Hundreds of thousands of North Korean troops are mobilizing to help plant and harvest crops. The country’s military is rejiggering some of its munitions factories to produce tractors and threshing machines, while also converting some airfields into greenhouses. Soldiers are reportedly being asked to extend their service by three years and spend them on farms.
The directives have come straight from North Korea’s 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 the North’s nuclear program have devastated its exports and ability to earn hard currency. Then the pandemic and the resulting border closures squeezed what little trade remained with China.
There is little potential relief, unless China concludes that its fellow Communist neighbor cannot handle its food problem on its own, and decides to send large aid shipments. North Korea now appears to be hunkering down for a prolonged 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 the North Korean food situation at the Seoul-based GS&J Institute. “If I were him, I wouldn’t know where to begin to fix the problem.”
The shortages in the North loom large in the political backdrop. When Mr. Kim convened his Workers’ Party last month, its predominant agenda was the food problem. When he presided over his Central Military Commission last weekend, state media only briefly mentioned the threat posed by the joint military drills between South Korea and the United States, focusing instead on Mr. Kim’s campaign around food.
South Korea is trying to use the issue as leverage to coax Mr. Kim back to dialogue.
When Mr. Kim’s regime launched an intercontinental ballistic missile last month, South Korea blamed the North for hosting large military parades and developing nuclear missiles while its people were “dying of starvation one after another amid a serious food crisis.” Seoul tends to emphasize the North’s food shortages as a criticism of Pyongyang for devoting resources to its nuclear program.
South Korean officials later said they did not expect the shortages to lead to mass starvation or to endanger Mr. Kim’s grip on power. During background briefings in recent days, they said they didn’t have enough data to estimate how many North Koreans have starved. But they insisted they had reports of people starving to death in smaller towns, but not in Pyongyang, home to the well-fed elites.
Hit by droughts and floods, hamstrung by socialist mismanagement and hurt 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 bare minimum of trade was allowed. The closures also made it harder for smugglers to supply goods to the North’s unofficial markets, where ordinary people get extra food when its moribund rations system can no longer provide.
Hardly a day goes by without the North’s state news media exhorting its people to help produce more grains.
It’s impossible to get a comprehensive picture of the food situation in the isolated nation. Some analysts say Mr. Kim is not as much concerned about a potential famine as about the prolonged confrontation with Washington over his nuclear program. With no sanctions relief in sight, Mr. Kim knows the shortages are major vulnerability.
“Food is the key to how long he can hold out,” said Choi Eunju, an analyst at Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Kim Jong-un must strengthen his country’s survivability as it faces the extended challenges from sanctions and the pandemic.”
Mr. Kim is waging a campaign for more food while vowing to take “persistent and strong” countermeasures, meaning 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 strength through provocations when it faces domestic problems like a food crisis,” said Yi Jisun, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a research institute affiliated with the South’s National Intelligence Service. “It raises military tension to consolidate domestic unity.”
Under Mr. Kim, North Korea has rapidly expanded its nuclear program, conducting a record number of missile tests last year. But he has yet to deliver on the promise he made in taking power more than a decade ago: that his people would “no longer have to tighten their belt.”
In reality, he brought his people more punishing measures by accelerating his nuclear program. His diplomacy with former President Donald J. Trump failed to lift sanctions. When the pandemic hit, so did the bad weather, devastating crops.
By June 2021, Mr. Kim warned about a “tense” food situation during a Workers’ Party meeting. During the meeting, he issued a “special order” to his military to release some of its rice stocks reserved for war to help ease the food shortage, a rare move in the country where the military has always been given a priority in resources, according to South Korean officials.
It was not enough.
“North Korea could not provide its farmers with enough farming equipment or fertilizers because of the pandemic and the border closure,” said Kim Dawool, an analyst at the South’s Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.
The North’s fertilizer imports from China plunged to $5.4 million last year, from $85 million in 2018, according to the South’s 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 the previous year’s 4.6 million tons. While production recovered in the past two years, the country still fell short of what it needed by 1 million tons, according to the estimates of the South’s Rural Development Administration.
Mr. Kim’s own policy hasn’t 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 said. Adding to the shortages, North Korea rejected foreign aid and scared off food smugglers by adding more fences and issuing a shoot-to-kill order along its border with China. It also tightened control on people’s movement between towns, making it more difficult for traders to ship goods.
Mr. Kim reasserted socialist control as well, ordering state-run stores to buy grains from collective farms and sell them at below-market prices while cracking down on grains trade in the 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 food needs.
The hardest hit were the poor. In lean years, they consume more corn, while the elites prefer rice. In a sign of deepening distress for the more vulnerable, the price of corn has risen more sharply than that of rice, according to indexes compiled by Asia Press International.
But in state media, Mr. Kim was not blamed.
This month, the party newspaper Rodong Sinmun interviewed an agricultural research center chief named Jang Hyon-chol.
“I can’t raise my head because of a guilty feeling,” Mr. Jang said, because he could not match Mr. Kim’s devotion to improving food supplies.