President, minister send mixed messages on starvation deaths in North Korea

Posted on : 2023-02-22 17:11 KST Modified on : 2023-02-22 17:11 KST
The Ministry of Unification retracted a statement only a day after being contradicted by the presidential office
A North Korean propaganda poster encouraging increased agricultural production. (KCNA/Yonhap)
A North Korean propaganda poster encouraging increased agricultural production. (KCNA/Yonhap)

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification and presidential office have muddied the water by offering contradictory assessments of the North Korean food supply. A few days after briefing the National Assembly that there aren’t many reports of starvation in the North, the ministry retracted its initial assessment following an announcement by the presidential office that there have been multiple reports of people starving to death there.

Following a meeting of the standing committee of the National Security Council held in response to North Korea’s launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Feb. 18, the presidential office related that “the participants lamented the fact that the North Korean regime is preoccupied with nuclear weapon and missile development and large-scale military parades while ignoring the public livelihood and human rights at a time when a serious shortage of food in North Korea is leading to continuing cases of starvation.”

This was the first time the South Korean government under President Yoon Suk-yeol has officially reported continuing instances of starvation in North Korea.

But the presidential office’s announcement contradicted a briefing made just three days prior by the Ministry of Unification, the government body that oversees matters relating to North Korea.

In an appearance before the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on Feb. 15, Unification Minister Kwon Young-se acknowledged that “North Korea doesn’t seem to have an ample supply of food nowadays,” but added that “there don’t seem to be successive cases of starvation.”

That assessment was corroborated by another ministry official on Feb. 16. “We’re still at the beginning of the year, which isn’t the time when last year’s crop runs low. Therefore, the current situation appears to be a problem with distribution, rather than a problem with the absolute supply [of food],” they said.

It appears that distribution has been disrupted in some areas because of new grain policies implemented by the North Korean government last October, as well as stricter control of private grain sales.

South Korea’s Rural Development Administration’s official estimate for North Korea’s grain crop last year is 4.51 million tons, which is around 97% of the average crop yield (4.66 million tons) over the past decade (2012-2021). North Korea’s average food demand over the same period has been 5.85 million tons.

In short, North Korea has faced an annual food shortage of around 1.2 million tons, but hasn’t posted a dramatic decrease in crop yields.

The Unification Ministry retracted its original assessment the day after the presidential office’s announcement. In an official response to a recent statement by Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean leader, on Feb. 19, the ministry aligned its position with that of the presidential office by referring to a “severe food shortage, including successive instances of starvation.”

On Tuesday, a Unification Ministry official fielded questions from reporters about why its briefing had contradicted that of the National Security Council.

“When [Unification Minister Kwon Young-se] said he doesn’t think large numbers of people are starving to death, he was saying that [North Korea] is not at the level of the ‘Arduous March’ of the past,” the official said, adding that the ministry had “recently” learned about continuing instances of starvation.

“Hardliners on North Korea in the presidential office appear to be exaggerating and exploiting North Korea’s chronic food shortage in an attempt to shift the blame for the security crisis to the North,” said a former high-ranking official in the government.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

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