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North Korea campaigns against obesity amid severe food crisis

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North Korean state television aired a cartoon last week to warn kids against obesity and overeating, the latest of several broadcasts about diet in North Korean state media. The cartoon comes at the time of a severe food shortage across the country and as leader Kim Jong Un reportedly dropped dozens of pounds so far this summer.

A screenshot of the cartoon. Credit: NKNews

In the cartoon, which was reported by news site NKNews, two girls are seen walking on city streets during winter. One scolds the other for wanting to take the bus home despite her weight and tells her to walk instead. “This is why you are getting fat,” the girl tells her friend. “Is this what makes me fat?” the friend then wonders aloud. 

The pair of girls then go to one of their houses, where the slimmer one practices acrobatics while the other eats a lot of snacks on the couch in an apparent food coma. Her thinner friend is later shown trying to wake her up from eating so much.

In a country where food is a scarce commodity, the ads are surprising to stay the least. But as bizarre as it may sound, this isn’t the first time these types of messages air on North Korean TV. 

Back in August, a state TV broadcast told parents to feed their children a nutritious variety of fish and vegetables for breakfast every day. The program included scenes of children in upper-class homes refusing to eat rice, with the program warning kids could “develop a stomach disorder” or other diseases if they don’t follow a healthy diet.

In addition, an online state outlet called Naenara recently ran an article promoting weight loss treatments. In the article, a 27-year-old North Korean is quoted saying to have “suffered a lot from obesity” and recommending a hospital where she is receiving treatment. He mentions having lost five kilograms, or about 11 pounds, in just 20 days. 

This strange set of messages in state media coincides with Kim’s noticeable weight change. He is believed to have lost a substantial amount of weight over the last two months, with media reporting that North Korean residents were “heartbroken” over his state. According to South Korea’s government, Kim has lost over 40 pounds in July.

Food challenges

While obesity has become a growing problem among the country’sd elite, most North Koreans seem to be dealing with the opposite. The country is better known for its food scarcity problems. In 2020, North Koreans were reportedly forced to give up their dogs for restaurant meat amid food shortages. Kim described the food situation as “tense” following border closures implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic at the start of the summer.

And now a cycle of grinding heat and record-low rainfall could complicate things even further. Temperatures reached 102 Fahrenheit (39 Celsius) in some areas last week amid a growing drought. The country had gotten 21.1 millimeters, or less than an inch, of rain as of mid-July, an unusually low amount for around this time, according to state media.

It’s so hot that state media reports have been warning residents about the dangers of dehydration and low sodium levels. They are urging people to stay out of the sun, eat more fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of water, according to NK News — not that fruits and vegetables are easily available. All this could have longer-range effects in a country with a poor irrigation system in place, leading to a poor harvest that would further accentuate the problem. 

North Korea has faced last year its worst economic decline in more than two decades due to extreme weather events and the Covid-19 pandemic. Farmers are struggling due to a lack of access to trade-dependent items such as fertilizers and fuel, as the country has shut down most of its trade activity during the pandemic. 

“It has become increasingly difficult to learn the truth about what is happening to ordinary people, but there is little doubt that the situation is dire,” Human Rights Watch researcher Lina Yoon said in a statement. “In the face of what appears to be a mass humanitarian and food crisis, the government has rejected offers of international aid.”


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