Earlier this month, North Koreans attended the 11th National Cooking Competition, coinciding with the anniversary of late leader Kim Jong Il’s birth.
In halls in the capital Pyongyang they could marvel at artfully prepared dishes of delicious local cuisine.
They could be forgiven if their stomachs rumbled.
Because while the government of Kim Jong-un has been busy firing missiles in an attempt to show off its military prowess to the US and South Korea, a slow motion disaster is unfolding in the country of 26 million.
A series of floods and typhoons, drought, a stunted economy, Covid border closures and international sanctions due to, yes, its nuclear program, North Korea is facing a massive shortage of food.
But its chiefly due to the country’s “irrational,” food policies, says an organisation that investigates North Korea.
US based think tank North 38 said last month that the country was on the “brink of famine”.
“Food availability has likely fallen below the bare minimum with regard to human needs,” it said in a recent report.
There are worries the country could slip into a famine similar to one in the 1990s which may have cost one million lives.
Bustling South Korea, just the other side of the 38th parallel, has food in abundance.
But North Korea’s only newspaper has urged the nation not to accept food aid because to do so would like eating “poison candy”.
700 prisoners dead
The situation in the hermit kingdom is troubling.
Satellite imagery obtained from the South Korean government appears to show 180,000 tonnes less food was produced in the north in 2022 than 2021.
The price of staples, like corn and rice has been rising.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that as many as 700 inmates in three North Korean prisons have perished over the last two years due to malnutrition and disease.
Aljazeera has published reports that rations to soldiers had now been reduced.
Some analysts have said North Korea’s economy is hamstrung by the sheer amount it spends on its military.
“The regime has acknowledged how hard things are for ordinary North Korean people, but continues to prioritise propaganda and pageantry for the Kim family, missile launches, and strict controls on the population,” Sokeel Park, South Korea country director for non-profit organisation Liberty in North Korea, told the BBC.
It’s been a slow burning crisis. Back in June 2021, Kim Jong-un acknowledged there was a scarcity of food as it closed its borders and grappled with extreme weather.
“The people’s food situation is now getting tense,” he said at the time.
There’s no indications the lack of the food in North Korea is yet at 1990s levels. And there are reports the country is easing open its border with China to get some much needed supplies in.
Nonetheless, 38 North said the situation was at its “worst since the 1990s famine”.
“North Korea’s chronic food insecurity is the product of decades of economic mismanagement and the internal and external policies of the incumbent political regime,” said its report.
“Throughout its history, North Korea has pursued the goal of national food security through an economically irrational policy of self-sufficiency.”
But the country’s “unfavourable soils” meant the harvest could plummet due to shocks like extreme weather.
Covid-19 was another shock with Pyongyang closing its borders more harshly than any other country in an ultimately futile attempt to keep the virus out. It even refused international vaccines.
Restrictions on movement internally also impacted production.
Despite all of these challenges, the country seems unwilling to turn to outside help, convinced it will come with strings attached.
A commentary piece on Wednesday in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper again urged economic self-reliance.
It said that food aid from “imperialists” was a “trap to plunder and subjugate,” Aljazeera reported.
“It is a mistake to try to boost the economy by accepting and eating this poisoned candy.”
Seoul has said the United Nations’ World Food Program has attempted to provide aid to Pyongyang but has been rebuffed.
Missiles, not meals
The Government continually appears to be focused on missiles rather than meals.
On Wednesday, North Korea rejected condemnation by the United Nations chief of its recent ballistic missile launches.
The nuclear-armed North has fired three banned missiles in the past five days, including an intercontinental ballistic missile test Pyongyang said showed its capacity for a “fatal nuclear counter-attack on the hostile forces”.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to Saturday’s ICBM launch with a statement calling for Pyongyang to “immediately desist from taking any further provocative actions”.
North Korea’s vice foreign Minister expressed “strong discontent and protest against the extremely unfair and imbalanced attitude,” of Mr Guterres, according to a statement carried by KCNA state media.
Kim Son Gyong said Mr Guterres’ assessment ignored “dangerous,” joint military drills by Washington and Seoul and that he should “adopt a fair and balanced attitude”.
Kim described North Korea’s missile launches as a justified “countermeasure,” to the recent US deployment of strategic bombers to the Korean peninsula.
As Pyongyang rants, its people starve.
– with AFP.