North Korean food shortages worsen amid COVID, but no famine yet

Seoul, South Korea — There is little doubt that North Korea’s chronic food shortages have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and speculation about the country’s chronic food insecurity has flared as top leaders prepare to discuss the “very important and urgent task” of developing the right agricultural policy.

According to unconfirmed reports, an unspecified number of North Koreans have starved to death. However, experts say there is no sign of mass death or starvation. They say an upcoming meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party is likely to strengthen support for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he continues his nuclear weapons program in defiance of intense US-led pressure and sanctions.

“Kim Jong Un will not be able to advance his nuclear program stably if he fails to fundamentally solve the food problem because state support will be shaken,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. “The meeting is called to consolidate internal unity while gathering ideas on how to deal with food shortages.”

The extended plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Labor Party was scheduled for the end of February. Its specific agenda is not known, but the party’s powerful Politburo has previously said that “a turning point is needed to dynamically promote radical change in agricultural development.”

The meeting is the first plenary meeting of the party, which is convened only to discuss agricultural issues, although these are often key to North Korea’s broader conferences. Increasing grain production was one of the 12 economic priorities adopted by the party at its December plenary session.

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It is difficult to determine precisely the situation in the North, which practically kept its borders closed during the epidemic. Food shortages and economic hardship have persisted since a famine in the mid-1990s killed hundreds of thousands of people.

In his first public speech since taking over from his father in late 2011, Kim vowed that North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belts again.”

In the first few years of his rule, the economy grew modestly as Kim tolerated some market-oriented activities and increased exports of coal and other minerals to China, the North’s main ally and largest trading partner. More recently, however, tougher international sanctions related to Kim’s nuclear program, restrictions related to the draconian pandemic, and outright mismanagement have had severe economic consequences.

According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s grain production last year was about 4.5 million tons, down 3.8% from a year earlier. In the last decade, the annual grain production decreased from 4.4 million tons to 4.8 million tons.

North Korea needs about 5.5 million tons of grain to feed its 25 million people, so it’s usually about 1 million tons a year. Around half of the difference is typically offset by unofficial grain purchases from China. The rest are unsolved gaps, said Kwon Tae-jin, chief economist at private GS.&J Institute in South Korea.

According to Kwon, curbs on cross-border trade due to the epidemic likely hampered unofficial rice purchases from China. Efforts by North Korean authorities to tighten controls and restrict market activities have also worsened the situation, he said.

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“I think this year North Korea is facing its worst food situation since Kim Jong Un came to power,” Kwon said.

Koo Byoungsam, a spokesman for South Korea’s unification ministry, said an unknown number of North Koreans had died of starvation, but said the problem was not as severe as the famine of the mid-1990s, which stemmed from natural disasters and the loss of Soviet lands. . assistance and poor management.

The current food problem is more a matter of distribution than an absolute grain shortage, as most of the grain harvested last year has not yet been consumed, ministry officials said. Food insecurity worsened as authorities tightened controls on private grain sales in markets, instead attempting to limit grain trade to state-owned facilities.

According to analysts, the severe measures taken by the Kim government to contain the epidemic were effective means of tightening the reins on market activities that had previously promoted stronger economic growth but could eventually erode the government’s authoritarian rule.

According to Kwon, the current food shortage is unlikely to cause mass deaths because food is still available in the markets, albeit at a high price. During the famine in the mid-1990s, grain was hard to come by, he said.

North Korea monitoring groups have reported rising prices for rice and corn, the two most important staples, although corn prices have recently stabilized in some regions.

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“If North Korea really sees people starving and facing chaos, it will not publicly say that it is a ‘very important and urgent task’ for agricultural policy,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG . website focusing on North Korean health issues.

The North’s plenary session is “typical propaganda” to show that Kim is working to improve living conditions and comes as the leadership needs fresh fodder to burnish its image, in addition to the nuclear program and victory over the pandemic. Ahn said.

At the plenary session, Kwon said leaders are likely to pressure local agricultural officials to increase grain production without presenting effective solutions to the food crisis. Targets will be set and officials will be punished if they are not met if food shortages worsen, Ahn said.

Yi Jisun, an analyst at the state-run Seoul National Security Strategy Institute, said in a January report that North Korea had recently imported large amounts of rice and flour from China, although it was unlikely to accept US food aid. , South Korea and Japan.

While declaring that food problems must be fixed at all costs, the North’s state media continue to promote a longstanding policy of “self-care,” a strategy that avoids Western aid.

“The help of the imperialists is a trap of plunder and subjugation aimed at wringing out 100 things after giving one,” the North’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary on Wednesday. “It would be a mistake to build the economy by getting this ‘poisoned candy’.”