This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea is ordering citizens to start producing their own food to prepare for a long-term food shortage that could last for three years, but ordinary people say that the government is shirking its responsibility, sources in the country told RFA.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a recent report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months of normal demand.
RFA reported in April that authorities were warning residents to prepare for economic difficulties as bad as the 1994-1998 famine which killed millions by some estimates, but experts said that the situation was dire, but nothing like the 1990s.
But now sources say the ruling Korean Workers’ Party is telling the people that they are on their own to find food.
“The Central Committee outlined the policy to prepare for a long-term food shortage at the beginning of this month,” a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA July 2.
“They sent a directive to organizations at all levels, businesses and units in the province to solve the food shortage problem on their own,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The order went from the Central Party to the Provincial Party Committee, according to the source. It emphasizes the seriousness of the food shortage under the prolonged coronavirus emergency.
The major cause of the food crisis is the coronavirus pandemic, which made North Korea and China to close their border and suspend all trade in January 2020, cutting off food imports that could help cover the deficit and making it hard for North Korean farmers to get fertilizer.
U.N Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report in March that the closure of the Sino-Korean border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.”
“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” said the report.
According to the new self-sufficiency directives, factories and businesses are supposed to divert workers to farming.
“They are to work on allotted cooperative farms to overcome the food shortages,” said the source.
“It is worrisome that the party predicts that the coronavirus crisis will last for more than three years and is already talking about a ‘long-term war’ on the food problem,” the source said.
North Korea’s government commonly uses militaristic phrasing to describe government or public efforts to solve problems. A long-term war could indicate that authorities believe the problem will be worse than normal.
“Even if the people should do their part to overcome food shortages in the long-term, it is still too harsh to demand that they should secure their own food when they are already struggling to get food every day,” said the source.
“The authorities initially allocated fields to factories and businesses so they could do some extra work to cultivate vegetables like Asian cabbage and Asian radish for use in side dishes, but this year the authorities have given them additional fields and told them to resolve their food issues themselves,” the source said.
Residents have been complaining about the measure, saying the government is passing the buck onto them, according to the source.
“People are interpreting the state’s orders… as the central government saying it will not provide for the people anymore. They are in despair, saying there is no hope that the food problem can be solved if they are being pushed into food production,” said the source.
“Even if an extra field is added to an organization’s farming territory, it would be difficult to produce even 30 percent of the food needed,” the source said.
Another source, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, confirmed that the orders arrived in the province’s capital city Chongjin for people to secure their own food for the next three years.
“Factory workers have to go to the fields and work with hoes in their hands now,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“These days all the factory workers in Chongjin are concentrating on farm work as they have been mobilized for their factory fields. They are busy right now removing weeds from the fields from the early morning to the late afternoon,” the second source told RFA.
The residents in Chongjin are also complaining, according to the second source, saying that the food shortage there is so bad that they can hardly solve their food issues for the next three days, and being told to survive three years is like a “death sentence.”
“The Highest Dignity stressed that rice is a vital element that maintains the existence and self-reliance of our country, the second source said, using an honorific term to refer to the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.
“But how can an affluent leader and other high-ranking officials understand the reality of the hungry people?” said the second source.
The second source said the longer the border with China remains closed, the closer to rock bottom the people fall.
“The people wonder how many of them should starve to death before the authorities come to their senses.”
The current food crisis in North Korea is shaping up to be the worst humanitarian crisis in Asia, according to Jiro Ishimaru, the founder and chief editor of the Osaka-based Asia Press news outlet that specializes in North Korea.
Ishimaru published a column this week that compared the food crisis to a dam burst, saying that he found it “frustrating that the reality of the situation has not been conveyed to the world.”
“When people run out of cash, they borrow money, rice, or corn from their neighbors or acquaintances. When that becomes difficult, they pawn or sell their household goods,” Ishimaru cited a North Korean source as saying.
“In the neighborhoods, we often see debt collectors barging in and taking away everything, even pot kettles. The only recourse left is to turn to crime or, in the case of women, prostitution. In the end, they sell their houses.”
The column described an increase in kotjebi, or homeless street beggars, many of whom are either abandoned children or the elderly, and said there will be many more to come because North Korea is in the part of the year where food reserves are running out before the fall harvest.
One source told the outlet that it was common to see people collapsed from malnutrition in the streets.
The 1990’s famine was the result of economic mismanagement and the sudden collapse of North Korea’s patron, the Soviet Union. As much as 10 percent of the North Korean population of 23 million at the time lost their lives, according to some estimates, while hundreds of thousands of people fled to China.