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The Telegraph

North Korea on brink of famine as secretive state further cuts itself off from the world

No one knows if the family of four who died in November in the square outside Musan train station were victims of the cold or of starvation but the bodies were reportedly removed by North Korean security officials. Other accounts from within the North’s borders tell of gangs of orphans stealing from outdoor markets to stay alive and hunger finding its way into the normally relatively plentiful enclave of Pyongyang. Diplomats and all but two international aid workers have in recent months been either evacuated or ordered out of the country by the regime of Kim Jong-un, meaning that the United Nations and other aid and human rights organisations are relying on a tenuous network of North Koreans who operate as “citizen reporters” for dissident media outlets in South Korea and Japan. Organisations that previously had a degree of access to those most at risk in the North say the reports, relayed over the border into China by mobile phone, have proved to be consistent and reliable. And now, they say, they are painting a particularly bleak picture of a nation on the brink of a food crisis that is comparable to the four-year famine in the mid-1990s – a time that North Koreans refer to as the Arduous March. Some put the death toll from that tragedy – brought on by drought, flooding and chronic economic mismanagement – as high as 3.5 million of the north’s 22 million people. And the experts warn that those conditions are once again stalking the nation, but have been made significantly worse by a global pandemic that has forced the regime to close its borders to outside trade, including food. “Information on food security is only trickling out of the North”, said Imesh Pokharel, who heads the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul. “Very few humanitarian groups have been able to operate there this year and there have been far fewer defectors for us to speak with, so we have been speaking with the groups that have ‘reporters’ inside the country,” he said. Mr Pokharel admits the situation is “not ideal”, but in the absence of people on the ground and Pyongyang’s refusal to cooperate with the international community, they are his “best option”. “Put it like this”, he said. “I trust these people more than anyone else”. Some external analysis of the situation is possible, but that too points to worrying findings, he said. The US, for example, uses satellites to monitor crops in the North and has determined that as a result of the country being badly affected by typhoons and widespread flooding in the harvest season, the 2019 crop was smaller than in 1994, the first year of the Arduous March. Taken together, the food situation for many North Koreans is clearly extremely precarious, Mr Pokharel told the Telegraph. “We know from trade data that imports of food and medicine are far below previous years and our estimation is that we cannot say there is famine in North Korea yet, but we can definitely say that an acute food crisis is looming”, he said. In mid-December, the Japan-based AsiaPress news agency reported that hungry residents of the North’s cities, including children, are heading out into the countryside on a daily basis to scavenge for food. In the 11 months since the border with China was closed, ostensibly to halt the spread of the coronavirus but also an effective way of halting more defections, trade and tourism have slowed to virtually nothing, while production in the North for export has also halted. As a result, an AsiaPress “citizen reporter” in the North claimed, “The most vulnerable people in cities, including the elderly, are dying of malnutrition and disease.” The Daily NK, which is based in Seoul and relies on contacts in the North for its coverage, reported that many people in the border regions have lost any income due to the border being closed, “and now complain of hardships even worse than those of the Arduous March”. “If you’re eating two meals a day, you are doing well”, the source said. “Most people are eating just a single meal of porridge or rice mixed with radish leaves a day. “Nowadays, you find a lot of dead homeless people in the mornings around Hyesan or Wiyon train stations, near university dormitories or construction sites”, the source said. “With people starving to death all around, the atmosphere is bleak.” The reports also tally with sporadic communications between defectors and the families that they left behind in the North, either through letters that are illicitly taken over the border or mobile phone contacts, although the North is cracking down hard on all attempts by its citizens to find out about the world beyond their borders. “We are hearing that while the price of rice is holding steady in the markets, people who used to earn a living through smuggling across the border are running out of money because of the extra troops they have stationed on the border,” said Song Young-chae, an activist with The Worldwide Colaition to Stop Genocide in North Korea. “Other crops were badly affected by the flooding and the typhoons, so people are using up what little savings they had to secure food”, he said. “But they only have a limited amount of money.” Sokeel Park, director of research for Liberty in North Korea, said: “The information black hole of North Korea has become even darker this year. “I’ve only been able to hear second-hand from defectors who are in contact with people inside that things are indeed tough because of restrictions not just on trade with China but also on internal movement”, he said. “That means market trade is disrupted and prices are volatile.” He added: “It seems that rich and poor North Koreans alike will be suffering this year, but the government there has been very invested in pushing to their people a narrative that it is worse in South Korea and the rest of the world, so this is necessary suffering and that things could be worse.” State media have indeed gone to some lengths to report on the problems caused by the pandemic in other countries, whilst insisting that there have been no cases of the coronavirus in the North. With access to outside agencies denied, it is impossible to verify that claim, although experts say it is very unlikely. The dissident reports all contrast with the official North Korean narrative, however, which insists that while there have been challenges this year, the outlook is rosy. In a summary of the recently concluded “80-day labour battle”, local media declared, “The agricultural front is alive with the successful conclusion of farming for this year and preparations for next year”. Threshing is 74 percent completed, it added, while agricultural workers are “stepping up the autumn ploughing and production of manure in preparation for farming next year”. There has been no reporting in domestic media about food shortages or deaths attributable to the worsening crisis. Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security

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