Kim Jong-un makes rare admission . . .
“The people’s food situation is now getting tense,” North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, admitted via the North Korean Central News Agency last Wednesday. Kim said that the agricultural sector did not meet its grain targets last year after flood damage, creating a significant national food shortage. The News Agency reported that food prices have risen significantly, with one kilogram of bananas costing US$45. Kim added that solving the shortage is now a “top priority” and that “it is essential for the whole party and state to concentrate on farming.” Although food shortages are not necessarily uncommon for North Korea, the public acknowledgement is surprising – and indicative that the situation is dire.
Border shut due to COVID-19 . . .
While all agree North Korea’s agricultural production has taken a hit, estimates of the exact scale vary. The Korea Development Institute of the South estimates the drop in grain production from 4.64 million tons in 2019 to 4.4 million tons in 2020, while the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates the country is short 860,000 tons of food this year. Such a shortage would normally be filled by trade and aid. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has completely shut its borders – even to China, its primary trading partner and an essential source of food, fuel, and fertilizer. Kim has stated that he wants North Korea to be a “self-reliant economy,” producing what the country needs domestically instead of depending on trade.
Concerns over famine rise . . .
This news of a food shortage comes just two months after Kim stated the country might have to undergo another “Arduous March.” This language is extremely concerning to many, as North Korean officials have previously used that term to refer to the country’s 1990s famine, where up to 10 per cent of the population starved to death. The FAO cautioned that if the food shortage is not filled with aid or trade, the country could experience “a harsh lean period between August and October 2021.” It is the hope of many that North Korea opens its borders to trade and aid and is able to avoid a large-scale famine.