A worker with a machine on a production line for 'Taeha' brand cakes at the Unha Taesong Foodstuff Factory in Pyongyang on April 6, 2021. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

“People are dying,” warns Jiro Ishimaru of the current situation in North Korea. “People are dying for lack of food and medicine.”

The founder and chief editor of Osaka-based AsiaPress, Ishimaru specializes in keeping in touch with undercover reporters who he has trained outside and sent back into North Korea bearing smuggled Chinese cellphones, which can be used if they’re close enough to the border.

His “reporting partners” have told him of a sudden deterioration of residents’ situations starting in June – a drastic decline that, in a new article, he compares to a dam breaking. Ishimaru asks: “What do people do when they can’t afford to live?” In answer he quotes his local observers as saying:

“When people run out of cash, they borrow money, rice or corn from their neighbors or acquaintances. When that becomes difficult, they pawn or sell their household goods. In the neighborhoods, we often see debt collectors barging in and taking away everything, even pot kettles. The only recourse left is to turn to crime or, in the case of women, prostitution. In the end, they sell their houses.”

Ishimaru writes: “Those who have lost their homes have no choice but to wander the streets. Since last summer, there have been reports of an increase in the number of kochebi (homeless people) from all over the country. It is getting common to see abandoned children and older people begging in the market. What has been driving the situation is the sharp rise in grain prices since June.”

Jiro Ishimaru in an undated photo showing him speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Photo: FCCJ

It’s now the off-season leading up to the fall harvest, he notes. Scarcity is the rule.

At one point in early June, the price of white rice rose 1.7 times and that of corn 2.4 times compared to one month earlier.

Recently, many mines and factories have seen an increase in the number of workers who cannot come to work due to malnutrition. “It is no longer unusual to see collapsed and broken people on the streets. The kochebi that emerged last year may have all died,” said a reporting partner from Musan City.

What shocked us was that since the latter half of June, we have been receiving reports from all over the northern part of the country that the elderly are dying rapidly. For example, a reporting partner in Hyesan City said, Their bodies are so weak from not being able to eat that they die easily from colds and diarrhea. This is because medicine is no longer coming in from China. If things continue like this, all the old people will die.”

After Kim Jong Un’s statement on June 17 acknowledging the food crisis, the North Korean authorities began to take the situation seriously. Research on “Food Insecure Households,” those who had run out of cash and grain, began immediately in many areas. On June 30, a reporting partner informed us that five kilograms of corn had been urgently provided to each household.

The chaos that is occurring in North Korea is an artificial disaster. It is a crisis of humanity caused by a lack of concern for the people and a preoccupation with coronavirus control. I want to call attention to the plight of our neighbors so that the situation will not become even more tragic.

Ishimaru finds it “frustrating” that the rest of the world has not come to terms with what he calls “the worst humanitarian crisis in Asia.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un went so far in June as to describe the food situation as “tense” – and some analysts believe the obese ruler’s obvious personal weight loss recently could be at least partly intended to deflect away from himself the anger of North Koreans who aren’t getting enough to eat.

Not exactly starving, as some of his subjects reportedly are doing, but when North Korea leader Kim Jong Un attended a meeting of senior officials in the headquarters building of the Party Central Committee on June 4, he was seen to be thinner than before. The dictator seemed to have lost weight around his chin, chest and arms. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

North Korea’s rulers in the past when they’ve issued public statements about food shortages have on occasion been accused of “crying wolf!” in order to attract aid so that they wouldn’t have to take funding away from their pet weapons development budget to pay for more food imports.

In April, after Kim complained publicly of the “worst situation ever,” Ishimaru told Asia Times that was an exaggeration. Much worse, he noted, had been the mid-1990s famine that killed at least 600,000 people – in some estimations, two or three times that many.

Ishimaru in his latest article still does not compare the present situation to the horrendous famine that North Koreans are taught to refer to as the “Arduous March.” Interestingly, though, his latest warnings are stronger than those Kim himself has issued publicly in the last couple of months.

Ishimaru maintains that Kim has mishandled the Covid-19 threat by cracking down excessively on contact with the outside world. He says:

The cause of the crisis was the blockade of the border with China, which led to a sharp decline in trade. It was also the tightening of controls on movement and commerce within the country as if martial law had been declared.

The significant slump in trade and markets reduced everyone’s cash income. Food is no longer available from those who have depleted their reserves. The situation that residents feared a year ago – “I’m more afraid of hunger than of coronavirus”– has become a reality. Vulnerable groups such as single older people, single mothers and families with sick people were the first to fall on hard times.

“That the reality of the situation has not been conveyed to the world,” Ishimaru maintains in his latest article, “is because the Kim Jong Un regime has closed the borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, preventing people from coming in and out of the country, thus preventing information from being released” – aside from the information the handful of organizations such as his can gather via phone.

A pupil has his temperature taken as part of anti-Covid-19 procedures before entering Pyongyang Secondary School No. 1 in Pyongyang on June 22, 2021. Photo: AFP / Kim Won Jin

Other news organizations with similar reporting styles offer confirmation that things are bad north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, but AsiaPress may have published the most complete – and dire – report. For more of its accounts of the hunger situation check out these articles:

As for what the Kim regime itself and the rest of the world are doing in response, recent reports suggest the answers are not calculated to instill confidence that things will improve soon.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.