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North Korea’s food shortage is about to get worse, experts say


Seoul, South Korea

Concerns about chronic food shortages in North Korea are growing, with multiple sources this week suggesting starvation deaths are likely.

Some experts say the country has reached its worst point since a 1990s famine known as the “Arduous March” caused mass starvation and killed hundreds of thousands of people, about 3-5% of that which was then a population of 20 million.

According to Lucas Rengifo-Keller, research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Even if food were distributed equally — something almost inconceivable in North Korea where the elite and the military take precedence — Rengifo-Keller said “you’d have hunger-related deaths.”

South Korean officials agree with that assessment, with Seoul recently announcing it believes starvation deaths are occurring in parts of the country. Although producing strong evidence to support these claims is made difficult by the country’s isolation, few experts doubt his assessment.

Even before the Covid pandemic, nearly half of North Korea’s population was undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Three years of closed borders and isolation could only make things worse.

In a sign of how dire the situation has become, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week hosted a four-day Workers’ Party meeting to discuss an overhaul of the country’s agricultural sector, calling for a “fundamental transformation”. agriculture and the state. economic plans and the need to strengthen state control of agriculture.

But various experts say Pyongyang is only responsible for themselves. During the pandemic, Pyongyang intensified its isolationist tendencies, erecting a second layer of fences along 300 kilometers of its border with China and compressing what little cross-border trade it had access to.

And over the past year, it has devoted valuable resources to carrying out a record number of missile tests.

“There were shoot-on-sight orders (at the border) that were put in place in August 2020…a blockade on travel and trade, which included very limited official trade (there was some previously),” said Lina Yoon, lead researcher. at Human Rights Watch.

In 2022, China officially exported nearly 56 million kilograms of wheat flour or mateil and 53,280 kg of grain in grain/flake form to North Korea, according to data from China Customs.

But Pyongyang’s crackdown has strangled unofficial trade, which, as Yoon points out, is “one of the main lifelines of markets inside North Korea where ordinary North Koreans buy goods.” .

Cases in which people smuggle Chinese goods into the country, with a bribe to a border guard to look away, have been virtually non-existent since the borders were closed.

Various experts say the root problem lies in years of economic mismanagement and that Kim’s efforts to further tighten state control will only make matters worse.

“North Korea’s borders need to open and they need to restart trade and they need to bring these things for agriculture to improve and they need food to feed people. But right now they are prioritizing isolation, they are prioritizing suppression,” Yoon said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, February 26, 2023.

But as Rengifo-Keller pointed out, it is not in Kim’s interest to allow unofficial trade from the past to reappear in this dynasty-ruled country. “The regime does not want a thriving entrepreneurial class that can threaten its power.”

Then there are the missile tests that 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 for North Korea to get out of this problem is to come back to the dialogue table and accept our humanitarian offer to the North and to make a better choice for the future.”

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told CNN on Thursday that the situation is “getting worse, according to our information, because it is clear that their policies are changing… the president (Kim Jong Un) would like to put a lot of pressure for this be dictated by the state, you know, their people’s food supply, which is not going to work.

Seoul Unification Ministry was quick to point out that Pyongyang continues to focus on its missile and nuclear program rather than feeding its own people.

A visitor looks over the border between South Korea and North Korea from the Unification Observation Post in Paju, South Korea.

In a briefing last month, Vice Spokesman Lee Hyo-jung said: “According to local and international research institutes, if North Korea had used the expenses of the missiles it launched the last year for food supply, it would have been enough to buy more than one million tons of food, which would be more than enough to cover North Korea’s annual food shortage.

Seoul’s rural development agency estimates that North Korea’s agricultural output last year was 4 percent lower than a year earlier, due to flooding and adverse weather conditions.

Rengifo-Keller fears that the culmination of these effects coupled with the regime’s “erroneous approach to economic policy” could have a disastrous impact on the already suffering population.

“This is a population that has been chronically malnourished for decades, high rates of stunting and all signals point to a deteriorating situation, so it certainly wouldn’t take much to plunge the country into famine”.

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