In the second half of June 2023, a wave of claims hit the world media that North Korea was allegedly experiencing a famine comparable to the Arduous March of the 1990s. A BBC article supposedly based on covert interviews with anonymous sources straight from North Korea (DPRK) and a documentary film based on the same material were the driving elements.
The BBC has been for months surreptitiously conversing with three North Koreans residing in the country, revealing “the disaster unfolding there since the government closed its borders more than three years ago.” Naturally, the names of the respondents who were eager to “tell the world about the disastrous consequences of the border closure” were changed, and the communication took place thanks to “Daily NK,” a Seoul-based online news outlet that has a network of insider sources.
The stories were made in the “horrors in the north” tradition, and contained many heart-wrenching stories like…
- “The food situation has never been this bad,” and people without jobs or who have lost their jobs are starving to death in families even in Pyongyang. This is due to the fact that when officials closed the borders in January 2020, they stopped importing grain from China, as well as the fertilizer and machinery needed to grow the crops.
- There are many beggars in the streets of Pyongyang: some lying down – starved to death already, and the bodies are not being picked up.
- During the outbreak of the alleged coronavirus, those with “fever” were essentially locked in their homes for 10 days; many old people and children died. Whole towns and streets were blockaded, and “people were screaming, saying they would starve to death, and for a few days the government released some rice from its stockpile in case of emergency.”
- The nation’s outdated hospitals were unable to provide care for those who got the illness. Even the basic medications have run out. The official government recommendation was to employ traditional remedies to relieve symptoms.
- “A ‘doctor I know’ told” one respondent that about one in 550 people died in every neighborhood in Pyongyang. This results in more than 45,000 victims when extrapolated to the entire nation, which is hundreds of times more than the official death toll of 74. But every person who died from the coronavirus was assigned a different cause of death, be it tuberculosis or cirrhosis of the liver.
- Satellite images analyzed by the NGO Human Rights Watch show that authorities have spent the past three years building multiple walls, fences and guard posts to fortify the border, making it almost impossible to escape.
- Simply trying to contact people outside the country is becoming increasingly dangerous. In the past, people living near the border could discreetly call foreign countries by connecting to Chinese mobile networks using Chinese phones that were brought into the country illegally. Now their owners are being asked to surrender amicably at meetings of “people’s groups.”
- In light of this, authorities are toughening punishments for “decadent content.” A 22-year-old man who shared South Korean songs and movies was recently sentenced to ten years and three months in prison. People are taken away without even knowing what law they are accused of breaking, and then quietly executed in a public display. One respondent stated that “the son of a friend of his recently witnessed several executions behind closed doors.” In each case, three or four people were executed at a time for attempting to flee the country.
- As a result, people, particularly the youth, are grumbling and wondering what the country has ever done for them. “The constant creation of weapons that causes suffering from one generation to the next was never what people wanted.” “Before Covid, people had a favorable opinion of Kim Jong-un, but today almost everybody is disgruntled.” Some respondents even called explicitly for the Air Force to facilitate “humanitarian bombings”: “Only through war and getting rid of all leadership can we survive… one way or the other.”
The stories were supplemented with footage from contemporary Pyongyang, as well as historical footage of the famine in North Korea in the 1990s. The latter footage was only known to a small group of experts, but for a layman, this may create an impression that everything is happening right now.
The first point that caught the author’s eye when reading the piece was that the BBC representatives hardly communicated with the North Koreans directly, but rather Daily NK, which is well known to the author, acted as an intermediary.
Just in case, keep in mind that although Daily NK positions itself as some kind of news publication, it is, in fact, a pure propaganda outlet dedicated to fabricating fake news about North Korea. This news is presented with reference to “local sources,” whose existence can neither be confirmed nor denied. Of course, their identities cannot be exposed because doing so will cause their families and themselves to be suppressed. Due to this circumstance, Daily NK is free to spread whatever myth people are ready to believe, even one that Kim Jong-un uses kids as food for a huge snaketoad at night.
A separate issue is the mode of communication between British journalists and North Koreans. Given the capabilities of modern technology, one has to wonder to what extent the British journalists were talking to the North Korean citizens and not to the Daily NK staff or the defectors on their payroll, who were reading out prepared texts.
Naturally, the BBC made an attempt to confirm this information by getting in touch with the North Korean Embassy in London, but the embassy representative subsequently issued a formal retraction. “The material you have acquired is not totally accurate because it is based on false testimony by North Korean-oppressing sources. The DPRK has always prioritized the interests of the people, even in difficult times, and is unwaveringly committed to the welfare of its people. People’s well-being is our top priority, even in the face of adversity and challenges.”
The BBC story, however, turned out to be just one component of a massive propaganda campaign in the Western and South Korean media. It has been joined by defectors and other organizations claiming to have secret respondents from North Korea. One of these is the Rimjin-gang group, which has been run for 30 years by Jiro Ishimaru, an “independent journalist.” Citing six sources living in the border areas of North Korea and China (some even provided voice files), Ishimaru claimed that the food crisis may have already reached its worst level over the past two decades: Kim Jong-un is preparing to strengthen state control over the market economy, particularly food, and will almost certainly unleash another catastrophic era of famine on his own people.
Apparently, “in January of this year, North Korea completely banned the sale of food in markets. Things have changed for those selling small volumes since April. However, this remains mostly constrained… The state has also established numerous guard points in areas where officials monitor the ‘illegal’ food trade.” Instead, North Korea’s ruling elite is trying to restore the old distribution system, in which people get their meager rations from government granaries.
On June 24, 2023, the US website 38north.org, which monitors the situation in North Korea, reported that food prices in North Korea have risen to levels higher than before the pandemic, indicating a shortage of supplies. Once more, “Rimjingang, an online news outlet with sources inside North Korea,” is cited as the information source.
“None of this is evidence of widespread famine in North Korea,” the report said. “Nevertheless, the fact that the country is experiencing significant food shortages is not in doubt.”
Commenting on the BBC piece, Park Sogil of North Korea Freedom Coalition called the situation a “devastating tragedy” that confirms “the incredible idea that North Korea has become more repressive and totalitarian than ever before.”
Tim Peters, a “Seoul-based American humanitarian activist,” has stated that since COVID-19, North Korea has faced serious food shortages because of the pandemic’s disruption of trade with China. “Food shortages for the most vulnerable people in the North are exacerbated by rising food prices, further putting vital products out of reach for those who desperately need them.”
Seo Jae-pyeong, president of the Association for North Korean Defectors, a Seoul-based nonprofit organization, said the food situation in the North is even worse than during the mid-1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people died from the great famine, but Kim Jong-un is still in control. “Even when people were starving to death, their relatives or neighbors chose not to discuss the reason for their deaths, since they were not permitted to do so. Those who violated this rule were sent to camps,” and the real causes of death were fabricated.
Daily NK also analyzed infrared satellite images of the areas where the country’s largest greenhouse complexes are located and concluded that they are not functioning properly. According to reports, the temperature setting does not correspond to the operational temperature.
Hanna Song, Director of International Cooperation at Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), argues that “we are once again heading into the most difficult times in North Korean history.”
In its report to the National Assembly, South Korea’s intelligence agency also said the number of North Koreans who died of starvation has tripled this year compared to the same period in previous years, and corn and rice prices have risen 60 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in the first four months of this year.
The scale was so great that even analysts who normally maintain an objective assessment of North Korea grew concerned. Peter Ward, a researcher focusing on the North Korean economy, described the situation as “very worrying”: “It’s good to say you hear about people dying from starvation, but when you actually know people in your immediate neighborhood who are starving, it means that the food situation is very serious—more serious than we thought and worse than it was after the famine in the late 1990s.” “We’re not talking about full-scale societal collapse or mass malnutrition yet, but things are looking bad.”
In this situation, NK News, which unlike Daily NK (alas, they are often confused), tries to adhere to an objectivist position, sent a letter with questions to the Russian Ambassador to North Korea in Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora. A condensed version of his response is provided here.
Dear Mr. Chad O’Carroll, I received your letter requesting answers to questions about the situation in North Korea. As Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I should have ignored such a request, especially from a representative of the media of an unfriendly country. However, the BBC piece, which, of course, I have seen and read, is so biased and so far from the true state of affairs that I decided to answer some of your questions. To dispel the false impression that British colleagues may have willingly or unwittingly created among their readers and listeners. Besides, I thought, by remaining silent, I would conversely give reason to believe the picture painted by the BBC.
… So here are my answers to your questions:
1. Neither I nor my colleagues, walking around Pyongyang or driving through its streets by car, have ever seen a beggar lying or standing on a corner or walking along the road. There aren’t even any drunks lying in the streets, as is not uncommon in many other capitals. It’s impossible to imagine that someone would fall down here and passersby wouldn’t immediately run up to them to help them get up.
2. In terms of the availability of domestic food products (grain, beans, potatoes, meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, and fruit), the situation now in comparison with the beginning of the pandemic has not changed in general; there is enough of everything on the shelves now as it was then. There are more river and sea fish available because the fishing industry has resumed, which had been temporarily suspended by the decision of the Emergency Anti-Epidemic Command. Prices, as always, fluctuate slightly depending on the season, but generally remain stable. The choice of imported food has become slightly wider than it was at the end of 2020, but it is still nowhere near as plentiful as it was before the pandemic. There is now practically no pharmacological shortfall in pharmacies because of the abundance of medications, including those produced in Russia. Maybe only for certain rare drugs.
I would like to underline: although markets in Pyongyang and all other cities and counties are crowded with both sellers and buyers, of course, not everyone can afford to buy food at market prices on a daily basis. Therefore, a rationed supply system is in place here. Its commodity content, depending on where a person works, is the responsibility of either the state or his enterprise. The key is to ensure that sufficient resources are available to meet the needs of the population to the maximum extent possible. So the big question is the availability of those very resources. I’ll talk about them below.
3. Never heard of any “closed-door executions.”
4. The situation with food resources is not easy, and the leadership of the DPRK admits this. One of the main reasons is last year’s unfavorable weather conditions. But the current hardships are nothing compared to what it was like during the Arduous March of the 1990s. It was really tough back then. I was here at that time, so I can compare. There are no signs of hunger here now.
I would like to add the following on the last point. Increasing grain production is the first priority on the list of twelve priorities to be taken by the Government in the current five-year period of 2021–2025. The goal of the state’s entire arsenal is to permanently address the nutrition issue. There is a lot of being done – we see it with our own eyes. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of problems that cannot be immediately resolved, and the crop can’t be raised drastically, because of the scarcity of fertilizers, pesticides, fuel, agricultural equipment, and spare parts. The domestic industry is not yet able to fully meet the needs for these items. However, the country would have purchased all this, as well as the missing grain, abroad. Sanctions are preventing this from happening.
You in the West wail fanatically that the North Korean authorities do not feed their people, moreover do not allow humanitarian organizations to come here to help with food. In reality, this nation does not require any of your assistance, especially considering that in recent years it has been a meager $25 million at best. Think of it as only $1 per person per year. North Korea might well have been able to deal with its problems on its own if there were no sanctions. Remove or weaken those sanctions to some extent, and allow North Koreans to lawfully export coal, iron ore, and seafood. Let them open a bank account and deposit their honestly earned two billion dollars into it, and then pay with this money for 500,000 tons of grain, 300,000 tons of fertilizer, 100,000 tons of diesel fuel, 50,000 tons of pesticides, tractors, and combines. Make it so that customs will allow these goods to be exported to North Korea; don’t stifle foreign manufacturers, suppliers, and transporters for having ties to North Korea. And the issue of nutrition of the population of North Korea will be solved in the shortest possible time!
But we realize that the West will never allow this to happen. Because for them, the worse it is here, the better it is there. Therefore, they have to make life as difficult as possible for the population of North Korea, fuel internal discontent, provoke protests and (a crystal dream!) eventually cause social cataclysms, overthrow the political system and solve the overarching task of destroying North Korea as a sovereign state. By the way, in my country, the West is trying to do the same thing. It will not succeed either in Russia or in the DPRK.
Other foreign diplomats who recently arrived in North Korea have also confirmed this. Experts from Asia Risk Group, which is based in Seoul but has connections in Russia and China (which allows them to get information from the field), also note the absence not only of famine, but also of soaring grain prices.
The data they cite can easily be summarized in a table.
Prices of rice in Pyongyang
|Prices of rice in Sinŭiju||Prices of rice in Hyesan||Corn prices in Pyongyang||Corn prices in Sinŭiju|| |
Corn prices in Hyesan
|Second half of January||
|5,470||5,620 to 5,800|
|Second half of April ||
|Early May ||
As you can see, there is no sharp rise in prices described by Ishimaru et al.
Finally, it should be recalled that the news “oh, it’s famine already!!!” in relation to North Korea pops up regularly. Recall how in April 2021, Kim Jong-un’s phrase that Party officials should be ready for an Arduous March was seen as an admission of famine.
In January 2023, UPI again wrote that North Korea was going through its worst period since the 1990s, with severe food security problems, some of the population facing difficulties due to the effects of COVID-19 and rising food prices. The report cited by the journalists analyzed data from sources such as the UN World Food Program, the US Department of Agriculture and (bingo!!!) “information from the independent news outlet Daily NK.” At that time, the author was also forced to give explanations, to the effect that the food situation in the country is quite difficult, but not critical and especially that there is no famine.
Let’s summarize. On the one hand, information from unverified, if not compromised “anonymous sources”; on the other, the Russian Ambassador’s opinion and systematic data from an independent agency denying the sharp price increase. In such a situation, the reader should believe the more valid data.
 Versus the 5,530 and 5,550 two weeks ago
 According to the authors, the picture visible on the markets is a consequence of the recent increase in the DPRK’s imports of grain (rice, corn, wheat, etc.) (including imports from Russia). Supplies are expected to continue until about June, when North Korea begins harvesting its own wheat crop.
 The price increase was linked to distribution issues with imported rice, corn, grain, and flour, the amounts of which are increasing.