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Famine and instability in N. Korea

July 31, 2017

As N. Korea suffers its worst drought since 2001, experts warn that food shortages will lead to more internal instability. Outside aid is critical, even as Pyongyang continues to test missiles. Julian Ryall reports.

Düre in Nordkorea
Image: picture alliance / dpa

According to a report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on July 20, prolonged dry weather in the central and southern cereal-producing provinces in North Korea has led to "serious concerns" about the final production of the internationally isolated country's main cropping season.

Extreme drought in these critical growing regions since late April could drastically effect yields of staple crops and put millions of people at risk of malnutrition. The FAO report also states that Pyongyang will need to import more than 500,000 tons of cereal to stave off famine.

"If rains do not improve soon, the 2017 cereal output may decrease significantly, further worsening the local food security situation," the report stated. "Immediate interventions are needed to support the affected farmers and prevent negative coping strategies for the most vulnerable households."

The report specifically outlines how crops of rice, corn, potatoes and soybeans have been hit along with herds of cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry being severely affected.

North Korea's agricultural sector is also hampered by a low level of mechanization, poor irrigation and a shortage of fertilizers, all of which are long-term problems for the North's farmers.

Another 'arduous march?'

Welthungerhilfe Nordkorea
A malnourished N. Korean child receives food supplied by the UN in 2004Image: Getty Images

A new food crisis in North Korea also has the potential to stir discontent among the country's middle class, who still remember the four-year famine in the mid-1990s that the regime euphemistically refers to as the "Arduous March."

According to the South Korea-based Daily NK news website, the price of high-quality rice in the three key markets of Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan increased 10 percent in June alone.

It was the third consecutive month in which the price of this staple foodstuff increased and there are reports of people stockpiling out of concern for what the future holds.

Read:Dissidents reveal famine in homeland

"It has been reported that the North Korea government has recently cut the daily food ration for everyone," Rah Jong Yil, a former head of South Korean intelligence, told DW. 

"And while things are not as bad as during the 'Arduous March' period, there are some very small signs of discontent with the regime," he said. "There are more conversations among close friends who are asking if the regime is over-doing the threats against the international community."

The intelligence expert also said that it seems North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un is sensing discontent.

"In one of his most recent speeches, he expressed his 'contrite heart' for not meeting all the demands of the people," Rah said. "He has also called on people to 'tighten their belts for the sake of the revolution,' suggesting that food shortages are on the horizon."

Biting the hand that feeds

But provocations towards countries that have in the past provided life-saving food aid continue.

Given that Kim's regime fired a ICBM this weekend and has threatened to launch nuclear attacks against the US mainland and to turn South Korea into a "sea of fire," it is unlikely that the primary aid donors of the past will hurry to assist Pyongyang again this time.

In the mid-1990s, South Korea, China, the US, Japan and the European Union all provided food to the North Korean people, with shipments peaking in 2001 at 1.5 million tons. Nevertheless, it is estimated that 3 million North Koreans starved to death.

According to a statement from the Russian embassy in Pyongyang, in mid-July, Russia delivered around 5,200 tons of flour to North Korea via the World Food Program.  The aid was unloaded at the port of Chongjin before being sent to be processed into cookies "for the needy."

Moscow already donated nearly 5,000 tons of flour earlier in the year and an additional 2,700 tons is expected to be delivered in the coming weeks.

The total figure, however, is a fraction of what is needed and very few other countries are showing any indications of providing assistance to a regime that prefers to develop weapons of mass destruction instead of feeding its own people.

Kim lives comfortably

Critics point out, for example, that as well as spending heavily on weapons, the Kim family and the "elite" of his entourage live very comfortably, despite sanctions.

The country has traditionally been funded by the overseas sale of synthetic narcotics, fake currency, hacking attacks against foreign financial institutions and the export of cheap laborers.

Other revenue comes from the sale of coal and minerals, although those sources of income have been dramatically curtailed by international sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

The North's missile technology has also been purchased by other nations, including Iran, and the Bank of Korea estimated in its last statement on Pyongyang's economic situation that the gross domestic product grew by 3.9 percent last year, the fastest growth since 1999.

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea