ANBOUND’s Observation: North Korea Officially Admits to be in ‘Food Crisis’ for the First Time
A new North Korean state media documentary makes a rare reference to the country’s “food crisis”, offering a glimpse into reality on the ground amid growing reports of pressure from the country’s prolonged border closures due to COVID-19.
The two-hour documentary is an annual production that looks back on the previous year’s major achievements and praises the leadership of Kim Jong Un. It shows Kim Jong Un visiting residential projects in Pyongyang, holding meetings, and participating in military parades. The theme of the film changes every year according to the regime’s priorities.
This year’s film, titled “The Great Year of Victory 2021,” aired on Tuesday and highlighted Kim Jong Un’s work on the economy. The film acknowledges that “the situation in the country is more difficult than ever”, suggesting that food shortages may now be an undisguised problem. It depicts a meeting in which Kim expressed his concern that “an urgent need to stabilize people’s livelihood is to ease tensions caused by food supplies” and called for urgent measures to address the “food crisis”, noting that the country has already tapped its emergency grain supply. In June, Kim called the country’s food situation “tense.”
Kim’s recent weight loss can be seen throughout the film, which oscillates between footages of his plumper days and more recent images showing him noticeably thinner. He shocked observers when he appeared on state media this summer by looking dramatically slimmer. The reason for Kim’s weight loss has not been disclosed.
In June, state media aired interviews with North Koreans who said they were worried about their leader’s “emaciated” appearance, with one resident claiming that the people “are welling up in their eyes naturally”. Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former intelligence analyst based in South Korea and an expert on North Korean media propaganda, said the film’s frank depiction of food conditions is consistent with Kim Jong Un’s tendency to describe the country’s problems more explicitly than his predecessors. She said it would be inconceivable for propaganda films to use the term “food crisis” during the famine of the 1990s, which was seen as more dire than the current situation. “I’m not so sure, if we were living in Kim Jong Il’s era, that it would’ve been addressed at all,” Lee said, referring to Kim’s father. “We [now] see more explicit formulations of the reality on the ground.”
North Korea imposes border closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say this has severely restricted trade with its largest economic partner, China, which in turn exacerbates shortages of food, supplies, and cash, hurting the country’s most vulnerable. The country appears to have taken steps to restore some degree of land-based trade with China, but the extent remains unclear.
In addition, Kim Jong Un has implemented new measures to further restrict internal economic activities, including an intensified crackdown on inter-provincial movement and the illegal use of mobile phones, both of which severely limit people’s ability to trade food and goods.
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