Top North Korean official says country faces major food shortages

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By Phil McCausland

A senior North Korean official says his country is facing dwindling food supplies and has been forced to cut food rations for its people, according to a memo obtained by NBC News.

The memo, written by Kim Song, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, appears to be an unusual admission that the country lacks enough food to feed its people, a situation that Kim blamed on a combination of natural disasters and the sanctions regime that is making it difficult to obtain farming equipment.

Song said the North Korean government was urgently requesting help from international organizations to feed its people.

The memo was obtained by NBC News from the country’s United Nations mission.

Kim’s claims are difficult to verify, and his government has not always been a reliable source of internal statistics. He said a food assessment, conducted late last year in conjunction with the UN’s World Food Program, found that the country produced 503,000 fewer tons of food than in 2017 due to record high temperatures, drought, heavy rainfall and — in an unexpected admission — sanctions.

The food agency could not immediately confirm that the organization conducted an assessment with North Korea or the conclusions the country shared in the memo.

In a plea for food assistance from international organizations, however, the memo states that sanctions “restricting the delivery of farming materials in need is another major reason” the country faces shortages that has forced it to cut “food rations per capita for a family of blue or white collar workers” from 550 grams to 300 grams in January.

“All in all, it vindicates that humanitarian assistance from the UN agencies is terribly politicized and how barbaric and inhuman sanctions are,” the memo says.

Though the country plans to increase food imports and harvest its crops early this year, the memo says that North Korea would still face food shortages and may only increase rations by 10 grams in July.

This unusual admission from a country that tends toward secrecy came just before President Donald Trump prepares to face North Korea leader Kim Jong Un next week in Vietnam. The White House hopes to pressure Kim to rid his country of nuclear weapons.

Experts warned, however, that the claims of a severe shortage might be a negotiating tactic ahead of the two-day summit.

“It may be admitting weakness, but it’s not without a plan,” said Dr. Victor Cha, who served as the director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the Bush administration.

Cha said that North Korea may feel that it has some momentum to convince Trump to loosen the sanctions against it, especially with South Korea, China and Russia “beating down the doors of the United States.”

But for the United States to blink in next week’s confrontation, the Trump administration will have to see results, Cha said.

“They’re going to want some denuclearization steps from North Korea, but I don’t think the North Koreans are going to give up very much,” Cha said. “When we talk about any sanction-lifting though, a lot of experts would say the place where you can do the least harm and the most good for the North Korean people is through humanitarian sanctions.”

Under the current regime, the country has long suffered from food insecurity, but the memo appears to suggest that problems have grown more acute.

Of North Korea’s 25 million people, 10.3 million or 41 percent of the population face food insecurity and 10.1 million suffer from malnutrition, according to a March 2018 UN report.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides field guidance to Farm No. 1116 under KPA Unit 810, in this undated photo released in Pyongyang Sept. 13, 2016.KCNA / via Reuters file

In an attempt to increase the pressure against Kim’s regime and their nuclear program, the Trump administration increased sanctions that essentially cut off the flow of international humanitarian aid to North Korea, according to an August Reuters report. U.S. humanitarian aid in 2018 dropped nearly 57 percent from the year prior, the wire service reported.

Though it is clear that North Korea is receiving less aid, it is more than unusual for them to publicly admit that sanctions are working and causing the nation to suffer.

The White House National Security Council and the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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