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North Korea’s food conundrum

Many North Koreans are undernourished, the United Nations says. Can the beginnings of a so-called agricultural reform put food in their mouths?

In the 1990s, North Korea suffered from a devastating famine that, by some estimates, left up to 1 million people dead.

The Arduous March, as it was called, was partially the brought about by the end of Soviet food and fuel subsidies in the early 1990s, and Kim Jong-il’s survival strategy of pouring resources into the military at the expense of the bulk of the rural population.

The barren country of more than 20 million people, with its harsh winters and unfriendly soil, was caught in a terrible situation.

Since then, the government has tinkered with its socialist food distribution system; North Koreans are no longer starving in drastic numbers, many food security experts have told GlobalPost over the years.

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But the United Nations announced earlier this month that the situation is still bad. In a survey of 87 families, the UN’s World Food Program found 8 out of 10 North Koreans are undernourished. Many of them don’t have access to necessary proteins found in fish, meat, eggs and beans.

Quoting the WFP report, the VOA [Voice of America] said the North Korean families, on average, eat meat 1.3 days a week or beans 1.2 days per week.

The report also said about 14 percent of the 86 hospitalized North Korean children under age 5 whom its aid workers visited during the January-March period were in serious malnutrition conditions. 

But despite North Korea’s recent war rhetoric abroad, some say that a change in the government’s approach to food could improve the situation at home.

In June 2012, Kim Jong Un announced a new agricultural drive known as the “6.28 Policy“, named after the date of the proclamation.

If it’s a success, the Generalissimo could partially be rolling back the “military first” policy set up by his father, Kim Jong Il. The drive allows farmers to keep 30 percent of their harvest, while the government takes 70 percent — and if farmers produce a surplus, they can keep it.

The system would, in theory, give farmers an incentive to produce more food for the country.

But the so-called reform has its skeptics. Yesterday, Yong Kwon, an economics graduate student in London who runs the DPRK Food Policy Blog, explained to GlobalPost:

I think the more important question is whether the implementation of the 6.28 policy reforms will actually yield the desirable change in the welfare of the North Korean people.

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The policy, as far as I have read, still does not make room for free movement of fuel, fertilizer, or labor, which will restrict the productivity of the agricultural units.

He went on to say that, since the government is caught between the conflicting role of having to maintain its food distribution system, while bolstering a semi-private grain market to give farmers an incentive to be more productive, the policy won’t work without other changes in the market.