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North Korea tells hungry citizens to ‘tighten belts’ until 2025

Inscription stone marking the border of China and North Korea in Jilin (Prince Roy/WikiCommons)
October 31, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea is telling citizens to tighten their belts through at least 2025, the year they will reopen the border with China which they closed last year to ward off the coronavirus, causing severe food shortages, sources in the country told RFA.

After the government informed citizens to expect more years of hardship, people complained that they might not be able to last through the coming winter–much less hold out through the middle of the decade.

“Two weeks ago, they told the neighborhood watch unit meeting that our food emergency would continue until 2025. Authorities emphasized that the possibility of reopening customs between North Korea and China before 2025 was very slim,” a resident of the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, across from China’s Dandong, told RFA’s Korean Service Oct. 21.

“The food situation right now is already clearly an emergency, and the people are struggling with shortages. When the authorities tell them that they need to conserve and consume less food until 2025… they can do nothing but feel great despair,” said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Chronically short of food, the country of 25 million has seen starvation deaths in the wake of the closure of the Sino-Korean border and suspension of trade with China in January 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The move devastated the North Korean economy, causing food prices to skyrocket without imports from China covering the gap between domestic food production and demand.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization projected in a recent report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months’ consumption. The UN World Food Program estimates that about 40% of North Korea’s population is undernourished.

North Korea faulted factors beyond its control for its inability to achieve food self-sufficiency and other sustainable development goals in a recent Voluntary National Review for the United Nations.

“The continued sanctions and blockade on the DPRK, severe natural disasters that hit the country every year and the protracted world health crisis since 2020 are main obstacles to the Government’s efforts to achieve the sustainable development of the country and improve the people’s livelihood,” the report said.

Though UN and U.S. sanctions restrict the trade of certain goods that could generate cash and resources into Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, the border closure restricts all trade, and it has made finding their next meal difficult for many North Koreans.

The people were looking forward to the border reopening and had been hoping it would happen soon, according to the Sinuiju resident.

“Distrust and resentment of the authorities is rampant among the residents because at the meeting they said we should reduce the amount of food we eat and tighten our belts more than ever,” the source said.

“Some of the residents are saying that the situation right now is so serious they don’t know if they can even survive the coming winter. They say that telling us to endure hardship until 2025 is the same as telling us to starve to death,” said the source.

When the same bleak food message was delivered to residents of Hoeyrong, the northeastern border city of 150,000 people, officials tried to spin it as the country’s successful management of the pandemic in a world ravaged by coronavirus, a resident told RFA.

“They said at the meeting that the coronavirus situation in other countries was so bad. The number of coronavirus-related deaths is rapidly increasing every day around the world,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“But the residents do not trust the authorities’ explanation, saying, ‘No matter how difficult the situation is, where on Earth could there be people going through more difficulty than we are?’” the second source said.

The people criticize the government for doing nothing to solve the food crisis and worry that the border will remain closed even if they are dying of starvation, according to the second source.

“Criticism is coming out that the government’s emphasis on saving food might be because the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is not aware of how serious the food situation is,” the second source said.

“Residents are already struggling to get by and have already tightened their belts as much as possible. They resent the unrealistic demands of the authorities, asking how much tighter they could possibly tighten their belts,” said the second source.

The North Korean government has been pushing its mantra of self-reliance since the beginning of this year. One of leader Kim Jong Un’s key messages in the eighth congress of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in January was for the country to decrease dependence on imports and solve its own problems.

In April, authorities told them to prepare for an economic situation worse than the Arduous March, the Korean name for the 1994-1998 famine that killed millions, as many as 10 percent of the country by some estimates.

In July, the Central Committee ordered citizens to start farming their own food in anticipation of a food shortage that could last three years.

Sources said that citizens were resentful because the government was shirking its responsibilities to the people, simply telling them that they were on their own to feed themselves without doing anything to solve the problem.