North Korea’s food shortage is about to take a deadly turn for the worse, experts say

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Seoul, South Korea

Concerns about North Korea’s continued food shortages are growing, with several sources suggesting this week that it is likely to starve to death.

Some experts say the country has reached its worst point since a famine in the 1990s known as the “Arduous March” caused widespread hunger and killed hundreds of thousands of people, or around on 3-5% of what was then a 20 million strong population.

Trade data, satellite imagery and assessments by the United Nations and South Korean authorities all suggest that the food supply has now “fallen below the level needed to meet minimum human needs” ,” according to Lucas Rengifo-Keller, a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Even if food was distributed equally – something close to unthinkable in North Korea where the elite and the military are prioritized – Rengifo-Keller said “you would have deaths associated with it the hunger.”

South Korean officials agree with that assessment, with Seoul announcing recently that they believe starvation deaths are occurring in some areas of the country. Although it is difficult to produce strong evidence to support these claims with the isolation of the country, many experts do not doubt the assessment.

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

Three years of closed borders and isolation can only make matters worse.

In a sign of how critical the situation has become, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a four-day Workers’ Party meeting this week to discuss reforming the country’s agricultural sector, calling for “fundamental change ” in farming and state. economic plans and the need to strengthen state control of farming.

North Korean trucks full of sacks of maize wait to be cleared at the Chinese border in 1997, during the so-called famine

But several experts say that Pyongyang is not the only one to blame for the problems. During the pandemic, Pyongyang increased its isolation measures, building a second layer of fences along 300 kilometers of its border with China and squeezing what little cross-border trade it had access to.

And in the past year it has spent precious resources conducting a record number of missile tests.

“The lookout orders (at the border) that were put in place in August 2020 have been shot down… restrictions on travel and trade, which have included the (previously) limited official trade, “said Lina Yoon, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In 2022, China officially exported nearly 56 million kilograms of wheat or maslin flour and 53,280 kg of grain in the form of grains/flakes to North Korea, according to Chinese customs data.

But Pyongyang’s ban has halted unofficial trade, which Yoon says is “one of the main lifelines of the markets inside North Korea where ordinary North Koreans purchase of goods. ”

Cases of people smuggling Chinese products into the country, bribing a border guard to look the other way, have been next to non-existent since the borders closed.

Various experts say the main problem is years of economic mismanagement and that Kim’s efforts to increase state control will only make matters worse.

“North Korea’s borders need to open and they need to resume trade and they need to import these things to develop agriculture and they need food to feed the people. But right now they’re prioritizing isolation, they’re prioritizing suppression,” Yoon said.

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

But as Rengifo-Keller said, it is not in Kim’s interest to allow the unofficial trade of the past to re-emerge in this dynastically ruled country. “The regime does not want a successful entrepreneurial class that could threaten its power. ”

Then there are the missile tests that Kim is still obsessed with and he constantly rejects offers of support 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 come back to the negotiating table and accept the offer our humanity to the North and make a better choice for the people. future.”

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told CNN on Thursday that the situation is “getting worse, our information shows, because it’s clear that their policies are changing… you know, food supply for the people they don’t work.”

Seoul Union Ministry Pyongyang continued to focus on its missile and nuclear program rather than feeding its own people.

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

In a briefing last month, deputy spokesperson Lee Hyo-jung said, “according to local and international research institutes, if North Korea had charged the missiles they launched the -last year had used food supplies, it would have been enough to buy more than one. million tons of food, which is believed to be more than enough to cover North Korea’s annual food shortage. ”

Seoul’s rural development agency estimates that North Korea’s crop output last year was 4% lower than the year before, suffering floods and bad weather.

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

“This is a population that has been malnourished for decades, high rates of stunting and all the signs point to a worsening situation, so it certainly wouldn’t take much to push the country to hurt.”

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