Editor’s Note: Following a report by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stating that 40% of North Koreans are “in urgent need of food assistance,” the South Korean government and local civic and religious organizations have moved to take humanitarian action to mitigate the problem. However, rice prices are in a holding pattern across North Korea’s markets and sources are reporting no increase in food shortages. Daily NK is publishing an interview series featuring North Korean residents across a range of demographics in an effort to gain a better understanding of the picture on the ground regarding the country’s food security and the practicality of getting humanitarian aid to those who need it most.
There is growing interest in South Korea toward sending humanitarian aid to alleviate food shortages in North Korea following the recent release of a UN report on the country’s food situation. Daily NK continues to conduct interviews with North Korean residents in the country to understand their views on the situation.
Daily NK has already conducted two interviews with local residents to hear their views on the country’s food situation and humanitarian aid. They expressed concerns about making a living but also shared their frustrations with food distribution and the North Korean government.
But what about the views of North Korean government officials? Daily NK conducted an interview with a low-level government official to find out.
The official, who is affiliated with a municipal people’s committee in South Pyongyan Province, told Daily NK, “The South Korean government’s food aid will really help the North Korean people,” later adding that he “hope[s] the aid is provided soon.”
His responses stand in deep contrast to positions taken by North Korean state media, blasting South Korea’s moves to provide humanitarian aid as “empty rhetoric and patronizing.”
The official also believes that, just like in the past, food aid would again be given to the military first. The official noted, however, that “North Koreans [don’t mind] because [the food aid] will ensure their kids [in the military] don’t starve.”
The South Korean Ministry of Unification announced on May 17 that humanitarian aid to North Koreans must be continued regardless of the political situation, while promising to provide USD $8 million to support healthcare projects managed by international agencies for women and children.
“[The government] has decided to provide financial aid to projects managed by international agencies in North Korea, including nutrition programs run by the World Food Programme and UNICEF for North Korean children, pregnant women, and mothers,” Ministry of Unification spokesman Lee Sang Min told reporters during a briefing.
The government further stated that it would continue to review specific plans for aid, including direct and indirect aid through international agencies, after collecting opinions from the South Korean people regarding food aid toward North Korea.
The following is an excerpt from Daily NK’s interview with the North Korean official.
Daily NK: International aid agencies have reported that North Korea’s food situation is at its worst in 10 years. Is it really that bad?
North Korean official: Yes. Things haven’t been this bad since the currency reform back in 2009.
Daily NK: Have you seen anyone die of starvation?
North Korean official: No. But I have heard rumors of people dying of starvation in Yangdok, Daehung, Maengsan and Pukchang. They fall ill because they are not getting enough food and their bodies are weak. There are even workers at military factories that can’t go to work because they’re too hungry.
Daily NK: How many families do you think are starving in North Korea?
North Korean official: I’m not sure. My local inminban (people’s unit, a type of neighborhood watch) conducted an investigation into families who have no food or money in February and April on the orders of higher authorities. There are a lot of people who can’t work on the farms because they just don’t have any food. Companies and farms don’t have the resources to provide them with any, either.
It’s not a repeat of the Arduous March (widespread famine of the mid-1990s) period, but there are many families surviving off just one or two meals a day. Families aren’t earning as much as they used to at the local markets.
Daily NK: South Korea has pledged to provide food aid to North Korea. What are your thoughts on that?
North Korean official: South Korea provided a lot of food aid to North Korea during the Arduous March period. South Korea’s desire to help out shows that we are truly one people. I think we would welcome the arrival of a [South Korean] ship with food aid at Nampo Port.”
Daily NK: Some observers point out that the food aid won’t really make it to ordinary North Koreans. They argue that the food aid goes to the military first. What do you think?
North Korean official: Ordinary people don’t receive food aid. Food aid is provided to government officials, the military, military industries, Pyongyang residents, and then miners. Farmers and workers are not a priority. But if the aid is used by the military, it will reduce the burden on ordinary people, I think. People also believe that food aid should go to the military because many people have kids there. I hope food aid arrives soon.
Daily NK: What ways are there to resolve North Korea’s food issues?
North Korean official: I haven’t really thought about that. I don’t think that giving farmers land makes sense because they can’t farm in these circumstances. The government should first conduct investments so that there’s more money flowing around. The state is also bad at responding to natural disasters.
The drought that began in spring this year has led to a lot of dust on the fields. Farmers needed to have watered the fields early on, but they weren’t able to do so. Even when farmers are ordered to water the fields, they don’t. They just worry about themselves first [and not the state of the fields].