North Korea’s Kim orders ‘fundamental transformation’ of agriculture amid reports of food shortages

SEOUL, Feb 28 (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged government officials to engineer a “fundamental transformation” in agricultural production, state media reported on Tuesday, amid fears the country’s food shortages are worsening.

Kim said meeting grain production targets this year was a top priority, stressing the importance of stable agricultural output during the second day of the seventh expanded plenary session of the Eighth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Monday, according to state news agency KCNA.

The report did not elaborate on what measures North Korea would take, but Kim said the changes must take place over the next few years.

Collective farms account for the vast majority of North Korea’s agriculture, according to researchers. Such farms usually host several small farmers who produce crops with joint labor.

Kim’s remarks come amid reports of growing food shortages in the country, although North Korea has rejected suggestions that it cannot feed its citizens.

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Earlier this month, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the food situation in the North “appeared to have worsened”.

The ministry said at the time that it was rare for North Korea to announce a special meeting on agricultural strategy scheduled for late February.

In his speech at Monday’s meeting, KCNA said Kim mentioned the “importance of the growth of agricultural productive forces” to ensure socialist construction.

North Korea is under severe international sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and its economy has been further strained by strict self-imposed border closures aimed at stemming COVID-19 outbreaks.

The full extent of the food shortage in North Korea is unclear, but in a January report the US-based 38 North Project said food insecurity was at its worst since famine that ravaged the country in the 1990s.

“Food availability has probably fallen below the absolute minimum with respect to human needs,” the report said.

North Korea’s drive for self-sufficiency means that almost all of its grain is produced domestically, but that has left the country vulnerable, 38 North found.

“Achieving sufficient agricultural production in North Korea’s unfavorable soils has ironically created a heavy dependence on imported goods and exposed the country to global shocks, diplomatic conflicts and adverse weather,” the report states.

The long-term solution to the problems lies partly in resolving the conflict over nuclear weapons and sanctions, but also requires economic reforms.

The initiation of domestic economic reforms will unleash North Korea’s productive capacity and allow it to export industrial products and tradable services, earn foreign exchange and import bulk grain on a commercially sustainable basis, 38 North said.

Reporting by Hyunsu Yim; Editing by Sandra Maler and Michael Perry

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