North Korea is a nightmare in ways both big and small. Food rationing and starvation brings both.
Rations consisted of a mix of different grains. In the 1970s, in Pyongyang rice represented as much as 70% of the allowance, but even in those relatively prosperous times, in more remote areas rations consisted entirely of corn and barley, which have fewer calories than rice – but excessive weight has never been a problem in North Korea. The proportions between rice and other less valuable kinds of grains depended largely on one’s place of residence, with Pyongyang and other major cities being most privileged.
But what about meat and fish? Well, there were no regular norms for providing these luxuries. As a rule, a family was issued about a kilogram of meat two or three times a year, normally on the eve of major holidays – especially North Korean founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday. Milk was provided to schoolchildren in Pyongyang in very small quantities. Sugar was dropped from the rations in the early 1970s, and since then could be bought only by lucky owners of foreign currency (for a hyper-Stalinist regime, North Korea always had a remarkably relaxed currency-control system). Admittedly, fish was more available, but still not a part of daily diet.
The first downsizing of the rations took place in 1973 when the country’s economic growth began to decelerate. In September 1973 it was declared that “due to the dangerous international situation” the rations would be reduced: every fortnight two daily rations would be sacrificed for the strategic reserves. In 1989 the rations were cut further – by 10%: this was necessary, the authorities explained, to prepare the country for the forthcoming International Youth Festival. In 1992 a new 10% cut was imposed. These cuts meant that on the eve of North Korea’s Great Famine of 1995-99, the average worker received less than 500g of cereals. A retiree had to subsist on 220g – not exactly a generous amount.
From 1992 the North Korean media began to explain that for better health one only had to have two meals a day (the tradition of three meals was described as excessive and unhealthy). In those times people in some remote areas could not get food. They were still issued rationing coupons, but actual delivery of rations was delayed for days, and then for weeks.
The article proceeds to describe the breakdown of the rationing system. Food production fell by half, and food distribution halted. The nightmare only gets worse.