In a photo taken on September 7, 2020, a man holding an umbrella walks before the Taedong river and landmark Juche tower during overcast weather brought by Typhoon Haishen in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/Kim Won Jin

While North Korea, like its neighbor China, may very well be handling the Covid-19 pandemic with authoritarian effectiveness, unlike China, North Korea has no real economic or trade engine to provide for its people.

As a result, the country is facing an unusually dangerous internal situation. Even the military and the elite are feeling an unaccustomed pinch.

Overall, 2020 is turning out to be a woeful year for North Korea. The combination of a pandemic, related halts in cross-border trade, a resultant shortage of essential goods and foodstuffs and recent heavy flooding are proving a perfect storm. North Koreans of almost all classes are feeling the pressure.

According to various sources inside the country who speak to foreign media via such communication channels as smuggled Chinese cellphones, North Koreans nationwide are far from satisfied with the regime’s handling of state affairs as an already struggling population is facing yet more burdens.

Things turned south in January, when the government closed all border crossings with China to prevent the spread of Covid-19. This resulted in shortages of essential goods at local markets, especially in North Korea’s northern provinces.

The dire economic situation continues to force many residents in border towns to risk their lives to smuggle in goods from China to make a living and put food on the table. The struggles are made worse by the government’s policies, which include securing the border area with an increased military presence to mercilessly crackdown on any illegal smuggling or suspicious activity. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits an area damaged by Typhoon Maysak at South Hamgyong Province on September 5, 2020. Photo: AFP/KCNA VIA KNS/Stringer

Rain, typhoons take a toll

Matters have recently taken another ugly turn due to the summer’s heavy rains – a combination of a long monsoon season and multiple typhoons. Severe flooding has resulted in heavy damage to buildings, railroads, roads and more.

In what may have been a creative move to quell discontent, last Saturday national leader Kim Jong Un promised to send 12,000 elite party members from Pyongyang to the provinces affected by the floods to help with recovery efforts, according to state media reports.

But what is particularly unusual and a risk is that the current situation is creating problems not only among the lower orders in North Korea’s strict social class system, but also those close to the top of it.

Reports from ordinary citizens paint desperate pictures.

According to one Radio Free Asia source in the country’s northeast, due to strong winds blowing away all the trees, and the constant deluges, many roads in the province have increasingly started looking like “oceans.”   

Many people have reportedly ceased watching the state-run news channel. “Where can you find locals who watch the central news channel?” the source asked. “We don’t even have electricity, so how can we watch TV?”

North Korean defector Park Jung-oh shows plastic bottles filled with rice and face masks on his truck as he prepares a plan to send the bottles towards North Korea through a border river, in Seoul on June 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Starving to death

An overall sense of hopelessness is spreading.

“I heard that next year, Chosun will starve to death,” the source said, referring to the colloquial name of the country. “Everyone will starve to death.”  The fears are fueled by damage caused in Hwanghae Province, a major granary, the source added.

North Korea’s grain harvest is expected to drop by 300,000 tons this year due to recent natural disasters.

What is particularly concerning is that these struggles are not only being faced by ordinary citizens, but even by the country’s military – which is supposed to be well provided, along with the country’s political elite.

According to a recent report by Daily NK, soldiers deployed to a flood-ravaged county for recovery efforts have instead been stealing from locals. Soldiers have also been trying to exchange building materials such as cement and wood for food, alcohol and cigarettes, according to local sources.

Highly unusually, the situation is bad at the elite level, too.

Another Daily NK report recently revealed that the military’s deteriorating food situation has led to greater competition among various military agencies to conduct “inspections” of military units and extract bribes in order to survive since military rations have been cut by one third.

An employee of Pyongyang Glasses Shop takes the temperature of visiting customers as quarantine measures on August 10, 2020. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS/Stringer

Even the elite are suffering

Reports of high-level party officials taking bribes have also been on a steady rise recently.

Even the elite living in Pyongyang – the state’s showpiece capital, which is usually insulated from dire conditions prevailing elsewhere in the country – are suffering hard times.

Pyongyang citizens have already gone several months without receiving their accustomed food rations. This is noteworthy given that even during the murderous famines of the 1990s – a national trauma now referred to, with a shudder, by the euphemism “The Arduous March” – Pyongyangites always received food supplies.

In response to the growing crisis, North Korean authorities decided last month to take drastic action and release military rice and other reserves to feed the capital’s residents.

However, the government was reportedly not able to distribute enough food for all of the city’s inhabitants, so has instead prioritized the kitchens of the core elite class. Even so, the elite’s rations are only enough to last them about 20 days, according to Daily NK.

The dire food situation was confirmed by a Daily NK source in the city: “At first, people in non-central districts were suffering and starving,” he said. “But now I’m hearing a lot of stories like this from those in the city’s central districts, too.”

At North Korea’s border with China, people are taking huge risks to smuggle goods into the impoverished country. Photo: AFP

Things will get worse

And if there is no drastic and unlikely change, things are set to get worse. With winter approaching, the dire effects of the country’s food shortage will be felt even more severely.

Cracks in the social order are also becoming visible.

According to several AsiaPress sources inside North Korea, the nation-wide economic deterioration has resulted in an increase in drug trafficking, prostitution and organized crime. People have become so desperate to survive that many have decided to engage in criminal activity despite the risk of prison camps.

Besides these crimes, citizens in border provinces continue risking their lives by smuggling goods in from China. Here too, if caught, they would be sentenced to time in prison camps, where the ration situation is the worst in the country.  

Residents, however, are saying that “death would be better than life in a prison camp, and the harsh reality of having trouble finding daily food is the reason for the smuggling on the border,” according to a source in Ryanggang Province.

What makes the current situation in North Korea so volatile is that it is not simply the lower classes that are now being forced to “tighten their belts.”

However, in such a successfully totalitarian state, ruled by such a securely fortified regime, whether dire conditions could spark any form of mass social unrest is far from clear.

Kim Jong-Un remains defiant. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

Kim sticks to his guns

Certainly, despite the dismal state of the economy, national leader Kim Jong Un is sticking to his customary guns.

In a show of defiant self-reliance, he has rejected foreign aid. And he is forcing ordinary people to donate food and offer unpaid labor to help rebuild infrastructure damaged by floods.

He is also upping his focus on security. “Though the economy is continuing to deteriorate, the regime is focused on preventing the collapse of social order,” the Asia Press report stated.

And he is not postponing symbolic spectacles of regime power. Preparations continue for a massive military parade expected on October 10 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party.

Gabriela Bernal is the founder of The Peninsula Report and is a translator at Daily NK, a Seoul-based NGO which collects information from sources inside North Korea. You can find her on Twitter: @gabrielabbernal.