Seoul, Korea – UN Security Council sanctions, COVID-19 closure of its border with China, and drought and typhoon rainfall in 2020, these factors have combined to cause severe food shortages in North Korea, and there are growing concerns about widespread malnutrition and the country may repeat the mistakes of the 1990s famine.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged the problem at the June Labor Party Central Committee meeting.
“The food situation of the people is getting more and more tension“According to North Korean official media reports, Kim said, adding that due to the destruction of the typhoon last year, the agricultural sector failed to realize its food production plan.
Kim also mentioned the impact of COVID-19.
The North Korean leader said: “The whole party and the country must concentrate on developing agriculture.”
Hazel Smith, an expert on North Korea at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, spent most of the period from 1998 to 2001 in the country developing agricultural data analysis for UNICEF and the World Food Programme. She painted a picture of what she knew was happening. A vivid picture of what happened.
“Children under seven, pregnant and breastfeeding women, the infirm, the elderly… these people are starving now,” Smith said, and her previous research took her to all parts of the country.
The Korea Development Research Institute in Seoul stated in a report last month that North Korea needs 5.2 million tons of food in 2020, but the output is only 4 million tons, with a shortfall of more than 1 million tons.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated in a June national report that even with imports, North Korea will face a food deficit of 780,000 tons in 2020-2021. It outlines the impact of the drought in early 2020, followed by a series of typhoons in August. Heavy rains in September and September severely hindered food production.
FAO stated: “If commercial imports and/or food aid do not adequately cover this gap, households may experience a severe economic downturn between August and October 2021.”
The UN children’s agency warned in its latest news about the country that the danger is imminent.
In North Korea, “10 million people are considered food insecure… 140,000 children under the age of 5 are severely malnourished… The malnutrition rate and mortality rate are expected to be higher in 2021,” UNICEF released in February Said in the humanitarian situation report.
Although almost all foreign diplomats and rescue agencies have now left North Korea, unconfirmed reports indicate that the situation is deteriorating.
Lina Yoon, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said of the witness testimony of a missionary working in North Korea: “There are more beggars, and some people died of hunger in the border areas.”
Although analysts agree that the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted the government to close the border with China has played an important role in the current long-term food shortage, some believe that the root of the problem actually lies in 2017.
The UN Security Council imposed sanctions 2375 and 2397 in September and December 2017 to restrict North Korea’s imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.
Due to lack of fuel, farmers are hindered in planting and harvesting crops and bringing products to the market.
“Agriculture all over the world depends on oil… this is not rocket science,” Smith of the Asian and African States Organization told Al Jazeera, and outlined the main reasons she believes a potential humanitarian disaster in North Korea.
“Significant proximate cause [for the food shortage] It is the 2017 UN sanctions that prohibit natural gas and severely restricted oil from entering North Korea,” she said.
Since 2006, North Korea has been subject to increasing sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs.
But after U.S. President Donald Trump became U.S. President in 2017, he began a campaign of maximum pressure, taking the lead in imposing Security Council sanctions and imposing unilateral U.S. sanctions to force the North Korean leader to abandon its missile and nuclear programs.
These measures did not slow Pyongyang’s nuclear progress, so Trump changed his strategy and held many unprecedented summits with Kim Jong Un, at which Kim Jong Un called for the lifting of sanctions. The refusal of the United States to agree led to the breakdown of denuclearization negotiations.
“Sanctions are not perfectly implemented, but they seem to be the basic purpose of exerting pressure on the North Korean authorities by inflicting severe blows on the North Korean economy,” Kim Seok-jin, a researcher at the Korean National Unification Research Institute supported by the government, told South Korea. Yonhap News Agency reported.
She said that it is the North Korean people who are really affected by the sanctions.
“They (sanctions) will not affect the government or the elite… companies that are involved in breaking sanctions. They will not go hungry,” Smith said.
The closure of the border with China has also exacerbated the damage caused by the sanctions, as Beijing is responsible for 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade.
According to data from the Seoul Think Tank East Asia Forum, after Pyongyang blocked itself in an attempt to stop COVID-19, imports from China fell by 81% in 2020.
Chad O’Carroll, CEO of consulting firm KoreaRisk and publisher of NK News, told Al Jazeera that more and more commodities entering North Korea from China are fertilizers and petroleum, and medical supplies, household goods and groceries are all waiting.
“I heard that there are actually thousands of containers stranded in Chinese ports. These containers were originally intended to be shipped to North Korea, but never have. Some of these products have reached the’sale’ date,” Ocarol said.
According to Daily NK, a media outlet run by North Korean defectors, the lack of imports is believed to have caused serious damage to the North Korean market. In June, the price of one kilogram of rice in Pyongyang rose by 22% in a week. Trade controls have also caused the prices of some imported goods to soar-a bottle of shampoo has increased by 10 times and is now priced at $200.
This violent fluctuation indicates that there are serious problems in the supply chain, which is unprecedented under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, who took office in 2011.
“This is the first time we have seen such large price fluctuations since he became a leader, and because of the COVID restrictions that caused these fluctuations, there is no end in sight,” Ocarol said. NK News cooperates with inside sources on the border between North Korea and China.
Price fluctuations have also prompted North Koreans to change their eating habits-replacing rice with cheaper corn. As the cost of other daily necessities rises, North Koreans are becoming increasingly unhappy, said Kwon Tae-jin, director of North Korea Affairs. . South Korea told Al Jazeera at the Northeast Asia Research Center of the Global Strategic Network Journal Research Institute.
“If this situation continues, people may doubt Kim Jong Un’s leadership, he will feel political pressure, and he seems to think it is a threat,” Quan said.
This pressure may have prompted Kim to admit that there is a problem.
Cui Xiumin, a researcher at the Sejong Research Institute in Seoul, told Al Jazeera that this recognition was “trying to inform residents and give them a sense of security.”
During the COVID-19 restrictions and lockdown, the few rescue organizations still working in North Korea almost completely withdrew. The last group of international aid workers from UNICEF and the Red Cross left in December 2020.
The United Nations also warned about the impact of the North Korean government’s COVID-19 restrictions on drugs, especially vaccines. The United Nations Children’s Fund said in February that North Korea now faces the risk of running out of polio and tuberculosis vaccines, with “batch of vaccines stranded on the Chinese side of the border”.
O’Carroll of NK News agreed. He said: “If there are no new medical supplies and medicine supplements, a slow humanitarian disaster may be brewing.”
In the 1990s, the famine in North Korea caused 500,000 to 3 million deaths. Continuous droughts and floods brought humanitarian disasters, lost support from the Soviet Union, and poor economic management.
Smith of SOAS may have conducted the most detailed analysis of that famine, and estimated that the death toll may be about 500,000. She said that today—even though North Korea is one of the most isolated countries in the world—outsiders are not completely ignorant of the situation.
“I’m not alarmist,” Smith said of the current situation, and then added, “We are not as ignorant as we were in the 1990s. We know exactly what will happen in North Korea today, even if we can’t go in and count the blades of grass.”
She believes that the real issue is how to respond to UN Security Council sanctions and North Korea’s unwillingness to negotiate to eliminate its nuclear deterrence.
The self-reliance policy or “main body” policy of the UN member states and North Korea that are unwilling to recognize the crisis caused by sanctions makes leader Kim Jong Un unwilling to admit that-for his own people or opponents-North Korea needs external assistance.
Smith said that this is an “evil alliance.”
Recognizing that security interests hinder the immediate lifting of sanctions, Smith recommended a sanctions review and an immediate suspension of the 2017 sanctions against oil, “because we know that they have extremely harmful effects on the entire population and are the most vulnerable.”
Additional reporting by Jenny Yu.