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Interview with Dr. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein - "Let Them Eat Potatoes"

The North Korean Review recently spoke with Dr. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein about his article "Let Them Eat Potatoes: Communism, Famine and the Case of North Korea,” published in the Fall 2021 issue of NKR. Dr. Silberstein used speeches from North Korean leaders as well as propaganda and statements from the ruling party to understand how the DPRK government attempted to deal with the famine of the 1990s and why they chose that route. He found that the North Korean government refused to acknowledge the country’s issues with food insecurity, and instead shifted their focus to promoting alternative food sources like potatoes. Dr. Silberstein was kind enough to answer some of our questions to provide a better understanding of his article, as well as his thoughts on the current rumors of famine in the DPRK.


Was the North Korean government successful in convincing its people to eat potatoes as a staple food? Does the practice continue to this day, or did people return to eating white rice after it became available?

Yes, to an extent. However, to what extent they were successful isn't precisely clear. The government has continued to push for potato farming, and a Swedish NGO even had a potato farmer stationed in North Hamgyong province for some time. Despite this white rice continues to be preferred by the North Korean public, and judging by the scant information we have from inside North Korea it doesn't seem like potatoes have become a true staple good on the same level as rice and corn.

To your knowledge, did the people of North Korea accept their government's lie about outside forces causing the famine? Or did they realize that their government had lied to them?

My impression from speaking with people from North Korea is that many people did believe outside forces caused the famine, at least initially. But over time I suspect that an increasing share of the public now regards it as a failure by their own government, at least partially, not least given the inflow of outside information into the country since the early 2000s.

Why didn't famine lead to an overthrow of the government or an uprising in China, the Soviet Union, or North Korea?

Good question. In all three famines, the regime's social control and brutality against political opposition was exceptionally strong. Although scattered protests did erupt, they were not strong enough to amount to an uprising. Harsh methods of oppression often work, especially since all three countries regarded (and, in the case of North Korea, still regards) internal unrest as a national security issue.

There are reports that North Korea is heading towards a food shortage or that they are already in the midst of one due to COVID-19 and poor weather. If North Korea were to go through a famine today, how do you think the Kim Jong-un government would respond? Who would they assign blame to?

The government continues to blame international sanctions for the dire situation, which is not entirely inaccurate but at the same time very problematic since the regime itself shut the border with China and stopped trade and travel. Some news reports suggest that the government has released food stocks from warehouses to distribute to vulnerable parts of the population and drive market prices down, but it's still unclear how much of an impact this has had. In any case, the country today is in a very different situation since the market system provides some level of stability even when things get difficult. However, if farmers cannot import crucial inputs such as fertilizer, the country's food production may drop to very problematic levels.

Dr. Silberstein’s article is featured in our Fall 2021 issue. For more information about our publication and how to access it, please click the “Subscriptions” tab at the top of this webpage.


*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***


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