The autocratic government of North Korea keeps an extremely tight lid on the news that flows out of the country, but some social crises spin so out of control and their impacts become so widespread that news leaks are completely unavoidable.
An example of this are last week’s reports of deaths due to starvation and disease in Hamhung, North Korea’s second-largest city. Beyond the deaths, there has also been a sharp spike in “robberies and other hideous crimes” in Hamhung, according to an unnamed visitor to the city quoted
by the news outfit Rimjin-Gang.
While the whisper network blames the deprivation on the country’s dire economic situation, the true state of matters on the ground is nearly impossible to accurately pin down, given the government’s harsh restrictions on media access and misinformation.
“Crackdowns on false rumors these days are harsh, and there’s a lot of cases where people are investigated for talking about information that puts the country in a bad light,” said a reporter identified only as A, who had visited Hamhung.
Famines are unfortunately a common occurrence in North Korea, In the 2022 Global Hunger Index, the Northeast Asian country ranked 97th out of 121 countries covered, with a score of 24.9
, indicating a hunger level deemed “serious”. The GHI takes into account several key indicators of hunger, including undernourishment, as well as child stunting, wasting, and mortality.
These famines are often triggered by its agricultural policies that are detrimental to food production, and are aggravated by the seclusive and secretive proclivities of its government. For example, the 1990s famine that killed millions of North Koreans is one of the world’s most grotesque humanitarian crises in history, but it is also among the least understood
Mounting economic sanctions from other governments, largely led by the U.S., have also worsened the situation. In a June 2023 opinion piece for The Guardian, columnist Simon Jenkins argues
that trade bans and other similar measures hurt the country’s poor the most — all while leaving its powerful government figures unaffected.
Sanctions “have entrenched existing elites in power, making them ever more paranoid in their behavior,” Jenkins says. “They weaken a country’s tolerance of dissent and reduce the likelihood of any change.”