With North Korea agreeing to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for food aid (yet again), the Explainer blog at Slate takes on the question of why the North keeps suffering from famines and food shortages. In short, "poor growing conditions, fertilizer shortages, and general mismanagement." In the 1950s, to overcome its poor soil, North Korea turned to a fertilizer-heavy farming system, but the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of the North's cheap petroleum, the source of much of its fertilizer.
To compensate, the North expanded its farming up all its hillsides, which soon made the country extremely vulnerable to flooding and erosion, especially during heavy summer rains. Experts say the North's solution today is either to revert control to local farmers or switch away from farming entirely and concentrate on light manufacturing, then trading for food—but both options are anathema to North Korea's peculiar communist system. Kim Jong Il reportedly had a third, more unusual solution—bulldoze the entire, mountainous country into a great fertile plain—but he never had the resources to make that happen before dying last December. Read the full post here. (Read more North Korea stories.)