This week, multiple sources suggested that starvation-related deaths are likely, raising concerns about North Korea’s ongoing food shortages.
According to some experts, the nation is at its lowest point since the “Arduous March” famine of the 1990s, which resulted in widespread starvation and killed hundreds of thousands of people, or about 3-5% of the 20 million people who lived there at the time.
According to Lucas Rengifo-Keller, a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, trade data, satellite images, and assessments made by the United Nations and South Korean authorities all suggest that the food supply has now “dipped below the amount needed to satisfy minimum human needs.”
Rengifo-Keller stated that “you would have hunger-related deaths” even if food was distributed equally, which is nearly impossible in North Korea, where the elite and military take precedence.
Officials in South Korea concur with that assessment, and Seoul recently stated that it believes starvation is causing deaths in some parts of the country. The country’s isolation makes it difficult to gather solid evidence to support those claims, but few experts question its assessment.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization stated that nearly half of North Koreans were malnourished prior to the Covid pandemic.
Things couldn’t have been any worse for three years of isolation and closed borders.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a four-day Workers’ Party meeting this week to discuss a revamp of the country’s agricultural sector. During the meeting, he called for a “fundamental transformation” in farming and state economic plans as well as the need to strengthen state control of farming. This is a sign of how desperate the situation has become.
However, a number of experts contend that Pyongyang alone is to blame for the issues. Pyongyang intensified its isolationist tendencies during the pandemic by erecting a second layer of fencing along 300 kilometers of its border with China and restricting access to cross-border trade.
Additionally, it has conducted a record number of missile tests over the past year, utilizing precious resources.
Lina Yoon, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, stated, “There’s been shoot on sight orders (at the border) that were put in place in August 2020… a blockade on travel and trade, which has included what very limited official trade (there was before)”
According to data from Chinese customs, China officially shipped nearly 56 million kilograms of wheat or maslin flour and 53,280 kilograms of cereals in the form of grains or flakes to North Korea in 2022.
In any case, Pyongyang’s clampdown has choked off informal exchange, which as Yoon brings up is “one of the primary life savers of the business sectors inside North Korea where standard North Koreans purchase items.”
Since the borders were closed, there have been virtually no instances of people bringing Chinese goods into the country in exchange for a bribe from a border guard.
According to a number of experts, years of economic mismanagement are the root of the issue, and Kim’s efforts to increase state control will only exacerbate the situation.
“For agriculture to improve and for the people to eat, they need food, so they need to open their borders, restart trade, and bring these things in. However, they are prioritizing repression and isolation at the moment,” Yoon stated.
However, as Rengifo-Keller pointed out, Kim is not interested in allowing the illicit trade of the past to reappear in this nation ruled by dynasties. A thriving entrepreneurial class that poses a threat to the regime’s power is not desired.
Then there are the missile tests that Kim is still obsessed with and the times when his neighbor offers him help.
“The only way that North Korea can get out of this trouble is to come back to the dialogue table and accept our humanitarian offer to the North and make a better choice for the future,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Park Jin stated in an interview with CNN last week.
“Our intelligence shows, because it’s clear that their policies are changing… the chairman (Kim Jong Un) would like to put a lot of pressure to make it state dictated, you know, supply of food to their people, which will not function,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told CNN on Thursday.
The Ministry of Unification in Seoul was quick to point out that Pyongyang continues to concentrate on its nuclear and missile programs rather than feeding its own people.
“According to local and international research institutions, if North Korea had used the expense of the missiles it launched last year on food supplies, it would have been enough to purchase over one million tons of food, believed to be more than enough to cover North Korea’s annual food shortage,” vice spokesperson Lee Hyo-jung stated in a briefing last month.
The rural development agency in Seoul estimates that North Korea’s crop production was 4 percent lower than the previous year due to flooding and adverse weather.
Rengifo-Keller is concerned that the regime’s “misguided approach to economic policy” and the culmination of these effects could have a devastating effect on the population, which is already suffering.
“It certainly wouldn’t take much to push the country into famine because this is a population that has been chronically malnourished for decades, has high rates of stunting, and all indications point to a deteriorating situation.”