Health

Kim Jong Un’s New Year resolution: more food for North Korea

Kim, 37,
presided over a five-day meeting of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, ​which
drew more attention than usual because it came at the end of his first decade
in power.

On
​Saturday, New Year’s Day, the North’s state media carried lengthy reports on
the meeting. They mentioned no diplomatic overtures from Kim toward the United
States or South Korea, and only a brief reiteration of his frequent promise to
increase the North’s military power. But much space was devoted to the subject
of food shortages, which many analysts see as the biggest shortcoming of Kim’s
leadership.

One of the
first promises that Kim made after inheriting power from his father, Kim Jong
Il, a decade ago was that long-suffering North Koreans would “never have to
tighten their belt again.” But that goal has remained elusive. Several months
ago, Kim issued a rare warning that the North faced a “tense” food situation,
brought about by the coronavirus pandemic and international sanctions against
his nuclear weapons program.

At the party
meeting that ended on Friday, Kim pledged to “increase the agricultural
production and completely solve the food problem,” specifying production goals
“to be attained phase by phase in the coming 10 years,” the North’s Korean
Central News Agency said.

But Kim did
not appear to introduce any significant agricultural measures​, except to
forgive all cooperative farms’ debts to the government. He mainly repeated the
party’s old exhortations to farmers to use more machines, greenhouses,
fertilizers and pesticides. He also said they should “grasp the greatness and
gratitude for the party, state and the social system” and make “collectivism
dominate their thinking and life.”

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Despite his
ambitions to grow North Korea’s economy, Kim has never made the kind of bold,
market-oriented changes that ​China and Vietnam put in place decades ago.
Instead, he has kept the country isolated, cracking down on the influence of
outside information and imposing tight control on the informal markets that
many North Koreans have ​relied on for survival.

“Kim Jong Un
was never going to be a reformer by Western standards,” said Leif-Eric Easley,
a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “He
prioritizes his family interests above national security, prosperity and the
rule of law, to say nothing of human rights.”

When Kim
came to power a decade ago at 27, many outside analysts dismissed him as an
inexperienced figurehead, and some predicted that he would not last. But he
quickly established his grip on power through what South Korean officials
called a “reign of terror,” executing scores of senior officials — including
his uncle, Jang Song Thaek — who were seen an obstacles to establishing a
monolithic dictatorship.

Under Kim’s
rule, North Korea has become one of the very few countries that can threaten
the United States with a nuclear missile. Of the six nuclear tests the North
has carried out, four were under his watch.

Kim’s
government has also tested three intercontinental ballistic missiles that it
claims could deliver nuclear warheads to part or all of the United States. As
the North’s nuclear threat grew in 2018 and 2019, President Donald Trump met
three times with Kim, in the first summit talks between the two nations.

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But North
Koreans have paid a harsh price for Kim’s nuclear ambitions.

The United
Nations imposed economic sanctions that banned all of the North’s major
exports. The country’s economy shrank by 3.5 percent in 2017 and by 4.1 percent
in 2018, according to estimates from South Korea’s central bank. It recovered
slightly in 2019, but then the pandemic hit, forcing the North deeper into
isolation. Its economy shrank again last year, by 4.5 percent.

Kim’s
efforts to get the sanctions​ lifted collapsed in 2019, when his diplomacy with
Trump ended with no agreement. At a Workers’ Party congress in January, Kim
admitted that his efforts to rebuild the North’s moribund economy had failed.

There are no
signs that North Korea is in danger of the kind of devastating famine that it suffered
in the late 1990s. But its grain production totalled ​only ​4.69 million tons
this year, leaving a shortage of 800,000 tons, according to estimates released
by South Korea’s Rural Development Administration. In July, the US Department
of Agriculture ​estimated that ​16.3 million people in the North — 63.1 percent
of the population​ — were “food insecure.”

​In the
past, North Korea has made up for its agricultural shortfalls with foreign aid
and imports. But in response to the pandemic, it has rejected outside aid and
shut its borders, making it harder to import fertilizers or farm equipment from
neighboring China​, the North’s only major trading partner and donor​. Pandemic
restrictions have also hurt the country’s unofficial markets, which helped circulate
food.

Kim’s
emphasis on bolstering food production indicates that North Korea will stick to
his “self-reliant” economic policy while it copes with the pandemic, analysts
say. The North has also braced for a prolonged diplomatic confrontation with
Washington since Kim’s diplomacy with Trump collapsed.

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North Korea
has claimed that it had no COVID-19 cases, and it has rejected offers of
millions of vaccine doses, leaving its population vulnerable to explosive
outbreaks should its borders reopen. It has also rejected the Biden
administration’s repeated offer to resume dialogue “without preconditions,”
insisting that Washington must first end what the North calls its “hostile
policy,” including the sanctions and its joint military exercises with South Korea.

At the same
time, North Korea has resumed missile tests since 2019, showing that it
continues to develop increasingly sophisticated, nuclear-capable weaponry —
Kim’s most valuable leverage against Washington.

During the
party meeting, Kim said conditions demanded that “bolstering the state defense
capability be further powerfully propelled without a moment’s delay.” He also
called it a “top priority” to tighten loopholes in the North’s campaign against
the pandemic.

“His
extremely cursory mention of inter-Korean relations and foreign policy
indicates that North Korea was not ready to come out for contacts with South
Korea or the United States in the new year,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director
of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul.

“Faced with
the pandemic, North Korea is expected to continue to keep its borders shut,
focusing on self-reliance and conducting only the minimum of essential trade
with China,” Cheong said.

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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