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North Korea food shortage about to get worse[ANALYSIS]

North Korea food shortage about to get worse[ANALYSIS]

(CNN) – Concern is growing about chronic food shortages in North Korea, with several sources this week citing possible deaths from starvation.

Some experts say the country has reached its worst moment since the famine of the 1990s, known as the “Real March,” which caused mass starvation and killed hundreds of thousands of people, between 3% and 5% of the then 20 million population.

According to Lukas Renjevo-Keller, an analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, trade data, satellite imagery and assessments by the United Nations and South Korean authorities indicate that the food supply has “fallen below the amount required to meet minimum human needs.”

Even if food were distributed fairly – which is almost unimaginable in North Korea, where the elite and the military take precedence – “there will be starvation-related deaths,” said Renjevo Keller.

South Korean authorities agree with this assessment, and Seoul recently announced that it believes starvation is occurring in some areas of the country. Although the country’s isolation makes it difficult to provide solid evidence to support these claims, few experts question their assessment.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half of North Korea’s population was undernourished, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Three years of closed borders and isolation can only make matters worse.

In a sign of how desperate the situation has become, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un convened a four-day meeting of the Workers’ Party this week to discuss revamping the country’s agricultural sector, calling for a “fundamental transformation” of the country’s agricultural and economic plans and the need to strengthen state control over agriculture. .

North Korean trucks loaded with sacks of corn await clearance at the Chinese border in 1997, during the famine period known as the “Real March”. Photo credit: Anu Nousiainen/AFP/Getty Images/FILE

But many experts say Pyongyang can only blame itself for the problems. During the pandemic, Pyongyang has ramped up its isolationist tendencies, erecting a second layer of fences along 300 km of its border with China and squeezing what little cross-border trade it has access.

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And last year, it spent valuable resources conducting a record number of missile tests.

“There were firing orders (at the border) that were put in place in August 2020… travel and trade bans, which included very limited official trade (that existed before),” Lina Yoon said. Senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

During 2022, China officially exported nearly 56 million kilograms of wheat flour or maslin and 53,280 kilograms of grain or cereal flakes to North Korea, according to Chinese customs data.

But Pyongyang’s crackdown has stifled informal trade, which Yoon notes is “one of the main livelihoods of markets within North Korea, where ordinary North Koreans buy goods.”

Cases of Chinese goods being smuggled into the country, with border guards bribed to turn a blind eye, have been almost non-existent since the borders were closed.

Many experts say the underlying problem is years of economic mismanagement and that Kim’s efforts to increase state control will only make matters worse.

“North Korea’s borders should open up and it should resume trade for agriculture to improve and people to feed themselves. But right now they are giving priority to isolation, and they are giving priority to suppression,” Yoon said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, on February 26, 2023. Credit: KCNA/Reuters

But as Renjevo Keller has pointed out, Kim has no interest in allowing the informal trade of the past to emerge in this dynamically governed country. “The regime does not want a thriving business class that could threaten its power.”

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Then there are the missile tests Kim remains obsessed with and his constant refusal of offers of help from his neighbor.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin told CNN in an interview last week that “the only way for North Korea to get out of this problem is to return to the dialogue table and accept our humanitarian offer to North Korea” and make a better decision. For the future”.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Han Duk-soo told CNN that the situation is “getting worse, as our intelligence shows, because it’s clear that his policies are changing… The President (Kim Jong-un) would like to put a lot of pressure in order for it to be dictated by the state, as You know, supplying food to her people that just won’t work.”

Seoul’s Unification Ministry was quick to point out that Pyongyang continues to focus on its nuclear and missile programs rather than feeding its people.

A visitor watches the border between South and North Korea from the Unification Observation Center in Paju, South Korea. Credit: Ahn Young-joon/AP

At a briefing last month, deputy spokesperson Lee Hyo-jung said, “According to domestic and international research institutions, if North Korea used the spending from the missiles it launched last year on food supplies, it would be enough to buy more than 1 million tons of food, which is believed to be It is more than enough to cover North Korea’s annual food shortage.”

The Seoul Rural Development Agency believes that North Korea’s agricultural production last year was 4% lower than the previous year, due to floods and adverse weather conditions.

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Renjevo Keller fears that the peak of these effects, along with the regime’s “misguided approach to economic policy,” could have a disastrous effect on an already suffering population.

“This is a population that has been chronically undernourished for decades, with stunting rates high, and all indications point to a deteriorating situation, so it certainly wouldn’t take much to push the country into starvation.”