Seoul, South Korea – UN Security Council sanctions, the closure of the border with China by COVID-19 and the 2020 drought followed by typhoon rains combine to create severe food shortages in North Korea, with concerns by widespread malnutrition and a possible recurrence of the country. Hunger of the 90s.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged the problem at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party in June.
“The food situation of the people is recovering you’ve got“Kim said according to North Korean state media, adding that the agricultural sector had not complied with its grain production plan due to the damage caused by last year’s typhoons.
Kim also mentioned the effect of COVID-19.
“It is crucial that the whole party and the state concentrate on agriculture,” the North Korean leader said.
Hazel Smith, an expert on North Korea at SOAS University in London, who spent most of the country from 1998 to 2001 developing agricultural data analysis for UNICEF and the World Food Program, gave a clear picture of the who knows what is going on.
“Children under the age of seven, pregnant and lactating women, the weak, the elderly … these are the people who are starving, right now,” said Smith, whose previous research took her across the country.
North Korea required 5.2 million tons of food by 2020, but only produced four million tons, leaving a deficit of more than a million tons, the Development Institute said. Korea in Seoul in a report last month.
Even with imports, North Korea will suffer a 780,000-ton food gap by 2020-2021, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNA), according to a country report in the June, which describes the effect of a drought in early 2020, followed by a succession of typhoons. and heavy rains in August and September that severely hampered food production.
“If this gap is not adequately covered by trade imports and / or food aid, households could experience a severe period of lean between August and October 2021,” the FAO said.
The United Nations Children’s Agency warned of the dangers looming in its most recent update on the country.
In North Korea, “10 million people are considered food insecure … 140,000 children under 5 suffer from acute malnutrition … and a higher rate of malnutrition and mortality is projected for 2021,” UNICEF said in a statement its humanitarian situation report published in February.
Although almost all foreign diplomats and relief agencies have left North Korea, unconfirmed reports suggest the situation is getting worse.
“There are so many more beggars, some people died of starvation in the border area,” Human Rights Watch chief researcher Lina Yoon said of a testimony from a missionary working in North Korea.
Although analysts agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted the government to close the border with China, has played an important role in chronic food deficiencies, some have argued that the source of the problem lies really in 2017.
The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions 2375 and 2397 in September and December 2017, to limit imports of crude oil and petroleum products from North Korea.
Deprived of fuel, farmers have had difficulty planting and harvesting crops and getting their products to market.
“Agriculture around the world depends on oil … It’s not rocket science,” Smith told Al Jazeera, Smith of SOAS, who outlined what he considers the main cause of the potential humanitarian disaster unfolding in North Korea.
“The most important next factor [for the food shortage] are the 2017 UN sanctions banning the entry of natural gas (and severely restricting oil) into North Korea, ”he said.
North Korea has been under 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 applying unilateral US sanctions, to force North Korean leadership to give up their missile and nuclear programs.
The moves did little to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear advance, so Trump switched attacks and held several unprecedented summits with Kim, at which the North Korean leader demanded relief from sanctions. The refusal of the United States to agree led to the collapse of talks on denuclearization.
“The sanctions are not being implemented perfectly, but they appear to serve the basic purpose of putting pressure on the North Korean authorities by seriously harming their economy,” said South Korean researcher Kim Seok-jin. National Unification Institute of Korea, supported by the government. Korea News Yonhap.
He said it is the North Korean people who are really suffering the effect of the sanctions.
“They (the sanctions) don’t affect the government or the elite … the companies that engage in the violation of sanctions. They don’t go hungry,” Smith said.
The damage caused by the sanctions has also been exacerbated by the closure of the border with China, as Beijing is responsible for 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade.
After Pyongyang was sealed in an attempt to prevent COVID-19, imports from China fell 81% in 2020, according to the East Asia Forum, a Seoul think tank.
Goods entering North Korea from China are increasingly fertilizers and oil, with medical supplies, household items and groceries waiting, Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the consultancy, told Al Jazeera KoreaRisk and editor of NK News.
“I have heard that there are literally thousands of containers trapped in Chinese ports that were supposed to go to North Korea that they have never had. Some of those goods have reached “sale” dates, O’Carroll said.
The absence of these imports is believed to have wreaked havoc on North Korean markets, with a price of a kilo of rice in Pyongyang rising 22% in a single week in June, according to the Daily NK , a deserter media based in Seoul. . Trade controls have also contributed to a rise in the price of some imported products: a bottle of shampoo has multiplied by ten and now costs $ 200.
These savage changes, which indicate serious problems in the supply chain, are unprecedented under Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011.
“It’s the first time he’s become a leader that we see so much volatility in prices, and there’s no end in sight because of the COVID constraints that are causing these changes,” said O’Carroll, who NK News works with. with fountains inside. North Korea and along the Chinese border.
Price fluctuations have also caused North Koreans to change their eating habits, replacing rice with corn, which is cheaper and increases the cost of other daily necessities, North Koreans are increasingly unhappy, Kwon Tae-jin, North Korea director of the Northeast Asia Research Center at the Global Strategy Networking Journal Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“If this continues, there would be doubts about Kim Jong Un’s leadership and he will feel political pressure, which seems to have been judged as a threat,” Kwon said.
This pressure may be what prompted Kim to admit there was a problem.
The recognition was “an effort to inform residents and give them a sense of security,” Choi Su-min, a researcher at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Amid COVID-19 restrictions and blockades, the few relief groups still working in North Korea have withdrawn almost entirely. The last international aid workers belonging to UNICEF and the Red Cross left in December 2020.
The UN has also warned of the effect of the North Korean government’s COVID-19 restrictions on medicines, especially vaccines. Now North Korea risks running out of polio and tuberculosis with “batches of vaccines stuck on the Chinese side of the border,” UNICEF said in February.
O’Carroll on NK News agreed. “Without a new recharge of medical supplies and medicines, a slow-burning humanitarian disaster is likely to occur,” he said.
In the 1990s, famine in North Korea caused between half a million and three million deaths, a humanitarian disaster caused by successive droughts and floods, a loss of Soviet support, and poor economic management.
Smith of SOAS conducted perhaps the most detailed analysis of that famine and estimates that the deaths were about half a million. He said that these days, despite North Korea being one of the most isolated countries in the world, outsiders are not entirely ignorant of the situation.
“I’m not an alarmist,” Smith said of the current situation, before adding, “We’re not in the position of ignorance we had in the 1990s. Today we know exactly what’s going to happen in North Korea, even if we can’t get in and count the grass leaves ”.
The real question, he argued, is what to do with UNSC sanctions and North Korea’s unwillingness to negotiate its nuclear deterrent.
There is now a kind of symbiotic relationship between UN member states that are reluctant to admit that sanctions are causing the crisis and North Korea’s “Juche” self-sufficiency policy that makes leader Kim Jong Un reluctant. to admit to his own people or adversaries: that the north requires outside help.
It’s a “profane alliance,” Smith said.
Recognizing the security interests that prevent the relief of immediate sanctions, Smith recommended a review of sanctions, and the 2017 sanctions, aimed at oil, would be suspended immediately, “because we know they have an extremely harmful effect on the population in general, and the most vulnerable “.
With additional reports from Jenny Yu.