North Korea faces a “tense” meals scarcity

SEOUL – North Korea is preparing for a possible food crisis in the coming months.

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, seldom warned of “tight” food security caused by extensive flooding, the coronavirus pandemic and international sanctions, the state news media reported on Wednesday.

Mr. Kim convened the Central Committee of his ruling Labor Party on Tuesday to assess the situation in his isolated country and told Korea’s official Central News Agency that solving food shortages was “a top priority.”

“In particular, the food situation of the people is now tense, because the agricultural sector could not meet its grain production,” Kim was quoted after the flood damage in the meeting. “It is important that the whole party and the whole state concentrate on agriculture.”

While it is no secret that North Korea’s economy is in trouble, it is highly unusual for Kim to acknowledge a national food shortage as publicly and clearly as he did this week.

In its most recent assessment of the country’s food insecurity, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that if the country’s food shortages are not met by imports or foreign aid, “households could experience a tough dry spell between August and October”.

Mr. Kim’s warning came two months after he ordered his party to go on a “heavy march” to alleviate the economic pain of his people. The April remarks caught the attention of some outside analysts because the term “hard march” is typically used by the North to refer to a crisis that needs to be overcome, such as the famine of the 1990s that affected millions of people died.

So far, there has been no sign from North Korea that the country is facing another devastating famine, but South Korean reporters watching market prices in North Korea said the price of rice has risen sharply in recent weeks.

Many essentials, including medicines, are also becoming scarcer as the pandemic forced North Korea to close its border with China, its only major trading partner, said Jiro Ishimaru, editor-in-chief of Asia Press International, a website in Japan that monitors North Korea Korea with the help of secret correspondents within the country.

Some families have started selling furniture to raise money for groceries, Mr. Ishimaru said. The number of homeless children looking for food is also increasing in some parts of the country, although the isolation of North Korea makes it difficult to reliably assess the situation.

Kim’s admission of food shortages in North Korea was another sign that his economic policies were not working.

When he took power a decade ago, one of his first promises was to see that his troubled people “no longer have to tighten their belts”. But those economic plans suffered a setback when the country’s growing arsenal led to international sanctions. Mr Kim’s efforts to lift the sanctions were unsuccessful when his diplomacy with former President Donald J. Trump collapsed in 2019.

When the pandemic and floods hit the country last year, Mr Kim ordered his country to refuse any international aid for fear that outside help would lead to a possible Covid-19 outbreak. (North Korea claims it has no case of Covid-19, but outside health experts remain skeptical about the country’s poor public health system.)

Speaking to a large crowd last October during a military parade marking his party’s anniversary, Mr. Kim appeared to hold back tears as he apologized for failing to improve the lives of his people. In January, he again admitted his economic failures, announced a new five-year plan and pledged to strengthen the country’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

Since then, he has promised to lead his country through the sanctions by building a “self-sufficient economy” that produces more goods domestically and is less dependent on trade with the outside world. On Wednesday, North Korea claimed its industrial production had increased 25 percent this year.

North Korea’s grain production fell from 4.64 million tons in 2019 to 4.4 million tons last year, the Korea Development Institute of the South said in a report released this month. This leads to a total grain shortage of 1.35 million tons this year. North Korea has traditionally suffered from annual grain shortages, despite the country’s efforts to fill the gap with trade and international aid, particularly from China.

“This year the food shortage in the north is on a scale that it cannot cope with on its own,” said Kwon Tae-jin, author of the Korea Development Institute report. North Korea needs to relax its control over market activity and ask Beijing for “large-scale food aid” to alleviate food shortages, Kwon said.

The North also indicated on Wednesday that the party meeting would include a discussion of how to respond to recent political statements by the Biden government, saying that the agenda would include “an analysis of the current international situation and the direction in which ours are heading Political party”.

During a summit in Washington last month, President Biden and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in agreed to seek “diplomacy and dialogue” with the North and build on the 2018 Singapore Accords that Trump had with Mr Kim. Washington also said it would take a “calibrated” and “practical” approach to the country and appointed a new special envoy for North Korea.

Mr. Kim’s government has yet to respond to the overtures.

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