Human rights activists assert that North Korea is currently facing a severe food shortage, leading to widespread starvation and fatalities across the country, including its capital, Pyongyang.
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Starting in June 2023, the distribution of food rations to military officers, security officers (ordinary police), and security guards (political police) was halted. This decision followed the discontinuation of food rations to their families in November 2022. Even soldiers are suffering from hunger due to the scarcity of food. Surprisingly, the famine situation has received little coverage from the news media in Japan and South Korea.
A group of North Korean human rights activists who defected to South Korea maintain continuous communication with local sources. Among them is Kim Seong Min, the Director of Free North Korea Radio, which provides shortwave radio broadcasting services for North Koreans. In early July, Kim received information from multiple sources about the dire famine in the country, and I would like to share that information here.
Failed Food Rationing System
The food rationing system in North Korea experienced a complete collapse following the devastating “Arduous March,” which saw over three million people perish from 1995 to around 1998. Since then, the country’s food rationing system has been non-existent.
In July 2002, the Kim Jong Il regime increased the national price of rice from ₩0.08 KPW (roughly $0.0001 USD) to ₩44 KPW ($0.05 USD) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to reflect its actual cost. The intention was to make rice available at ration stations, but rationing never resumed.
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With the exception of Pyongyang residents, North Koreans have not received rations since the mid-1990s. They only receive a small amount of free food during the New Year’s holidays and on the birthdays of late dictators Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Fighting to Stay Alive
People have been left with no alternative but to purchase rice at changmadang (markets) where prices hover around ₩5,000 KPW per kilogram (2.2 pounds). This exorbitant cost is over 100 times higher than the national prices, forcing people to resort to selling their own goods in these markets as a means of survival.
Following the 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in January 2021, the Kim Jong Un regime implemented a new food system aimed at controlling prices and distribution. They established food sales stations across the country, where food was sold at 20-30% cheaper than market prices.
However, the food crisis intensified due to the impact of economic sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, all produced grains were redirected to the military, the security department, and central Pyongyang. As a result, from 2021 to mid-2022, households in rural areas received a meager 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of food per month through sales stations, varying depending on the region.
Halt in Food Supply to High-Ranking Officials
The situation deteriorated even further in 2023. Starting in January, the supply of rice was completely cut off at food sales stations nationwide, including most areas in Pyongyang. Among the city’s 19 districts and 4 counties, 13 districts and all 4 counties suspended food supply through sales stations.
In the remaining six central districts (Jung, Pothonggang, Moranbong, Songyo, Taedonggang, and Mangyongdae), rice was supplied through food sales stations until they were closed in May. High-ranking officials of the Workers’ Party and the government used to receive food from exclusive supply stations until supplies ceased in June.
Military officers, security officers, and security guards received 700 grams (1.5 pounds) of food rations per person per day until May, but this was suspended in June 2023. Similarly, distributions to their families (500 grams or 1.1 pounds per person per day) have stopped since around November 2022. Some central government agencies and factories have taken matters into their own hands by purchasing food independently and distributing it to their employees.
Behind the tales of bravery and the dreams of a better life lies a haunting reality. The journey of North Korean defectors, marked by perilous escapes and courageous aspirations, is far from the end of their struggles.
North Korea is currently experiencing a new “Arduous March,” with many people succumbing to diseases, starvation, and the harsh winter conditions, even in the capital, Pyongyang.