Experts say North could be angling for foreign food aid

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Experts say North could be angling for foreign food aid

Daily reports and commentary on domestic food shortages by North Korea's state media in recent months have raised questions about the intent behind such open admissions, with some analysts suggesting that the reclusive regime is angling for foreign aid by reporting on its troubles.
 
An editorial titled "The struggle for food is the struggle for the motherland" that was published on Saturday in the Rodong Shinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party said that "the nation can stand strong and proud only when there is an abundance of rice." 
 
Earlier, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un admitted to the food shortage at a plenary session of the Workers' Party, saying, "The people's food situation is getting tense" but declaring, "We will definitely get through the current crisis." 
 
Kim also mentioned the "Arduous March" at a March party secretaries' convention, referring to the period of combined floods, droughts, and harvest failures which led to widespread famine under the rule of his father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, in the late 1990s after aid from Eastern Bloc nations dried up.
 
While post-Cold War North Korea has consistently struggled to feed its people, the admissions by both the regime and its state-controlled media is noteworthy because the country usually avoids mentioning ongoing hardship in official propaganda.
 
Most unprecedentedly, however, the state media has also highlighted Kim's weight loss, with the state broadcaster Korea Central News Agency carrying not only photos of Kim's recent, trimmed down appearance, but also interviews with ordinary North Koreans on the verge of tears over his apparent belt-tightening. 
 
The subject of the North Korean leader's health is normally a taboo topic, with official media ignoring Kim's previous long, unexplained absences.
 
While the country has not submitted reliable economic statistics for decades, North Korea said in a report submitted to the United Nations on July 1 that grain production last year was 5.52 million tons, a decrease of 1 million tons from the previous year's harvest.
 
The South Korean government believes that the main drivers behind this decrease is the border blockade that the North implemented at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in China, which led to the suspension of food and fertilizer imports since the beginning of last year, as well as the effects of natural disasters such as typhoons and floods on the North's agricultural harvest.
 
"Although North Korea's food production has decreased domestically, it is a bigger problem that imports have been blocked," said Kim Byung-yeon, head of the Unification and Peace Institute at Seoul National University. 
 
"North Koreans have changed since the Arduous March of the 1990s, so the authorities now feel more pressured to deal with public sentiment." 
 
Analysts also say that the food crisis is not just a problem of public sentiment, but is also directly related to the stability of the North Korean government. Problems could also arise in terms of internal solidarity, which is essential for "self-strengthening" emphasized by Kim.
 
Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, said, "The most likely scenario is that food shortages may overlap with the spread of infectious diseases.
 
"North Korean authorities are very anxious to overcome the food crisis, and part of their strategy is to raise their people's awareness of their efforts to do so."
 
Some analysts add that admitting to food shortages is also a stepping stone to punish officials and shake-up the upper echelons of the country's leadership. 
 
Cheon Seong-whun, former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, said, "Kim Jong-un's 10 years in office are surprisingly honest." 
 
He predicted that Kim "will acknowledge the deteriorated reality as it is, but will use it as an opportunity to initiate major change by making scapegoats of high-ranking officials."
 
Others also see the official statements and reports by North Korea on its food shortage as a type of baiting for renewed external assistance, or even easing of sanctions.
 
Shin Beom-chul, the director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said, "North Korea's recognition of food shortages is to foster internal solidarity, but the secondary purpose is to solicit external aid."
 
The success of this strategy, however, is how far the United States will bend its own sanctions against North Korea in the name of humanitarian aid.
 
During the Trump administration, a U.S.-South Korea working group was formed to discuss carving an exemption from sanctions for inter-Korean projects serving humanitarian purposes, but the consultative body was effectively terminated last month.
 
In a signal of the Biden administration's approach to the issue of food shortages in North Korea, Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, reportedly met with South Korean diplomatic and security experts on June 22 during a visit to Seoul and said that there could be no easing of sanctions before denuclearization, but humanitarian aid could be possible if Pyongyang did not violate existing U.S. or international sanctions.
 

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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