Poverty in North KoreaNorth Korea is a closed-off nation pretending to be its own island with the most militarized border in the world, even with the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel. It can be easy to overlook North Korea as a threat due to its failed aspirations to become a nuclear power and its political bluster on the international stage. However, North Korea has significant internal problems, none as severe as its domestic poverty. This article will examine the complex issue of poverty in North Korea, including its causes, effects on the populace and current initiatives to deal with it. 

Current Picture

The Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has not published economic information, so researchers must find creative ways to understand the nation. New technology allows estimations of GDP and poverty based on night light using satellite imagery. Estimates of poverty in North Korea average around 60%.

Various factors, primarily internal and some external, contribute to North Korea’s poverty. One of the leading causes is the Kim dynasty’s communist government, which prioritizes military spending over the good of its people. This emphasis on preserving power by cloaking North Korea and building military might have resulted in a severely underdeveloped economy dependent on Chinese support for electricity, water and other crucial resources.

Additionally, North Korea’s economy has been further weakened by international sanctions, with countries like the U.S., denying its people to trade with North Korea. However, this does not have a significant impact anyway, as there is little chance of trade entering the country. Everything must pass through the government’s bureaucracy before it is legally permitted to operate, which makes it difficult to provide humanitarian aid or goods and services to those most affected. Even when given the go-ahead to trade, spying will still occur with systems like Red-Star, which takes regular and random screenshots of text messages and recordings of phone calls.

However, this government is not the one that is most impacted by the policies it employs. Most of the challenging circumstances provided by the state affect North Korea’s population alone. There is a great deal of suffering due to widespread malnutrition, a lack of access to health care and inadequate (above-ground) infrastructure that is not used for military purposes. Chronic food shortages are a harsh reality for many North Koreans who struggle to provide for their families. According to the UN, a startling 40% of the world’s population is malnourished.

Being malnourished does not just mean they’re starving; it also means their immune system is failing, putting them at risk of death. Of course, the bourgeoisie may eat as much as they like, which gave birth to the insult ‘Kim Fatty III’, now banned in China — another communist regime but with a more liberal approach to the economy.

Furthermore, it is difficult for aid groups to function effectively in North Korea due to the regime’s secrecy and state mandates. The efforts to lessen its citizens’ suffering are hampered by this lack of transparency and micromanagement from the dictatorship: Everything you do must be approved by the state.

Organizations Making a Difference

Despite the difficulties, a few organizations are making a valiant effort to combat poverty in North Korea. The Eugene Bell Foundation is one such group that focuses on helping North Koreans in need of medical care and tuberculosis treatment. Due to the critically underdeveloped above-ground infrastructure, North Korea has one of the highest tuberculosis rates in the world. The Eugene Bell Foundation has significantly improved the nation’s health care outcomes. The Foundation has reduced the chances of dying from the disease by providing treatment to anywhere from 500–1,500 patients per year, a number that would be much higher if the North Korean Government would be honest about how serious the problem is. 

Another example is the World Food Program (WFP), which sees that 18% of all children in North Korea are stunned (cannot grow due to malnourishment). The WFP’s efforts are vital in alleviating hunger and malnutrition in the country, albeit under challenging circumstances. They have heroically provided monthly nutrition packages specialized for protein, vitamins and fats to around a million children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

The Future

Undoubtedly, the path ahead will be challenging, as political unrest and diplomatic challenges continue to impede humanitarian efforts in North Korea. These organizations continue to be dedicated to their goals and work to improve the lives of those affected by tyrannous government and poverty. All of this is in stark contrast to the open market representative democracy to its south: South Korea, which is richer, more advanced and the top destination for North Koreans seeking to escape. 

To conclude, North Korea’s poverty is a pervasive issue with multiple root causes. The suffering of the North Korean people is a result of the oppressive regime and a lack of transparency as well as international sanctions. However, organizations like the World Food Program and the Eugene Bell Foundation are working nonstop to deliver critical assistance to the most vulnerable. 

It is important to remember the millions of North Koreans who continue to live in poverty and squalor on the Korean Peninsula. The issue of North Korea’s poverty goes beyond geopolitics and touches on fundamental human rights and dignity. The international community must continue to be dedicated to identifying solutions and helping those in need. 

– Sean Boehm
Photo: Unsplash

Sanctioned Countries
Sanctions are weapons, and like any other wartime invention, they have changed over time to become more powerful and more precise. The U.S. example of this evolution of force, as in so many other cases (nuclear weapons, military aircraft), is particularly instructive. Sanctions expert for the Economist Group Agathe Demarais, in a 2023 interview for NPR, notes that a mere 13% of U.S. sanctions since 1970 worked as intended, and although they have grown more sophisticated — from the imprecise and unsuccessful 1960 trade embargo against Cuba to the 2003 financial sanctioning of banks collaborating with North Korea, and finally to the individual targeting of several Russian businessmen listed as the 100-richest Russians in 2018 — they still tend to inflict a shotgun pattern of harm, affecting the innocent as well as the guilty of the sanctioned countries.

Unintended Effects

Even when sanctions accomplish their foreign-policy goals, they can still crush the populations in those sanctioned countries. The 2012 U.S. financial sanctions against Iran helped secure a more moderate political regime and reign in the country’s nuclear program. Consumer prices also rose by 30% and living standards fell dramatically, crippling Iran’s COVID-19 response and inflating the pandemic’s death toll in the country into the hundreds of thousands. A combination of financial and oil sanctions against Venezuela in 2017 contributed to a 1 million percent rise in inflation in a country already plagued by shortages of food, medicine and sometimes even the basic materials Venezuelans needed to bury their dead relatives.

Franciso Rodriguez of the Josef School for International Studies, writing for the Financial Times in May 2023, cites studies showing sanctions inflicting Great Depression levels of economic harm on countries and slashing 1.4 years off the life expectancy of their female citizens. Like a tactical nuclear weapon, sanctions can become technically more precise in hitting their target, but the fallout that follows is still diffuse, destructive and often fatal.

Gaps in the Wall

Thankfully, international efforts by both governments and humanitarian organizations to relieve the strain sanctions often imposed upon already desperate populations came to fruition on December 9, 2022, when The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted SCR 2664. The resolution, introduced by the U.S. and Ireland, allows “funds and assets necessary for humanitarian assistance and activities to meet basic human needs” to cut through existing or future U.N. financial sanctions. Efforts to provide disaster relief, medical supplies, education and even general “peacebuilding” and development could now be granted licenses by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. This gradual thawing trend in the imposition of sanctions precedes SCR 2664 when in December 2021 the UNSC adopted measures allowing humanitarian aid to cut through its financial sanctions on Afghanistan.

Brick by Brick: The Way Forward

There is still much work to be done. Outside of actual criminality, NGOs and foreign aid organizations must still operate within the confines that sanctions set in sanctioned countries. Until public pressure convinced President Biden to grant limited exceptions, attempts to help the victims of the deadly February earthquakes in Syria and Turkey were stymied by American sanctions against those nations, with donation sites like GoFundMe cooperating by actively scouring mention of the disaster from their websites.

As for progressive measures like SCR2664, Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, writing for Chatham House Institute in 2022, was careful to point out that there are exceptions to the exceptions because they apply only to financial sanctions. Provisions like food and equipment for removing landmines must still pass through an arduous process of authorization before they can reach many countries. Starving nations like North Korea, already encircled by a variety of trade restrictions, are especially cut off.

It is incumbent upon all humanitarian organizations, and the ordinary people who support their work, to continue to lobby for humanitarian avenues that cut through sanctions. It appears there is a need for organizations to educate themselves on the current state of these exceptions, especially in countries that may superficially seem beyond the reach of humanitarian assistance. For instance, Russia’s war with Ukraine has not completely isolated it from Western assistance, as illustrated in a 2023 OFAC fact sheet which lists in detail every U.S. and U.K. humanitarian license and exception for aid and export to and from Russia.

– John Merino
Photo: Flickr

Seoul’s Urban Poor
Bong Joon Ho’s black comedy thriller is a cinematic masterpiece that examines class tension and the urban poor within contemporary society in Seoul, South Korea. Through masterful storytelling, characters with questionable morals and effortlessly sleek cinematography, the film stands as an important and timely critique of South Korean society. 

The film sees a collision of two families from contrasting socioeconomic backgrounds: the wealthy Parks family and the Kim family who are enduring urban poverty in a basement flat. 

When the son of the Kim family begins tutoring the Parks daughter, the whole Kim family eventually deceives their way into becoming employees of the Parks family. The Parks are entirely unaware of this deception. While audience members follow a montage of comedic moments and dark twists for 132 minutes, the plot also unravels an important conversation about South Korea. In reference to the title of the film, Bong Joon Ho asks the question: “Who is the parasite? The rich or the poor?” 

“Parasite” and the Urban Poor 

The movie instantly establishes the apparent hierarchy of class as the Kim family peers out at the streets above their basement apartment where the urban poor have had to settle. This is a strong contrast to the Parks family whose house, or mansion, walled off and on a hill, is far away from the ferality of the streets, symbolizing their wealth and status. 

Although the narrative is purely fictional, Bong Joon Ho’s depiction of poverty and class is a harsh reality for many Soeul civilians. New York Times writer Chloe Sang-Hun articulates this well as she describes how “Parasite” “mesmerized viewers around the world by exposing a much grimmer side of South Korea’s economic growth: urban poverty, and the humiliation and class strife it has spawned.” 

Kim Ssang-seok is a 63-year-old taxi driver who has known the reality of urban poverty for decades. In an interview with the New York Times, he explains how he will only see sunlight in his apartment for 30 minutes of the day and struggles to fight against the cockroaches and smell of sewage that lingers in his home. He experiences the constant anxiety that the city will remove his neighborhood to replace it with towering apartment buildings to add to the growing Seoul skyline. 

The Power of Storytelling

Although “Parasite” is a fictional story, the poignant theme of poverty is far from fictional; it is an important issue that must be addressed. Storytelling, in this case through film, is a key component in pushing towards social change. Through storytelling, important issues surrounding global poverty can reach audiences that otherwise would not educate themselves on global issues like Seoul’s urban poor. Entertainment is powerful in its ability to start a conversation and alter individuals’ beliefs and attitudes regarding social issues. Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” is a perfect example of this and the reason why everyone should watch the film. 

– Poppy Harris
Photo: Flickr

Hunger in North KoreaAt first glance, the web of circumstances causing hunger in North Korea today seems impossible to untangle. The tangle has only grown in size and solidity since North Korea collectivized its agriculture in the 1950s. The country accomplished this transition without encountering the deadly food shortages suffered by other communist dictatorships, but it involved yoking nearly its entire food supply to tactics that, both literally and figuratively, eroded the ground under its feet.

The North Korean regime cleared away vegetation from mountains and hillsides to create more farmland, deforesting much of the countryside and leaving it more vulnerable to floods, erosion and drought. It made vital parts of its food infrastructure (chemical fertilizer factories, tractors, irrigation pumps and trucks for distributing grain) dependent on the importation of cheap, subsidized fuel from the Soviet Union. In 1957 it outlawed the trade of grain and devoted itself to outsized military spending and its founding communist ideology of self-sufficiency (Juche).

These elements came to a fatal head five decades later at a time when the country was possibly producing less than 60% of its food needs. Soviet petroleum subsidies ceased in 1989 and left the North Korean agricultural infrastructure without enough fuel to operate. Monsoons came in late June 1995 and flooded the now largely unobstructed countryside, drowned a quarter of North Korea’s rice paddies and covered some parts of the country in twenty-three inches of rain. Famine killed between 600,000 and two million North Koreans between 1995 and 1999 — 3-5% of the total population.

Attempts at Reform and Modern Hunger

Internal efforts to reform from 1996 to 2016 strained toward self-sufficiency without achieving it. Kim Jong Il’s 1996 reforms underestimated the country’s dependence on chemical fertilizer and the hegemony’s unwillingness to actively support reform. In 2012, Kim Jong Un instituted the Field Responsibility System (FRS), allowing farmers to keep any grain they produced in excess of their quota. His five-year plan, released in 2016, targeted an annual grain and fertilizer output of 8 million and 2.3 million tons respectively.

This growth required a 30% increase in grain output from 2014, but figures from the Food and Agricultural Organization suggest the target of 8 million tons was not reached. Farmers from the North who had come to South Korea were unaware that FRS reforms had even occurred, and despite efforts to increase domestic fertilizer production, over 250,000 tons had to be imported until 2018. In the meantime, the regime urged farmers to rely more on organic fertilizer. Chemical fertilizer production peaked in 1979 at 2.91 million tons. The output of cereals also peaked at just over 65 million tons in 1979. In the 44 years since, North Korea has never produced more.

Hunger in North Korea continues unabated. Citing Chinese customs data, a CNN report from March 3, 2023, shows the country exporting roughly 56 million kilograms of wheat and flour, along with 53,280 kilograms of cereals to North Korea in 2022. Seoul’s Rural Development Agency estimates that from 2021 to 2022 crop yields dropped by 4%. A clandestine source quoted in the South Korean paper Daily NK on Nov. 21, 2022, opens an urgent window on the subjective experience of hunger in North Korea today. “People with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep are roaming around trains stations, markets and the streets, but neither the city party committee nor the people’s committee are taking measures to deal with it.”

Reasons for Hope

Despite all this, Peter Ward, writing for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs in January 2023, begins to outline reasons for hope. North Koreans are resilient and resourceful. Surveys of refugees suggest they are getting much of their food by cultivating the sloping land in regions normally considered inhospitable to crops. This resourcefulness, combined with allowing farmers greater freedom to choose what they plant and tillage rights to their land might generate an increased productivity that could not only spur similar productivity in related industries (chemical fertilizer production) but give rural households a greater ability to purchase imported goods.

Furthermore, the World Food Program’s 2021 brief shows a substantial number of North Koreans directly benefiting from its efforts. From January to March of 2021, it distributed 891.5 metric tons of fortified food (food with added vitamins and nutrients) and 4,970 metric tons of raw food commodities to 566,886 people. This accounts for less than 3% of the country’s total population, but it is an impressive figure considering it was achieved in the teeth of a countrywide COVID-19 response that locked down North Korea’s borders with deadly force, closed many public and child institutions and eventually left no U.N. international staff in the country since March 2021.

Internal movements towards reform, continued international assistance and trade as the COVID-19 pandemic abates, and the resilience of the nation’s people are the hands inside and out that must continue to untangle hunger in North Korea, a problem that only seems unsolvable when the initial despair it inspires is not pushed through.

– John Merino
Photo: Flickr

Gender Wage Gap in North KoreaThe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known as North Korea, employs a command-centralized economy, with the state controlling all aspects of production and outcomes. In this isolated, militarized, patriarchal society, an intriguing fact emerges: Women wield more economic power. 

It is surprising that North Korea has a relatively small gender wage gap compared to many other countries, challenging common assumptions. However, there is a need to approach these findings with caution due to limited access to inside information about North Korea. Nevertheless, the available information offers intriguing insights into the economic dynamics within the country.

North Korea’s Economy Throughout History

During the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to a close, North Korea’s attempted economic recovery failed. This economic decline led to a devastating famine, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands to millions of lives. In the aftermath of these disasters, women took up the task of selling mushrooms and scrap copper cables to provide for their families and achieve sustenance.

As the hope for state rations dwindled, North Koreans turned to the informal economy, and it was here that women thrived. Despite the continued dominance of men in society, the military and the government, reports stated that “women earned more than 70% of household income…mainly as traders in the informal markets.”

According to numerous defectors from North Korea, women’s business skills and their ability to sell goods and services accurately reflect the living standards of the country, rather than the influence of the state or the military power of men. Consequently, the once male-dominated society needs to recognize the increasing influence and significance of women, who have emerged as the primary drivers of economic activity within the state. This transformation has led to a remarkable reversal of the gender wage gap in North Korea.

However, despite their entrepreneurial success within North Korea, defectors who flee to South Korea encounter yet another economic hurdle as they face discrimination in the job market.

Discrimination and Violence Against Women

In addition to the economic burdens they face, women in North Korea also actively experience gender inequality, as they confront daily discrimination that is socially accepted as an inevitable part of their lives. From a young age, society teaches girls to adhere to stereotypical gender roles, a practice prevalent in many countries and cultures, emphasizing their inherent differences and the contrasting standards they will be held to.

Moreover, social structures perpetuate discrimination against women on a daily basis, beyond disparities in education and unfair job opportunities. They are expected to use honorific forms of speech when addressing boys, reinforcing gender hierarchies. These detailed expectations persist throughout the lives of North Korean girls, extending from school to work, marriage and even the later stages of life.

Unfortunately, gender inequality represents just one aspect of the challenges that women in North Korea face. They also confront unaddressed issues of domestic violence, often dismissed as “private matters.” It is disheartening that only when such incidents occur in public do they have a chance of receiving some semblance of justice, yet most cases go unreported.

Ongoing Support

North Korea is an isolated country with strict border control measures in place to prevent foreign influence. However, despite the country’s isolation, there exist indirect channels through which aid can reach the citizens of North Korea.

One notable organization is Crossing Borders, a nonprofit organization that provides safety, counseling and medical care to North Korean refugees through its Refugee Care and Orphan Care programs. Supporting these initiatives would offer much-needed assistance to those in need.

Another organization making a difference is Helping Hands Korea, a Christian non-governmental organization located on the Korean Peninsula. Established in 1996, Helping Hands Korea, led by Tim and Sunmi Peters, has partnered with various international organizations to address the urgent needs of vulnerable individuals in the North Korean population. The organization plays a crucial role in providing aid to North Koreans during times of crisis.

Looking Ahead

The gender wage gap in North Korea exhibits intriguing dynamics where women hold significant power despite the isolated, militarized and patriarchal nature of the society. Although the limited access to information about North Korea necessitates caution, it is crucial to continue to address the challenging issues that hardly come to light. And efforts to support organizations like Crossing Borders and Helping Hands Korea can provide much-needed aid to vulnerable individuals in North Korea and contribute to positive change.

– Sandy Kang
Photo: Flickr

HIV/AIDS in North KoreaFor years, North Korean authorities have claimed that the country is free of AIDS/HIV. In an article published on December 1, 2015, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, confirmed that the country has not found a single case of AIDS/HIV infection, thanks to “the best medical system and people’s policy.” The article noted, “The country will continue to strengthen health supervision for HIV/AIDS prevention to protect the lives and health of the people.”

However, a team of researchers from North Korea and the United States did not believe the rhetoric of North Korea’s health authorities and conducted an independent study. Their findings show that there are currently about 8,400 HIV/AIDS in North Korea, with the first case having been detected in 1999. And the number of HIV/AIDS infections has been increasing dramatically over the past few years.

Unusual Trust

Science Magazine exclusively reports that this unusual collaborative investigation between North Korea and the United States began back in 2013. Taehoon Kim, one of the organization’s founders, said that starting in 2015, North Korea’s Center for Infectious Disease Control began documenting the spread of HIV and found that the number of people infected in the country had been climbing over the past decade. In September 2018, North Korea’s National AIDS Committee completed a questionnaire survey involving the entire country, a move that also illustrates the severity of the spread of HIV in the country. According to the North Korea National AIDS Committee, the main routes of HIV transmission in the country are blood donation and injection drug use.

“The Yellow Tide of Capitalism”

According to CNnews Chosun, as the North Korean regime’s ruling power continues to weaken and economic difficulties persist — the sex trade, drug abuse and human trafficking are spreading within the country. The North Korean regime calls these phenomena the “yellow tide of capitalism” and strictly controls them. However, according to the information available to South Korean intelligence agencies, the phenomenon has spread, centering on the border area between the two Koreas.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, drugs have spread throughout the country. The circulation is growing rapidly as drug factories have appeared in the Soonan area of Pyongyang and the city of Moonchon in Gangwon Province to earn foreign currency, and some residents are secretly involved in drug manufacturing.

A former resident of North Korea who is currently residing in South Korea said, “There is a ‘drug craze’ in North Korean society, including party cadres. Some wealthy people use drugs to lose weight, and residents use drugs when they have a stomach ache, catch a cold or are tired from work, making drugs a ‘cure-all’ in the country. This is often accompanied by the frequent emergence of the local sex trade, which has even been organized since around 2005. Recently, there has been an increase in the number of university students engaging in the sex trade, and high-ranking officials are receiving ‘services’ from those students.”

A Growing Problem

North Korean officials initially asked the U.S.-based DoDaum organization to keep the spread of HIV in the country a secret. But as the situation worsened, the partnership’s liaison, Taehoon Kim, the director for foreign relations at the North Korean Ministry of Health and a physician by training, finally broke his silence. He said, “Although reports that North Korea has a problem with HIV transmission may cause a backlash from the central government because they are all afraid of infectious diseases. But a cover-up and silence will only make the lack of treatment worse.”

Nonetheless, some reports suggest that the disease may be more prevalent than officially acknowledged, particularly among high-risk groups such as injection drug users and commercial sex workers. It is important to note that poverty and economic hardships have been significant challenges for the country’s population. The limited access to health care, lack of resources and overall economic difficulties could potentially hinder effective prevention, treatment and support for individuals living with HIV/AIDS in North Korea.

External Assistance

Since the mid-1990s, a number of non-profit and charitable NGOs have been active in North Korea. Although relatively limited in scope, their work has attracted the interest of U.S. policymakers because of the extreme isolation of the regime in Pyongyang. A number of US and international NGOs have provided assistance to the DPRK in areas such as humanitarian aid, development, health, informal diplomacy, science, communication and education. A relatively new trend is the growing number of NGOs, particularly in North Korea, which are run by or operate in conjunction with North Korean defectors.

In 2013, North Korean researchers approached DoDaum, a US-based non-profit organization that conducts health and education projects in the country and has agreed to help study the spread of HIV/AIDS in North Korea. However, according to Kim Tae-Hoon, co-founder of DoDaum, only 30-40% of the drugs used to treat the virus cross the border between China and North Korea due to strict international sanctions. Researchers are now calling on the international community to provide further assistance to North Korea to fight AIDS, including the provision of antiretroviral drugs to treat those infected and support for the rebuilding of the country’s health system.

– Jiayi Liu
Photo: Unsplash

Elderly Poverty in North KoreaNorth Korea, a highly centralized totalitarian state with a population of nearly 25 million people, is a country that constitutes the northern half of the Korean Peninsula in East Asia. Over the past few decades, the country’s economy has faced significant challenges, including a scarcity of resources, international sanctions and self-imposed isolation. From 2012 to 2018, the country had an estimated poverty rate of 60% with significant fluctuations at the national level. Consequently, the country faces an aging population and a decline in the younger population caused by low birth rates. Despite its centrally planned economy, job stability in the workforce does not provide enough income, resulting in elderly poverty in North Korea.

3 Facts About Elderly Poverty in North Korea

  1. Increasing Rate of Poverty Risk Among the Elderly Population: North Korea’s elderly population, aged above 65 years, is rapidly rising. In 2008, the aging population increased from 5.3% to 8.5%, predicting a growth of 14% by 2033. Increasing demand to assist the elderly population in a country with low economic growth and sustained workforce opportunities brings income and health concerns.

  2. Limited Pension System: North Korea has a limited pension system. It provides minimal support in providing financial assistance to the elderly. Reports from Radio Free Asia (RFA) indicate that the social security pension offers about 1,000 won per month. This is around $0.12. Many elderly citizens are unable to cover basic living expenses with limited income, leading them to remain in poverty and hindering their retirement plans.

  3. Housing Conditions: Many elderly individuals live in poor housing conditions due to a lack of proper infrastructure. This leads to inadequate heating and structural issues. Roughly 90% of North Korea’s housing environment was constructed between the 1950s and 1990s. This was to solve the resulting housing crisis after the damage of numerous facilities and buildings during the Korean War in 1953.

Efforts of North Korean Authorities to Address Elderly Poverty

According to sources from Daily NK, an initiative was implemented by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the North Korean communist party’s Central Committee to identify and register the homeless elderly population aged 60 years and above. It strived to build new facilities for nursing homes, aiming to provide care and support for abandoned or neglected elderly individuals. Nevertheless, North Korean citizens expressed concern regarding the initiative, with the possibility of elderly residents feeling compelled to return to their families despite the lack of resources to ensure proper caregiving. Additionally, there are speculations of potential mistreatment or neglect in the absence of familial support.

Efforts by NGOs in Alleviating Poverty

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) strive to mitigate the struggles endured by the elderly population in North Korea. Although the government gives limited information on solutions, these NGOs endeavor to improve the quality of life for the elderly by providing assistance through their food aid program and awareness-raising initiatives.

Helping Hands Korea (HHK) is a Christian NGO that was founded by Tim and Sunmi Peters in Seoul. Since 1996, it has addressed the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of North Koreans in crisis. One of its projects aims to provide food, medicine and clothing to the most vulnerable in society, especially the elderly.

Other initiatives focus on promoting elderly poverty awareness to encourage governmental priorities and bring elicit action on the potential policies. In 2020, the United Nations released the “Needs and Priorities Plan.” It targeted the provision of humanitarian assistance while implementing sustainable development goals. It aims to give food and nutritional support to 3.3 million people in North Korea. The plan also will give health services to 5.5 million people and clean water and sanitation to 300,000 people.

Looking Ahead

North Korea is making efforts to overcome its challenges to improve its economy. While it may not be in the government’s best interest, collaboration with international organizations supports the funding of elderly poverty. With continued effort, North Korea could achieve a future that is free of elderly poverty. And this can potentially improve living conditions and reduce the burden on younger generations.

– Cherine Jang
Photo: Flickr

Food Systems in North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened an emergency meeting to discuss agriculture in February 2023, as the country faces growing concerns about food insecurity. Kim only holds these meetings once or twice a year, but it had only been two months since the previous one. Though the regime refutes such claims, the recurrent meetings may point to pressing circumstances concerning the food systems in North Korea.

Persistent Effects of a Devastating 1990s Famine

A famine in the mid-1990s killed more than 3% of the population. The effects of this famine still persist within food systems in North Korea today. Additionally, according to media reports, the situation has only worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic, with the enforcement of more border closures. The regime resorted to reserving available resources for only military developments.

North Korea also suffers from a lack of agricultural infrastructure, including fuel and fertilizers, which have become more expensive as a result of the pandemic. Chemical fertilizers, especially, appear to be in shortage in the country as the sowing season approaches.

In December 2022, the South Korean development agency estimated a 3.8% decrease in the North’s crop production since 2021. The South’s Unification Ministry commented on the current food crisis as “seemed to have deteriorated,” although North Korea’s regime refuses any claims that infer its incapacity to provide enough food for the population. 

The country’s lack of arable land is partly responsible for its food insecurity crisis. The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC reports that only 20% of the land appears to be suitable for agricultural production. The extreme weather and constant flooding may have also destroyed some of the existing plantations.

International Humanitarian Aid in North Korea

Despite the food insecurity problem in North Korea, the country’s regime refuses international aid. A local newspaper Rodong Sinmun even described foreign aid as “poisoned candy.” However, China, a long-standing ally, has agreed to restart a small portion of railway transport of various goods, including medicine, fertilizers and food between the two countries. One of North Korea’s only options is to restart the whole railway trade, but the Chinese government seems reluctant.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the living conditions of North Koreans appear to have worsened significantly. The economic isolation greatly limits the chances of international humanitarian aid, and the border closures have only affected the country negatively. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), North Korea only accepted about $2.3 million in aid from international organizations in 2022. Most of the aid came from European countries, with $1.6 million from Switzerland, $510,000 and $200,000 from the Swedish and Norwegian Red Cross respectively.

Hope for Economic Relief in North Korea

The hope for the current food systems in North Korea lies in lifting the economic sanctions imposed on the country. Ongoing tensions between North Korea and the U.S., along with its allies, are due to the country’s possession of nuclear weapons and political clashes. The dissolution of this tension could partially address the country’s food insecurity. If North Korea can trade with countries other than China and Russia, it would have access to resources that could solve some of the problems related to food scarcity, although the country has shown no such effort.

Organizations like Liberty in North Korea and World Food Programme (WFP) are working towards helping the country’s population through various initiatives. For example, WFP is operating the DPRK Interim Country Strategic Plan (2019-2023) that proposed a plan to improve nutrition for children under 7 years of age, pregnant and lactating women and tuberculosis patients by 2025. While it is difficult to predict the outcome at this stage, sustained humanitarian assistance in North Korea can lead to positive outcomes.

– Amber Kim
Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in North Korea
Human trafficking in North Korea is a cause of concern. According to the 2022 Trafficking in Persons report by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), North Korea does not meet the “minimum requirements for the elimination of trafficking.” North Korea ranks as a Tier 3 country in terms of efforts to end trafficking, which is the lowest rank possible.

Prison Camps

According to the  2022 TIP report, North Korea holds between 80,000 and 120,000 people in political prison camps and an “undetermined number of persons” reside in other types of confinement facilities, like re-education camps.

There are no official charges against many of these prisoners and authorities have not undertaken fair sentencing processes. All prisoners in these camps, including children, endure extreme working conditions through forced labor in areas such as mining, agriculture and logging for excessive amounts of time.

“In many cases, the government also detains all family members if one member is accused or arrested,” the report says. Children in the camps also undertake forced labor for as much as 12 hours daily and lack access to proper education. Conditions in these prisons are dire and prisoners face physical abuse, torture, hunger and inadequate medical care. The report highlights that “many prisoners do not survive.”

Child Labor in North Korea

From a tender age, North Korean children are forced into labor, including “agricultural labor support, item collection and construction work,” according to PSCORE. Children residing in prison camps, orphanages and relief shelters also engage in forced child labor.

The types of child labor typically vary according to season. In spring, children plant corn, sow seeds and collect certain beans and sunflower seeds. During summer, children must “remove grass and lay rocks to build railways,” use soil to mold bricks and collect certain nuts. Autumn’s activities involve agricultural support and collecting scrap iron and scrap paper. In winter, children work in mines and transport soil.

Agricultural Labor, Item Collection and Construction

Agricultural labor support is a term that describes compulsory farm work, such as harvesting, sowing, planting and weeding. “The government mobilizes children through the education system and sends them to local farms [that partner with schools]. Farm work is considered an essential component of the school curriculum and the work is unpaid,” PSCORE highlights.

The government also obligates students to collect specific items, such as scrap iron. Scrap iron is almost non-existent in the country yet failures to meet item quotas result in beatings and verbal abuse.

Students must also participate in building projects and performances on national holidays, such as the birthdays of the country’s leaders. Performances for Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un require the work of 50,000 children for six to 12 months. The children are tasked with flipping cards to create a colorful and dynamic site in honor of the leaders. The children practice the routine in extreme heat, which results in “casualties among the children.”

Students must also take part in construction products regarding “municipal infrastructure, school buildings, railroad repair and even private housing of school personnel.” The children engage in hazardous labor and, at times, “must also make or bring the materials necessary for construction at their own expense,” PSCORE says.

Forced Labor Abroad

North Korea does not only subject victims to exploitation within the country but also abroad. In 2015, the government had more than 50,000 citizens working abroad in Russia, China, Africa and the Middle East. The purpose of these workers is to earn money overseas to counteract the international sanctions countries impose on North Korea. The North Koreans abroad work for as many as 10 to 12 hours, six days a week. The government takes a bulk of their pay, 90%, which garners around $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion a year for North Korea, Reuters reported in 2016.

Help for North Koreans

Liberty in North Korea is an organization that provides support to North Koreans seeking refuge in other countries, such as South Korea. It also provides help to victims of human trafficking. The organization’s website tells the story of Joy. Via a broker, Joy left North Korea in search of a better life in China. The broker turned out to be a trafficker who sold her as a bride for $3,000. After some years, Joy safely made it to South Korea in 2013 with the help of Liberty in North Korea. Joy is currently studying social work and endeavors to help other North Korean women in situations of trafficking.

Though limited efforts are underway to address human trafficking in North Korea, the work of organizations like Liberty in North Korea is making a difference. By advocating and mobilizing to end human trafficking in North Korea, organizations can uphold the rights of North Koreans.

– David Keenan
Photo: Unsplash

North Korean Defectors in China
Every year, thousands of North Korean nationals attempt to escape their home country, fleeing from poverty, famine, forced labor and political persecution. Many smuggle into China, as it represents the best chance of escape in comparison to the highly guarded South Korean border. Unfortunately, once in China, defectors are hardly safe. The questionable legal status and vulnerability of these North Koreans make them uniquely susceptible to human trafficking, sex slavery, forced marriages, prostitution and more. These rampant human rights violations in China happen across the country, leaving hundreds of thousands of victims suffering in silence.

Living Conditions in North Korea

For many, the living conditions in North Korea are so grievous that they would rather take their chances in China than stay. According to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, North Korea has detained “an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 persons in political prison camps and an undetermined number of persons in other forms of detention facilities, including re-education through labor camps.” Regularly, authorities hold these citizens without any formal criminal charge, trial or conviction. Reports also indicated many cases of detention of accused persons’ family members.

Inside the prison camps, everyone from children to the elderly is “subject to forced labor, including logging, mining, manufacturing or farming for long hours under harsh conditions.” Children get little to no access to education and all prisoners face routine beatings, sexual assault, unhygienic living conditions and insufficient food or medical attention. Closing its borders, North Korea made it impossible to gauge exact numbers, but many do not survive this treatment.

Even outside detention facilities, living conditions are bleak. Since the Arduous March of the 1990s, millions of North Koreans have died from starvation. Largely attributed to a Stalinist economic system and Russia and China’s halted food and oil subsidies to North Korea after the Cold War, this period of sweeping destitution caused a massive spike in migration. Though the estimated rates of defection have slowed since then, starvation is still an issue across North Korea and a prominent reason for an escape to China.

Life in China

The pervasive human rights violations North Korean defectors face in China are appalling. Victims face sexual assault and kidnapping and are often part of perpetually abusive situations. A 2019 report by Korea Future Initiative alleges that tens of thousands of North Korean women and girls become a part of the sex trade and sale–an industry that generates roughly $105 million annually.

This report also revealed that “an estimated 60% of female North Korean refugees in China are trafficked into the sex trade. Of that number, close to 50% are forced into prostitution, over 30% sold into a forced marriage, and 15% pressed into cybersex,” according to Forbes.

Prostitution in China reportedly accounts for about 6% of China’s GDP. Cybersex trafficking is becoming a more prevalent issue, with girls as young as 9 years old becoming victims in front of cameras live-streaming to a global audience.

Forced marriage has long been a practice of abusers of this vulnerable population. China’s “long-standing one-child policy and penchant for sons have resulted in a massive gender imbalance, making it challenging for Chinese men to find wives.” The physical and psychological abuse of “bride trafficking” that victims face is often overwhelming.

What is more, victims of these atrocities are unable to speak up. A simple recognition as a North Korean national has dire consequences, primarily due to China’s ruthless repatriation policy. If Chinese authorities discover them, they forcibly return trafficking victims to North Korea, “where they are subject to harsh punishment, including forced labor in labor camps, torture, forced abortions” or even executions, according to the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report. Many choose to endure the conditions in China rather than face retribution from their native country.

Legal Gray Area

The legal status of North Korean escapees is a major contributor to their unique vulnerability. They are typically classified between categories in international law that divide migrants into “deserving and undeserving groups–forced or voluntary, political refugee or economic migrant, trafficked or smuggled.”

North Koreans usually want to leave their country, making them arguably complicit with their smugglers. Therefore, many perceive them more like ‘economic migrants,’ defined as “smuggled” instead of “trafficked.”

The U.N. Protocol on Trafficking calls on governments to protect the victims of trafficking. However, as China classifies North Korean defectors as economic migrants, they do not make any protective efforts, instead opting for their notorious repatriation policy.

Refugee protections would almost certainly benefit these defectors. However, the U.N. defines a refugee as a person who has “fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and has crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” This definition does not include economic migrants, meaning that North Korean defectors do not apply the protections a refugee gets either.

However, according to UNHCR, the same people that China deems “economic migrants” could arguably be considered refugees “sur place” given the “well-founded fear of persecution” and grave consequences they would face upon their return.

All said, there is no perfect classification of North Korean defectors in China, leaving them to fall between the cracks of international law. With no protections, nowhere to turn for help and no resources, their abusers are free to act without consequence.


Some organizations have taken steps to help address these atrocities. The All-China Women’s Federation, an NGO headquartered in Beijing, has established ongoing projects to address and “alleviate the problem, including, in four provinces, the establishment of transfer, training and recovery centers” that have assisted more than a thousand victims to date. China has also hosted a number of Children’s Forums in Beijing to raise awareness for child trafficking, and in 2007, the government agreed to a Plan of Action Combating the Trafficking of Women and Children. 

Nonprofit organizations around the world, such as Crossing Borders and Liberty in North Korea, have done what they can to assist North Korean refugees. However, they are facing pushback due to China’s 2017 Foreign NGO law. The U.N. has called for this law to be repealed, stating it “can be wielded as tools to intimidate, and even suppress, dissenting views and opinions in the country,” E-International Relations reports.

While it is a relief to see governmental and non-governmental organizations taking steps to address this complex and distressing issue, advocates are calling for increased attention and an international response. Some North Korean escapees, such as activist Yeonmi Park, have amassed broad followings by sharing their harrowing stories. By uplifting the voices of these survivors and demanding action, the global community can make a vital difference in the lives of these individuals.

– Carly Ryan Brister
Photo: Unsplash