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Is North Korea Facing a Food Shortage?

North Korea COVID-19 Lockdowns
North Korean Propaganda. Image: Creative Commons.

North Korea may be facing the possibility of a food shortage in the near future, according to a report by the Korea Development Institute.

The institute estimates that North Korea produced roughly 4.4 million tons of grains this past year, a decrease of roughly 240,000 tons from the year before. North Korea is believed to need at least 5.75 million tons of food per year in order to feed its population, leaving the country with a potential shortage of 1.35 million tons.

North Korea’s drop-off in food production is likely the result of a combination of both natural disasters and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, a particularly long and heavy monsoon season saw torrential rains hit the Korean Peninsula, and associated flooding resulted in damage to nearly 40,000 hectares of crops and the destruction of roughly 17,000 homes, according to North Korean state media. A series of typhoons also ravaged the Korean Peninsula, causing further damage to homes and as well as to crops, rice paddies, and irrigation systems.

The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, has exacerbated the issues caused by the flooding that inundated North Korea over the summer. North Korea was one of the first countries in the world to shut its borders and enter into large-scale lockdowns following the outbreak of COVID-19, and these particularly stringent measures remain largely in place. These lockdowns have had serious repercussions for the North Korean economy, with foreign trade falling off almost entirely, including a significant reduction in North Korean grain imports.

Even as the pandemic continues to take a toll on the North Korean populace, the country has remained committed to the development of its strategic weapons program. A shipment of nearly two million COVID-19 vaccines as part of an international vaccine sharing program, enough to inoculate roughly 4 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people, has been delayed indefinitely.

Even prior to the pandemic and the serious of weather-related setbacks, many North Koreans faced an already perilous food security situation.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has recently called on North Koreans to prepare to wage “another more difficult Arduous March,” referencing the deadly 1990s famine that plagued North Korea. Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matseogra has suggested that while the DPRK faces “tough” times ahead, the country is not yet facing another famine.

During their recent summit meeting, U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed on the need to provide humanitarian assistance to those North Koreans who need it most, but largely avoided issues related to North Korean human rights.

Satellite imagery of rail and truck terminals at the border between North Korea and China has indicated that trade between the two countries, which could involve North Korean importation of food stuffs, may pick back up again in the near future.

Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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