Food Insecurity in the DPRK in 2021
There have been frequent media reports on possible famine and starvation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2021. This paper assesses these accounts using available open-source information and provides an overview of the food security situation in the DPRK.
- As of mid-2021, while the DPRK’s food distribution system appears to have been significantly constrained, reliable open-source information could not be found to confirm nationwide food insecurity. Available information suggests that, rather than a nationwide lack of food, food insecurity exists in certain regions and among certain populations.
- The impacts of food insecurity appear to differ from region to region in the DPRK. The inner northeastern regions whose economies rely on land-based trading with the People’s Republic of China (China) appear to have been hit harder than the northwestern regions where sea-based trading with China has expanded since May 2021. This may be attributable to land-based border closures and the lockdown of cities.
- As for the domestic food supply system, fishery operations have faced significant problems since 2020. Most fishing vessels appear to have suspended operation at least during the period between late November 2020 and June 2021. While fishery operations reportedly resumed in June or July 2021, the DPRK might need more time until fishing vessels return to full operation.
- As for crop harvesting, the DPRK experienced difficulties in acquiring necessary foreign-sourced items, such as improved seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pest control chemicals, farm machinery and spare parts. As a result, the yield forecast for some crops in 2021, especially rice, is below the 5-year average expectation. On the other hand, the DPRK enjoyed generally favorable weather conditions for growing crops in June and early July 2021. However, harvesting could be negatively affected by the prolonged drought that has prevailed in most of the country since mid-July and the heavy rainfall and flooding in South Hamgyong Province in early August, more of which is expected in the coming months. Unless the DPRK imports more food or receives external food aid, the country’s food supply system could be strained further.
- Food security in the DPRPK is deeply connected to the implementation of counter-pandemic measures. For the DPRK to import food or receive food aid from the other countries in earnest, counter‑pandemic measures, including vaccination of the population (which of necessity would require some opening of borders) will be essential. The speed with which counter-pandemic measures are implemented will likely continue to affect the DPRK’s efforts to secure a stable supply of food.
- The DPRK's food security has also been constrained by international sanctions which have been increasingly strengthened. Since 2017, it has become especially challenging for the country to import foreign-sourced items for agricultural use, including machinery and spare parts as well as certain chemical products for producing fertilizers. In order for the DPRK to resume foreign trading, the country will need to prioritize strengthening diplomatic relationships with trading partners interested in expanding legitimate trade, especially China.
- Under the “people first principle”, food security is defined by the government of the DPRK and by the Workers’ Party of Korea as a top priority. Since June 2021, Kim Jong Un and the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) emphasized the necessity of securing sufficient food supply (see Section I). This likely reflects the view that food security is indispensable to solidifying political and social stability. As such, food security will continue to be a dominant issue for the DPRK.