North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered agricultural improvements amid reports from outside the country of a worsening food crisis.
South Korea said its neighbor appeared to be dealing with a “serious” food situation, while Washington, D.C.-based think tank 38 North, which is part of the Stimson Center, said the country was on the brink of famine.
What is happening in North Korea?
North Korea has long suffered from food insecurity with a devastating famine in the 1990s estimated to have killed between 240,000 and 3.5 million people.
Analysts have blamed extreme weather and border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic for the worsening food situation, which was already fragile from decades of economic stagnation caused by central planning, diverted resources to weapons development and international sanctions.
“It is likely that food availability is below the minimum threshold in relation to human needs,” said a report from 38 North in January.
North Korea’s economy shrank by about 0.1% in 2021, the second straight year of decline, according to South Korea’s central bank.
What is the status of its agricultural system?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged officials to achieve agricultural production targets, declaring that “nothing is impossible” under the leadership of the ruling Workers’ Party.
He also called for better infrastructure to increase food production, according to state media.
North Korea is based on a collective farming system that has been in place since the 1950s.
“[Its] The agricultural system relies on farmers producing as much food as possible,” Stimson Center fellow and journalist Martyn Williams told Al Jazeera.
He added that most of the food goes into a centralized distribution system, “and in the past it provided North Koreans with an adequate supply of basic nutrition.”
But over the past 10 years or more, it has started to fall apart. And now it’s at a level where most North Koreans can’t stay on what, if any, they get from the state.”
According to Williams, most of the food collected is delivered to “the capitals where the elite live…and also to army and military units”.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said there have been reports of deaths from starvation, while Seoul’s Rural Development Agency said the country’s crop production fell nearly 4 percent in 2022, citing heavy summer rains and economic conditions.
North Korea’s natural environment is also a challenge for agriculture.
According to research conducted only by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C about 20 percent Of the country’s area, or approximately 2.2 million hectares (5.4 million acres), is arable.
The country also lacks adequate infrastructure, machinery, and supplies, including fertilizers and fuel, as well as being vulnerable to natural disasters.
“North Korean agriculture has been stuck in technology for several decades,” Williams said. “The rice is grown and harvested a lot by hand.”
These conditions lead to inefficiencies in agriculture, Willian explained, “so crops can be built up less where they can be… Every year North Korea has problems feeding its population, but it looks like this year might be particularly bad.” “
Despite the reported difficulties, North Korea has rejected suggestions of accepting foreign aid, with the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper last week calling for more economic self-reliance and comparing foreign aid to “poisoned candy”.
What is the meal for the average citizen?
According to Williams, what a North Korean eats depends largely on where he lives.
There is a big gap between rural and urban then Pyongyang food. If you have the money, food is relatively affordable in Pyongyang.”
Maybe people there eat two or maybe three meals a day. Traditional dishes are very similar to South Korea. But of course in North Korea, meat, fresh fruit and things like that are hard to come by. [their diet is] It is mainly based on rice and vegetables.”
Williams said the situation is beginning to change in the countryside where people’s choices will depend on what they have been able to grow themselves or buy in the markets.
“Officially, there are no private sales of food, but North Korea has had to put up with it for the past few years because the public food distribution system has broken down.”
“So it then depends on how much money you have. It can be as bad as a bowl of rice porridge a day and then go up from there, depending on the money.”
“It’s a very unequal society, and it’s very difficult for us to get a very accurate view of how many people live on, say, one plate today and how many people eat three meals just because we can’t see the country well,” Williams added.
Is North Korea focusing too much on its military goals?
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, North Korea has the fourth largest military in the world, with more than 1.2 million personnel.
The United States estimates that the country spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product on its military.
In 2017, US intelligence officials estimated that Pyongyang had enough fissile material for up to 60 nuclear weapons and, despite international sanctions, has continued to advance its weapons program.
In February, the country showed off its arsenal during a nightly military parade, which displayed more ICBMs than ever on display at one time.
“North Korea can’t keep all children under the age of five properly fed, yet it has a program to develop nuclear weapons. It launches missiles all the time. It puts a satellite into orbit this year,” Williams said.
He added, “A lot of the money that goes into the country goes into the military, and it goes into it because North Korea sees that it needs to be strong because it is concerned that the South Koreans or the United States are trying to overthrow its government.”
“All of this costs an enormous amount of money and farming seems to come second after all of that.”
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”