To fight food shortages, North Korea deploys the army
Hundreds of thousands of North Korean soldiers are mobilizing to help plant and harvest. The country’s military is reorganizing some of its munitions factories to produce tractors and threshers, while converting some airfields into greenhouses. Soldiers would be asked to extend their service for three years and spend it on farms.
The guidelines come directly from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who called on his military to become “a driving force” in increasing food production.
It is both an economic imperative and a geopolitical calculation for an isolated nation facing food shortages. Sanctions imposed since 2016 on the North’s nuclear program have devastated its exports and ability to earn hard currency. Then, the pandemic and the resulting border closures squeezed what little trade was left with China.
There is little potential relief unless China concludes that its communist neighbor cannot handle its food problem on its own and decides to send large aid shipments. North Korea now appears to be preparing for a protracted confrontation with the United States as the Biden administration, focused on the war in Ukraine, shows no urgency to negotiate.
“The situation is the worst since Kim took power,” said Kwon Tae-jin, an expert on the North Korean food situation at the Seoul-based GS&J Institute. “If I were him, I wouldn’t know where to start to solve the problem.”
Northern shortages loom large in the political context. When Mr. Kim convened his Workers’ Party last month, his overriding agenda was the food issue. When he chaired his Central Military Commission last weekend, state media only briefly mentioned the threat posed by joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States, focusing instead on the Mr. Kim’s food campaign.
South Korea is trying to use the issue as leverage to induce Mr. Kim to resume dialogue.
When Mr. Kim’s regime launched an intercontinental ballistic missile last month, South Korea blamed the North for staging large military parades and developing nuclear missiles while its people are “starving one after the other.” the other in the midst of a severe food crisis”. Seoul tends to emphasize food shortages in the North as a criticism of Pyongyang for devoting resources to its nuclear program.
South Korean officials later said they did not expect the shortages to cause mass starvation or endanger Mr. Kim’s grip on power. In background briefings in recent days, they said they didn’t have enough data to estimate how many North Koreans died of starvation. But they insisted they had reports of people starving in smaller towns, but not in Pyongyang, where well-fed elites live.
Hit by droughts and floods, crippled by socialist mismanagement and hurt by international sanctions, North Koreans have long suffered from food shortages. Millions of people died in a famine in the 1990s. Even in the best years, many North Koreans go hungry.
But the pandemic has made the situation worse. For three years, North Korea was forced to close its border with China, its only major trading partner. Only minimal trading was allowed. The closures have also made it harder for smugglers to supply unofficial markets in the north, where ordinary people get extra food when its moribund ration system can no longer supply.
Rarely a day goes by without state media in the North urging its people to help produce more grain.
It is impossible to get a complete picture of the food situation in this isolated country. Some analysts say Mr. Kim is not as concerned about a potential famine as he is about the protracted confrontation with Washington over its nuclear program. With no sanctions relief in sight, Kim knows shortages are a major vulnerability.
“Food is the key to how long he can last,” said Choi Eunju, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Kim Jong-un must strengthen his country’s survivability as it faces the prolonged challenges of sanctions and the pandemic.”
Mr Kim is campaigning for more food while promising to take “persistent and strong” countermeasures, which means more weapons testing. North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday, its second such test in a month.
“North Korea is the kind of country that has to show military strength through provocations when faced with domestic issues like a food crisis,” said Yi Jisun, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a research institute affiliated with the Southern National Intelligence. Service. “It raises military tension to consolidate national unity.”
Under Mr. Kim, North Korea has rapidly expanded its nuclear program, carrying out a record number of missile tests last year. But he has yet to deliver on the promise he made when he took power more than a decade ago: that his people “would no longer have to tighten their belts”.
In fact, he brought his people more punitive measures by accelerating his nuclear program. His diplomacy with former President Donald J. Trump failed to lift the sanctions. When the pandemic hit, so did bad weather, devastating crops.
As early as June 2021, Mr. Kim warned of a “tense” food situation during a meeting of the Workers’ Party. During the meeting, he gave a “special order” to his army to release some of its wartime rice stocks to help alleviate food shortages, a rare move in the country where the army has always had priority in resources, according to South Korean officials.
It was not enough.
“North Korea has not been able to provide its farmers with enough agricultural equipment or fertilizer due to the pandemic and border closures,” said Kim Dawool, an analyst at the South Korean Institute of Policy. international economy.
The North’s fertilizer imports from China fell to $5.4 million last year from $85 million in 2018, according to South Korea’s International Trade Association. In 2021, Mr. Kim ordered his farmers to plant twice as much wheat, which does not need as much fertilizer as corn.
North Korea’s grain production fell to 3.4 million tonnes in 2020 from 4.6 million tonnes the previous year. While production has recovered over the past two years, the country has still not met its one million tonne requirement, according to estimates by the Southern Rural Development Administration.
Mr. Kim’s own politics did not help.
The money North Korea spent on its missile tests last year was more than enough to import 1 million tons of grain, South Korean officials said. Adding to the shortages, North Korea has rejected foreign aid and scared off food smugglers by adding more fences and issuing a shoot-to-kill order along its border with China. It also tightened controls on the movement of people between towns, making it harder for traders to ship goods.
According to Asia Press International, a website in Japan that monitors the North Korean economy through underground correspondents. But the stores could not meet the food needs.
The hardest hit have been the poor. In lean years, they consume more maize, while the elites prefer rice. Sign of a worsening of the distress of the most vulnerable, the price of corn rose more sharply than that of rice, according to indices compiled by Asia Press International.
But in state media, Mr. Kim was not blamed.
This month, the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun interviewed an agricultural research center head named Jang Hyon-chol.
“I can’t hold my head up because of a sense of guilt,” Mr. Jang said, as he couldn’t match Mr. Kim’s dedication to improving the food supply.