(Bloomberg) — Consumers in North Korea’s capital this week have been “panic buying” food staples, causing some store shelves to empty, according to a news service that specializes in the country.
The purchases may be due to stricter coronavirus measures on the way for Pyongyang and don’t appear related to reports this week that leader Kim Jong Un may be seriously ill, NK News reported, citing people who live in Pyongyang and were able to communicate outside the country. Shortages were initially limited to imported fruit and vegetables and then moved on to other goods, it said.
Radio Free Asia also reported last week that the prices of food staples in North Korea were rising sharply because of panic buying.
North Korea closed its borders in January when coronavirus cases in neighboring China began to skyrocket. Kim’s regime has said it has no confirmed infections from the virus but the U.S. is “fairly certain” it has cases because of a noticeable lack of military activity, General Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told reporters in a teleconference briefing in March.
Food shortages are common in North Korea, which is one of the world’s poorest states. In the 1990s, a famine killed as much as 10% of the population, according to some estimates.
The virus could make things worse. The United Nations’ World Food Program warned this week that economic hardship caused by the pandemic may lead to starvation in the developing world. The WFP, which has operations in North Korea, has said about 40% of the population is undernourished, adding “food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread.”
Kim was conspicuously absent from birthday celebrations on April 15 of his grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung. He has not been seen since a politburo meeting on April 11, raising speculation about his condition.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim on Wednesday sent a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Letters of this sort are reported frequently.
U.S. officials said Monday they were told Kim was in critical condition after undergoing cardiovascular surgery last week and they were unsure of his current health. Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office said that Kim was conducting “normal activities” in a rural part of the country assisted by close aides and no special movements were detected.
The health of North Korea’s leader is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the isolated state, known only to a few people in its inner circle. U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday he doesn’t know about Kim’s health, adding that he might reach out to check on him.
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