Is North Korea fighting a food crisis?

As leader Kim Jong calls for agricultural improvements amid reports of a worsening food crisis, we speak to an expert about the challenges the country is facing.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has ordered agricultural improvements amid reports from outside the country of a worsening food crisis.

South Korea has said its neighbour seems to be dealing with a “grave” food situation, while the Washington, DC-based think tank 38 North, which is part of the Stimson Center, has said the country is on the brink of famine.

What’s happening in North Korea?

North Korea has long suffered from food insecurity with a devastating famine in the 1990s estimated to have killed somewhere between 240,000 and 3.5 million people.

Analysts have blamed extreme weather and border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic for the deterioration in the food situation, which was already fragile from decades of economic stagnation due to centralised planning, the diversion of resources to weapons development and international sanctions.

“Food availability has likely fallen below the bare minimum with regard to human needs,” a report from 38 North said in January.

North Korea’s economy shrank by an estimated 0.1 percent in 2021, the second straight year of decline, according to South Korea’s central bank.

What’s the status of its agricultural system?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has urged officials to meet agricultural production targets declaring “nothing is impossible” under the leadership of the ruling Workers’ Party.

He has also called for infrastructure improvements to increase food production, according to state media.

North Korea relies on a collective agriculture system that has been in place since the 1950s.

“[Its] agricultural system relies on farmers producing as much food as they can,” Stimson Center Fellow and journalist, Martyn Williams, told Al Jazeera.

Most of the food goes into a central distribution system “and in the past, that provided North Koreans with an adequate supply of basic nutrition”, he added.

“But over the last sort of 10 years or more, it started to fall apart. And it’s at the level now where most North Koreans can’t survive on what, if anything, they get from the state.”

According to Williams, most of the collected food is delivered to “the capital cities where the elite lives… and also to army units, and the military units”.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has said there have been reports of deaths from starvation, while Seoul’s rural development agency reported that the country’s crop production fell by nearly 4 percent in 2022, citing heavy summer rains and economic conditions.

Kim Jong Un wearing a black coat is touching a plant in the greenhouse. He is surrounded by greenery.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a vegetable greenhouse farm and tree nursery in the Jungphyong area in Kyongsong County [File: Reuters]

North Korea’s natural environment is also challenging for agriculture.

According to research conducted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, only about 20 percent of the country’s landmass, or approximately 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres), is suitable for farming.

The country also lacks adequate infrastructure, machinery and supplies, including fertilisers and fuel, as well as being vulnerable to natural disasters.

“North Korea’s agriculture is still stuck in the technology of several decades ago,” Williams said. “A lot of rice planting and harvesting is done by hand.”

These conditions lead to inefficiencies in farming, Willians explained, “so crops can be built below where they could be … and North Korea every year has problems feeding its population but this year it looks like it’s maybe particularly bad.”

Despite the reported difficulties, North Korea has rejected suggestions of accepting outside assistance, with the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper last week calling for greater economic self-reliance and comparing foreign aid to “poisoned candy”.

Farmer is wearing a green shirt and khaki pants he has rolled up because he is trudging through nearly knee-deep in water. Little green sprouts are coming out in rows in the field around him. He has his hand in a large wooden plate which he holds the fertiliser in, which is held by a strap around his neck. He is sprinkling it with his right hand into the water of the field.
A farmer fertilises rice seedlings in fields located along a highway in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 13, 2017 [File: Wong Maye-E/AP]

What’s the meal for a typical citizen?

According to Williams, what a North Korean gets to eat largely depends on where they live.

“There’s a big gap between the countryside and between the cities and then Pyongyang foods. If you have money, food is relatively available in Pyongyang,” he explained.

“People there might be eating two or maybe even three meals a day. The traditional dishes are very similar to South Korea. But of course, in North Korea, it’s much more difficult to get meat and fresh fruits and things like that, [their diet is] mainly based on rice and vegetables.”

The situation starts to change in the countryside where people’s options will depend on what they have been able to grow themselves or buy in markets, Williams said.

“Officially, private sales of food don’t exist but North Korea has had to tolerate them over the last few years because the public distribution system for food has broken down.”

“So it then depends on how much money you have. It can be as bad as a bowl of rice porridge a day and then going upwards from there, depending on the money,” he said.

“It’s a very uneven society, and it’s very difficult for us to get a very accurate take on quite how many people are surviving, say, on one dish today and how many people are having three meals just because we can’t see into the country that well,” Williams added.

It seems to be nighttime but the rectangle of light behind the kiosk window shows a lady in brown jacket speaking on the phone. There is a fridge of drinks behind her.
A snacks and drinks vendor talks on her mobile phone inside her kiosk in Pyongyang, North Korea [File: Dita Alangkara/AP]

Is North Korea too focused on its military objectives?

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest military, with more than 1.2 million personnel.

The US estimates that the country spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its military.

In 2017, US intelligence officials estimated that Pyongyang had enough fissile material for up to 60 nuclear weapons and, despite international sanctions, has continued to advance its weapons programme.

In February, the country showed off its arsenal during a night-time military parade, which showcased more intercontinental ballistic missiles than ever unveiled at one time.

“North Korea can’t afford to keep all of its under-fives nourished properly, yet it has a programme to develop nuclear weapons. It is launching missiles all the time. It’s putting a satellite into orbit this year,” Williams said.

“A lot of the money that comes into the country goes towards the military, and it goes to it because North Korea sees it needs to be strong because it’s worried about the South Koreans or the US trying to overthrow its government,” he added.

“All of that costs a massive amount of money and it appears that agriculture is second to all of that.”

Source: Al Jazeera