one out of every five households with informing on others.
Most importantly, the state dominated food distribution, which kept everyone subservient and immobile for fear of losing their only access to sustenance. By the early s, after decades of government mismanagement of the agricultural sector, years of natural disasters, and an abrupt end to barter trade with the Soviet Union, North Korea's chronic food shortage developed into a full-fledged famine. By the mids, the state had stopped distributing rations to most people.
At least one million died of starvation, waiting for the rations to resume. Entire families died without anyone noticing for days, even weeks," a year old man from Hoeryong, North Korea, told me. Since , the World Food Programme and individual countries including the United States, Japan, China and South Korea have sent food aid, but the North Korean government continued to impose severe restrictions on the monitoring of aid distribution by limiting the areas aid workers could visit, how often they could, and requiring at least a week of advance notice prior to such visits.
Some humanitarian agencies accused the North Korean government of diverting aid to the military, instead of feeding the most vulnerable populations as intended. It's true, however, that even North Korean soldiers could not avoid hunger. A man in his early 30s from Hwanghae told me how half a dozen soldiers in his strong unit died of hunger, while many others were sent home, because they were too malnourished to serve.