The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Korea documentary makes rare admission that country is in the midst of ‘food crisis’

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 19. (KCNA/KNS/AP)

TOKYO — A new North Korean state media documentary made a rare mention of the country’s “food crisis,” a glimpse into the realities on the ground amid mounting reports of pressures caused by the country’s prolonged covid border lockdown.

The two-hour documentary is an annual production recapping the previous year’s biggest achievements and praising leader Kim Jong Un. It showed Kim visiting housing complex projects in Pyongyang, holding leadership meetings and attending military parades. The theme of the film changes every year depending on the regime’s priorities.

This year’s film, titled “The Great Year of Victory 2021,” aired on Tuesday and emphasized Kim’s work on the economy. The film acknowledged that “the country’s situation is more difficult than ever,” a sign that the food shortage may now be a problem that cannot be glossed over.

A North Korean documentary broadcast in the country on Feb. 1 made a rare admission of the country's “food crisis.” (Video: Reuters)

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The narrator described a meeting where Kim expressed his concern that “what is urgently needed in stabilizing the people’s livelihood is to relieve the tension created by the food supply,” and he called on emergency measures for the “food crisis,” noting that the country had dipped into its emergency grain supply. In June, Kim called the country’s food situation “tense.”

Kim’s recent weight loss was visible throughout the film, which oscillated between footage from his plumper days and more-recent images that showed him dramatically thinner. Kim stunned observers this summer when he appeared in state media looking noticeably slimmer. The cause of Kim’s weight loss has not been revealed.

In June, state media aired interviews with North Koreans who said they worried about their leader’s “emaciated” looks, with one resident claiming that “everyone says their tears are welling up in their eyes naturally.”

The film’s frank description of the food situation is consistent with Kim’s tendency to more explicitly describe the country’s problems than his predecessors, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former intelligence analyst based in South Korea and an expert in North Korean media propaganda.

For example, she said, it would have been unthinkable for a propaganda piece to use the term “food crisis” during the 1990s famine, which is believed to have been more dire than the current situation. The language then was more vague, she said.

“I’m not so sure, if we were living in Kim Jong Il’s era, that it would’ve been addressed at all,” Lee said, referring to Kim’s father. “We [now] see more explicit formulations of the reality on the ground.”

What’s happening inside North Korea? Since the pandemic, the window has slammed shut.

North Korea has imposed border lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic. It has severely restricted trade with China, its biggest economic partner, which has exacerbated a shortage of food, supplies and cash, hurting the country’s most vulnerable, experts say. North Korea appears to have taken steps to resume some level of ground-based trade with China, but the extent remains unclear.

In addition, Kim has imposed new measures that have further restricted internal economic activity, including intensifying crackdowns on people moving between provinces and the illegal use of cellphones, both of which have severely limited people’s ability to trade food and goods.

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