Is North Korea facing a food crisis?

North Korea Food Crisis (KCNA via KNS)
North Korea Food Crisis (KCNA via KNS)

Kim Jong Un wants to strengthen his control over North Korea’s agriculture in order to increase grain production, according to state media reports. But experts say it won’t do much to address a worsening food shortage.

Prospects for quickly resolving the food insecurity crisis are dim, as North Korea devotes much of its scarce resources to its nuclear program.

While experts believe the food situation is the worst it has been under Kim’s 11-year rule, they still say they see no signs of imminent famine or mass deaths.

What is the situation inside North Korea?

The secretive regime’s chronic economic difficulties and food insecurity have deepened with toughened United Nations sanctions, the Covid pandemic that decimated its limited external trade, and its own mismanagement.

North Korea’s 2022 grain production was estimated at 4.5 million tons, a 3.8% drop from a year earlier, according to South Korean assessments. In the previous decade, its annual production was an estimated 4.4 million to 4.8 million tons. South Korea’s spy agency has said North Korea needs 5.5 million tons of grain to feed its 25 million people each year.

State rationing systems remain largely broken since a crippling famine killed an estimated hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s. The country had since tolerated some levels of open market activities, a move that experts say has helped the North achieve a slow, modest economic growth but could eventually pose a threat to its authoritarian leadership by the Kim family.

Further aggravating its food shortage were unsuccessful attempts to supply grain via state-run facilities while restricting private dealings at markets. Other factors attributed to the food shortage include dwindling personal incomes and sharply decreased unofficial grain purchases from China due to the pandemic curbs.

“Market participants are still very cautiously-acting, so the volume of grain at markets hasn’t increased much,” said Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the GS&J Institute in South Korea. “If authorities view markets negatively, they can’t be properly recovered.”

What is Kim Jong Un trying to do about it?

Kim Jong Un has suggested tighter government control over grain (KCNA via KNS)
Kim Jong Un has suggested tighter government control over grain (KCNA via KNS)

During a ruling Workers’ Party meeting that ended Wednesday, Kim said his government sees agricultural development as a matter of "strategic" importance and that farming goals should be settled without fail, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

"In order to attain the gigantic long-term objective of rural development, it is necessary to decisively strengthen the party guidance over the agricultural sector and improve the rural party work," Kim was quoted as saying.

Kim also ordered officials to overcome unspecified “lopsidedness in the guidance on farming” and concentrate on increasing farm yields. He said provincial, city and county authorities must boost their guidance on agriculture.

KCNA didn’t elaborate how Kim wants to reinforce his government’s guidance on farming. But experts say Kim’s instructions were a reaffirmation of his push to restore elements of a socialist-style planned economy — under which a central authority controls the market rather than participants — on grain supply.

“In our view, they’re going backward and returning to the past,” said Kwon. “To resolve the food problem, they should let markets play a greater role. But they’re rather returning to a planned economy.”

Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the latest North Korean meeting was meant to review the progress in existing long-term strategies to improve national food production, remind officials of related goals and discuss ways to implement them.

But he said there was still no description of meaningfully new strategies or direction.

Previous meetings mostly concentrated on the country’s nuclear program or rivalries with the United States and South Korea. Holding an agriculture-focused plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee could be an acknowledgement that the food situation is serious. But some experts say the country also likely aims to burnish Kim’s image as a leader caring for his people and boost domestic support of his push to expand his nuclear arsenal.

During the meeting, Kim called for faster construction of new irrigation systems that would help the country cope with extreme weather conditions brought by climate change. He also called for manufacturers to build and supply more efficient farming machines and for workers to accelerate their efforts to convert more tideland into farmland.

Kim said that all state sectors and units must provide "mental and moral, material and technical support and assistance to the rural communities." He reiterated his calls for greater internal unity behind his leadership to attain agricultural goals.

“It is difficult to be optimistic about the food supply as long as Pyongyang insists on implementing North Korean-style socialism and isolating the country from international trade and assistance while developing nuclear missiles,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

While North Korea is about one million tons of grain short of sufficient annual levels, Lim said that such degrees of shortages have not resulted in mass famines in the past. Kwon said food is still available at markets, though at expensive prices.

“It’s like very poor people are starving but the government won’t let them die of hunger. Things could continue like that,” Kwon said.

Associated Press contributed to this report