There are growing indications that international sanctions are taking a toll in North Korea, with even paper for the country’s main publication running short.
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In additional to the problems facing the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper that serves as the mouthpiece of the regime, Pyongyang’s hard currency reserves are expected to dry up by October, the trade deficit is continuing to widen, and food and fuel are in increasingly short supply.
The head of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee briefed politicians this week on the state of the North’s finances, which have been seriously affected by the freezing of the regime’s accounts overseas and a ban on virtually all exports.
Kang Seok-ho, a politician of the opposition Liberty Korea Party, later told Yonhap news that it is clear that the sanctions are having an effect and that Pyongyang’s new-found desire for détente with the South is a direct result of the hardships it faces.
Reports from the North are already describing the shortages facing ordinary people as the new “arduous march”, a reference to the famine in the mid-1990s that claimed as many as 3.5 million lives.
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The Chosun Ilbo newspaper has reported that two of the main energy plants that provide power to Pyongyang have been shut down for 10 days so far this year, resulting in shortages and blackouts in parts of the capital.
Coal mines are unable to operate at full capacity due to the shortage of fuel, while any coal that is mined cannot be transported. Imports of coke from China have also been halted, meaning that even the elite of North Korean society are having to put up with no power or heating.
Food rations have been cut by half and there is virtually no white rice available and the price of cooking oil has also soared.
The print run of the Rodong Sinmun has been cut from 600,000 copies a day to just 200,000 newspapers and home deliveries have been cancelled, the Chosun Ilbo reported.
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The recent visit to South Korea by a delegation from Pyongyang to the opening of the Winter Olympic Games also inadvertently revealed that North Korean has been cut off from the global satellite communications network for air traffic controllers after it defaulted on payments eight months ago.
Air traffic controllers at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport were forced to use a conventional telephone line to inform their counterparts at Incheon International Airport that the flight had departed.
Still resisting the international community’s pressure to get rid of its nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles, however, North Korea is going to ever-greater lengths to obtain the money and materiel that it needs to survive.
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Chinese and Japanese authorities are cracking down on reports of vessels carrying out illegal ship-to-ship transfers of goods and fuel in the East China Sea, while defectors in South Korea are suddenly receiving messages to send money to the North if they want their relatives they left behind to remain safe.
One defector has said a video was posted on a North Korean propaganda website criticising his escape and threatening his family. In a subsequent phone call, he was told his family was “begging” him to send them 10 million won (£6,650). Others have used middlemen in China to buy rice and send to their relatives in the North, although it is assumed that the money or food does not reach its intended destination.