North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has warned of food shortages and urged officials to boost agricultural production as the country struggles with pandemic-related border closures, crippling economic sanctions and a series of typhoons and floods.
Kim told senior cadres that “the people’s food situation is now getting tense”, blaming damage caused by a typhoon last year for shortfalls in grain yields, according to comments reported by state media on Wednesday. He also warned of a “prolonged emergency anti-epidemic situation”.
The comments, made as the 37-year-old dictator presided over the ruling Workers’ Party central committee in Pyongyang, are the latest indication of the strains on the North Korean economy.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea has cut itself off from the outside world. Shipments — believed to be imports of food, fertiliser and fuel — from China, the country’s main trading partner, have continued at a much-reduced pace but most cross-border trading activity has declined sharply or stopped completely.
Statistics on the secretive state are difficult to obtain and often unreliable. However, Peter Ward, a Seoul-based expert with the University of Vienna who tracks the North Korean economy, pointed to reports of “unprecedented” price increases for staples such as corn and rice in recent weeks.
“The people who are really going to suffer are the people who don’t have a political voice, the people outside of Pyongyang, especially in the smaller towns,” Ward said. “They’ll be badly hurt by serious swings in the price of food.”
Exacerbating the bleak outlook, Pyongyang, which continues to claim zero cases of coronavirus, appears to have taken an ultra-cautious approach to accepting foreign offers of vaccines or food aid.
Critics have noted that rather than welcoming international help, Kim has instead continued to develop nuclear weapons while espousing juche, the pariah state’s ideology of self-reliance.
Rachel Lee, a former US government North Korea analyst who is now with 38 North at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, said Kim might also be acknowledging food shortages to “crack the whip on the farming sector to increase production” and justify self-reliance.
“North Korea views the coronavirus situation as stretching out for the long-term and accordingly, it will continue to step up the economic and ideological campaigns,” she said.