Experts say food shortage in North Korea is about to take a deadly turn CNN

Seoul, South Korea

Concerns are growing about North Korea’s chronic food shortages, with multiple sources suggesting this week that the deaths are likely due to starvation.

Some experts say the country has reached its worst point since the 1990s famine, known as the “Hard March”, which led to mass starvation and killed hundreds of thousands. Or an estimated 3-5% of what was then a 20 million-strong population.

Trade data, satellite images and assessments by the United Nations and South Korean officials all suggest that food supplies have now “fallen below the amount needed to meet minimum humanitarian needs,” said Lucas Rengifo, a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for- International economics according to Keller.

Even if food was distributed equally – close to unimaginable in North Korea where the elite and the military take priority – Rengifo-Keller said “you would have hunger-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. Although presenting solid evidence to support those claims has been made difficult by the country’s isolation, some experts are skeptical of its assessment.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, almost half of North Korea’s population was malnourished even before the COVID pandemic.

Three years of closed borders and isolation have made matters worse.

In a sign of how dire the situation has become, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week held a four-day Workers’ Party meeting to discuss reforms to the country’s agricultural sector, calling for “fundamental changes” to farming and the state to be done. The need to strengthen state control of economic planning and farming.

But various experts say only Pyongyang is to blame for the problems. During the pandemic, Pyongyang ramped up its isolationist tendencies, erecting a second layer of fencing along 300 kilometers of its border with China and reducing cross-border trade.

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

“There were shoot-at-sight orders (at the border) in August 2020 … a blockade on travel and trade, including very limited official trade (was before),” said Lina Yun, a senior researcher. at Human Rights Watch.

According to Chinese customs data, during 2022, China officially exported about 56 million kg of wheat or muslin flour and 53,280 kg of cereal grains/flakes to North Korea.

But Pyongyang’s clout has strangled informal trade, which Yoon points out is “one of the main lifelines of the North Korean markets where ordinary North Koreans buy products.”

Cases in which people smuggle Chinese products into the country by bribing a border guard to look the other way are non-existent since the borders were closed.

Various experts say the root problem stems from years of economic mismanagement and that Kim’s efforts to further expand state control will only make things worse.

“North Koreans need to open up the borders and they need to restart trade and they need to bring these things to improve agriculture and they need food to feed the people. But right now they’re in isolation. They are prioritizing repression,” Yoon said.

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

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

Following missile tests, Kim remains obsessed and continually rejects offers of aid from his neighbor.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said in an interview with CNN last week that “the only way for North Korea to get out of this crisis is to return to the negotiating table and accept our humanitarian offer to the North and Make better choices for North Korea.” Future.”

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told CNN on Thursday that the situation is “deteriorating, our intelligence shows, because it is clear that their policies are changing … The chairman (Kim Jong Un) is giving it to the state.” want to put a lot of pressure on to determine, you know, the supply of food to their people, that’s not going to work.”

Seoul’s Unification Ministry It was quick to point out that Pyongyang is focusing on its missile and nuclear program rather than feeding its people.

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

At a briefing last month, deputy spokesman Lee Hyo-jung said, “According to local and international research institutions, if North Korea had used the spending of missiles launched last year on food supplies, it would have fired more than one missile.” would have been enough to buy the million tons of food, believed to be more than enough to meet North Korea’s annual food shortage.

Seoul’s Rural Development Agency believes North Korea’s crop production last year was 4% lower than the previous year, battered by floods and adverse weather.

Rengifo-Keller fears that the culmination of these effects, as well as the regime’s “misguided approach to economic policy”, could have a devastating effect on an already suffering population.

“It has been a chronically undernourished population for decades, high rates of stunting and all signs point to a worsening situation, so surely it will not take long to push the country into famine.”

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