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The Ethics of Surviving a Famine: An #Aristotelian Perspective on Starving Citizens' Decisions in #NorthKorea

posted May 21, 2014, 10:14 AM by Peter Joseph Moons   [ updated May 21, 2014, 10:28 AM ]

The Ethics of Surviving a Famine:

An Aristotelian Perspective on North Korean Citizens' Decisions


By Peter Moons


            ‘No country is more than two missed meals away from revolution.’  This maxim used to be a standard of domestic security.  However, at least one country that has endured a severe and years-long famine has apparently broken that paradigm.  From the start of it’s famine in about 1994, the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) saw little risk from a mass uprising against it’s power structure.  How was this done?  The DPRK’s military was kept well fed owing to the government’s “military first” policy.[i]  The North Korean people suffered drastic food insecurity, especially those on the lowest rung of the tiered social structure: “the court class, the wavering class, and the hostile class.”[ii] The average citizen who survived did so by making tough choices, always with the interest of saving themselves, sometimes saving their family members while sometimes not, but seldom helping those outside their own families.  Each hungry citizen made choices that affected their survival, and in the case of the citizens profiled in Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy, in an Aristotelian analysis, shows their actions to be not virtuous -- a condition exacerbated by the inaction of the government.


Aristotle noted the issue of norming when there is a large amount of diversity in the populace; he said, “although citizens are dissimilar, preservation of the community is their task.”[iii]  With a tiered society like in the DPRK, where benefits of the state depended on party membership, a family member’s job or war record, and purity of North Korean bloodlines, when famine struck, the formerly constant community commitment slowly broke down.  Eventually, the structure of society nearly collapsed; the only element that held the society together was the state’s vast security and surveillance apparatus.[iv]  However, the state was virtually absent as millions of citizens saw their food rations decrease until they no longer received anything and were forced to barter, sell off their possessions or themselves, steal, and eventually forage for sustenance.  In trying circumstances such as these, the key question to ask is this: If people of good character to do heinous and unethical actions in a trying time, then does that mean they possess a bad character?


This discussion of the famine in North Korea must include noting the role of the government in contributing to its cause, covering up its spread, and then punishing those who sought to help themselves.  Aristotle, in this regard, reserves the utmost concern for wise behavior for those who rule, as he wrote, “…but the good citizen should know and have the capacity both to be ruled and to rule, and this very thing is the virtue of a citizen.”[v]  The familial leadership of the communist party in North Korea by the Kim family meant there was little connection between the those who govern and the governed, except in the absolute fealty demanded by the former of the latter.  As the famine spread slowly throughout North Korea, the government at first tried to hide its existence.  The official line was food was being stored for “the starving South Korean masses on the blessed day of reunification.”[vi]  However, the government then launched a propaganda campaign, encouraging the hungry to trim consumption with the ironic phrase, “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day.”[vii]  The ancient Greeks would have abhorred this obfuscation and manipulation.


The control of the population during the famine was necessary for the maintenance of order.  Up to a point, the two maintained a direct variance: as the famine increased, control increased.  In order to monitor people in the early days of the famine, the government relied upon a “extensive network of domestic surveillance” as well as a vast network of state security organizations, detention centers, and work camps.[viii]  Meanwhile, the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Il, “didn’t care if he bankrupted the rest of the country,”[ix] just as long as he and the upper party elites maintained their power and their quality of life.  Obviously, concern for the governed was not a common trait at the highest levels of government, nor, in the mind of any tyrant or dictator should that have been so, for the first rule of a dictator is to stay in power.


With the DPRK’s massive security state, Kim ruled in a twisted Machiavellian style: demanding to be loved but optimally feared.[x]  In Aristotelian terms, man does things for a “right reason,” with some aim in mind, though to promote evil negates the justice inherent here.[xi]  For an analysis of the famine, categories or standards of conduct are necessary.  Aristotle provides these with his “three objects of choice - fine, expedient and pleasant and three objects of avoidance - contraries, shameful, harmful and painful.”[xii]  Aristotle defines virtue as being in a “state” that contains “a mean between two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.”[xiii]  In this famine, the “objects of avoidance”[xiv] were dominant and there was often a “deficiency”[xv] of concern for one’s fellow human outside the family circle.


With these two descriptors as the polar opposites, people act between them with their feelings, actions, and perhaps metaphysically even in their thoughts.  While the DPRK cannot receive all the blame for the difficult, if not horrible choices people had to make in order to survive, the government is responsible for setting the conditions that forced people into the position to have to make such choices.  Since the government is a major influencer in developing moral character, preceded by a belief system, family, and community, the DPRK itself shares no small blame in the downfall of virtue during the famine.  The following examples will show how virtue collapsed in the DPRK, with self-preservation eventually becoming the highest priority.


By 1994, the food crisis had become desperate to the point that “[t]he search for food and thoughts about food became the highest priority, the most pressing matter.”[xvi]  People picked “weeds and wild grasses to add to their soups” and also ate “leaves, husks, stems and [corn] cobs” to add bulk to their diet.[xvii]  One child “was debating whether or not to go to school” because “there was rarely enough food for him at home to bring a lunch…he spent most of his time looking out the window, thinking that if he were outside he could go off and find something to eat.”[xviii]  The food crisis had become so acute that people “picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals,”[xix] “dandelion or other weeds,”[xx] “grass ”[xxi] the “inner bark of the pine [tree] sometimes extended with a little sawdust,”[xxii] or “bean and corn stalks.”[xxiii]  Soon, North Koreans began to “die from eating substitute foods that their bodies [could not] digest.”[xxiv]  Evidently, the hunger crisis was causing desperation in the search for food and would also cause people to make hard choices.


In one of three specific examples, Demick describes Dr. Kim, a new and dedicated female physician.  She was a committed patriot who worked extra hours as she sought party membership, not for self-gain but because she believed in the DPRK’s goals.[xxv]  Applicable in her case is Aristotle’s description of virtue as a state of one’s character; He says, “it is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, It is very important, indeed all-important.”[xxvi]  Dr. Kim’s habit was caring for her patients’ well being and following the rules of the state, which soon came into conflict.


Among her patients, Dr. Kim had seen multiple indications of starvation and disease due to a lack of nutrition.  She observed, “Even four-year-olds new they were dying and that I wasn’t doing anything to help them… all I was capable of doing was to cry with their mothers over their bodies afterward.”[xxvii]  There came a time when “the hospital emptied out.  People stopped bringing their sick loved ones.  Why bother?” was the question asked.[xxviii]  Apparently, everyone knew that the sick were not going to get well but only die. 


Dr. Kim faced an ethical dilemma herself and fell away from the side of virtue: She began to write false prescriptions in exchange for bits of food, even though she knew “it violated every oath she had ever made to her profession and her country -- but she knew she was helping her patients and herself to survive.”[xxix]  To be ethical is to be virtuous in Aristotelian terms: “Virtue, then, is about feelings and actions,” some of which are voluntary and others like “pardon and pity… are in voluntary.”[xxx]


Dr. Kim had both pardon and pity for her patients.  She once faced an ethical dilemma when she wanted to give a prisoner, who was also a patient at her hospital, some antibiotic -- the pardon -- but the hospital administration refused her request; the convict “committed suicide soon after.”[xxxi]  Unknown is if Dr. Kim may have been able to acquire the necessary medicine but did not.  Wherein she wrote false prescriptions that aided North Koreans in some manner -- the pity -- and provided her sustenance, she would not cross the ethical line in all circumstances.


When her own life was at stake, she crossed the line, but when another was at risk of death, she did not.  Aristotle would have disfavored this application of situational ethics, though.  After “losing custody of [her own] child,”[xxxii] Dr. Kim’s life began to further unravel, but nothing prepared her for her father’s downward spiral and death by starvation: he refused to eat, telling his family “why should a good for nothing like me go on living and consume food?”[xxxiii]  However, one could say this was an honorable, self-sacrificing act because by his death, he did make more food available to his surviving family members.  In utilitarian terms, Dr. Kim’s father saw that his sacrifice would favorably benefit others directly.


In a second example, the life of Miss Mi-Ran provides telling instances where ethical challenges prompted people to sometimes come to the aid of others but only to a point, eventually choosing to save their own skins, even at the expense of family members.  While studying to become a teacher, some of “[t]he girls in the college began getting sick.  One of Mi-Ran’s roommates was so malnourished that the skin was flaking off her face.  He dropped out of school and others followed.”[xxxiv]  The college was not able to feed all of its students and thus had no problem went Mi-Ran asked to live off campus.[xxxv]  Essentially, the government institution made the decision to let one go in order to have just a little more food for those who remained on campus. 


As a schoolteacher, Mi-Ran saw her children becoming emaciated from a lack of food, some even with distended stomachs.  In desperation, to feed all the children during lunchtime “Mi-Ran would take one spoon each from those with to give to those without.”[xxxvi]  Over time, malnutrition took its toll as children’s “eyes narrowed to slits sunken beneath swollen lids,” hair became “brittle,” and they could not stay awake in class due to lack of food.[xxxvii]  Kindergarten enrollment drastically “dropped from fifty students to fifteen;”[xxxviii] imaginably, most of the non-attendees starved to death or died from some illness aggravated by malnutrition.  Worth noting is that there are “capacities” that each person possesses: “anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hate, longing, jealousy, pity, in general whatever implies pleasure or pain.”[xxxix]  Mi-Ran would soon find that pain avoidance by hardening her heart was the best individual survival instinct to follow.  Here is another example of Aristotle’s “object of avoidance.”[xl]


Eventually, those around Mi-Ran began to offer callous advice, likely emblematic of a nation under long-term duress.  For example, Mi-Ran’s boyfriend told her concerning her sad, starving students: “What can you do? Don’t take it all on your shoulders.”[xli]  The advice rang hollow as the teacher herself “was eating better than she had in years” because she moved back home with her family.[xlii]  Her lack of drive in actually helping the children who were so desperate around her “weighed like a stone on her conscience” a decade later.[xliii]  Clearly, in a time of desperation, she did not do enough; she had failed to be virtuous.  Then again, the nation of the DPRK set the conditions for people to be evil to each other; the DPRK’s corrupt culture seeped outward and affected everyone, until caring for one’s fellow human being became virtually non-existent.


Like others around her, she “had to learn to stop caring” as a “survival skill,”[xliv] and for a good reason.  The government of the DPRK was failing in its self-appointed task of rationing food supplies: “Food insecurity affected many…[A]s school lunches got smaller and finally disappeared, children started cutting school to look for food.”[xlv]  Mi-Ran came to the point where she helped neither her students to the best of her abilities nor any “stranger.”[xlvi]  However, her family took care of her own and this is why, perhaps she did not fully help her five and six-year-old pupils.  She likely thought feeding one’s own was a familial responsibility.  The Aristotelian concept of “preservation of the community”[xlvii] apparently stopped at a family’s doorstep for her and many of her countrymen.


The slippery slope of situational ethics eventually caught up with Mi-Ran’s family, and all remaining virtue was lost as the family began to turn on its own members.  One sister, a brother, and her mother devised a plan to escape North Korea via China.[xlviii]  Some of Mi-Ran’s family chose self-preservation over familial bonds as the defection would cost the lives of her two married sisters who stayed behind in North Korea: they were arrested in 1999 shortly after the family’s escape became known and likely died inside of a labor camp.[xlix]  


Mi-Ran and her family could have told the sisters that the family was defecting but doing so likely would have disclosed their plans to the government, thereby foiling their departure.  Thus, the four family members made a fateful decision that their freedom was more valuable than the fate of the two sisters.  This choice, in the face of a harrowing situation, was unjust and cowardly, as Aristotle noted about human “actions” in such “terrifying times.[l]  Here, again, is an ethical situation involving an “object of avoidance:”[li] the pain of staying in North Korea and remaining hungry.


            A third situation provides another heartbreaking example of ethical choices in the famine.  In this particular case, as the intensity of the food crisis grew, moral standards decreased.  Mrs. Song, a mother, was happy she had “one less mouth to feed” when her son moved in with his girlfriend.[lii]  Mrs. Song watched her mother-in-law and her husband die of malnutrition even though she tried desperately to feed them, usually with soup made of grass.[liii]  When she was given the news that her starving son needed an antibiotic to treat his pneumonia, she went to the market to buy some.  Because the penicillin cost 50 Korean Won (a large sum), Mrs. Song chose instead to buy a “kilo of corn” and in short order, her son was soon dead.[liv]


While attempting to second guess the decision-making process of a starving North Korean woman is futile, understanding that stressful situations prompt confused decisions is valuable; perhaps Mrs. Song was non compos mentis.  Though Aristotle recognized that virtue is good, he detected the virtuous are not so all the time, for he stated, “…the excellent citizen is not necessarily prudent.”[lv]  While Mi-Ran attempted to care for her students by sharing spoonfuls of lunches with the less fortunate, this anecdotal evidence showed Mrs. Song could not make a wise choice concerning malnourished family members.  At some point in people’s lives of starvation, wise judgment is absent and prudence is no longer possible.


Obviously, the famine brought out the worst in people, but there was an evolutionary aspect to the food crisis.  While the “simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told…were the first to die,”[lvi] the capitalistic and entrepreneurial or those adept at stealing food often survived.[lvii]  In other words, those who were not virtuous and broke the rules of the society were able to find ways to feed themselves.[lviii]  The mathematics of famine worked in the survivors favor for after five years, “there were fewer mouths to feed [because] ‘[e]verybody who was going to die was already dead.’”[lix]  The survivors became ever more callous: In another example of an Aristotelian “object of avoidance,” in this case, again, the “painful,”[lx] Mrs. Song saw a cartload full of what she thought were only a collection of cadavers until one’s “eyes blinked faintly;” he would stay in the cart because he was soon be dead anyway.[lxi]


Since constant, debilitating hunger in this years-long famine was the norm, the recourse to scrounge for anything edible became, in Aristotelian thinking, a “habit,” but not a habit for inculcating goodness.[lxii]  There were many perverse rumors and actually a couple of cases of cannibalism during the famine.[lxiii]  The decline of virtue in North Korean society had reached extreme levels.  Aristotle says, “Actions are called just or temperate when they are the sort that a just or temperate person would do;”[lxiv] however, the conditions of the non-existence of food drove even the temperate to do the unthinkable.


This situation led to the ultimate Hobson’s Choice: die of hunger and thus violate the rule of self-preservation, or eat another human’s flesh.  Some may say that for the virtuous, this is no choice at all, as to engage in cannibalism is to dehumanize man.  In evolutionary terms, meaning by the need to continue the self or the species, the latter was justified; in doing so, though, the human’s body may survive by engaging in cannibalism but the soul dies.  Aristotle leaves the conclusion much more vague, as he did not identify conditions as extreme as the famine created.  Likely, Aristotle would have chosen honor over the dishonor and depravity of eating another human being.


Aristotle observed that citizens should be happy and happiness is the ultimate goal of life.  He noted that “[t]he virtue of the excellent citizen must exist in all…”[lxv]  In the end, many of the defectors who inhabited this story of the famine in North Korea were unhappy at the condition of their lives, despite the fact that they had finally found a level of freedom in South Korea or elsewhere.  Perhaps they embody the sentiment that Aristotle says, “the happy life seems to be a life expressing virtue.”[lxvi]  These defectors, all of whom made exceptionally difficult choices in the course of surviving the famine, are saddled with the guilt of their non-virtuous decisions.  They may be able to return to attempting to lead a virtuous existence but their pasts will never escape them.


In the exceptionally difficult circumstances of a famine, people of good character will do vile and unethical actions.  Aristotle may not say they thus posses a bad character because character development comes from several inputs; family, community, and country, are some of these.  In the examples of the lives in Nothing to Envy, there are clearly people who took care of their families first while at least attempting to do something for their communities, like Mi-Ran aiding, in a limited manner, some of the hungry children in her classroom.  This was particularly necessary since the DPRK government all but abandoned its citizens, in contrast to its previous practice of meticulously rationing food.  Hunger caused even the virtuous Mi-Ran to sacrifice her sisters’ existence, and likely their families, so she and three other family members could seek freedom in South Korea.  Clearly, Mi-Ran is like many other North Koreans during the famine as she gave up on her corrupt government first, followed by her community, and eventually on her very own family.  In this case, the harshest judges of Mi-Ran and everyone else who was forced to make difficult ethical choices may be themselves.




Aristotle. Introductory Readings. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine, translators. Indianapolis:
     Hackett, 1996.


Aristotle. Politics. Carnes Lord, Translator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.


Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Kindle Edition. New
     York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,


Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 2nd ed., Harvey C. Mansfield, translator. Chicago:
     University of Chicago Press, 1998.


[i] Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Kindle Edition. (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009), 66 and 146.

[ii] Ibid., 26.

[iii] Aristotle, Politics, Carnes Lord, Translator, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 1276b29-30.

[iv] Demick, 70; 174-175.

[v] Aristotle, Politics, 1276b14-16.

[vi] Demick, 69.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Demick, 70; 174-175.

[ix] Ibid., 66.

[x] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 2nd ed., Harvey C. Mansfield, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 68.  Of course, Machiavelli balanced being hated and feared, and said the prince should choose the latter.  In the famine of the DPRK, people began to see Kim and the government as the problem, particularly when food rations were cut or ceased altogether: The government that provided everything for the people had failed and the citizens eventually recognized that when they began to create micro-market economies.

[xi] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aristotle: Ethics,

[xii] Aristotle, Ethics, Introductory Readings, Terence Irwin and Gail Fine, translators. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), 1104b32–34.

[xiii] Ibid., 1107a1-4.

[xiv] Ibid., 1104b32–34.

[xv] Ibid., 1107a1-4.

[xvi] Demick, 71.

[xvii] Ibid., 11 .

[xviii] Ibid., 96.

[xix] Ibid., 134.

[xx] Ibid., 136.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ibid., 137.

[xxiv] Ibid., 140.

[xxv] Ibid., 104.

[xxvi] Aristotle, Ethics, 1103b23–25.

[xxvii] Demick, 113-114.

[xxviii] Ibid., 114.

[xxix] Ibid., 152.

[xxx] Aristotle, Ethics, 1109b30.

[xxxi] Demick, 107-108.

[xxxii] Ibid., 108-109.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 109-112.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 86-87.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 130.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 130-131.

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] Aristotle, Ethics, 1105B22-24; 25.

[xl] Ibid., 1104b32–34.

[xli] Demick, 131.

[xlii] Ibid., 132.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Ibid., 72-73.

[xlvi] Ibid., 132.

[xlvii] Aristotle, Politics, 1276b29-30.

[xlviii] Demick, 205.

[xlix] Ibid., 270-271.

[l] Aristotle, Ethics, 1103B15– 18.  “For actions in dealings with other human beings make some people just, some unjust; actions and terrifying situations in the acquired habit of fear or confidence make some brave and others cowardly.” 

[li] Ibid.,1104b32–34.

[lii] Demick, 138.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Ibid., 144-145.

[lv] Aristotle, Politics, 1276a16-17.

[lvi] Demick, 141-144.

[lvii] Ibid., 161.

[lviii] Ibid., 149.

[lix] Ibid., 146.

[lx] Aristotle, Ethics, 1104b32–34.

[lxi] Demick, 158.

[lxii] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[lxiii] Demick, 168-169.

[lxiv] Aristotle, Ethics, 1105B6-8.

[lxv] Aristotle, Politics, 1277a2.

[lxvi] Aristotle, Ethics, 1177a2.

Author: Peter Moons
Author: Peter Moons