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[Speaking Out] Mounting Deaths in North Korea as Famine Worsens

A severe food shortage in North Korea threatens to turn into another "Arduous March," a period of mass starvation in the 1990s that claimed millions of lives.



North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (right), along with his daughter Ju Ae, is pictured in Pyongyang on May 16. (File photo via KCNA/author)

According to human rights activists, North Korea is currently experiencing a terrible food shortage. This has resulted in starvation and deaths throughout the country, including its capital Pyongyang. 

The distribution of food rations to military officers, security officers (ordinary police), and security guards (political police) stopped in June 2023. This came after food rations to their families were discontinued around November 2022. Even soldiers are starving due to the scarcity of food. But the news media in Japan and South Korea have hardly reported on this famine situation.

Some North Korean human rights activists who defected to South Korea maintain constant communication with local sources. Among them is Kim Seong Min, Director of Free North Korea Radio. He provides shortwave radio broadcasting services for North Koreans. In early July, Kim received information from multiple sources about the dire famine in the country. I would like to share that information here.

Collapsed Food Rationing System

More than three million people starved to death in North Korea from 1995 to around 1998. The mass starvation has been called the "Arduous March." Since then, North Korea's food rationing system has completely collapsed. 

In July 2002, the Kim Jong Il regime raised the national price of rice from ₩0.08 KPW (roughly $0.0001 USD) to ₩44 KPW ($0.05 USD) per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to reflect the actual cost. The aim was to make rice available at ration stations, but rationing did not resume. 

North Koreans, except Pyongyang residents, have not received rations since the mid-1990s. They are only given a small amount of free food during the New Year's holidays and on the birthdays of late dictators Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Murals of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at Jangdae Hill in Pyongyang on August 5, 2012. (© Nicor via Wikimedia Commons)

A Struggle for Survival

People have had no choice but to buy rice at changmadang (markets) at prices of around ₩5,000 KPW per kilogram (2.2 pounds). This is more than 100 times higher than national prices. To survive, the people resorted to selling goods in the markets.

After the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in January 2021, the Kim Jong Un regime introduced a new food system. In order to control the prices and distribution of food, the regime created food sales stations throughout the country to sell food 20-30% cheaper than market prices.

However, the food crisis escalated due to the impact of economic sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, all the grains produced were channeled to the military, the security department, and central Pyongyang. As a result, from 2021 to mid-2022, households in rural areas received only about 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of food per month through sales stations in rural areas, with the amount varying depending on the region.

Food Distribution Suspended to High-Ranking Officials

In 2023, the situation worsened even further. Since January, rice supply has been cut off at food sales stations nationwide. Even in Pyongyang, food supply through sales stations has stopped in most areas. In fact, out of Pyongyang's 19 districts and 4 counties, 13 districts and all 4 counties have suspended supply through food sales stations.


In the remaining six central districts (Jung, Pothonggang, Moranbong, Songyo, Taedonggang, and Mangyongdae), rice was supplied through food sales stations until they were closed in May. High-ranking officials of the Workers' Party and the government used to receive food from exclusive supply stations until supplies ceased in June.

Pyongyang, North Korea on July 3. (© Kyodo)

Military officers, security officers, and security guards received 700 grams (1.5 pounds) of food rations per person per day until May. But this was suspended in June 2023. Similarly, distributions to their families (500 grams or 1.1 pounds per person per day) have stopped since around November 2022. Some central government agencies and factories have purchased food on their own and distributed it to their employees.

North Korea's new "Arduous March" is currently underway. Many people are dying from diseases and starvation, as well as the freezing temperatures during the winter, even in the capital of Pyongyang.


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1057 in Japanese on July 18 and in English on July 19, 2023.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka 

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Koreas.

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