A closer look at North Korea’s post-Covid food shortages

Bad weather, border closures and economic sanctions during the pandemic appear to have hit the nation's food production - but for Kim Jong-un, it's a chance to tighten his grip, experts say.

Ji Da-gyum

Ji Da-gyum

The Korea Herald


April 18, 2023

SEOULThis article is the first installment of a two-part series investigating North Korea’s food shortages and the political and socioeconomic implications for the people living in the reclusive regime, as well as their geopolitical impact. — Ed.

In North Korea, acute and chronic food shortages have been exacerbated following the triple whammy of economic sanctions, self-imposed border closures and years of extreme weather events.

The reclusive state appears to be at a crossroads in regards to food security, according to experts, who point out that the local production of food crops decreased last year. Since 2020, draconian border closures have simultaneously suspended international food aid and hampered imports of grain, as well as chemical fertilizers, machinery and oil essential for agricultural output.

The Kim Jong-un regime is faced with both opportunities and challenges in improving food availability this year, they said.

On the verge of a new Cold War, North Korea now has lifelines to avert a repeat of the deadly famine which took place in the mid-1990s amid its estranged relationship with China and Russia during the post-Cold War period, experts on North Korean agriculture and economy told The Korea Herald.

Furthermore, North Korean people know their salvation lies in places such as illegal private farming, since the state’s food distribution system has remained dysfunctional for decades.

But the Kim Jong-un regime continues to tighten central control over the allocation and distribution of grain products, which will lead to further food shortages and disruption in private grain markets, which North Korean people have relied on for food since the famine of the 1990s.

Main causes of food shortages in North Korea (Graphic – The Korea Herald)

Worst shortages in decades

North Korea is well into its fourth decade of chronic food shortages, but the hermit state now seems to be suffering from one of its worst food shortages in decades.

The three main components of North Korea’s overall food supply– which consists of local grain production, food imports and foreign assistance — have been simultaneously and adversely affected by years of border closures, going back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, experts on North Korean agriculture and economy said.

“The amount of food supplies available for people is absolutely insufficient,” Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea told The Korea Herald.

South Korea’s state-run Rural Development Administration estimated that North Korea’s output of food crops dropped by 3.8 percent on-year to 4.51 million metric tons last year.

While the decrease in food production may be smaller than expected, “even a slight decline in grain production” will have a great effect on the “already dire food situation, given that the demand for grains is exceedingly higher than the supply,” said Kim Hyuk, a researcher at the Korea Rural Community Corporation.

“North Korean industries that can produce substitutes for grains such as livestock … are also underdeveloped,” Kim added.

To feed its population of almost 26 million people, North Korea needed to produce around 5.97 million tons of grain as of 2021. South Korea’s spy agency said in March that North Korea would be short around 800,000 tons of rice annually.

North Korea’s grain production decreased last year due to multifaceted internal and external negative elements, as well as unfavorable weather conditions such as a severe spring drought.

An inscription stone marking the border of China and North Korea in Jilin province, China. (Photo courtesy of Prince Roy)

Yearslong border shutdowns have in particular hindered North Korea from importing agricultural materials, including fertilizers, pesticides, plastic sheeting, agricultural equipment and oil products required to fuel agricultural and irrigation machinery.

The pandemic, which North Korea officially admitted getting hit by in April last year, also impeded the authorities from mobilizing people to harvest wheat and plant rice in May and June.

Cho Chun-hui, director of Good Farmers and an expert on North Korean agriculture, pointed out that Pyongyang’s policy of restricting movement within the country has also disrupted the domestic distribution networks and food transactions between provinces and across the country.

“Due to the North Korean authorities’ continuous restrictions on regional movement under the pretext of infection prevention and control measures for COVID-19, it has become more difficult to transport goods between regions based on poor distribution infrastructure around the country,” Cho said. “This has also resulted in regional differences in grain consumption.”

North Korea’s suspension of trade and border closures have undermined food imports and foreign assistance, two key parts of its food supplies. The country has been unable to achieve food self-sufficiency in light of its high population-to-arable land ratio, highly unfavorable terrain, infertile soil and relatively short growing seasons.

In its December 2021 report, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that North Korea needed more than 1.06 million tons of food imports to make up for food shortages between November 2020 and October 2021.

The UN’s humanitarian assistance agencies have suspended operations for more than three years following North Korea’s introduction of stringent border control measures.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) presides over a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers’ Party on April 10, in this photo provided by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. (Yonhap)

Consequences of market intervention

But experts differ in their opinions regarding North Korea’s pursuit to centralize control over the grain distribution system and how this has and will affect the country’s food security.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry in February said North Korea has introduced new grain policies clamping down on private grain trades in unofficial markets since October 2022. The Kim Jong-un regime has sought to procure grains from collective farms and sell them at state-run food shops at below-market prices.

North Korea held a ruling Workers Party meeting to focus on discussing the issues of “improving the grain procurement and grain supplies and intensive fighting against all sorts of phenomena hindering the implementation of grain policies of the party and the country” in September 2022.

Kwon said North Korea has sought to seize control over food distribution mainly in two ways as part of its broader goal to restore the socialist planned economy.

“One is to expand the recipients of the state food distribution system and the other is to intervene in private markets to stabilize and tame food prices,” Kwon said.

A street vendor checks her produce as a woman looks on in Pyongyang, North Korea (Photo Courtesy of Roman Harak)

But as the state is not able to secure sufficient quantities to replace grains traded in unofficial markets, the inadequate intervention resulted in a collapse of the balance of food supply and demand. The North Korean people largely rely on gray markets, known as “jamadang,” to get food in lieu of the moribund public distribution system.

“The government’s intervention has exacerbated the confusion and eventually resulted in aggravating food shortages for the people in need,” Kwon said.

Tightened central control over the distribution of food has also made the lives of farmers and merchants more difficult.

After harvesting, farmers sell their crops to grain vendors or individually at marketplaces. Any money they earn from doing so is classified as personal income. However, since the North Korean authorities purchase more grains at lower than market prices, household incomes for farmers have declined.

“As a result, farm workers have suffered a lot of losses,” Kim Hyuk said. “As the role of markets in supplying food has been undermined by the state crackdown, people have suffered considerable difficulties.”

The income of merchants who sell food in marketplaces has also plummeted.

North Korean Premier Kim Tok-hun (center) inspects a farm in Pyongan Province, in this undated photo released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on April 11. (Yonhap)

Tightened state control

Choi Eun-ju, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, says it is too early to conclude that North Korea’s steps to strengthen control over grain distribution will reduce the amount of grain allocated to North Korean people or distort the distribution of grain.

“North Korea’s moves to strengthen state control over the economy may be intended to effectively allocate and mobilize resources and supplies across the country in order to cope with a downturn in the supply of goods amid stringent border shutdowns.”

The North Korean regime may aim to clamp down on the malpractice of cooperative farms that falsely report crop production by reducing it or siphoning off some of the crops to markets, which has made it difficult for the state to measure grain production accurately and implement its procurement plans, Choi said.

“But the North Korean regime will be on the wrong track if it seeks to suppress markets by tightening central control because it will be difficult to take advantage of the vitality of markets in the long run.”

Choi also pointed out that it would be undesirable for North Korean authorities to reduce the proportion of grain that North Korean farmers can keep and autonomously dispose of.

Tongbong Collective Farm in Hamju district, southwest of Hamhung, on North Korea’s east coast. (Photo courtesy of Clay Gilliland)

Kim Young-hoon, a senior research fellow at the Korea Rural Economic Institute, noted that one of the main reasons North Korea produced more grain than expected last year was due to strong intervention by the central government in the distribution of farming resources and the management of the production process.

“There were widespread concerns that agricultural products would take a hit in 2022 due to the harsh conditions. However, it turned out that 4.51 million tons of grain was produced, which showed better outcomes than expected,” Kim said.

“The long-term agricultural strategy, centralized planning and central government’s control and management of resources and supplies were rather effective in the short term in agricultural production in 2022.”

The Kim Jong-un regime saw the necessity for the central government to seize control of the allocation of available resources and goods in conditions of severe constraints compounded by economic sanctions and self-imposed border closures.

At the end of 2021, the North Korean leader announced a new long-term agriculture development strategy — which is strikingly similar to the strategy pursued by its late founder, Kim Il-sung, in the 1970s — to strengthen central planning and management in the agricultural sector.

Recent revisions to North Korea’s farming laws, grain management laws and the introduction of a new preventative law generally focus on fleshing out or strengthening central planning and socialist distribution.

Street vendors sit on a sidewalk in Samjiyon County, Ryanggang province, North Korea, in September 2010. (Photo Courtesy of Roman Harak)

However, Kim Young-hoon forecasts that North Korea will have trouble this year when it comes to reproducing, without any significant changes, the effects of the current agricultural administration, which relied on collectivist control and strengthened management.

“As North Korea has stepped up the party’s control and reinforced the planned economy, the market economy has been weakened,” Kim said. “The approach can boost productivity in the short term but has a stronger negative effect in the long run. It will adversely affect North Korea’s agricultural production and economic development in the long run.”

The negative impacts of UN economic sanctions that have accumulated since 2016 could also undermine food production this year. UN sanctions ban the imports of seeds, fertilizers and agricultural equipment, as well as any other types of machinery, and cap imports of oil and refined petroleum products required to run agricultural vehicles.

Weather conditions could additionally have profound impacts on agricultural production. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television in mid-March forecast below-average rainfall conditions in spring and fall, high-temperature events in July and August and torrential rainfall during the monsoon season.

Malnourished nursery schoolchildren in a village northwest of Pyongyang, North Korea eat food rations. The photo was taken during a trip to the country by Yasushi Akashi, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator in 1997 to assess the impact of flood damage on the population, particularly children. (File Photo – United Nations)

Food shortages, exaggerated

Seoul-based experts say that North Korea does not face a food crisis equivalent to the mass starvation seen in the mid-1990s. Also known as the Arduous March, it is estimated by South Korea’s National Statistical Office that around 336,000 North Koreans died over five years from 1996 to 2000.

The mass famine was precipitated by a drastic and rapid reduction in food aid from China and Russia, as well as their demands for North Korea to pay in hard currency for traded goods instead of bartering following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Since North Korea currently maintains a relationship with China that allows them to import food at any time if needed, it is unlikely that a food crisis on the scale of a famine affecting a large portion of the population will occur,” said Jeong Eun-mee, a researcher at the government-funded Korea Institute of National Unification.

Amid this new Cold War era, China and Russia won’t turn a blind eye to North Korea’s food shortages. The three fraternally allied socialist states have become closely aligned amid the increased competition between the US and China, as well as sharpening tensions between liberal democracies and autocracies in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. John Kirby, NSC coordinator for strategic communications, said in March that the US government is concerned over North Korea trying to send weapons and munitions to Russia in exchange for food supplies.

Geng Shuang, deputy ambassador of China to the United Nations, speaks at a Security Council meeting on nuclear nonproliferation regarding North Korea at the UN headquarters in New York, March 23. (Photo – AP)

“North Korea’s current relationship with both countries is developed enough to prevent food shortages from reaching the worst-case scenarios of the past as long as there is no major food crisis in China and Russia,” Choi said.

Kim Young-hoon noted that the potential intensification of the new Cold War “would create conditions conducive for North Korea to improve food security by weakening sanctions against North Korea and increasing humanitarian aid from China and Russia.”

The conditions for importing grains and agricultural supplies have improved as border blockades have been gradually eased.

North Korea’s imports of rice and other grains from China this January and February amounted to around $12.26 million.

Kim Hyuk also pointed out that the North Korean people have come up with measures to feed themselves since the famine of the 1990s. In particular, the people have begun turning infertile hillsides and mountain slopes into cultivable areas, known as “sotoji” there.

“The North Korean people had no way to gain access to extra food in the past. However, as people living in farming, mountainous and rural areas have ‘sotoji’ where they can privately produce grain crops, they now have self-rescue measures to cope with food crises to a certain degree,” Kim said. “Therefore, it makes no sense to compare the current food shortages to the food crisis of the 1990s.”

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