July 25, 2022 11:45
North Korea is experiencing a dramatic food shortage, according to witness accounts. The North sealed its border with China again over a surge in coronavirus infections since May, which squeezed the last life out of its devastated economy, and now people starving to death in some parts of the isolated country.
The official Rodong Sinmun daily has referred to the situation as an "emergency," and experts say any natural disaster like a typhoon or floods could tip the shortage over into another famine like the "arduous march" of the 1990s in which millions died of hunger.
North Korea resumed train services to and from China in January, which brought some respite from the catastrophic economic deprivation of the previous two years. The trains brought supplies needed to prepare for nation founder Kim Il-sung's 110th birthday celebration in April. But the spread of the Omicron variant in May prompted the North to close its borders again, causing renewed shortages.
Over the last two years, the impoverished state released emergency food supplies, but they have almost run dry. According to Daily NK, which monitors food prices in the North, the price of 1 kg of rice has risen from 5,000 North Korean won before May to 6,000 won this month.
"Even North Koreans with money are starving because of a lack of food," a source said. North Korea begged China to allow trains to enter from the North, but China is reluctant because of its own draconian zero-COVID policy.
Seasonal factors are also having an effect. Farmers are managing to grow potatoes, but that has not been enough to feed North Koreans until harvest season in late September. Kwon Tae-jin at the GS&J Institute said, "Farming areas for wheat and barley have increased, but output is estimated to have declined this year compared to 2021 because of the summer rains."
Another source said, "There are rumors of people starving to death in some parts of Kangwon Province, Kaesong and Ryanggang Province." One family in Hyesan near the border with China, reportedly starved to death because they contracted COVID-19 and were prevented from getting hold of food.
In the 1990s more than a million North Koreans starved to death after state rations of food dried up. The situation improved when open-air markets started to appear in the 2000s selling edibles and other supplies. Now only residents of Pyongyang and soldiers are receiving food rations, but food has become scarce in the open-air markets on which the rest of the country depends.
One source who lives near the Chinese border said, "Food and other supplies that used to be smuggled into the North have declined so sharply that open-air markets are having trouble staying open."
One head of an aid group supporting North Korea said, "The arduous march has started again." In a recent report, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization listed North Korea among 44 countries in need of emergency food aid.
Yoo Sung-ok, former director of the Institute for National Security Strategy, said, "To quell possible unrest, the regime has been bolstering control of high-ranking party officials and the people. Increased idolization of Kim Il-sung is another sign of mounting trouble due to the food shortage."
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