The warnings are severe and come from both inside and outside North Korea. Deserters living in neighboring South Korea told the BBC that their families in the North are starving. As winter approaches, there is concern that the most vulnerable will starve to death.
“Issues like more orphaned children on the streets and death from starvation are continually reported,” said Lee Sang Yong, editor-in-chief of the Daily NK news website, which has sources in North Korea.
“North Korea’s lower classes are increasingly suffering” as the food shortage is worse than expected, Lee said.
Getting information about North Korea is getting harder and harder. The border has been closed since January last year to prevent the spread of Covid-19 from China. Even sending messages from the country to family and friends who have defected to South Korea involves great risk.
Anyone caught with an unauthorized cell phone can be sent to a forced labor camp. Even so, some still try to send letters or voice mail by message to loved ones and to publications in Seoul.
Through these sources, some of which we cannot reveal identity for security reasons, we try to build a picture of what is happening in North Korea.
China, land in the middle
‘Every grain of rice’
North Korea has always struggled with food shortages, but the pandemic has made it worse. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un compared the current situation to the country’s worst disaster of the 1990s, known as the “Arduous March”, where hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation.
For now, the situation doesn’t look so bad—yet. There are some signs of hope. North Korea appears to be preparing to reopen the border with China, but it is unclear how much trade and aid will be needed to repair the economic damage already done to the impoverished country.
This year’s harvest is crucial. Last year’s crops were partially destroyed by a series of typhoons. The United Nations (UN) estimates that the country lacks at least two to three months of food supply.
To make sure this year is as successful as possible, tens of thousands of people have been sent to the fields to help harvest rice and corn, including the army.
Kim Jong-un also ordered that all rice supplies in the country be guaranteed and that everyone who eats should help with the harvest.
“A plan was drawn up to minimize losses in the harvesting process,” says Lee of the Daily NK.
“The government has emphasized that severe punishment will be imposed if evidence of theft or fraud is discovered. An atmosphere of fear has been created.”
Last week, as reported by the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) at a closed-door parliamentary hearing, Kim said he felt “on thin ice due to the economic situation,” according to lawmakers attending the meeting.
The NIS also said the lack of essential medicines and supplies had accelerated the spread of infectious diseases such as typhoid fever.
This growing concern was heightened by the state press, which highlighted measures being taken to prevent damage to crops and posted advertising posters emphasizing efforts to work on food production.
North Korea is facing two main problems with its food supply.
The first is the cultivation methods. Pyongyang may have invested in new military technology and missiles, but it lacks the modern machinery needed for a quick and successful harvest, according to experts.
Choi Yongho of the Korean Institute of Rural Economics told the BBC that “the insufficient presence of agricultural equipment results in low food productivity”.
We managed to see this for ourselves.
From a newly opened lookout point on the western tip of South Korea, with the thriving skyscrapers of Seoul in the background, the BBC report got a good view of the Han River in North Korea. It feels so close—and yet so far away.
I heard a young woman in binoculars comment to her mother that the North Koreans were “a lot like them.”
“They are just like us,” she said.
The farmers, dozens of them, were busy creating bales of rice and carrying them on their backs towards a badly run-down tractor.
A South Korean farmer in Paju, near the demilitarized zone separating the two countries, said it took an hour to harvest the produce from his rice fields with a machine. If he had done this manually, as is done in the North, it would have taken a week, he says.
But along with a lack of agricultural technology and supplies, North Korea faces a much longer-term problem in securing its food supply.
The country has been listed by US intelligence agencies as one of the 11 nations most vulnerable to the effects of global warming, and the limited area it has to plant could be the hardest hit.
“Rice and corn production fluctuations will become more frequent along the west coast, which is North Korea’s historic breadbasket,” says Catherine Dill of the Strategic Risk Board — one of the authors of a recent report on “Converging Crises in North Korea”.
This may explain why Pyongyang sent its UK ambassador to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
“North Korea is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Floods, monsoon rains and typhoons affect the country every year, which directly impacts production and indirectly causes pest problems,” says Choi.
The “Converging Crises” report indicates that this will get much worse in the coming years and that rice production, in particular, will be affected by droughts and floods.
“More intense storms already seem to be affecting North Korea, there are really prominent examples of this in the typhoon seasons of 2020 and 2021. And in terms of rising sea levels, coastal areas will be increasingly at risk,” says Dill .
Although Pyongyang rarely engages with the outside world, it often makes an exception for climate change and the environment.
North Korea worked with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2003 and 2012, and is also a signatory to international treaties, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.
One of the reasons for this engagement in climate change may be its impact on the country’s food production.
The 2012 UNEP report noted that the average temperature in North Korea increased by 1.9°C between 1918 and 2000, one of the fastest warming rates in Asia.
According to a 2019 Green Climate Fund report, average annual temperatures in North Korea are expected to rise further by 2050, between 2.8 and 4.7°C.
In this context, South Korea sees an opportunity for countries to act together on an issue that affects both.
Seoul Environment Minister Han Jeoung-ae told the BBC last week that he hoped to meet his counterpart in Glasgow to talk about inter-Korean collaboration on climate change, but that did not happen.
If the North Korean delegation is listening to the speeches in Scotland, they will know that even when the fear associated with the pandemic subsides and trade with China resumes, with goods flowing back across the border, the country will face a growing crisis that will profoundly affect an already vulnerable population.
And the country will not be able to overcome this alone.