North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has opened a major political conference focused on agricultural improvement, according to state media reports on Monday. This comes amid growing concerns about the country’s chronic food insecurity. While reports of deaths caused by hunger have emerged recently, there have been no signs of mass deaths or famine in North Korea, although its food shortage has likely worsened due to pandemic-related restrictions, persistent international sanctions, and the government’s own mismanagement.
Senior party officials reviewed last year’s work under state goals to accomplish “rural revolution in the new era” during a high-level meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party that began on Sunday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. The report stated that the party’s Central Committee would determine “immediate, important” tasks on agricultural issues and “urgent tasks arising at the present stage of the national economic development.”
It is unclear 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 who handles the Central Committee’s organizational affairs, were also in attendance. The meeting is the party’s first plenary session convened only to discuss agriculture. Monday’s report did not elaborate on its agenda, but the party’s powerful Politburo said earlier this month that “a turning point is needed to dynamically promote radical change in agricultural development.”
Most analysts believe that North Korea’s food situation today is nowhere near as dire as it was in the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people died in a famine. However, some experts say that its food insecurity is likely at its worst since Kim took power in 2011, with COVID-19 restrictions further damaging an economy that had already been battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling U.S.-led sanctions imposed over Kim’s nuclear program.
North Korea tried to shield its population from the coronavirus in early 2020 by imposing stringent border controls that choked off trade with China, its main ally and economic lifeline. Russia’s war on Ukraine possibly worsened the situation by driving up global prices of food, energy, and fertilizer, on which North Korea’s agricultural production is heavily dependent.
After spending more than two years in a strict pandemic lockdown, North Korea reopened freight train traffic with China and Russia last year. More than 90% of North Korea’s official external trade goes through its border with China. However, last year, North Korea’s grain production was estimated at 4.5 million tons, a 3.8% drop from 2020, according to South Korean government assessments.
The North was estimated to have produced between 4.4 million tons to 4.8 million tons of grain annually from 2012-2021, according to previous South Korean data. North Korea needs about 5.5 million tons of grain to feed its 25 million people annually, so it’s short about 1 million tons this year. In past years, half of such a gap was usually met by unofficial grain purchases from China, with the rest remaining as an unresolved shortfall, according to Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea.
Kwon says that trade curbs due to the pandemic have likely hindered unofficial rice purchases from China. Efforts by North Korean authorities to tighten controls and restrict market activities have also worsened the situation, he said.
It is unclear whether North Korea will take any action to address its food problems quickly. Some experts say that North Korea will use this week’s plenary meeting to boost public support for Kim during his confrontations with the United States and its allies over his nuclear ambitions.