North Korea ’s autocratic leadership is not known for drawing attention to problems within the country, where a popular children’s song proclaims “we have nothing to envy in the world”. So when Kim Jong-un used a recent commemoration of the 1950-1953 Korean war to acknowledge the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns had sparked a “crisis of hardships” to rival the conflict, aid groups took notice. Kim’s acknowledgement of growing deprivation late last month was the third such public acknowledgement this year, including an admission in June that the secretive country’s food situation was “getting tense”. China-North Korea trade at record low amid pandemic, food shortages In April, the third-generation dictator, who assumed power in 2011, told officials to prepare for another “Arduous March”, the term used to describe a famine during the 1990s that is estimated to have cost between 240,000 and 3.5 million lives. “The fact that Kim Jong-un is saying that the situation is dire indicates to me that things are bad in North Korea,” said Dan Chung, executive director of Crossing Borders, a US-based Christian aid group that works with North Korean refugees. “During the famine of the late 90s, North Korea made indications that the country was in trouble. North Korea’s default disposition is bombast and bragging. If they say they are in trouble, they usually mean it.” Tim Peters, the founder of Seoul-based non-profit Helping Hands Korea, said Kim’s remarks hinted at the “enormous impact” of the pandemic and related restrictions on the country. “Rarely do we agree with Kim Jong-un, but such an assessment coincides with all of the indicators that our NGO has of the immensely complex crisis that the pandemic poses for the DPRK’s ageing, brittle infrastructure on every level,” Peters said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. US seizes Singaporean’s tanker used to deliver oil to North Korea Pyongyang has effectively sealed the country’s borders since January last year as part of measures to keep the pandemic at bay, severely curtailing cross-border traffic and trade with China , its main ally and trading partner. Trade between the neighbours fell to a record low in the first six months of 2021, with Chinese exports declining more than 85 per cent to US$56.77 million, according to Chinese customs data. The North’s food insecurity has been further exacerbated by severe weather, including droughts and typhoons, and international sanctions targeting the Kim regime’s illicit nuclear and missile programmes . In July, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation predicted the North, which has struggled with chronic malnutrition for decades, could face a food shortage of about 860,000 tonnes this year. Last week, South Korea ’s central bank estimated the isolated country’s gross domestic product shrank 4.5 per cent last year, its sharpest drop since 1997. GDP fell to 31.4 trillion won (US$27.4 billion), down from 33.8 trillion won in Kim’s first year at the helm, the report showed, while exports dropped 67.9 per cent to just US$90 million. The North has officially reported zero Covid-19 cases throughout the pandemic, a record doubted by many observers, although Kim in June castigated officials over an unspecified “grave incident” related to the virus. Pyongyang has displayed little urgency about vaccinating its 25 million people, with no public indications it has taken delivery of any jabs. How will ‘emaciated’ Kim ride out a famine in North Korea? With China’s help While already challenging because of the government’s stranglehold on information, obtaining a clear picture of conditions has become more difficult following an exodus of foreign diplomats and aid workers, driven by shortages of basic goods and harsh restrictions including domestic travel controls. Peters said he had received reports from sources in the country that pointed to a “gravely serious” humanitarian situation, including claims of emergency quarantine camps that provided minimal food and the stationing of armed guards around rice and corn fields. “Every indication I’ve heard so far points to enormous stress on the North Korean population due to the direct and indirect impacts of the prolonged pandemic,” said Peters, adding that all channels for delivering aid had been effectively blocked for much of late 2020 and early 2021. Peters said he believed there was a “very high” chance Covid-19 was spreading widely in the country despite official denials, a major concern given the dilapidated health system and a population with weakened immunity because of widespread malnourishment. The North Korean regime has tackled Covid-19 mostly as a political propaganda issue, and not a critical public health issue Greg Scarlatoiu, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said North Korean defectors with contacts in the country had reported an apparent increase in respiratory infections. “This is anecdotal evidence provided via word of mouth,” Scarlatoiu said. “But it would be very difficult to believe that there are no Covid-19 cases in North Korea. Part of the reason may be the lack of testing kits. Also, the North Korean regime has tackled Covid-19 mostly as a political propaganda issue, and not a critical public health issue. The consequences could be devastating.” Scarlatoiu said access to the country at present remained “nearly impossible”. “There is no indication when foreign humanitarian NGOs may resume their operations,” he said. North Korea pushed by food crisis to restore hotline with South, analyst says A coordinator with a US-based non-profit organisation that works in North Korea said he was not convinced Covid-19 had spread widely within the country, citing the extreme measures taken by the government. The coordinator, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his experience also suggested the country’s “farmers are more resilient than most think” – but noted his organisation had not had people inside the country since 2019. This Week in Asia could not independently confirm word of mouth reports on the conditions inside the country. How will ‘emaciated’ Kim ride out a famine in North Korea? With China’s help Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings, an associate director at the Centre of Humanitarian Leadership at Deakin University in Australia, said that whether or not Covid-19 had taken hold in North Korea, it was clear pandemic control measures were having a “negative impact on North Korean human security and well-being”. “So even in the best case scenario where there is no Covid-19, people are still suffering,” Zadeh-Cummings said. Chung, the head of Crossing Borders, said the international community needed to act without delay to avert a potential humanitarian disaster. “If the world waits to verify that this is actually true, it might be too late and tens of thousands of lives might be lost,” he said.