Kim’s surprising admission follows his call in April to “wage another more difficult ‘Arduous March,’” a reference to the country’s massive famine of the 1990s. Given the rarity of any negative reporting in North Korean media, these acknowledgments may signal how extremely grave the country’s food situation is.
Media reports, citing sources in North Korea, indicate the country’s elites, already prioritized by the government, are suffering food insecurity, and that there are reports of soldiers going hungry and some units sending more financially secure soldiers home to bring back food for their units. Ordinary Pyongyang residents reportedly stopped receiving government rations in mid-April, as major price hikes have been seen for fuel and foods, even in Pyongyang where the central government prioritizes price stability and product availability.
Despite the worrying situation, Kim suggested borders will remain shut, keeping essential imports of food and supplies from entering the country, stating the state will maintain its “perfect anti-epidemic state under the present condition.”
North Korea relies heavily on (official and unofficial) imports and aid from China to fill gaps that local food production can’t cover, and to supply other basic necessities. All of these signs suggest North Korean may be facing an extremely bleak future, especially for those in at-risk groups, like orphans, the homeless, older people, children, or detainees and prisoners.
The added concern is that Kim may be attempting to continue taking advantage of the Covid-19 restrictions to increase his already firm grip on power by recreating the situation that existed decades ago, when all North Korean citizens were entirely dependent on the government for food and supplies. The world should take notice, offer food assistance, and remind Kim that refusing citizens access to humanitarian assistance and allowing massive food shortages are exactly the steps that led to mass famines in the 1990s. Those policies were so serious that a later United Nations commission of inquiry determined the government had committed crimes against humanity.