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Is North Korea Headed Towards Starvation?

Image: KCNA/DPRK State Media.

North Korea’s food situation continues to look increasingly poor. During a recent plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (KPA), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that the country’s food situation was “tense” as a result of failures in the agricultural sector resulting from the impact of devastating weather events that rocked the country last year. North Korean state media, meanwhile, has referred to the situation as a “food crisis.”

A Rare Public Admission

Kim’s remarks at the plenary meeting did not represent the first time in which the North Korean leader has publicly addressed the challenges facing the country, though it was the first time that Kim has so directly commented on the DPRK’s food situation. In April, the North Korean leader called on the people of the country to wage “another more difficult Arduous March,” a reference to the deadly famine that ravaged North Korea in the 1990s. This, along with North Korea’s perilous food situation, has led to speculation about whether or not North Korea is on the brink of another period of starvation.

According to the Korea Development Institute, a state-run South Korean think tank, the discrepancy between demand and North Korea’s total food production this year may be as much as 1.35 million tons. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has estimated that even with imports, North Korea’s uncovered food gap could be as large as 860,000 tons, roughly equivalent to more than two months’ worth of food use.

North Korea’s difficult food situation is likely the confluence of a number of factors. Last year, the country was struck by a series of deadly typhoons that caused significant damage to crops, rice paddies, and irrigation systems as well as to critical infrastructure such as roads and bridges. A particularly long monsoon season, meanwhile, brought with it significant flooding that further damaged crops. North Korea is reportedly preparing for the possibility of another summer of damaging weather.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also emerged as a likely cause of North Korea’s challenging food situation. North Korea’s stringent anti-epidemic measures, which include a near-total lockdown of the country’s borders, have resulted in a sharp decrease in foreign trade. This has resulted in a substantial drop-off in food imports, as well as imports of important agricultural materials.

The international sanctions regime levied against North Korea over the years as a result of the continued development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are likely also contributing to North Korea’s food situation, although the lack of a reliable mechanism for evaluating either the effectiveness or side-effects of those sanctions makes it difficult to fully calculate their impacts.

During the recent plenary meeting, Kim Jong Un reportedly signed a “special order” aimed at improving the people’s living situation, with at least part of that order seeming to include the distribution of military rice stores to the North Korean populace. According to recent Chinese customs data, North Korean imports from China have almost exclusively on fertilizer as the DPRK looks to boost agricultural output.

The United Nations has also taken steps to address North Korea’s food situation, with the Critical Emergency Response Fund donating $5 million last June to “tackle severe food insecurity and undernutrition” in the country. According to the UN, some 10.1 million people in North Korea urgently need access to food assistance, while 10.4 million North Koreans need nutrition support as well as access to reliable health services, clean water, and sanitation facilities. The United Nations has raised concerns about the food situation in North Korea even prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and last summer’s deadly weather events.

The international community is likely to face difficulty in properly assessing North Korea’s food situation, as some traditional sources of information are missing. As a result of the country’s border closure, the number of defectors leaving the country has dropped significantly, limiting the amount of information that can be gleaned from people with firsthand knowledge of the country’s food situation. Humanitarian workers and NGO staff have left North Korea, meanwhile, have left the country, and are as such unable to provide updated reports about the food situation in North Korea.

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.