UPDATED at 4:18 P.M. EDT on 2019-05-10
Sources within North Korea say that the regime’s request for 1.4 million tons in food aid from U.N. agencies is based on exaggerated claims of an ongoing food shortage. Food shortages happen every year but are temporary, usually falling between May and June just prior to the barley and potato harvest, when stored food supplies are at their lowest.
As such, food prices rise to their highest point every year during this season, colloquially known as the barley hump. But sources say that this year’s barley hump isn’t as severe as is being claimed.
“It’s barley hump season but food prices are steady or are rising only slightly [this year],” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on Monday.
“Food stands at the marketplaces in Chongjin are piled up with grain, but the volume of transaction is lower than usual,” said the source.
The source pointed out how the price per kilogram of rice, corn and soybeans has only climbed about 2 cents on average in the past month. The price of rice in particular rose from about 38 cents per kilogram in January to 51 cents by the end of April. Once the barley hump is over, prices are expected to fall again. The source thinks the slight increase in price is only a tiny burden to bear compared to previous years.
“In fact, the current price of rice is lower compared to this time last year,” said the source.
The source said that observing what’s being traded in the local markets can be a good indicator of how serious a food shortage is.
“When the food shortage gets worse, people tend to raise goats, geese or rabbits, because they eat grass. But an increasing number of people are raising grain-eating chicken and pigs. Clearly the food shortage is not serious,” the source said.
A second source, also from North Hamgyong said that current food price increases have nothing to do with any actual shortage.
“Merchants are stocking up on food and not putting it on the market in case food prices go up. Since we are getting into the barley hump, they are waiting for prices to rise instead of just selling it all at once,” said the second source.
The second source also saw the price increases as temporary.
“When potatoes and barley are harvested in June, prices in the market will eventually decline. People think that prices aren’t getting out of control right now, because we’re still getting a steady influx of flour and other food from China and Russia [despite sanctions on other imports],” said the second source.
Sanctions aimed at depriving the regime of resources for its nuclear program generally do not restrict food imports.
The lack of drastic movement in food prices at local markets makes the second source believe that the amount of aid requested by North Korea is based on overstated figures.
“Considering last year’s decline in harvest yields caused by abnormal weather, the food shortage should be worse this year and prices should go up, but there’s [almost] no change in food prices,” the second source said.
“Authorities have exaggerated the food shortage situation so they could request 1.4 million tons from the U.N.,” said the second source.
“Begging for food from international society [when we don’t need it] is nothing more than a shameless act.”
A spokesperson for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) who declined to be named said that food aid to North Korea should not be politicized.
“WFP hopes that the international community will continue to separate the humanitarian from the political, enabling us to do our lifesaving work in DPRK.”
Regarding the WFP’s assessment of North Korea’s food security situation, the spokesperson said, “WFP had access to a wide variety of locations and stakeholders, and the assessment was carried out in line with our global standards."
The assessment was carried out at Pyongyang’s request from March 29 to April 12 found that 10.1 million of North Korea's 25.2 million people were suffering from severe food insecurity, “meaning they do not have enough food till the next harvest,” the WFP said.
Reported by Jieun Kim and Albert Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.