Seoul, South Korea
Concerns about North Korea’s chronic food shortages are mounting, with multiple sources suggesting this week that starvation-related deaths are likely.
Some experts say the country has reached its worst point since a famine in the 1990s known as the “Arduous March” caused mass starvation and killed hundreds of thousands of people, or an estimated 3-5% of its then 20 million population .
Trade data, satellite images and assessments by the United Nations and South Korean authorities all suggest that the food supply has now “fallen below the amount needed to meet minimal human needs,” said Lucas Rengifo-Keller, a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Even if food were distributed evenly — something almost unthinkable in North Korea, where the elite and the military take priority — Rengifo-Keller said, “You would have starvation-related deaths.”
South Korean officials agree with that assessment, with Seoul recently announcing that it believes starvation deaths are occurring in some parts of the country. While producing solid evidence to support those claims is made difficult by the country’s isolation, few experts question its assessment.
Even before the Covid pandemic, nearly half of North Korea’s population was malnourished, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Three years of closed borders and isolation could only have made things worse.
Showing how desperate the situation has become, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this week held a four-day rally of the Workers’ Party to discuss a renewal of the country’s agricultural sector and call for a “fundamental transformation” in agriculture and the state. economic plans and the need to strengthen state control over agriculture.
But several experts say Pyongyang has only itself to blame for the problems. During the pandemic, Pyongyang reinforced its isolationist tendencies by erecting a second tier of fencing along 300 kilometers of its border with China and straining what little cross-border trade it had access to.
And in the past year it has devoted precious resources to conducting a record number of missile tests.
“There are sight-shooting orders (at the border) that were put in place in August 2020…a blockade of travel and trade, including the very limited official trade (which was there before),” said Lina Yoon, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
According to Chinese customs records, China officially exported nearly 56 million kilograms of wheat or maslin flour and 53,280 kilograms of grains/flakes to North Korea in 2022.
But Pyongyang’s repression has stifled unofficial trade, which, as Yoon points out, “is one of the main lifelines of North Korea’s markets where ordinary North Koreans buy products.”
Cases of people smuggling Chinese products into the country, bribing a border guard to look the other way, have been virtually non-existent since the borders were closed.
Several experts say the underlying problem is years of economic mismanagement and Kim’s efforts to tighten state control will only make matters worse.
“The North Korean borders need to open and they need to resume trade and they need to bring in these things to improve agriculture and they need food to feed the people. But right now they prioritize isolation, they prioritize repression,” Yoon said.
But as Rengifo-Keller pointed out, it’s not in Kim’s interest for the unofficial trade of the past to resurface in this dynasty-ruled country. “The regime does not want a thriving entrepreneurial class that could threaten its power.”
Then there are the missile tests Kim remains obsessed with and his constant refusals of offers of help from his neighbor.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin told CNN in an interview last week that “the only way North Korea can get out of these troubles is to return to the dialogue table and accept our humanitarian offer to the North.” accept it and make a better choice for the future.”
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told CNN on Thursday that the situation is “worsening, our intelligence shows, because it is clear that their policies are changing… the chairman (Kim Jong Un) would like to put a lot of pressure to get it through the state. dictate, you know, the supply of food to their people, which will not function.
Seoul Ministry of Unification was quick to point out that Pyongyang continues to focus on its missile and nuclear program rather than feeding its own people.
In a briefing last month, vice spokesman Lee Hyo-jung said: “According to local and international research institutions, if North Korea had used the cost of the missiles it launched last year for food supplies, it would have been enough to have more than one to buy.” million tons of food, probably more than enough to cover North Korea’s annual food shortage.”
Seoul’s rural development agency believes North Korea’s crop production was 4% lower than the previous year last year due to flooding and bad weather.
Rengifo-Keller fears that the height of these effects coupled with the regime’s “misguided approach to economic policy” could have disastrous consequences for the already suffering population.
“This has been a chronically malnourished population for decades, high growth rates and all signs point to a worsening situation, so it certainly won’t take much to plunge the country into famine.”