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North Korea Shows Signs Of Worsening Food Shortages During COVID

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(CTN NEWS) – SEOUL – There is little question that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to North Korea’s long-standing food shortages, and fears about the nation’s food security have grown as its senior authorities get ready to debate the “extremely important and urgent issue” of developing an appropriate agricultural policy.

Unverified sources claim that a certain number of North Koreans have been starving to death. But according to specialists, there are no indications of mass mortality or starvation.

They claim the next Workers’ Party gathering will likely be used to boost support for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he continues his nuclear weapons program despite severe pressure and sanctions from the United States.

In order to maintain public support, Kim Jong Un must seriously address the food crisis, according to Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Seoul’s Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

The purpose of the gathering is to strengthen internal cohesion while brainstorming solutions to the food shortage.

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(Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

The Workers’ Party Central Committee will hold an expanded plenary meeting in late February.

The party’s influential Politburo previously stated that “a turning moment is needed to dynamically push radical transformation in agricultural growth,” however it is unclear what its particular agenda would be.

Even though they are frequently a major topic at larger conferences in North Korea, this meeting will mark the party’s first plenary session that has been called just to tackle agricultural matters.

One of the 12 economic priorities the party adopted during a plenary conference in December was increasing grain output.

Knowing the real situation in the North is challenging because of how tightly its borders were shut during the outbreak.

Since the mid-1990s famine, which is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people, food shortages and economic problems have persisted.

Kim promised North Koreans in his first speech since succeeding his father as leader in late 2011 that they would “never have to tighten their belts again.”

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North Korean boy holds a spade in a corn field in area damaged by floods and typhoons in the Soksa-Ri collective farm in the South Hwanghae province, September 29, 2011 [File: Damir Sagolj/ Reuters]

North Korea Produced Around 4.5 Million Tonnes Of Grain Last Year

Kim allowed some market-oriented activities to continue during the first several years of his leadership, and he increased coal and other resource exports to China, the North’s key commercial partner, and ally.

But more lately, serious economic damage has been caused by harsher international sanctions over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program, severe pandemic-related restrictions, and plain incompetence.

According to estimates from South Korea, North Korea produced around 4.5 million tonnes of grain last year, a 3.8% reduction from the previous year. Over the previous ten years, the annual grain output has stabilized at between 4.4 million and 4.8 million tonnes.

To feed its 25 million inhabitants, North Korea needs roughly 5.5 million tonnes of grain, thus it often falls short by about 1 million tonnes annually.

Unofficial grain purchases from China often cover around half of the gap. According to Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the exclusive GS&J Institute in South Korea, the remaining shortage is still unsolved.

Kwon claims that the pandemic’s restrictions on cross-border trade have probably made it more difficult to make unauthorised purchases of rice from China.

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/ GETTY IMAGE

The issue has gotten worse as a result of North Korean government efforts to tighten regulations and limit market activity, he claimed.

According to Kwon, this year marks North Korea’s worst food crisis since Kim Jong Un assumed power.

Unknown numbers of North Koreans have died from starvation, according to Koo Byoungsam, a spokesperson for the South Korean Unification Ministry, although the issue is not as severe as the mid-1990s famine.

Which was caused by natural catastrophes, the withdrawal of Soviet aid, and poor administration.

As a large portion of the grain harvested last year has not yet been consumed, the current food problem is more a distribution issue than a true lack of grain, according to ministry officials.

Since authorities tried to restrict the grain trade to state-run facilities and strengthened restrictions over private grain sales in markets, food poverty has gotten worse.

Analysts claim that the Kim government’s tough measures to contain the epidemic gave useful weapons for imposing a tighter grip on the kinds of market activity that had previously aided in stronger economic growth but would eventually weaken the government’s authoritarian leadership.

Chart: North Korea's Fight Against Food Shortages | Statista

Although food is still readily available in markets, albeit at high prices, Kwon claimed that the current food shortages are unlikely to result in widespread mortality. Grain was difficult to find during the mid-1990s famine, he claimed.

The two most crucial necessities, rice and corn, have seen price rises, according to North Korean monitoring organizations, however, corn prices have lately steadied in some areas.

Ahn Kyung-su, the head of DPRKHEALTH.ORG, a website specializing in health issues in North Korea, asserted that “if North Korea actually sees people dying of hunger and faces a disarray, it won’t publicly declare things like ‘a very essential and urgent task’ for an agricultural program.”

The North’s plenary meeting, on top of the nuclear program and claims of a win over the pandemic, is “classic propaganda” designed to show Kim is working to improve living conditions and comes at a time when the leadership needs new material to burnish his image, Ahn added.

Kwon predicted at the plenary session that authorities will encourage regional farm officials to increase grain output without offering any viable solutions to the food crisis.

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/ GETTY IMAGE

North Korea Acquired Significant Quantities Of Rice And Flour From China

If food shortages develop, targets will be set, and authorities can be penalized for failing to meet them, Ahn said.

North Korea recently acquired significant quantities of rice and flour from China, according to Yi Jisun, an analyst at the state-run Center for National Security Strategy in Seoul, though it is unlikely that it will accept food help from the United States, South Korea, or Japan.

The state-run media in the North has continued to promote its long-standing policy of “self-reliance,” a tactic that shuns Western assistance while claiming that food problems must be resolved at all costs.

The North’s leading newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, claimed in a commentary on Wednesday that imperialist assistance was “a trap for theft and subjugation meant to wrest 100 things after offering one.”

It would be folly to try to boost the economy by giving out this “poisoned candy.”

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Alishba Waris is an independent journalist working for CTN News. She brings a wealth of experience and a keen eye for detail to her reporting. With a knack for uncovering the truth, Waris isn't afraid to ask tough questions and hold those in power accountable. Her writing is clear, concise, and cuts through the noise, delivering the facts readers need to stay informed. Waris's dedication to ethical journalism shines through in her hard-hitting yet fair coverage of important issues.

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