N. Korea wants more control over agriculture amid food shortages

Kim’s measures unveiled during a recent four-day meeting were largely a repeat of his previous policies. Prospects for quickly resolving its food insecurity are dim, as North Korea restricts the operation of markets and devotes much of its scarce resources to its nuclear program.

While experts say 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 death.

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

“To achieve the gigantic long-term goal of rural development, it is necessary to strengthen Party guidance over the agricultural sector and improve Party work in the countryside,” Kim said.

Kim also ordered officials to overcome unspecified “bias in the guidance on farming” and concentrate on increasing farm yields. He said provincial, city and county governments need to increase their guidance on agriculture.

KCNA did not elaborate on how Kim wants to reinforce the government’s guidance on farming. But experts say Kim’s instructions were a confirmation of his push to restore elements of a socialist planned economy – where a central authority controls the market rather than participants – in terms of grain supply. They say it is one of the factors behind North Korea’s worsening food situation.

“In our view, they are going backwards and going back to the past,” said Kwon Tae-jin, senior economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea. “To solve the food problem, they should let the markets play a bigger role. But they would rather go back to a planned economy.”

North Korea’s state rationing system remains largely broken since a crippling famine killed an estimated hundreds of thousands of people in the mid-1990s. The country has since tolerated some levels of open market activity, a move experts say has helped the North achieve slow, modest economic growth but could eventually pose a threat to the authoritarian leadership of the Kim family.

North Korea’s chronic economic difficulties and food insecurity have intensified with tightened UN sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic that decimated the country’s foreign trade and the North’s own mismanagement.

Further exacerbating the food shortage was the government’s failed attempt to supply grain via state facilities while restricting private trading in markets. Other factors attributed to the food shortage include falling personal incomes and sharply reduced unofficial grain purchases from China due to the pandemics, Kwon said.

“Market participants are still very cautious, so the volume of grain in the markets has not increased much,” Kwon said. “If the authorities view markets negatively, they cannot be properly recovered.”

Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the latest North Korean meeting was intended to review the progress of 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 outline of meaningful new strategies or direction.

North Korea’s grain output in 2022 was estimated at 4.5 million tonnes, down 3.8% 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 tonnes. South Korea’s spy agency has said North Korea needs 5.5 million tonnes of grain to feed its 25 million people each year.

Previous plenary meetings mostly concentrated on the country’s nuclear program or rivalry with the US and South Korea. Holding an agriculture-focused plenary meeting in the party’s central committee could be an acknowledgment that the food situation is serious. But some experts say the country is also likely aiming to burnish Kim’s image as a leader who cares about his people and boost domestic support for his efforts to expand his nuclear arsenal.

During the meeting, Kim called for faster construction of new irrigation systems that will help the country cope with extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. He also called on manufacturers to build and supply more efficient farm machinery and for workers to accelerate their efforts to convert more tidewater to farmland.

Kim said all government sectors and entities 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 achieve agricultural goals.

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

While North Korea lacks about 1 million tons of grain at sufficient annual levels, Lim said such degrees of shortage have not resulted in mass famine in the past. Kwon said food is still available in markets, but at expensive prices.

“It is as if very poor people are starving, but the government will not let them starve. Things can go on like this, Kwon said.

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