Workers rehabilitate rice paddies near North Korea's second largest city, Hamhung. Pic: AP.

It appears to be happening again, writes Asia Sentinel’s Todd Crowell

Recent foreign visitors to Pyongyang are often impressed by the new construction that seems to be sprouting up everywhere in North Korea’s drab capital. New high-rise apartment buildings have been erected, department stores and theaters refurbished and even amusement parks and theme parks opened.

“Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed the position of supreme leader, the media in North Korea and visiting foreigners have reported on the beautifully developing capital, Pyongyang. But in the shadow of the ‘gorgeous’ capital a hidden famine has broken out,” says Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Asiapress in Osaka, a North Korean watching service with numerous clandestine reporters throughout North Korea.

The dark secret behind all of this new capital glitz and glamor appears to be a raging famine in the two Hwanghae provinces, where by some estimates 20,000 people have died of starvation in South Hwanghae alone in the year since Kim Jong-il died in December, 2011 and was succeeded by his son and heir, the 29-year old Kim Jong-un.

The Hwangwhe provinces, north and south, lie just south of the capital, between Pyongyang and the South Korean border. They are often said to be the “breadbasket” of North Korea, supplying food to both key elements of North Korea’s social order, the million-man army, many of them deployed along their southern border facing South Korea, and the capital, Pyongyang.

For the past year, however, they have not been able to feed themselves, due in part to the demands of these two powerful groups, In particular the capital has required considerably more of the provincial agriculture output to feed the thousands of workers who were imported to work on the major construction projects underway for the past three to four years.

So to the familiar culprits of food shortages, floods followed by severe drought, can be added a political, and completely man-made dimension to this latest famine, which has not been seen as much in the previous food shortages that have plagued North Korea for the better part of the last decade.

The country has only limited resources of capital and foreign exchange, and the much of these funds have been diverted to pay for elaborate entertainment complexes, including roller coasters from Italy and dolphins to stock a theme park instead of food. “You can see where Kim Jong-un’s priorities lie,” said Ishimura.

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