There are fears North Korea is on the brink of a devastating new famine amid an ‘epidemic’ of cow deaths.
With food imports from neighbouring China at a standstill and corn prices surging, North Korea has been hit by a livestock crisis that would impact the food chain.
In South Pyongan Province alone 120 cows had died in the past month, a source from within the secretive kingdom said.
“Many cows are dying with the approach of spring,” he told South Korea’s Daily NK newspaper.
“The main cause of death was the lack of food and hay despite the cold winter weather.
“Malnutrition caused 75 per cent of the cases, with the rest being caused by accidents and disease.”
Since the cows are considered state property, workers also face the wrath of the Kim regime if one dies on their watch.
Now desperate farmers are reportedly stealing livestock from each other in a bid to avoid being caught short.
Those convicted of cattle rustling face up to a year of hard labour under North Korean law.
The source said: “Theft of cows in order to fill the cattle shortage has increased ahead of the farming season, and some people have been caught and punished.
“A while ago, the team leader at a farm in Pyongsong told a farmer he would give him 50kg of corn if he brought back a stolen cow.
“The farmer attempted to steal a cow from another farm, but was caught and punished for stealing state property.”
Others are feeding dog and cat meat to their cows in the hope of keeping them alive.
Since the cows are used for farm work, losing one can also leave a farm less productive, making an already desperate food situation even worse.
In the past, North Korea has often bolstered its domestic food supply with Chinese imports, but this faltered when the secretive state closed its borders early last year to combat coronavirus.
As a result, trade with China plummeted by more than 80 per cent, according to figures cited by Human Rights Watch.
“There is barely any food going into the country from China for almost two months now,” one missionary told the NGO.
Meanwhile, corn prices rose by 135 per cent in the three-month period leading up to February 23.
Benjamin Silberstein, an analyst with North Korea Economy Watch, said this indicated deepening food shortages.
He wrote: “First, corn is, in the North Korean context, rice’s less desired sibling.
“However, when food becomes more scarce, people switch over a larger portion of their diets to corn, since it gives more food for the same amount of money.
“So a rise in corn prices may be a signal of growing scarcity overall.”
Greg Scarlatoiu, director of the Washington DC-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said the Kim regime was making scapegoats of farmers.
He said: “The Supreme Leader of North Korea never accepts responsibility for his failures, or for the failures of his regime.
“That is why the regime always seeks scapegoats, at all levels of society, and in all walks of life.
“This appears to be the case with the unfortunate North Korean farmers who receive production targets and raise cattle without being endowed with the proper resources.
“The regime often focuses on identifying and punishing scapegoats, instead of focusing on the systemic reasons behind its failures.”
North Korea suffered a famine between 1994 and 1998 which saw as many as 3.5 million people lose their lives.