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