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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea food shortage turns into new Asia humanitarian crisis

Regime clamps down on hoarding as rationing system on verge of collapse

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is struggling to increase food supply as the COVID pandemic keeps his country's borders closed. (Source photos by Kyodo and KCNA/Reuters)

SEOUL -- North Korea's food shortages have reached crisis levels, and inequalities have sharply widened ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the country to close its borders in January last year.

The reclusive nation will be short by about 860,000 tons of food this year, or about two months of normal demand, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a recent report.

The government has been trying to get the population to supply their own food but with little success. News agencies with sources inside the country are reporting starvation deaths as well as an increase in the number of children and elderly who have resorted to begging.

Jiro Ishimaru of AsiaPress said North Korea's current food shortage is quickly shaping up to be the worst humanitarian crisis in Asia. In a column earlier this month, he said it was "frustrating that the reality of the situation has not been conveyed to the world."

The country's food rationing system also seems to have collapsed, with many regions receiving little or no supplies for months on end. According to Daily NK, authorities in North Hamgyong Province recently released food reserves after rice prices rose sharply, but local sources said the system for distributing rations has changed. Families are now receiving "food tickets" from local community organizations that can get them "eight parts corn and two parts unglutinous rice -- all depending, of course, on the size of the family," according to the source.

Gianluca Spezza, an associate research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, said the current food situation in North Korea is "very bad."

"The DPRK was hanging by a thread before COVID -- it has one patron, and one buyer, China -- and that thread just got worn out now, due to sanctions, COVID, and prolonged [border] closure," he said. With international organizations no longer able to operate within the country, Spezza said "there is no reason to think that things may have magically improved with isolation."

But it is not just the food situation that has worsened. The human security aspect of this problem also deserves attention, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK). "Due to travel restrictions and border closures imposed under the pretext of COVID-19 prevention, the human security of North Koreans is even more dire than it was during the pre-COVID period."

Ever since North Korea first shut its borders with China over a year ago, the regime of Kim Jong Un has been ramping up its border crackdowns and surveillance to prevent smuggling and defections. Earlier this month, Daily NK reported that the government may be attempting to use 5G technology to monitor the situation along the border from as far away as Pyongyang with surveillance cameras.

Photo taken from the Chinese city of Dandong on June 7, 2021, shows a North Korean soldier giving water to a local resident in the country's Uiju county.   © Kyodo

This is bad news for ordinary folk trying to survive day to day. Due to lack of income and basic resources, many citizens have been engaging in counterfeiting to make ends meet, according to recent reports by RFA. Such acts, as well as the distribution of foreign materials such as movies and dramas, are being punished with increasingly harsh sentences, including those at forced labor camps. Besides counterfeiting and smuggling, citizens caught "hoarding" food could face execution, according to recent Daily NK reports.

"The government is taking these measures because it is afraid of losing its grip on power," Scarlatoiu said about the recent crackdowns. "The regime is using COVID as a pretext to crack down on markets and information from the outside world, which it perceives as major threats to its legitimacy."

Although the food situation has received international attention, less is known about the spread of COVID-19 within North Korea's borders. A year and a half into the pandemic, Pyongyang is still claiming zero cases.

Nevertheless, sources inside the country paint a very different picture. Daily NK reported this week that North Koreans are not only getting infected with COVID, but they are also dying after being released from state quarantine facilities. According to one local source, about 10% of the people who were released from state quarantine facilities in South Pyongan Province after their symptoms improved subsequently died.

Scarlatoiu said it is highly unlikely North Korea has zero COVID cases. "Based on information I have from North Korean escapees in South Korea and other countries, patients are diagnosed with "respiratory diseases" that may as well be COVID. But those cases are not recorded as such," he said.

Spezza also said that the issues plaguing North Korea go far beyond this pandemic. "The issue is not COVID. The issue is that the country has no economy to speak of, and nearly no infrastructure, and that goes back to a slow but steady decline that began in the 1980s."

According to Spezza, the current crisis in North Korea will likely "make the whole population more prone to diseases, and because food scarcity forces people to go out and fend for food, it will probably affect education and other activities that may have seen some basic improvements thanks to the work of UN agencies."

"Whatever little gains North Korea had made probably will be dissipated by the prolonged lockdown," he said.

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