(IFES NK Brief No. 10-06-17) As North Korea’s food shortages worsen and reports of starvation continue to grow, the Workers’ Party of Korea have acknowledged the failure of the central food ration program. Since the end of May, the Party has permitted the operation of 24-hour markets, and the regime has ordered the people of the North to provide for themselves.
The human rights organization Good Friends reported this move on June 14. According to Good Friends, the Workers’ Party organization and guidance bureau handed down an order on May 26 titled ‘Relating to Korea’s Current Food Situation’ that allowed markets to stay open and ordered North Koreans to purchase their own food. This order, recognizing that the food shortages in the North have continued to worsen over the last six months, since the failed attempts at currency reform, acknowledged the difficulty of providing government food rations. It calls on those who were receiving rations to now feed themselves, while also calling on the Party, Cabinet, security forces and other relevant government agencies to come up with necessary countermeasures. Now, authorities officially allow the 24-hour operation of markets, something that most had already tacitly permitted, and encourage individuals, even those not working in trading companies, to actively import goods from China.
It has been reported that government food rations to all regions and all classes of society, even to those in Pyongyang, were suspended in April. The last distribution of food was a 20-day supply provided to each North Korean on April 15, the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. Because of the difficulty of travelling to markets, the suspension of rations caused many in farming communities to starve to death. When Kim Jong Il’s recent visit to China failed to secure expected food aid, the Workers’ Party had no choice but to hand down the ‘May 26 Party Decree’. While the suspension of rations has considerably extended the economic independence of North Korean people, the regime has significantly stepped up other forms of control over society. Public security officers have begun confiscating knives, saws and other potential weapons over 9 centimeters long in an effort to stem murder and other violent crimes. Additionally, state security officials are cracking down on forcefully resettling some residents of the age most likely to defect, while sending to prison those thought to have contacted relatives in South Korea.
According to Daily NK, North Korean security officials are pushing trading companies to continue trading with China, while calling on Chinese businesses to provide food aid. It also appears that North Korean customs inspections along the Tumen River have been considerably eased, and there is no real attempt to identify the origin or intended use of food imported from China. Sinheung Trading Company has asked Chinese partners investing in the North to send flour, corn and other foodstuffs. The Sinheung Trading Company is operated by the Ministry of State Security, and is responsible for earning the ministry foreign capital. It appears that food acquisition is now a matter of national security, as North Korea is expecting South Korea and the rest of the international community to economically isolate the country.