North Korea holds rare meeting on farming amid food shortage

This is the first time the party has convened a plenary session only to discuss agriculture

By AP

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends the 7th enlarged plenary meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. — Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends the 7th enlarged plenary meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. — Reuters

Published: Mon 27 Feb 2023, 2:01 PM

Last updated: Mon 27 Feb 2023, 2:03 PM

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un opened a major political conference dedicated to agriculture, state media reported on Monday, as outside assessments suggest the country is facing a serious shortfall of food.

South Korean experts estimate that North Korea is short around 1 million tonne of grain, nearly 20 per cent of its annual demand, after the pandemic likely disrupted unofficial grain imports from China and the government has restricted food sales at markets.

Recent, unconfirmed reports in South Korean media have said that some North Koreans have died of hunger. But most experts have seen no indication of mass deaths or famine in North Korea.

During a high-level meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party that began on Sunday, senior party officials reviewed last year’s work on state goals to accomplish “rural revolution in the new era”, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

The report said that the plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee will identify “immediate, important” tasks on agricultural issues and “urgent tasks arising at the present stage of the national economic development”.

KCNA didn’t say 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, also attended.

Plenary meetings are key decision-making venues for the Workers’ Party. In recent years, Kim has held a plenary meeting two to four times a year to formulate major policies.

It is the first time the party has convened a plenary session only to discuss agriculture. Monday’s report didn’t elaborate on its agenda, but the party’s Politburo said earlier this month that “a turning point is needed to dynamically promote radical change in agricultural development”.

Most analysts say North Korea’s food situation today is nowhere near the extremes of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people died in a famine. However, some experts say its food insecurity is likely at its worst since Kim took power in 2011, after Covid-19 restrictions further shocked an economy battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling US-led sanctions imposed over Kim’s nuclear programme. Russia’s war on Ukraine possibly worsened the situation by driving up global prices of food, energy and fertilizer.

It’s unclear whether North Korea will take any significant steps to address food shortages. The impoverished country devotes much of its scarce resources to its nuclear programme.

“To produce more grains, they should increase inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and agricultural machines. But North Korea rarely comes up with such measures,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. “They have a limited budget. They can still take such steps (to produce more grain) with the money they’re spending on its missile development programme.”

North Korea has accelerated missile tests since last year, launching more than 70 missiles, many of them nuclear-capable weapons that place the US mainland, South Korea and Japan within striking distance.

Nam said the current food problems don’t pose a serious political threat to Kim, noting that his family’s rule wasn’t shaken even during the 1990s famine.

Last year, North Korea’s grain production was estimated at 4.5 million tons, a 3.8 per cent drop from a year earlier 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 tonne 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 unresolved shortfall, according to Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea.


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