Hundreds of thousands of North Korean troops are being mobilized to help plant and harvest crops. The country’s military is reconfiguring some of its munitions factories to produce tractors and threshing machines, while turning some airfields into greenhouses. the soldiers are reportedly they are asked to extend their service for three years and spend it on farms.
The directives come directly from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has called for 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 over North Korea’s nuclear program have devastated its exports and its ability to earn hard currency. Then the pandemic and 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 North Korea’s food situation at the Seoul-based GS&J Institute. “If I were him, I wouldn’t know where to start to fix the problem.”
Scarcity in the North looms large in the political context. When Mr. Kim convened his Workers’ Party last month, his predominant agenda was the food issue. When he chaired its Central Military Commission last weekend, state media only briefly mentioned the threat posed by joint South Korean-US military exercises, focusing instead on Kim’s campaign around food.
South Korea is trying to use the issue as leverage to convince Kim to return to dialogue.
When Mr. Kim’s regime launched an intercontinental ballistic missile last month, South Korea blamed the North for staging grand military parades and developing nuclear missiles while its people “starved to death one after another amid a severe food crisis.” . Seoul tends to emphasize the North’s food shortages as a criticism of Pyongyang for dedicating resources to its nuclear program.
South Korean officials later said they did not expect the shortage to trigger a mass famine or endanger Mr. Kim’s grip on power. During background briefings in recent days, they said they did not have enough data to estimate how many North Koreans have starved to death. But they insisted they had reports of people starving in smaller towns, but not in Pyongyang, home to the well-fed elites.
Hit by droughts and floods, crippled by socialist mismanagement and hit by international sanctions, North Koreans have long suffered from food shortages. Millions died during a famine in the 1990s. Even in the best of years, many North Koreans go hungry.
But the pandemic made it worse. For three years, North Korea was forced to close its border with China, its only major trading partner. Only a minimum of trading was allowed. The lockdowns have also made it harder for smugglers to supply goods to unofficial markets in the North, where ordinary people get extra food when their dying ration system can no longer provide.
Hardly a day goes by without the Northern state media urging its people to help grow more grain.
It is impossible to get a full picture of the food situation in the isolated nation. Some analysts say Kim is not so much concerned about a possible famine as he is about a long-running confrontation with Washington over his nuclear program. With no sanctions relief in sight, Kim knows that scarcity is a major vulnerability.
“Food is the key to how long you can last,” said Choi Eunju, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Kim Jong-un must strengthen his country’s survivability as he faces the protracted challenges of sanctions and the pandemic.”
Mr Kim is waging a campaign for more food while vowing to take “persistent and strong” countermeasures, which means more weapons tests. North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday, its second such test in a month.
“North Korea is the kind of country that needs to show military force through provocations when facing domestic problems like a food crisis,” said Yi Jisun, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, an Intelligence-affiliated research institute. South National. Service. “Raise military tension to consolidate internal unity.”
Under Kim, North Korea has rapidly expanded its nuclear program, conducting a record number of missile tests last year. But he has yet to make good on the promise he made when he seized power more than a decade ago: that his people “would no longer have to tighten their belts.”
In reality, he brought his people more punitive measures by accelerating their nuclear program. His diplomacy with former President Donald J. Trump failed to lift the sanctions. When the pandemic hit, so did bad weather, which devastated crops.
By June 2021, Mr. Kim warned of a “tense” food situation during a Workers’ Party meeting. During the meeting, he issued a “special order” to his army to release some of its rice reserves set aside for the war to help alleviate food shortages, a rare move in the country where the army has always had a priority in resources, according to South Korean officials.
It was not enough.
“North Korea was unable to provide its farmers with enough farm equipment or fertilizers due to the pandemic and the border closure,” said Kim Dawool, an analyst with South Korea’s Institute for International Economic Policy.
The North’s fertilizer imports from China plummeted to $5.4 million last year, from $85 million in 2018, according to the South Korea International Trade Association. In 2021, Mr. Kim ordered his farmers to plant twice as much wheat, which doesn’t need as much fertilizer as corn.
North Korea’s grain production plummeted to 3.4 million tons in 2020, from 4.6 million tons a year earlier. Although production has recovered in the last two years, the country has still not reached what it needed at 1 million tons, according to estimates by the Southern Rural Development Administration.
Mr. Kim’s own politics have not helped.
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 have said. Adding to the shortages, North Korea has refused foreign aid and scared off food smugglers by adding more fencing and issuing a shoot to kill order along its border with China. It also tightened control over the movement of people between cities, making it more difficult for merchants to ship goods.
Mr. Kim also reasserted socialist control, ordering state stores to buy grain from collective farms and sell it at below market prices while repression of the grain trade in unofficial markets, according to Asia Press International, a website in Japan that monitors the North Korean economy through clandestine correspondents there. But the stores could not meet the needs for food.
The most affected were the poor. In years of scarcity they consume more maize, while the elites prefer rice. In a sign of growing distress for the most vulnerable, the price of maize has risen more sharply than that of rice, according to indices compiled by Asia Press International.
But in state media, Kim was not blamed.
This month, the party’s newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, interviewed the head of an agricultural research center named Jang Hyon-chol.
“I can’t lift my head out of guilt,” Jang said, because she couldn’t match Kim’s devotion to improving the food supply.