North Korea’s Kim Jong Un calls for unity to boost grain production

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North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un called for stronger public solidarity behind his leadership to increase the country’s grain production significantly, state media reported Tuesday, amid outside worries about the country’s worsened food insecurity.

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Foreign experts say North Korea is experiencing a serious shortfall of food in the aftermath of COVID-19 border restrictions and a reported push for greater state control over grain supply. The experts say they’ve seen no signs of mass deaths or famine due to the shortfall.

During a ruling Workers’ Party meeting on Monday, Kim expressed his government’s determination “to bring about a revolutionary turn in the agricultural production without fail,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

“Nothing is impossible as long as the strong leadership system is established in the whole party and there is the united might of all the people,” Kim was quoted as saying.

KCNA didn’t elaborate on whether Kim presented any specific steps to boost grain production. Many observers say meaningful steps to produce more grain would require more purchases of fertilizer, pesticides and agricultural machinery, as North Korea devotes much of its scarce resources to advance its nuclear weapons program.

Most outside experts believe North Korea’s chronic food shortage has likely deteriorated due to COVID-19 restrictions that choked off its external trade, persistent US-led sanctions and its own mismanagement.

According to South Korean assessments, North Korea’s grain production last year was estimated at 4.5 million tons. 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.

In past years, unofficial grain purchases from China offset about half the gap, but border closures during the pandemic likely curbed those transactions. Further worsening the situation was a decline in people’s earnings and authorities’ unsuccessful efforts to supply grain via state-run facilities while restricting private dealing at markets, according to Kwon Tae-jin, a senior economist at the private GS&J Institute in South Korea.

Most analysts say North Korea’s current food shortage is nowhere near the extremes of the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people died in a famine. They say the ongoing plenary meeting was in part likely convened to promote Kim’s image as a leader caring about his people at a time when he’s locked in confrontations with the United States over his nuclear program.

The Central Committee meeting, which opened Sunday, was expected to last at least another day.

KCNA cited Kim as saying in Monday's session that the main purpose of the conference was to find immediate ways to reach this year’s grain production goal and scientifically feasible long-term objectives to radically change agricultural production within a few years. Other senior officials analyzed unspecified shortcomings in past rural development projects and proposed how fix them, according to KCNA.

Boosting grain production is one of the 12 economic objectives North Korea's ruling party adopted in an earlier party meeting in December. State media said recently that grain production must be increased at all costs.

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