Depleting Legitimacy: North Korean Propaganda and the Great Famine

Stephanie Llamas, MA Candidate, MCC, NYU


This study examines the economic collapse and the concurrent agricultural downfall in North Korea from 1989 to the present. With the fall of the Soviet Union and a marked decrease in foreign aide, particularly from China, the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea saw a dramatic economic downturn that exacerbated the already failing industry within the country. To further worsen the situation were natural disasters, particularly the floodings of 1995, that befell the nation. As a result, agriculture in the country became scarce and an estimated 900,000 to 3.5 million people lost their lives.

The “Arduous March” was a name given to the famine as a result of the propaganda efforts on behalf of the North Korean government. The government likened the situation to a mostly apocryphal tale wherein, during the 1930’s, Kim Il-sung commanded a small band of guerillas against thousands of Japanese enemies. They braved heavy snowfall, freezing weather and starvation and the event was thereafter known as the “Arduous March”. This is but one of many examples of how the North Korean government churned their propaganda machine in order to turn the famine into a show of nationalism. By telling the people to remember the March and “Let’s Eat Two Meals A Day”, starvation had become a patriotic duty. The realities of the famine and the propaganda peddled to the people are largely disparate, showing how the government’s use of climate as a cause for the famine was at times out of convenience and alternatively hidden when inconvenient.

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