Seoul, South Korea – United Nations Security Council sanctions, the closure of the border with China by COVID-19 and a drought in 2020 followed by typhoon rains combine to create severe food shortages in North Korea, with concerns about widespread malnutrition and a possible recurrence of the Country increasing famine of the 1990s.
North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong Un admitted the problem at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party in June.
“People’s food situation is getting tight now,” Kim said, according to North Korea’s state media, adding that the agricultural sector has failed to meet its grain production plan because of the damage caused by the typhoons last year.
Kim also mentioned the effects of COVID-19.
“It is important that the entire party and the entire state focus on agriculture,” said the North Korean leader.
Hazel Smith, an expert on North Korea from SOAS University of London who spent most of 1998-2001 in the country developing agricultural data analysis for UNICEF and the World Food Program, painted a clear picture of what she knows.
“Children under seven, pregnant and breastfeeding women, the frail, the elderly … these are the people who are starving right now,” said Smith, whose previous research took her across the country.
North Korea needed 5.2 million tons of food for 2020 but produced only four million tons, leaving a shortage of more than one million tons, the Korea Development Institute in Seoul said in a report last month.
Even with imports, North Korea will suffer a food shortage of 780,000 tons in 2020-2021, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates in a June country report that outlined the effects of a drought in early 2020, followed by a series of typhoons, and Heavy rains in August and September, which severely hampered food production.
“If this gap is not adequately covered by commercial imports and / or food aid, households could experience a tough dry spell between August and October 2021,” the FAO said.
The United Nations Children’s Fund warned of the impending dangers in its latest update on the country.
In North Korea, “10 million people are considered unsafe about food … 140,000 children under the age of 5 suffer from acute malnutrition … and higher rates of malnutrition and mortality are expected in 2021,” said its February humanitarian report from UNICEF.
While almost all foreign diplomats and aid agencies have now left North Korea, unconfirmed reports suggest that the situation is worsening.
“There are so many more beggars, some people have died of starvation in the border area,” said Lina Yoon, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, of a testimony from a missionary working in North Korea.
Although analysts agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic that caused the government to close the Chinese border played a significant role in the now chronic food shortage, some argue that the root cause of the problem actually lies in 2017.
The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions 2375 and 2397 in September and December 2017 to limit North Korea’s imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.
Without fuel, farmers were prevented from growing and harvesting crops and bringing their products to market.
“All over the world, agriculture depends on oil … This is not rocket science,” SOAS ‘Smith told Al Jazeera, outlining what she sees as the main cause of the potential humanitarian catastrophe in North Korea.
â€œThe salient near factor [for the food shortage] are the 2017 UN sanctions that banned the importation of natural gas – and oil – into North Korea, “she said.
North Korea has been subject to increasing sanctions for its nuclear and missile program since 2006.
But after U.S. President Donald Trump became President of the United States in 2017, he launched a campaign of maximum pressure, spearheading Security Council sanctions and imposing unilateral American sanctions to force the North Korean leadership to abandon its missile and nuclear programs.
The moves did little to slow Pyongyang’s nuclear advance, so Trump changed course and held a series of unprecedented summits with Kim where the North Korean leader called for sanctions easing. The US refusal to agree led to the failure of the denuclearization talks.
“The sanctions are not being perfectly implemented, but they seem to serve the main purpose of pressuring the North Korean authorities by inflicting a heavy blow on its economy,” said researcher Kim Seok-jin of the government-backed Korea Institute for National Unification versus South Korea’s Yonhap News.
She said it was the North Korean people who were really suffering from the effects of the sanctions.
â€œThey (sanctions) don’t affect the government or the elite … the companies that deal with sanctions. You don’t go hungry, â€said Smith.
The damage caused by the sanctions was also exacerbated by the closure of the border with China, as Beijing is responsible for an estimated 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade.
After Pyongyang sealed itself off to keep COVID-19 out, imports from China plummeted 81 percent in 2020, according to the East Asia Forum, a think tank in Seoul.
Goods entering North Korea from China are increasingly fertilizer and oil while medical supplies, housewares and groceries wait, Chad O’Carroll, CEO of consulting firm KoreaRisk and editor of NK News, told Al Jazeera.
â€œI’ve heard that literally thousands of containers are stuck in Chinese ports that were supposed to go to North Korea, but they never did. Some of these goods have expired, â€said O’Carroll.
The lack of those imports is believed to have wreaked havoc on North Korean markets, with the price of a kilo of rice in Pyongyang increasing 22 percent in a single week in June, according to Daily NK, a defector-run media company based in Seoul. Trade controls have also contributed to spikes in the prices of some imported goods – a bottle of shampoo has increased tenfold and is now $ 200.
Such wild fluctuations, indicating serious problems in the supply chain, are unprecedented under Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011.
“It is the first time since he became a leader that we have seen such volatility in prices and there is no end in sight because of the COVID restrictions that are causing these fluctuations,” said O’Carroll, his NK News collaborated with internal sources in North Korea and along the Chinese border.
Price fluctuations have also led North Koreans to change their eating habits – replacing rice with corn, which is cheaper, and North Koreans are increasingly dissatisfied with the rising cost of other everyday necessities, said Kwon Tae-jin, director of North Korea at the Northeast Asia Research Center of the Global Strategy Networking Journal Institute, said Al Jazeera.
“If this continues, there may be doubts about Kim Jong Un’s leadership and he will feel political pressure that he has apparently seen as a threat,” said Kwon.
That pressure may have led Kim to admit there was a problem.
The recognition is “an attempt to inform residents and make them feel safe,” Choi Su-min, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told Al Jazeera.
Amid the COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, the few aid groups that were still working in North Korea have almost completely withdrawn. The last international aid workers from UNICEF and the Red Cross left the country in December 2020.
The United Nations has also warned of the impact of the North Korean government’s COVID-19 restrictions – on drugs – especially vaccines. North Korea now risks running out of polio and tuberculosis vaccinations as “batches of vaccine get stuck on the Chinese side of the border,” UNICEF said in February.
NK Newsâ€™s O’Carroll agreed. “Without a fresh supply of medical supplies and medicines, a slow humanitarian catastrophe is likely to threaten,” he said.
In the 1990s, the famine in North Korea caused between half a million and three million deaths, a humanitarian disaster caused by successive droughts and floods, loss of Soviet support, and economic mismanagement.
Smith of SOAS performed perhaps the most detailed analysis of this famine, estimating the death toll at around half a million. She said that even though North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the world, outsiders today are not completely ignorant of the situation.
â€œI’m not an alarmist,â€ said Smith of the current situation, adding, â€œWe are not in the position of ignorance that we were in the 1990s. Today we know exactly what is going to happen in North Korea, even if we can’t go in and count the blades of grass. “
The real question, she argued, was what to do with the UN Security Council sanctions and North Korea’s unwillingness to negotiate away its nuclear deterrent.
There is now some sort of symbiotic relationship between UN member states, reluctant to admit that the sanctions are causing the crisis, and North Korea’s self-reliance or “juche” policy, which makes leader Kim Jong Un reluctant to admit it – to his own people or opponents – that the north needs outside help.
It was “an unholy alliance,” said Smith.
Recognizing the security concerns that are preventing the sanctions from being lifted immediately, Smith instead recommended a sanctions review and the immediate suspension of the 2017 oil sanctions “because we know they have an extremely harmful effect on the entire population, and “the weakest.”
With additional coverage by Jenny Yu.