Food security from bad to worse . . .
Heavy rains have destroyed croplands in North Korea and are certain to worsen the country’s already alarming level of food insecurity. In June, leader Kim Jong-un told his people the situation was “tense,” a reference to food shortages resulting from the lingering effects of last year’s drought, followed by a series of typhoons, as well as the steep drop in trade with China. Pyongyang sealed its border with China shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19. China had accounted for roughly 90% of North Korea’s trade, including food imports. There are now widespread reports that shortages have driven up prices of staple foods such as rice and corn.
Regional neglect . . .
Over the weekend, Kim ordered the military to assist the flood-affected areas of South Hamgyong Province. However, of concern to outside observers was the region not included in the effort, namely, North Hamgyong Province, which satellite images show has also been hit hard. North Hamgyong is in the country’s northeastern corner, which has historically been an area of regime neglect. For example, it was effectively ‘triaged’ during the famine of the mid-late 1990s, with the government blocking food shipments to the region for more than two years to reserve them – for political reasons – for residents in the capital city of Pyongyang.
Biggest economic contraction in 23 years . . .
The economic fallout of natural hazards, international sanctions, and its self-imposed border closure has been devastating for North Korea’s economy, which South Korea’s central bank believes has experienced its biggest contraction in 23 years. Pyongyang has reportedly been “scrambling” to re-open the border with China, but the latter’s recent spike in Delta-variant COVID cases may put those plans on hold. The South Korean and U.S. governments may be hoping that North Korea’s dire need for humanitarian assistance will prompt the Kim regime to re-open diplomatic talks. But Seoul and Washington may need to temper those expectations since Pyongyang’s border-tightening efforts are not limited to shipments of goods but also include diplomatic personnel.