09.03.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Is there a famine in North Korea in 2023?

On February 15, 2023, at a meeting of the ROK National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se stated that the DPRK’s food situation was deteriorating, and that Pyongyang had requested assistance from the UN World Food Program. At the same time, the minister acknowledged that “the situation in the North does not seem to have reached the point where people are dying of starvation, something similar to what was observed during the Arduous March” of the mid-to-late 1990s, when the death toll from food shortages and disease reached 600,000 people. In later reports, the ministry described the food shortage situation in the DPRK as “serious,” noting that there have been reports of deaths from starvation in some parts of the country. However, these deaths are not widespread.

How true is this, and what is the basis for these concerns?

On February 16, the Unification Ministry reported that North Korea has been cracking down on grain trading in markets since it had adopted a new policy last October to tighten government control over grain distribution. According to the ministry, the crackdown disrupted distribution amid a serious food crisis: the North allegedly “raised the purchase price of grain for stocks and sold it at below-market prices by opening state-run grain-selling stations. But the move led to disruptions in food supplies as farmers apparently refrained from selling rice for fear of business losses.” Where the ministry’s sources found DPRK farmers capable of refraining from selling rice, rather than farmers surrendering most grain to the government at firm purchase prices, is a great mystery! Although in October 2022, the North did adopt a new policy to tighten government control over the distribution of rice and other grains.

The situation with the ministry’s sources is also unclear. When asked if there are any deaths from starvation in major cities, a ministry spokesman did not go into detail, saying that North Koreans are dying of starvation in some regions, and such deaths have occurred “recently.” Looks like another anonymous source, whose very existence is in question.

Then, although talks between Kwon Young-se and David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), revealed that Pyongyang had asked the WFP for help, according to a representative of the WFP Asia-Pacific branch, no official request from the North has been received there. This seems strange because in the past, Pyongyang has not been shy about stating this in case of a food crisis.

A number of media outlets, including the Tong-a Ilbo newspaper, citing unnamed sources in the DPRK, reported that the North Korean military has cut its daily cereal ration from 620 grams to 580 grams, the first reduction since the 2000s. However, research by the Seoul-based Asia Risk Group shows otherwise. In the first half of February, 1 kg of rice sold for 5,200 won in Pyongyang (previously 5,480 won), and in Sinuiju and Hyesan for 5,400 and 5,700 won, respectively (late January 5,470 and 5,800 won). Corn prices, which were on the rise in January, also declined. In Pyongyang, a kilogram of corn can be purchased for 2,900 KPW (instead of 2,800 KPW).

According to a report by South Korea’s Rural Development Administration, crop production in the DPRK in 2022 is estimated to have reached 4.51 million tons, down 3.8 percent from the previous year. And according to the ROK Statistical Office, the area of rice fields in the North was 539,569 hectares in 2022, down from 544,006 hectares recorded in 2021. There is a reduction, but it is not so critical as to cause starvation.

According to separate estimates, the main “proof” of the food crisis is the fact that from February 26 to March 1, the seventh plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the DPRK held a meeting with an agenda focused mainly on “urgent agricultural issues and long-term agricultural development goals.” Allegedly, “The North’s rare move to convene such a key party meeting for the second time in about two months points to the urgency of solving the country’s food crisis.” And it was no coincidence that officials from the agriculture sector were seen at the podium in the front row.

However, there is no alarmist tone in the plenum materials. And in addition to agriculture, the plenum discussed “the establishment of executive discipline with regard to the plan of the national economy” and “improvement of the financial sphere.”

As for the main topic, at the plenum held at the end of 2022, the increase of grain production was named as the first of twelve key tasks of the economy for 2023. In this regard, speaking at the plenum on February 28, 2013, Kim Jong-un called for radical changes in agricultural production within a few years, stressing the need to find ways for stable and progressive development of agriculture.

 But Kim Jong-un outlined a number of specific measures to increase yields, including improving the country’s irrigation system to cope with abnormal climatic events, upgrading agricultural equipment, and expanding arable land. The North Korean leader pointed to the unconditional need to meet the set targets for agricultural production this year and identified the agricultural issue as “strategic,” noting the importance of increasing yields on all farms. It is stated that the targets defined in the plan “can in no way be bargained for.

Specific measures to increase productivity in the agricultural industry included actively promoting the construction of irrigation systems, supplying “new and high-performance” machinery and equipment, reclaiming tidal flats and expanding the area under crops. Kim Jong-un noted the necessity of timely identification and elimination of factors negatively affecting agricultural development. At the same time, no specific measures by which it is expected to achieve the desired goal were named.

As noted by Oleg Kiryanov, an expert on Korea and reporter, agricultural development is defined as one of the priority areas; however, major opportunities for developing it and increasing food production have been used before (in fact, nothing new was suggested); the emphasis is on “tightening the screws” in ideological terms and tightening discipline in meeting targets; the role of rural governing bodies and party structures is increasing.

Thus, the food situation in the country is quite difficult, but not critical, and we should not talk about hunger. In fact, we are dealing with peculiar cognitive distortions. First, the regime is “denied” its ability to take preventive measures to solve this or that problem, because the “evil state” in the mass consciousness is supposed to be a model of incompetence. Second, if we take it as axiomatic that North Korea is on the brink of a crisis and is about to collapse (a mantra that some have been repeating for 10+ years), then any facts will fit into this framework.

It is no coincidence that almost any publication on the topic at hand in the English-language media of the ROK necessarily ends with the following passage: “The North is known for chronic food shortages that appear to have worsened in recent years amid global sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs, adverse weather and quarantine at the borders caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.