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North Korea Has 1.2 Million Troops But Cannot Feed Them

Sofia Lotto Persio

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North Korea spends about a quarter of its budget on the armed forces but is reportedly unable to feed its soldiers. 

A Japanese filmmaker who is in close contact with citizen journalists inside North Korea said that many of the army’s 1.2 million active troops are “in poor physical condition and in no fit state to fight.”

“For one thing, there are too many soldiers to feed,” Jiro Ishimaru told the Guardian, “and corruption is rife, so that by the time senior military officers have taken their share of food provisions to sell for profit on the private market, there is next to nothing left for ordinary soldiers.”

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The documentary maker also said he saw for himself the conditions of the North Korean soldiers, having spotted “clearly undernourished” military personnel washing their uniforms in the Yalu river, near the border with China.   

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North Korean soldier

A North Korean soldier guards on the Yalu river north of the border city of Sinuiju, North Korea across from Dandong, Liaoning province, northern China on May 24, 2017 in Dandong, China. A Japanese filmmaker told The Guardian he saw "clearly undernourished" soldiers washing their uniforms in the river. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A faster rate of economic growth is unable to shield North Korea from the consequences of a drought that, according to U.N. agencies, is the worst to affect the country in 16 years. Analysis from satellite images prompted the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to release a special alert in July, predicting that the harvest in 2017 could fall by 30 percent and calling for agricultural support to the country’s farmers.

Last month, North Korea suddenly cancelled a planned international beer festival without giving any reason, leading to speculation that the drought had caused more trouble than the regime wanted to openly admit. 

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The World Food Program (WFP), the U.N. food-assistance branch, estimates that approximately 70 percent of the population of nearly 25 million people does not have regular and reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.


According to the humanitarian agency, most of the population relies on the government's Public Distribution System to provide staple cereals such as rice, maize, wheat, but the WFP reports these only provide 400 grams of cereals per person per day, lower than the government’s average target of 573 grams.

As part of its work, the WFP collects voluntary donations from foreign countries to deliver basic staple supplies to countries in need. In the beginning of August, Russia delivered 800 tons of wheat flour to North Korea through the WFP, which uses the imported goods to manufacture the fortified foods such as cereals and biscuits that are then distributed in the country.