North Korean farmers struggle with food insecurity

Editor’s Note: The South Korean government is preparing to send food aid to North Korea. The government’s efforts have increased after the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP) released a report expressing concern for North Korea’s food shortages. North Korean rice prices, however, appear to be relatively stable and there have been no reports of people starving in the country. Daily NK has interviewed North Koreans from several areas of the country to share their opinions on the country’s situation and potential South Korean food aid for North Korea.

October 2018 photo of North Korean porter in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province
October 2018 photo of North Korean porter in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province. Image: Daily NK

“In light of a report by international organizations stating that North Korea’s food situation is in serious trouble, the government maintains its stance that it is imperative that North Koreans receive both interest from their fellow Koreans and humanitarian food aid.” – May 15, 2019, MOU Regular Briefing, Spokesman Lee Sang Min

The South Korean government is ramping up preparations to send food aid into North Korea following the publication of an FAO and WFP report on May 3 expressing concerns about North Korea’s food shortages. Public opinion toward North Korea has turned negative following the country’s provocations on May 4 and May 9. The South Korean government, however, has stated that humanitarian aid is not impacted by these provocations and has stressed that there is an urgent need to provide such aid.

Daily NK has conducted several interviews with North Korean residents to hear their thoughts on plans by the international community and South Korea to provide food aid to the country.

A farmer in her late 30s who lives in Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province, sees the food situation in the area she lives in as very serious and welcomed the news that the South Korean government was preparing to send food aid.

The South Korean government provided North Korea with 26.5 million tons of rice and 200,000 tons of corn for free or through loans from 1995 to 2007. South Korean deliveries of food aid to North Korea were halted in 2010 during the Lee Myung-bak administration after the South Korean government sent 5,000 tons of rice to help North Korea after the country was hit by floods.

The farmer said that she had never received rice from the South Korean government directly and noted that she was not sure whether she would actually receive any of the rice that South Korea plans to send over. Yet she was happy to hear that South Korea was making plans to send food aid to the country.

She also expressed distrust and discontent with North Korea’s ruling class, saying that “Leaders don’t care about how regular people are living” and “They [North Korean leaders] are well-fed, so they don’t know how to solve [North Korea’s] food issues.”

The following is the full interview Daily NK conducted with the farmer, who lives in Kimjongsuk County.

Daily NK: The South Korean government has promised to send food aid to North Korea. What are your thoughts on this?

North Korean farmer: Ah, really? I’m not sure if I’ll see any of that aid, but if that did happen it would be a good thing.

Daily NK: Is the food situation in North Korea really that bad?

Norht Korean farmer: Yes, it’s terrible. I’m not sure about other areas but where I live, things are worse than ever. I’ve seen people sitting on the streets and unable to move because they haven’t gotten enough to eat. They’re similar to the kkotjebi (wandering, homeless children). I saw such people on the roadside when I went to the market in Hyesan some time ago. They’re having a tough time because they haven’t had enough to eat, but nobody tries to help them. I couldn’t stand even seeing them like that.

Daily NK: What about the situation in the area where you live?

North Korean farmer: Around half of the families in the farming area I live in don’t get enough to eat. People involved in smuggling activities are just barely surviving, so all the rest are having an even worse time.

Daily NK: The North Korean authorities, however, have called “humanitarian [aid] empty rhetoric and patronizing” through media outlets aimed at the international community. It seems that they aren’t happy about South Korea’s efforts to provide aid to the country.

North Korean farmer: [North Korean] leaders are well-fed so they have no interest in how ordinary North Koreans are living.

Daily NK: There’s also talk that the food aid from South Korea – if the aid is actually delivered – won’t be going to ordinary North Koreans.

North Korean farmer: I’ve never received even a gram of rice from South Korea directly. I wouldn’t know if I had or not.

Daily NK: There are rumors that food aid goes to the military first.

North Korean farmer: I actually believe that the military should get the aid because this country’s sons and daughters are serving in the military. I want our children to have enough food.

Daily NK: How can North Korea’s food situation be improved?

North Korean farmer: I don’t think anyone can resolve the food problems in this country anymore. Even the farmers at the very bottom of society are suffering from food shortages. This leads me to suspect that our leaders know how to resolve the situation but aren’t doing anything about it. I hope that the situation can improve by importing rice from our neighbors China or Russia.

Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to