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North Korea faces a food shortage. How bad is it?

Here’s everything you need to know about the food situation in North Korea

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A man and woman carry their bicycle through farm fields in North Korea.

A man and woman carry their bicycle through farm fields, Saturday, July 25, 2015, in Pyongsong, North Korea. North Korea may be facing a poor harvest and possible food shortages due to unusually light rainfall in some parts of the country so far this year.

Associated Press

North Korea is facing a “tense” food situation, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced in a rare and highly unusual move. Kim publicly and explicitly acknowledged the food crisis at this week’s conference of his ruling party, reported The Associated Press.

  • The announcement is unsurprising due to North Korea’s ongoing economic struggles, according to The New York Times.

The situation inside North Korea is difficult to assess due to the country’s isolation. So far, no signs have indicated that North Koreans are experiencing mass starvation or major instability, reported the AP. However, these remain concerning possibilities.

What is the food situation like in North Korea?

Food, consumer goods and medicine have grown increasingly scarce in North Korea, reported the AP. Families have sold furniture to pay for food as rice prices have risen sharply in recent weeks. The number of homeless children scavenging for food has increased in some parts of the country, said The New York Times.

  • North Korea will face an estimated shortage of around 1 million tons of food, reported The Wall Street Journal.
  • The average North Korean will eat 445 calories less than the recommended 2,100 calorie diet, said The Wall Street Journal.

In the 1990s, North Korea faced a serious famine that led to millions of people dying of starvation, reported The New York Times. This year’s food shortage has not reached that level of severity, according to monitoring experts per The New York Times.

Why is North Korea facing food shortages?

The main reason for North Korea’s current food shortage is the drop in grain production, reported The New York Times. Three factors have contributed to this year’s failed crops: extensive flooding, the coronavirus pandemic and international sanctions.

  • North Korea suffers annual grain shortages but typically fills the gap with imports or foreign aid, typically from China.

Due to COVID-19 outbreaks in China, North Korea closed its border to all trade and foreign aid with the country, said The New York Times.

What happens now? Will anyone help?

Kim’s ruling party has vowed to devote all its effort to reducing food insecurity, said Al Jazeera. However, the country may still need “large-scale food aid” from Beijing, according to  Kwon Tae-jin, a researcher at the Korea Development Institute of the South.

  • “This year, the North’s food shortage is of a scale that it cannot handle on its own,” said  Kwon per The New York Times.

As of yet, North Korea has not formally asked for international aid since Kim wants the country to develop a “self-reliant economy.”