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North Korea Turns to India for Rice Amid Food Shortages

FILE - Parched rice plants on a farm field on the outskirts of Chonqing, China, Aug. 21, 2022.
FILE - Parched rice plants on a farm field on the outskirts of Chonqing, China, Aug. 21, 2022.

Pyongyang appears to be seeking rice donations from India as the regime of Kim Jong Un alerted the nation to prevent flood damage to farmlands from a typhoon passing across its eastern coast.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Tuesday that cities and counties in North Hwanghae province, south of Pyongyang, took measures "to minimize the damage to crops nearing harvest" as Typhoon Hinnamnor approached North Korea's eastern coast after making the landfall in South Korea on Tuesday

The same day, Kim held a meeting calling for efforts "to prevent disaster" and protect "the prosperity and development of the state."

How the typhoon will affect North Korea's unharvested crops is unclear. But food shortages are expected to grow worse due to the flooding of farmlands in August and Pyongyang's strict COVID-19-related border closings.

"With flooding again destroying crops, similar to last year, and North Korea's continued border restrictions, there are reasons to believe the access to food is tighter than prior to the pandemic," said Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute.

Seeking help from India

VOA's Korean Service has learned that Pyongyang has turned to India for rice, its staple food, which it usually imports from China.

Manpreet Singh, executive president of the Indian Chamber of International Business, an organization that helps small to midsize Indian companies expand globally, told the Korean Service in an August 30 email that North Korean Embassy officials visited the organization in New Delhi.

"We have been approached by the Embassy to look at possibilities for donations of rice" as "floods destroyed most of the crop," said Singh.

North Korea's U.N. Mission in New York City did not respond to VOA Korean Service's questions about its food situation and whether it is seeking outside aid. North Korea has dismissed South Korea's offer of economic aid in exchange for its denuclearization, a deal outlined in South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's "audacious initiative," introduced August 15.

Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of the North Korea's leader, responded on August 19, saying, "No one barters its destiny for corn cake."

Bradley Babson, a former World Bank adviser and current advisory council member of the Korea Economic Institute of America, said Pyongyang sought out the Indian business group instead of humanitarian organizations because, for health or political reasons, it probably wants to avoid requirements for accepting aid workers into the country to monitor aid distribution.

"It might get a few thousand tons from a country like India or Vietnam that won't insist on monitoring requirements," Babson said.

VOA's Korean Service also learned on August 26 about an ad seeking a vessel to transport 10,000 tons of rice from Vizag Port in eastern India to North Korea's Nampo Port between September 25 and 30. The ad is circulating via email in the global shipping industry.

A source with knowledge of the ad told the Korean Service that the party exporting the rice wanted to ship the long-grain variety commonly grown in India, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam. North Korea grows and consumes short-grain rice.

Whether Pyongyang's inquiry to the Indian Chamber of International Business about rice donations and the Indian exporter's attempt to ship rice to North Korea are related remains to be seen.

"The 10,000 tons of rice is not a lot of rice" considering North Korea's food deficit, Babson said. "I see these as largely symbolic and not really a solution to [its] food problem, which I think is extremely severe this year."

'WFP remains committed'

According to a 2021 report by the U.N.'s World Food Program, North Korea suffers from "chronic food insecurity and malnutrition" despite "the government's efforts to mitigate the effect of food deficits."

Kun Li, spokesperson for WFP's Asia and Pacific regional office in Bangkok, told the Korean Service on Wednesday that WFP and other international humanitarian organizations that left North Korea at the beginning of the pandemic cannot return to resume aid operations because of its border closures.

"WFP remains committed to the people of DPRK who need assistance and looks forward to being able to resume operations as soon as borders reopen to international personnel and cargo," Li said.

North Korea needs about 5.7 million tons of food for its population of about 26 million people, according to the Seoul-based Korea Development Institute. In 2021, the country was about 860,000 tons of food short, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Stangarone said Pyongyang might be importing rice from India because "North Korea does not want to become too dependent on China for its imports." However, he added, "India may soon restrict rice exports due to some areas of India seeing less rain. It potentially faces its own shortages as rice planting is down 13%."

North Korea normally imports rice from China, purchasing over $5.15 million worth in July, which is equivalent to about 10,000 tons of rice, according to the Chinese Customs data that VOA's Korean Service examined.

China has also experienced severe drought this summer, putting its agricultural production at risk, which could create food shortages.