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North Korea’s Kim calls food situation ‘tense’ as reports of shortages mount

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang on Tuesday. (KCNA/KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called the country's food situation "tense," state media reported Wednesday, amid mounting reports of shortages.

Opening a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s central committee, Kim claimed that the economy had improved this year, with industrial production up 25 percent from a year earlier, and he generally struck a more upbeat tone than in February, when he admitted that the country’s economic plan had “failed tremendously.”

Nevertheless, Kim’s admission about food shortages speaks of a problem that can’t be glossed over.

Last year, North Korea faced its worst slump in more than two decades, experts say, largely due to the self-imposed closure of the border with China, a measure designed to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay. There were reports of acute power cuts and factory closures, with coal and fertilizer production hit by electricity shortages and lack of spare parts.

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In April, Kim had exhorted Workers’ Party members to embark on an “Arduous March” to solve mounting economic problems, using a phrase that harked back to the dreadful famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Experts are not expecting widespread famine this year. They say food shortages are not going to fatally undermine the regime, or force Kim to the negotiating table with the United States. But they do spell real hardship for millions of people inside the country, while the regime will be concerned about shortages also biting the elite in Pyongyang.

Kim put the blame on nature rather than a desperately inefficient farming sector and the border closure, as the plenum agreed to direct “all efforts to farming this year.”

“The people’s food situation is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfill its grain production plan due to the damage by typhoon last year,” Kim said,

Earlier this month, the Korea Development Institute, a think tank based in Seoul, estimated that grain production had fallen by 5.5 percent last year, leaving a food shortage of about 1.5 million tons. It blamed typhoons and flooding as well as a shortage of farming materials caused by the border closure, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

Normally, North Korea would aim to meet the shortfall through a combination of food aid and commercial imports. But trade with China remains very slow, and the last two international staff members for the United Nations’ World Food Program left Pyongyang in March, as part of an exodus of foreigners caused by the strict lockdowns there.

Although WFP has kept its office open with local staff members, a lack of foreign supervision could undermine donors’ enthusiasm to supply significant food aid.

Urging the United Nations to relax sanctions and North Korea to allow in humanitarian aid without restrictions, U.N. Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana voiced alarm last week over “widespread food shortages and malnutrition” in North Korea.

He talked of “drastic economic hardship” and cited reports of an increase of homeless people in large cities and skyrocketing medicine prices.

“An increasing number of families eat only twice a day, or eat only corn, and some are starving,” he said in a statement, the Reuters news agency reported.

On Tuesday, Daily NK, an independent news organization based in Seoul, reported that North Korea appeared to be running into serious difficulties with its corn harvest this year, with a lack of fertilizer, agricultural chemicals, farm ­materials, workers and work cows causing fields to be overrun with weeds.

Last month, Radio Free Asia reported that some farmers in one region of North Korea had been asked to donate two liters of their urine every day to help produce fertilizer.

On Tuesday, NK News, another Seoul-based news organization, reported that the price of some imports had spiked in Pyongyang, with some shampoos selling for $200 and a kilogram (about 2.2 pounds) of bananas for $45.

Michael Madden, a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center think tank, also cited several reports of gold being smuggled across the border into China, with anyone caught facing severe penalties including being shot to death.

“So regardless of what is being sold or traded at the border, we have North Korean elites, either in the provinces or at The Center [Pyongyang] undertaking some pretty serious risks either to meet their contributions to the court economy or because they worry for their short term livelihoods,” he wrote in an email.

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