SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened a major political conference devoted to agriculture, state media reported Monday, amid external assessments suggesting the country is facing a serious food shortage.
South Korean experts estimate North Korea is short of about 1 million tons of grain, 20 percent of its annual demand, after the pandemic disrupted both agriculture and imports from China.
According to recent, unconfirmed reports, an unknown number of North Koreans have died of starvation. But observers have seen no indication of mass deaths or starvation in North Korea.
At a high-level meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party that began Sunday, senior party officials discussed last year’s work on state goals to bring about “rural revolution in the new era,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The report said the meeting of the party’s Central Committee will identify “immediate, important” tasks on agricultural issues and “urgent tasks arising at the current stage of national economic development”.
KNCA did not say whether Kim spoke at the meeting or how long it would last. Senior officials such as Cabinet Prime Minister Kim Tok Hun and Jo Yong Won, one of Kim’s close associates who handles the organizational affairs of the Central Committee, also attended.
It is the first time the party convenes a plenary session to discuss agriculture alone. Monday’s report did not address the agenda, but the party’s Politburo said earlier this month that “a turning point is needed to dynamically promote radical changes in agricultural development.”
Most analysts North Korea’s current food situation is nowhere near the extremes of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people died from famine. However, some experts say food insecurity is probably the worst since Kim took power in 2011, after COVID-19 restrictions further shocked an economy plagued by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions imposed over Kim’s nuclear program.
In early 2020, North Korea sought to protect its people from the coronavirus by imposing strict border controls that stifled trade with China, its main ally and economic lifeline. Russia’s war against Ukraine may have worsened the situation by driving up world prices of food, energy and fertilizers, on which North Korea’s agricultural production heavily depends.
North Korea reopened freight train traffic with China and Russia last year. More than 90% of North Korea’s official foreign trade passes through the border with China.
Last year, North Korea’s grain production was estimated at 4.5 million tons, down 3.8% from 2020, according to South Korean government assessments. According to previous South Korean data, the north would have produced between 4.4 million tons and 4.8 million tons of grain annually between 2012 and 2021.
North Korea needs about 5.5 million tons of grain annually to feed its 25 million people, so it is about 1 million tons short this year. According to Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea, in recent years half of such shortfalls have typically been covered by unofficial grain purchases from China, while the rest has remained an unresolved deficit.
Kwon says trade restrictions due to the pandemic have likely hindered unofficial rice purchases from China. Attempts by North Korean authorities to tighten controls and limit market activity have also worsened the situation, he said.
It is unclear whether North Korea will take action to quickly address its food problems. Some experts say North Korea will use this week’s plenary session to boost public support for Kim as he confronts the United States and its allies over his nuclear ambitions.
Despite limited resources, Kim has pushed aggressively to expand its nuclear weapons and missile programs to pressure Washington to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and to lift international sanctions. After a record year of weapons-testing activity in 2022, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile and other weapons in displays this month.