North Korea holds a rare meeting on agriculture amid food shortages

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened a major political conference dedicated to agriculture, state media reported Monday, amid outside assessments that the country is facing serious food shortages.

South Korean experts estimate that North Korea is experiencing a shortage of about one million tons of grain, or 20 percent of its annual demand, after the epidemic disrupted agriculture and imports from China.

Unconfirmed recent reports stated that an unknown number of North Koreans had starved to death. But observers saw no sign of mass deaths or starvation in North Korea.

During a high-level meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party that began Sunday, top party officials reviewed the past year’s work on the state’s goals of achieving “a rural revolution in the new era,” the official KCNA reported.

The report said the meeting of the party’s central committee would set “immediate and important” tasks on agricultural issues and “urgent tasks arising at the current stage of national economic development.”

KCNA did not say if Kim spoke during the meeting or how long it would last. Senior officials such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Kim Tok-hun and Jo Yong-won, one of Kim’s closest aides who handles organizational affairs of the Central Committee, also attended the meeting.

The meeting is the first time the party has held a plenary session solely to discuss agriculture. Monday’s report did not spell out 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.”

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The food situation in North Korea today is nowhere near as high as the late 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation. However, some experts say the country’s food insecurity is likely to be at its worst since Kim took power in 2011, after COVID-19 restrictions shocked an economy battered by decades of mismanagement and crippling sanctions imposed by the United States over the program. Nuclear Kim.

In early 2020, North Korea attempted to protect its population from the coronavirus by imposing strict border controls that halted trade with China, its main ally and economic lifeline. Russia’s war on Ukraine may have exacerbated the situation by raising global prices for food, energy and fertilizer, on which North Korean agricultural production is highly dependent.

North Korea reopened freight trains with China and Russia last year. More than 90% of North Korea’s official foreign trade passes through its border with China.

Last year, North Korea’s grain production was estimated at 4.5 million tons, down 3.8% from 2020, according to South Korean government estimates. It is estimated that North Korea produced between 4.4 million tons and 4.8 million tons of grain annually from 2012 to 2021, according to previous South Korean data.

North Korea needs about 5.5 million tons of grain to feed 25 million people a year, so it’s running short of about a million tons this year. In past years, half of that gap was typically covered by informal grain purchases from China, with the remainder remaining as an unresolved deficit, according to Kwon Tae-jin, chief economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea.

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Kwon says trade restrictions due to the pandemic have likely hampered informal rice purchases from China. He said the North Korean authorities’ efforts to tighten controls and restrict market activities had exacerbated the situation.

It is unclear whether North Korea will take any action to quickly address its food problems. Some experts say North Korea will use this week’s public meeting to shore up public support for Kim as he confronts the United States and its allies over his nuclear ambitions.

Despite limited resources, Kim has been pushing hard to expand his nuclear and missile weapons programs to pressure Washington to accept the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and lift international sanctions against it. After a record year of weapons-testing activities in 2022, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile and other weapons on display this month.

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