North Korea’s food insecurity persists as planting season begins

North Korea’s food insecurity persists as planting season begins

Felix Kim

Pyongyang’s isolationist policies continue to cause extreme food insecurity as a neglected farm sector and severe weather compound the situation in North Korea, according to reports.

Economic restrictions have exacerbated the country’s vulnerability to food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s refusal to accept vaccines, analysts said. “The country’s food gap is equivalent to around two to three months of food use, with the woes deepening in the midst of economic constraints attributable to its ongoing antivirus fight,” South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported in May 2022, citing data from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook website.

Without foreign assistance, North Koreans will continue to suffer from hunger and malnutrition, according to The World Factbook. “If this gap is not adequately covered through commercial imports and/or food aid, households could experience a harsh lean period,” it added.

Throughout the pandemic, Pyongyang has refused to immunize North Koreans with vaccines supplied by the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, Ankit Panda, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in May 2022. Lockdowns to counter the country’s first publicly acknowledged outbreak now threaten to undermine its planting season, which runs from May through October. The consequence could be a famine in the coming months, Panda warned.

“Producing rice, as the national staple food, is essential for preventing colossal food shortages,” he emphasized.

Prior to its current predicament, North Korea had suffered lean harvests caused by harsh weather, the BBC reported. That has impaired a farm sector already suffering from outdated equipment and methods. The North Korean regime has prioritized resources for new military technologies and missiles, but it lacks the sophisticated apparatus required for a quick and effective harvest, the BBC added.

The rice harvested in one hour using modern equipment in South Korea could take a week to harvest by hand in the North, a South Korean farmer told the BBC. (Pictured: Farmers plant rice in Pyongyang in August 2021 amid a worsening food crisis in North Korea.)

Worsening weather patterns are expected to further threaten North Korea’s food supplies in the years to come, according to “Converging Crises in North Korea: Security, Stability & Climate Change,” a July 2021 study by The Center for Climate & Security. The country is predicted to soon see a major rise in intense rain and flooding, the study found, with crop failures becoming more likely along the country’s western coast, known as North Korea’s breadbasket.

In addition to substandard farming techniques, the study identified government practices of deforestation and poor planning as intensifying the food security problems associated with damaging weather.

Perhaps the most persistent driver of food insecurity in North Korea, however, is the poverty endured by most of its people, according to the Borgen Project, an anti-poverty nongovernmental organization. Their hardship links directly to government policy, which spends about a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product on weapons development, the Borgen Project added. Moreover, the international sanctions brought on by North Korea’s persistent pattern of threatening its neighbors with nuclear tests and missile launches have limited imports, thus aggravating economic hardship and food insecurity.

To make matters worse, a clampdown on street-level merchandising, which many North Koreans relied on to supplement their meager state incomes, has been in effect since early 2021.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.