North Korea may be reeling from its worst economic shock in decades, as heavy rains have inflicted widespread devastation on a country already suffering from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The domestic crisis may be so severe as to force Pyongyang to direct its attention inward and refrain from the international provocations – missile tests or actions along the de-militarized zone (DMZ) – which it has often done ahead of US presidential elections. In fact, the absence of such activity would be a sign that the domestic situation was exceptionally severe. Accordingly, the devastation will likely lead South Korea to push for the provision of unconditional assistance to North Korea against Washington’s wishes, creating another wedge in the US-South Korea relationship as they continue to negotiate over cost-sharing for US forces in Korea.
The Korean peninsula usually sees a monsoon season in the summer, but this year’s rains have been heavier than usual. South Korea has suffered flooding and landslides that have killed dozens and displaced thousands. But the damage in North Korea may be significantly worse, since the rainfall inundated the country’s major corn- and rice-growing regions and appears to have wiped out 40% of terraced arable land, washing away crops at a sensitive moment in the growing season. The North Korean regime has not denied the severity of the situation. Kim Jong Un ordered the release of emergency stocks of grain and made a site inspection of Unpa county in the country’s southwest to oversee the cleanup after a dike burst. Beyond the economic damage and the loss of life, the flooding may also have damaged the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
The flooding will compound what already appeared to be a sharp economic contraction of at least 6%, which would be the worst economic performance since the famine years of the 1990s. Meanwhile, official statistics showed that in H1 North Korea’s trade with China plummeted, including a 67% drop in imports and a 75% decrease in exports. It is also clear that Covid-19 is inside the country, after a returning defector was accused last month of bringing the disease into the country, triggering a lockdown in the border city of Kaesong that was only lifted this week. The result will be hardship for many North Koreans. The US Department of Agriculture had already forecasted that, due to the pandemic, as many of 60% of North Koreans would not have enough food to meet their daily caloric requirements. A poor harvest in the fall due to flooding could mean even more dire food shortages than anticipated, which could mean that North Korea will need help from China or UN relief agencies. However, Kim warned that the country should not accept outside help due to the pandemic.
South Korea is already seeking to send assistance north. The government of Gyeonggi province, which borders the DMZ, has secured a UN sanctions waiver to provide North Korea with a greenhouse system worth USD 368,000 as part of a food relief program. The South Korean government will likely seek other opportunities to send food aid, notwithstanding Pyongyang’s opposition.