Seoul, South Korea (CNN) Concerns are growing about chronic food shortages in North Korea, with multiple sources this week citing possible deaths from starvation.
Some experts say the country has reached its worst point since the 1990s, and a famine known as the “hard march” caused mass starvation and killed hundreds of thousands of people, or an estimated 3-5% of what was then a population of 20 million.
Trade data, satellite imagery and assessments by the United Nations and South Korean authorities indicate that food supplies have now “fallen below the amount required to meet minimum human needs,” according to Lukas Rengivu-Keller, a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for the Global Economy.
Even if food were distributed evenly — something close to impossible in North Korea where the elite and the military take priority — “you’d have starvation-related deaths,” said Renjevo Keller.
South Korean officials agree with this assessment, as Seoul recently announced that it believes deaths from starvation are occurring in some areas of the country. Although it is difficult to produce hard evidence to support these claims due to the country’s isolation, few experts question their assessment.
Even before the Covid pandemic, nearly half of North Korea’s population was undernourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Three years of closed borders and isolation can only make matters worse.
In a sign of how desperate the situation has become, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a four-day meeting of the Workers’ Party this week to discuss revamping the country’s agricultural sector, calling for a “fundamental transformation” of agriculture and the state. Economic plans and the need to strengthen state control over agriculture.
But many experts say Pyongyang should blame itself for the problems. During the pandemic, Pyongyang has stepped up its isolationist tendencies, erecting a second layer of fencing along 300 km of its border with China and squeezing the limited cross-border trade it had access to.
Last year it spent precious resources conducting a record number of missile tests.
Lina Yoon said, “There were shoot-at-sight (at the border) orders that were put in place in August 2020…the travel and trade ban, which included the very limited official trade (that existed before)”. Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
During 2022, China officially exported nearly 56 million kilograms of wheat flour or maslin flour and 53,280 kilograms of grain in the form of grains/flakes to North Korea, according to Chinese customs data.
But Pyongyang’s crackdown has stifled informal trade, which as Yoon points out is “one of the main lifelines for markets inside North Korea where ordinary North Koreans buy products”.
Cases of people smuggling Chinese products into the country, while bribing border guards to look the other way, have been almost non-existent since the borders were closed.
Many experts say the root problem is years of economic mismanagement and that Kim’s efforts to increase state control will only make matters worse.
“North Korea’s borders have to be opened and they need to resume trade and they need to bring in these things to improve agriculture and they need food to feed people. But now they prioritize isolation, they prioritize suppression,” Yoon said.
But as Renjevo Keller has pointed out, it is not in Kim’s interests to allow the informal trade of the past to re-emerge in the country he dynamically governs. “The regime does not want a thriving business class that could threaten its power.”
Then there are the missile tests that Kim remains obsessed with and his constant refusal 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 this problem is to return to the negotiating table and accept our humanitarian offer to North Korea and make a choice for a better future.”
Prime Minister Han Duk-su he told CNN Thursday He said the situation is “getting worse, as our intelligence shows, because obviously their policies are changing… The chairman (Kim Jong-un) would like to put a lot of pressure to have the state dictate, you know, the food supply to their people that won’t work.”
Seoul Unification Ministry He was quick to point out that Pyongyang continues to focus on its missile and nuclear programs rather than feeding its own people.
At a briefing last month, deputy spokesperson Lee Hyo-jung said, “According to domestic and international research institutions, if North Korea used the cost of the missiles it launched last year on food supplies, it would be enough to buy more than one million tons of food, believed to be More than enough to cover North Korea’s annual food shortage.”
The Seoul Rural Development Agency believes that North Korea’s crop production last year was 4% lower than the previous year, as it suffered from floods and bad weather.
Renjevo Keller fears that the culmination of these effects along with the regime’s “misguided approach to economic policy” could have a catastrophic effect on an already suffering population.
“This population has been chronically malnourished for decades, has high rates of stunting and all indicators point to a deteriorating situation, so it certainly wouldn’t take much to push the country into starvation.”
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