SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea has scheduled a major political conference to discuss the “urgent task” of improving its agricultural sector, a possible sign of worsening food insecurity as the country’s economic isolation deepens amid a defiant nuclear push.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said Monday that Politburo members of the ruling Workers’ Party met on Saturday and agreed to hold a larger plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee in late February to discuss agriculture strategies and set new goals. It states that members of the Politburo recognized that “a turning point is needed to dynamically promote a radical change in the development of agriculture.”
“It is a very important and urgent task to establish a correct strategy for agricultural development and take relevant measures for immediate agriculture… to promote the overall development of socialist construction,” KCNA said.
The Politburo meeting came amid indications that the country is preparing to stage a huge military parade in Pyongyang, possibly this week, to glorify the rule of leader Kim Jong Un and his growing collection of nuclear weapons, which he has aggressively sought to expand despite limited resources and a failing economy.
While not unprecedented, it is unusual for North Korea to hold two plenary meetings of different parties within a span of two months. It is also rare for North Korea to convene a plenary meeting on a single agenda, this time on agriculture, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Koo Byoungsam said at a briefing.
“The government will closely monitor the food situation in North Korea and internal trends,” Koo said. He said South Korea estimates North Korea’s food production to drop by about 4 percent in 2022 to 4.5 million tons.
After the collapse of nuclear talks with the United States in 2019, Kim said he would strengthen his nuclear weapons and missile program against US sanctions and “gangster-like” pressure and urged his nation to remain resilient in the fight for economic self-reliance.
But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt an additional shock to North Korea’s already battered economy, forcing the nation to protect its poor health care system with strict border controls that have stifled trade with China, its main ally and economic lifeline. The country was also hit by devastating typhoons and floods in 2020 that decimated crops.
In a study published on the North Korea-focused website 38 North last month, analyst Lucas Rengifo-Keller said North Korea’s food insecurity is probably the worst since the country’s 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
It is difficult to establish an accurate assessment of North Korea’s humanitarian needs given the reclusiveness of its regime and the poor quality of the limited statistics it publishes. But estimates of North Korea’s grain balance released by UN agencies and foreign governments, as well as possible sharp increases in rice and corn prices noted by non-governmental organizations and the media, indicate that “the country’s food supplies probably did not meet minimum human needs “, wrote Rengifo-Keller.
Russia’s war against Ukraine has likely exacerbated the situation by raising global prices for food, energy and fertilizer, on which North Korea’s agricultural production is heavily dependent.
“Simply put, North Korea is on the brink of starvation,” Rengifo-Keller said.
The Workers’ Party Central Committee also held a plenary meeting in December, when Kim doubled down on his nuclear ambitions by calling for an “exponential increase” in nuclear warheads, the mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear bombs aimed at rival South Korea and the development of more powerful long-range missiles designed to reach the US mainland. During the meeting, party members also identified key economic projects for 2023, highlighted by agricultural and construction activities.