North Korea teetering on the brink of a humanitarian crisis

World Saturday 28/January/2023 15:27 PM
By: DW
North Korea teetering on the brink of a humanitarian crisis

Pyongyang: North Korea is currently experiencing a dire food crisis, with analysts warning the present situation could deteriorate into a similar humanitarian disaster seen during the four-year famine in the mid-1990s — referred to as the "Arduous March" by the regime — which led to the deaths of millions of people.

Prices of basic foodstuffs are rising in North Korea as they become ever scarcer in the nation's markets, according to an examination of a range of statistics by experts at The Stimson Center, a Washington-based foreign affairs think tank.

And while North Korea has experienced food shortages in the past,  this one is arguably more serious due to the response of the government in Pyongyang to the outbreak of coronavirus in neighboring China in early 2020, which included sealing its borders and halting virtually all imports, including much-needed food and medicines.

To make the already critical situation even more acute, nations that in recent years have provided millions in aid to North Korea have cut back on that assistance in response to increased belligerence by Pyongyang.

In 2022, North Korea ramped up its rhetoric against its perceived enemies, continued its development of nuclear warheads and fired an estimated 80 missiles last year, including a number of long-range weapons that traveled over Japanese territory. 

Reports of hunger, starvation
And while it remains impossible to obtain a clear picture of the situation in the North, due to the firm control the government exerts over the media and its people, there are reports in dissident media of families starving to death.

A report published by Seoul-based Daily NK on January 9 claimed that a mother and her teenage son had been found dead in their home in the city of Hyesan in mid-December. There was no food in the house and no fuel to keep the home warm in the sub-zero temperatures, reported the Daily NK, which uses mobile phones to communicate with a network of contacts in North Korea.  

According to data from 38 North, a North Korea analysis website run by the Stimson Center, "quantity and price data point to a deteriorating situation, made worse by the regime's choice to self-isolate in response to the Covid-19 pandemic."

Marcus Noland, executive vice president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, and a contributor to the report, pointed out that estimates by agencies such as the World Food Program suggested that the North had a deficit of 1.5 million metric tons of food at the peak of the Arduous March, while its most recent harvest left it about 500,000 tons short.  

"It's clear that things are bad, but we are not talking about another 'great famine' at this point," Noland told DW. But on the other hand, he admitted, there are few indications that the food situation in the North will soon improve.

"The North Korean government is completely unaccountable and it prioritizes other things over its non-elite citizens, starting with its military," Noland said. "It's nuclear weapons, missile systems and the military more broadly, so the reforms that are needed to feed its people are not undertaken because the priority is preserving the stability."

"And their position is that if people are hungry and die, then that's just unfortunate."

Hangover from crisis of 1990s
North Korea's food situation has never completely recovered from the famine of the mid-1990s, which was caused by a combination of economic mismanagement, the collapse of food delivery systems, a series of droughts and floods, and the economic crisis in Russia, which had been a key supporter.

Those underlying factors have been exacerbated by a failure to increase productivity in domestic agriculture made worse by new United Nations sanctions imposed in 2018 after a series of nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, Noland points out.  

"Previously, UN Security Council sanctions had focused closely on the military, but this was greatly broadened to take in imports of luxury goods and most North Korean exports, such as textiles and apparel," said Noland. "This was a qualitative change in the sanctions regime."

Pyongyang's decision to cut itself off at the outbreak of the pandemic worsened the situation further, halting supplies of much-needed imports of fertilizer, for example, while North Korea has also not been immune from the increase in global energy prices as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  

Park Jung-won, a professor of international law at South Korea's Dankook University, says there is clear evidence of "donor fatigue" in countries that have previously stepped in with humanitarian assistance.  

"These governments see the constant provocations of the North over the last year or so and they are questioning why this is happening and why they should continue to provide assistance," he said.  

"This is a poor country that chooses to spend money on more missiles and nuclear weapons that jeopardize international security – and they are gradually deciding that they cannot justify their previous support," he said.  

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, governments around the world provided aid agencies with $2.3 million (€2.1 million) in 2022, down dramatically from $14 million the previous year. Switzerland was the largest single donor, providing $1.6 million through the United Nations Children's Fund and the Swiss Development Cooperation organization.  

A number of countries — including Germany, France, Finland and Canada — all provided funds to support humanitarian assistance in North Korea in 2021, but provided no financial help last year.  

Noland says that while the situation appears to be stable at present, that is typically the case until the previous year's harvest runs out.  

"Right now, things look relatively OK and prices are no longer rising, but problems tend to manifest themselves in late April and May as supplies run low, so the crunch will come again in those lean months," he said.

And asked whether another "Arduous March" is on the horizon, he concluded, "It is definitely possible."