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Is North Korea Headed Towards Starvation?

North Korea Artillery
Image: KCNA.

With the food situation in North Korea continuing to appear perilous, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reportedly looking to begin large-scale grain distribution to North Koreans.

Evidence of a possible food crisis in North Korea has been mounting in recent weeks, with one South Korean think tank reporting that the country may be facing a grain shortage of as much as 1.35 million tons and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reporting that the overall food shortage in the country may be 860,000 tons.

During a recent plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong Un acknowledged North Korea’s difficult food situation, reportedly telling assembled party officials that the country’s food situation “is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfill its grain production plan due to the damage by typhoon last year”.

North Korea was hit last year by a series of deadly typhoons that impacted crops and agricultural infrastructure, and by a particularly long monsoon season that produced major flooding that also saw crops damaged.

North Korean state media has since reported on additional details of the plenary meeting, with a documentary produced covering the four-day event detailing that one of the agenda items discussed was officially labeled “On establishing an emergency policy on overcoming the current food crisis”. According to the documentary, efforts to combat the self-described crisis will include public distribution of grain.

The decision to begin public distribution of grain has led some analysts to suggest that North Korea is attempting a major revival of the country’s Public Distribution System (PDS). The PDS was a ration system first implemented by North Korea in the 1950s that involved distribution of both food and other goods such as clothes household goods. The PDS remained central to the lives of most North Koreans until the 1990s, before the system largely collapsed in the face of a major famine that ravished the country.

The failure of the PDS during the famine led to the emergence of private market activity that remains in place today. Such activity has largely supplanted government distribution as the primary source of food and other daily necessities for many North Koreans, with surveys of defectors in recent years finding that far more North Koreans rely on private markets as opposed to government distribution.

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.



  1. Piquerish

    June 23, 2021 at 3:23 pm

    But wait … surely the babe born riding a white stallion under a double rainbow over a smoldering volcano and who drove cars at the age of three, cured AIDS and EBOLA, and climbed to the summit of the sacred Mount Paektu and much MUCH more … can fix this tiny commentary on his government with a jiggle of just one of his many many many chins.

  2. Morgan Quinn

    June 23, 2021 at 4:36 pm

    The people of North Korea are starving, and the guy who leads them is fat. Thats all you need to know.

  3. wesley bruce

    June 23, 2021 at 5:25 pm

    That’s his grandfathers propaganda. KJU was educated in Switzerland and was willing to talk to Trump and hug Pompeo. That’s a bit of a clue he is not a communist, he’s just a kid that inherited a dictatorship. How do you reform without getting yourself killed?

  4. wesley bruce

    June 23, 2021 at 5:42 pm

    How many times in history has a dictator admitted the failures of socialism so publicly? Reunification requires North Korea to need south Korean trade more that it needs ideology. That circumstance is arising. The grain reserve KJU is drawing down on is a military reserve.
    The key question is, does everyone in South Korea want peaceful reunification? The hard left in the south don’t including some politicians. Some on the hard right don’t trust anyone born in the north even defectors. That’s a problem. The other more obvious question is: How many hard line communists remain in positions to attack the south or southerners in the context of reunification? How far has progress reached? Does the reversion to communist terminology indicate that KJU was playing Moon and Trump, or has been made a puppet again, or is it just part of the process? Is the reversion to communist terminology even real or the result of translation assumptions?

  5. Steven Shannon

    June 23, 2021 at 6:30 pm

    Betteridge’s law. My thanks to Populo.

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