While some Pyongyangites started off the week by checking out plasma-screen TV’s at a consumer goods fair, Daily NK published an ominous story that reminds the reader of the dark 1990s:
An increasing number of North Koreans are suffering from the effects of food insecurity and malnutrition, according to inside sources who spoke with Daily NK. A rumor is circulating in Ryanggang and North Hamgyong provinces that the body of someone who starved to death has been seen near the train station in Hyesan City.
“More than a handful of people have come forward and said that they saw the body of someone who starved to death near the Hyesan train station. The food situation was relatively good for the past few years, so it’s such a shame that we’ve returned to dire circumstances so suddenly,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK.
As crude as it may sound, one cannot draw sharp conclusions from one unconfirmed report of a single death by starvation in a North Korean city. But the fact that North Koreans think conditions are bad enough to believe such rumors to be true says something about the instability of food supply in North Korea right now. According to one of Daily NK’s sources, “There are so many people talking about it [the starvation death] that it’s being viewed as a fact.”
For several years, the supply of food in North Korea has looked remarkably stable compared to the 1990s. A combination of more freedom for the markets to operate; more leeway for farmers in how they operate, produce, and sell their goods (and procure inputs such as fertilizer); and larger and more consistent imports from China – these are all factors that have led to better food security overall in North Korea. Market prices have sent a clear message on this.