A senior North Korean official says his country is facing dwindling food supplies and has been forced to cut food rations for its people, according to a memo obtained by NBC News.
The memo, written by Kim Song, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, appears to be an unusual admission that the country lacks enough food to feed its people, a situation that Kim blamed on a combination of natural disasters and the sanctions regime that is making it difficult to obtain farming equipment.
Song said the North Korean government was urgently requesting help from international organizations to feed its people.
The memo was obtained by NBC News from the country's United Nations mission.
Kim's claims are difficult to verify, and his government has not always been a reliable source of internal statistics. He said a food assessment, conducted late last year in conjunction with the UN's World Food Program, found that the country produced 503,000 fewer tons of food than in 2017 due to record high temperatures, drought, heavy rainfall and — in an unexpected admission — sanctions.
The food agency could not immediately confirm that the organization conducted an assessment with North Korea or the conclusions the country shared in the memo.
In a plea for food assistance from international organizations, however, the memo states that sanctions “restricting the delivery of farming materials in need is another major reason” the country faces shortages that has forced it to cut “food rations per capita for a family of blue or white collar workers” from 550 grams to 300 grams in January.
“All in all, it vindicates that humanitarian assistance from the UN agencies is terribly politicized and how barbaric and inhuman sanctions are,” the memo says.
Though the country plans to increase food imports and harvest its crops early this year, the memo says that North Korea would still face food shortages and may only increase rations by 10 grams in July.
Experts warned, however, that the claims of a severe shortage might be a negotiating tactic ahead of the two-day summit.
“It may be admitting weakness, but it’s not without a plan,” said Dr. Victor Cha, who served as the director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the Bush administration.
Cha said that North Korea may feel that it has some momentum to convince Trump to loosen the sanctions against it, especially with South Korea, China and Russia “beating down the doors of the United States.”
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But for the United States to blink in next week’s confrontation, the Trump administration will have to see results, Cha said.
“They’re going to want some denuclearization steps from North Korea, but I don’t think the North Koreans are going to give up very much,” Cha said. “When we talk about any sanction-lifting though, a lot of experts would say the place where you can do the least harm and the most good for the North Korean people is through humanitarian sanctions.”
Of North Korea’s 25 million people, 10.3 million or 41 percent of the population face food insecurity and 10.1 million suffer from malnutrition, according to a March 2018 UN report.
In an attempt to increase the pressure against Kim’s regime and their nuclear program, the Trump administration increased sanctions that essentially cut off the flow of international humanitarian aid to North Korea, according to an August Reuters report. U.S. humanitarian aid in 2018 dropped nearly 57 percent from the year prior, the wire service reported.
Though it is clear that North Korea is receiving less aid, it is more than unusual for them to publicly admit that sanctions are working and causing the nation to suffer.
The White House National Security Council and the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
North Korea has previously acknowledged food shortages, appealed for humanitarian aid and blamed international sanctions for creating problems for its agricultural production, experts and former U.S. officials said.
The country has repeatedly suffered food crises in recent decades, due to a combination of inefficient collectivist farming methods and bad weather. A devastating famine in the mid-1990s claimed the lives of up to three million people, and some aid experts called it one of the 20th century’s worst famines.
Last year, the Trump administration stopped granting visas to humanitarian workers who had been traveling to North Korea to provide aid to farmers and medical assistance in a country where malaria and tuberculosis are endemic. Aid groups wrote a letter to the administration in October arguing that the block on visas violated international law, would exacerbate the country’s dire humanitarian situation and that would only undermine any diplomatic initiative by Washington.
The administration told aid groups in January it would ease the restrictions to allow them to resume their work in the North.
Daniel Jasper, advocacy coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker charity that has conducted humanitarian work in North Korea for decades, said the sanctions and the way they have been enforced has “inhibited our operations.”
“It’s reasonable to infer there would be food insecurity” as a result of the sanctions, Jasper said.
Even if North Korea managed its resources more efficiently, it does not have enough arable land to feed its population of about 24 million people, Jasper said. Much of the Korean peninsula’s fertile land lies in South Korea.
“The division has always taken a toll on food security in the North,” he said.
The North Korean regime in the past also has linked negotiations over its nuclear program to food aid, demanding more assistance as a condition for taking part in talks.
The new memo is consistent with Pyongyang’s tactics “to weaken the sanctions regime by appealing to humanitarian concerns,” said Jung Pak, a former CIA officer and now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“Even though the regime imports hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury items, it consistently blames the U.S. and U.N. for its problems,” she said.
Sue Mi Terry, who tracked North Korea as a CIA analyst, said she believes the regime is preparing the way for the upcoming summit.
“What they want is sanctions relief. That’s the main thing that they’re looking for,” said Terry, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are laying the groundwork for this meeting with Trump. This makes sense.”
The Trump administration will probably be open to broadening exemptions for humanitarian aid, as it would be something concrete to offer to Pyongyang without having to fully lift the economic sanctions before North Korea makes substantial concessions over its nuclear weapons program, she said.
This could be “one of the deliverables at this second summit,” Terry said.
Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter focused on rural issues and the social safety net.
Dan De Luce
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.