North Korea scrambles to address country’s worsening food shortage

North Korea’s top leaders appear to be scrambling as the country’s chronic food shortages grow worse.

The Hermit Kingdom’s officials are getting ready to discuss the “very important and urgent task” of formulating a “competent agricultural policy” at an upcoming ruling Workers’ Party meeting. International observers believe the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the isolated country’s already short food supplies.

While unconfirmed reports indicate North Koreans have been dying of hunger, experts say there is no sign yet of mass deaths or famine.

The party meeting may be designed to help increase support for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he moves resolutely ahead with his nuclear weapons program despite intense U.S.-led pressure and sanctions.

“Kim Jong Un can’t advance his nuclear program stably if he fails to resolve the food problem fundamentally, because public support would be shaken,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, South Korea. “The meeting is being convened to solidify internal unity while pulling together ideas to address the food shortage.”

An enlarged plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party is slated for late February. The party’s powerful Politburo earlier said that “a turning point is needed to dynamically promote radical change in agricultural development.”

Experts can only speculate about the exact situation in the North, where borders were closed during the pandemic. North Korean people have suffered for decades from food shortages and famines. A famine in the mid-1990s is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Koo Byoungsam, a spokesperson at the South Korean Unification Ministry, said that an unknown number of North Koreans have died of hunger, but said the problem is not as serious as the mid-1990s famine, which was a result of natural disasters, the loss of Soviet assistance and mismanagement.

The current food shortage stems more from distribution issues rather than not enough grain, South Korean ministry officials said. Food insecurity has worsened as authorities tightened controls over private grain sales in markets, instead trying to confine the grain trade to state-run facilities.

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