North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has convened a ruling party meeting to discuss the country’s agricultural improvements amidst reports of a worsening food crisis. According to state media, the seventh enlarged plenary meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea is reviewing rural development projects and will determine “immediate, important” tasks on agricultural issues and “urgent tasks arising at the present stage of the national economic development”.
Although KCNA did not mention whether Kim spoke during the meeting or how long it would last, senior officials such as Cabinet Premier Kim Tok Hun and Jo Yong Won, one of Kim’s closest aides, were in attendance. The gathering, which is the party’s first plenary session convened solely to discuss agriculture, was deemed a de facto acknowledgement of serious food shortages in North Korea by officials in Seoul. The South Korean government has stated that its assessments indicate that the food situation in North Korea appears to have deteriorated.
Experts suggest that the current food shortages were likely caused by poor harvests due to extreme weather conditions and exacerbated by lockdowns and a sharp reduction in trade with China due to border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea is also under strict international sanctions over its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
According to South Korean government assessments, North Korea’s grain production was estimated at 4.5 million tonnes last year, a 3.8 percent drop from 2020. North Korea needs about 5.5 million tonnes of grain to feed its 25 million people annually, so it is short about 1 million tonnes this year. Previously, half of such a gap was usually met by unofficial grain purchases from China, with the rest remaining as an unresolved shortfall, according to a senior economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea. However, trade curbs due to the pandemic have probably hindered such unofficial rice purchases.
Efforts by North Korean authorities to tighten controls and restrict market activities have also worsened the situation, experts suggest. Despite limited resources, Kim has been aggressively pushing to expand his nuclear weapons and missile programmes to pressure Washington into accepting North Korea as a nuclear power and lift international sanctions. In 2022, North Korea had a record year of weapon testing activities and has launched an intercontinental ballistic missile and other missiles this month.
It is unclear what action North Korea will take to quickly address its food problems. The country’s official newspaper last week called for economic self-reliance, arguing that depending on external aid to cope with the food situation would be like taking “poisoned candy”. Some experts say Pyongyang will use this week’s plenary meeting to boost public support for Kim during his confrontations with the US and its allies over his nuclear ambitions.