• Bloomberg


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country’s food situation is “getting tense” due to typhoons last year that wiped out crops, comments that underscored farm-sector shortfalls made worse by his decision to close borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Kim told a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of his ruling Workers’ Party of Korea “the agricultural sector failed to fulfill its grain production plan,” and now is “high time to give full play to the indomitable revolutionary spirit and the fighting traits of self-reliance and fortitude,” state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

The North Korean leader also said the country’s economy “has shown improvement as a whole,” on the back of increased industrial output. This comes after Kim has already made a rare admission that policy was falling short when he replaced his point man in charge of the economy last summer.

North Korea’s economy will barely grow in 2021 after its worst contraction in decades as the country continues to struggle with the pandemic, international sanctions to punish it for its nuclear and missile testing, and a lack of trade with China, Fitch Solutions said in April.

The plenum was expected to be held over several days this week and could touch on international issues in later sessions, specialist service NK News reported.

North Korea battles chronic food shortages and Kim’s decision to shut the borders more than a year ago slammed the brakes on trade with China, its long-time benefactor. According to the United Nations World Food Program, one of the few international humanitarian groups that has operated in reclusive North Korea, about 40% of the population is undernourished, adding “food insecurity and malnutrition are widespread.”

North Korea has repeatedly said solving the food problem was a key to improving people’s living standards, and “a rare official acknowledgment at the highest level that the food situation is becoming tense indicates how seriously Pyongyang views this issue,” according to Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center.

“It is important to note that Kim Jong Un is using this period of national lockdown to reduce the country’s reliance on imports and develop domestic production capabilities to the extent possible,” said Lee, a former U.S. government analyst specializing in North Korea.

Despite the economic hardships at home, Kim has rebuffed calls from the U.S. to resume nuclear disarmament negotiations, which could provide relief from sanctions choking his state’s paltry economy.

Kim appears to be focused on taking care of internal matters for the time being rather than ratcheting up regional tensions through provocative military moves, South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook told parliament this month.

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