By Paula Hancocks | CNN
Concerns over North Korea’s chronic food shortages are growing, with multiple sources suggesting this week that deaths from starvation are likely.
Some experts say the country has hit its worst point since the 1990s famine, known as the “hard march,” which caused mass starvation and killed hundreds of thousands of people, or about 3 to 5 percent of what was then a population. of 20 million people.
Trade data, satellite imagery and assessments by the United Nations and South Korean authorities suggest that the food supply “has fallen below the amount needed to satisfy minimal human needs,” according to Lucas Rengifo-Keller, research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International economy.
Even if the food were distributed equally – something almost inconceivable in North Korea, where the elite and military have priority – Rengifo-Keller said “you would have famine-related deaths”.
South Korean officials agree with that assessment, with Seoul recently announcing that it believes starvation deaths are occurring in some areas of the country. While producing solid evidence to support these claims is hampered by the country’s isolation, few experts doubt their assessment.
Even before the Covid pandemic, nearly half of the North Korean population was malnourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Three years of closed borders and isolation could only have made things worse.
In a sign of just how desperate the situation has become, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a four-day meeting of the Workers’ Party this week to discuss an overhaul of the country’s agricultural sector, calling for a “fundamental transformation” in agriculture and in the state. economic plans and the need to strengthen state control of agriculture.
But many experts say Pyongyang has only itself to blame for the problems. During the pandemic, Pyongyang intensified its isolationist tendencies, erecting 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 last year it spent precious resources conducting a record number of missile tests.
“There were shoot-on-sight orders (at the border) that were implemented in August 2020 … a travel and trade blockade, which included very limited official trade (there was before),” said Lina Yoon, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
During 2022, China officially exported nearly 56 million kilograms of wheat or maslin flour and 53,280 kilograms of cereal grains/flakes to North Korea, according to Chinese customs data.
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 of people smuggling Chinese goods into the country, bribing a border guard to look the other way, are almost non-existent since the border closures.
Several experts say the root of the problem is years of economic mismanagement and that Kim’s efforts to further tighten state control will only make matters worse.
“North Korean borders need to be opened and they need to restart trade and they need to bring these things for agriculture to improve and they need food to feed the people. But now they are prioritizing isolation, they are prioritizing repression,” Yoon said.
But, as Rengifo-Keller has pointed out, it is not in Kim’s best interest to allow the unofficial trade of the past to resurface in this dynasty-ruled country. “The regime does not want a burgeoning business class that could threaten its power.”
Then there are the missile tests that Kim remains obsessed with and his constant refusals of his neighbor’s offers of help.
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 go back to the dialogue table and accept our humanitarian offer to the North.” and make a better choice for the future.”
Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told CNN on Thursday that the situation “is getting worse, our intelligence shows, because it’s clear your policies are changing… you know, providing food for your people, which won’t work.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry was quick to point out that Pyongyang continues to focus on its nuclear and missile program rather than feeding its own people.
At a briefing last month, deputy spokesperson Lee Hyo-jung said: “According to local and international research institutions, if North Korea had used the expense of the missiles it launched last year on food supplies , would have been enough to buy over a million tons of food, which is believed to be more than enough to cover North Korea’s annual food shortages.”
Seoul’s rural development agency believes North Korea’s agricultural output last year was 4% lower than the previous year, suffering from floods and adverse weather.
Rengifo-Keller fears that the culmination of these effects, along with the regime’s “misguided 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 signs point to a deteriorating situation, so it certainly wouldn’t take long to drive the country into starvation.”
#North #Koreas #Food #Shortage #Worse