The Economist reports today that North Korea is facing drought and potential famine:
The rainy season has finally started in North Korea, and not a moment too soon. Months of clear skies have left fields arid and crops undernourished, raising the risk of failed harvests (see chart). This is grave news. The country is experiencing chronic food-insecurity problems so severe that its leader, Kim Jong Un, last year drew a comparison to a famine in the 1990s that killed at least 200,000 and perhaps as many as 3m people. By the regime’s own admission, this year’s drought is the second-worst since records began in 1981.
This is on the heels of the country's May 2022 Covid-19 outbreak. From The Lancet:
On May 12, 2022, the country confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Premier Kim Jong-un has described the situation as the “greatest turmoil” North Korea has faced since it was founded in 1948.
The extremely limited testing capacity makes it difficult to track the extent of the ongoing outbreak in North Korea. However, in a highly unusual move, the authorities have been releasing detailed statistics on cases of “fever”. These cases peaked on May 15, with almost 400 000 new cases reported, followed by a steady decline to about 100 000 new cases per day by the end of the month. Not all cases of fever are caused by COVID-19, nor are all cases of COVID-19 characterised by fever. However, these data are the only available proxy. As of June 18, 4·6 million North Koreans (representing 18% of the population) had been diagnosed with fever since late April.
The situation has probably been exacerbated by low levels of vaccination. The exact proportion of North Koreans who have been vaccinated is unknown and it is unclear whether a specific vaccination policy is in place. The country has turned down millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses from COVAX. Shipments have arrived from China, but nowhere near enough to cover the entire population...
Moreover, there is a distinct possibility that North Korea is in the middle of a food emergency. According to a 2019 assessment by the World Food Programme, 11 million North Koreans were undernourished and in need of humanitarian assistance. Hazel Smith, of the Centre for Korea Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London, UK), traces the crisis to the imposition of comprehensive UN sanctions against North Korea in 2017, in response to its continuing nuclear weapons programme. The country is struggling to produce essential medicines or maintain clean water supplies. “The agriculture sector in North Korea cannot function; it does not have the spare parts and fertiliser it needs, and it cannot do things like repair irrigation systems”, said Smith. She reckons government and household food stocks are likely to have diminished to nothing.
[William Hanage, Associate Professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health] posits that North Korea should see somewhere in the region of 50 000 deaths. Several times as many people would be expected to be admitted to hospital. “There is no way the North Korean health-care system could handle a sudden influx of cases of COVID-19”, said a medical expert on the country, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They do not have enough ventilators, oxygen, or basic medicines, let alone antivirals. Even in the best hospitals, doctors are reusing surgical gloves”.
Smith stressed that the issue is supplies rather than staff. “North Korea has a sophisticated medical workforce”, she said. In 2007, the country vaccinated 10 million people against measles over the course of 3 days. A similar performance against COVID-19, assuming the vaccines were made available, could see the entire population vaccinated within a couple of weeks. Smith urged the international community to suspend the UN sanctions until the current crisis is over. “The best thing we can do for the health of the people in North Korea is to ensure they can get hold of basic supplies”, she told The Lancet.
It's possible that EA isn't in the best position to tackle global geopolitical problems with lots of attention and vested interests. The EA response to Covid-19 was instructive, with plenty of useful research papers but seemingly not enough political muscle to set international agendas. If you think global politics is important for addressing the some of the largest scale challenges in the world, it could be valuable to continuing to develop capabilities for EA response.
For more analysis of opportunities for impact in North Korea, see:
- Cause Area: Human Rights in North Korea (Denis Drescher, 2017)
- Liberty in North Korea, quick cost-effectiveness estimate (Michael St. Jules, 2021)
Even in face of this particular problem I'm not sure what the right thing to do would be. Famine and COVID would (or already do) kill millions, but sending help would strengthen the regime, which also oppresses the population of ~25 million, enables these catastrophes to begin with, and keeps hundreds of thousands imprisoned in forced labour camps.
I agree, it doesn’t seem like an actionable opportunity to help with our current resources. I’d be more optimistic about sending supplies to reduce suffering because I don’t think mass civilian casualties actually threaten the stability of the regime. But that’s debatable and difficult to do.
I’m mainly interested because the North Korean government seems like one of the largest sources of suffering in the world, and EAs should stay aware of the world’s biggest challenges even if we’re currently better able to help in other places.
I completely agree.
I'd actually be interested to know if there are more developed theories about this (mine sets a pretty low bar).