North Korean leader Kim Jong-un turned down Russia's humanitarian offer to provide wheat to help relieve the North's reportedly acute food shortages, according to a Russian diplomat.
In an interview with the Soloviov Live television channel on Sunday, Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora quoted Kim as saying that the food situation in the North has improved.
"We offered our assistance and supplied 50,000 tons of wheat in 2020. (It was) free of charge as humanitarian assistance," Matesegora said. "We were ready to do it now again."
But he said Kim answered "no thanks" to Russia's offer, adding the North Korean leader said he would ask them if the food situation in the North gets worse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's food assistance offer came while Kim was in Russia for a summit between the two leaders. Kim left Pyongyang on his heavily armored train on Sept. 10 for the summit and returned home on Sept. 19 wrapping up his first international trip after the COVID-driven border closure.
North Korea reportedly has been plagued by severe crop shortages this year.
According to media reports and multiple North Korean defectors with access to informants in the North, a large but unspecified number of people are suffering from malnutrition and many cases of death by starvation have been reported, even in North Korea's capital.
Some said the food situation in the North is the worst since the great famine that killed hundreds of thousands of North Koreans in the mid-1990s.
Kim's turning down of Russia's humanitarian assistance drew the ire of North Korean defectors living in South Korea who are all too familiar with the food crisis in the North.
Kim Seong-min, president of Free North Korea Radio in Seoul, lashed out at the North Korean leader for rejecting Russia's offer, calling him "inhumane, cruel and self-centered."
"I just came back from a seminar held in Seoul and met several North Korean defectors who were crying for help as their families, relatives and friends they left behind in the North are starving," he told The Korea Times. "But Kim is turning a blind eye to poor North Koreans."
When asked why he thinks Kim rejected Russia's humanitarian assistance, the defector said Kim tried to save face. "He didn't want to be seen as a needy, poor cousin begging for food," he said. "He is fixated on securing technologies related to nuclear weapons and missiles and he doesn't care how desperate the people of North Korea are."
The North Korean public is known to have gone through one of the toughest years to date in terms of food scarcity.
Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the private think tank GS&J Institute in Hanam City, Gyeonggi Province, said various factors had contributed to the food situation in the North going from bad to worse this year.
He said the COVID-led border closure, which continued for over three years from January 2020 following the outbreak of COVID-19 in China, the shutdown of markets and the poor grain harvest last year are some of the key reasons for the severe food shortages the North is experiencing.
"Earlier this year, North Korea imported grain from China. The total amount of grain shipments from China was the largest since 2020," he said, without detailing how much food was imported. "But the imports didn't help relieve food shortages, because unofficial food imports were banned. The unofficial food imports account for a larger portion of North Korea's entire food supply."
Kwon said the North Korean public, who don't get rations from the government, suffered most as a result.
"If you want to buy food, you need cash. But they don't have it," he said.
Kwon said the food situation in the North had been serious until spring, adding that the situation will improve from October as corn harvesting began in August and continues through September.
There is no official data about North Korea's food situation.
South Korea's Rural Development Administration releases data on North Korea's food supply annually, based on projections. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, better known as the FAO, also releases data about crop production in North Korea from time to time. Unlike many other countries, North Korea doesn't turn in related data every year to the FAO making it difficult for the U.N. agency to produce regular updates about the country.