North Korea says it is facing worst food shortage in more than a decade

Pyongyang is bracing itself for one of its biggest domestic challenges since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power.
Pyongyang is bracing itself for one of its biggest domestic challenges since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - North Korea is facing its worst food shortage in more than a decade, it said in a report to the United Nations, giving the world notice Pyongyang is bracing itself for one of its biggest domestic challenges since leader Kim Jong Un took power.

Food production dropped to its lowest level in 2018 due to "natural disasters and weak resilience, insufficient farming materials and low level of mechanisation", North Korea said in a Voluntary National Review for a UN examination of its Sustainable Development Goals.

South Korea's mission to the UN gave notice of the report on Tuesday and it is apparently the first time North Korea has made it public.

Pyongyang also blamed its troubles on UN Security Council sanctions put in place to punish it for tests of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver warheads.

The "main obstacles to the government's efforts to achieve the sustainable development of the country" include the "continued sanctions and blockade on the DPRK", the report said, referring to the country by its formal name.

The report comes after Mr Kim appeared in North Korean state media last month and issued a rare warning that the "food situation is now getting tense".

The warning comes at a time of the year when food stocks typically run low and the bulk of the harvest has not yet been brought in.

North Korea's perennial food shortages were made worse by typhoons last year that wiped out crops and Mr Kim's decision to shut borders due to Covid-19, slamming the brakes on what little legal trade it has.

According to the UN World Food Programme, about 40 per cent of North Korea's population is undernourished, adding "food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread".

The North's economy will barely grow this year after its worst contraction in decades as the country continues to struggle with the pandemic, sanctions and a lack of trade with China, Fitch Solutions said in April.

Mr Kim has rebuffed calls from the United States to resume nuclear disarmament negotiations, which could provide relief from sanctions choking the economy.

He appears focused on addressing internal matters for the time being rather than ratcheting up regional tensions through provocative military moves, South Korean Defence Minister Suh Wook told Parliament last month.

Pyongyang's propaganda machine has also kicked in to gear, showing a citizen saying North Koreans broke down in tears over seeing a dramatically thinner Kim. The rare comments on the leader's health may have been aimed at building support at home by portraying him as hard at work as he seeks to revive the economy.