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Flooding And Pandemic Restrictions Compound North Korea's Food Insecurity

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 29.
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, on June 29.

Updated July 1, 2021 at 9:53 AM ET

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, doesn't make casual public remarks. They service a particular agenda and are highly calculated at any moment. That's why it raised eyebrows last month when he called the food situation in North Korea "tense" during a meeting with the Central Committee of his ruling Workers' Party.

The situation is undoubtedly tense in the country, where the United Nations, in its latest assessment of North Korea's food situation, warned of the potential for a "harsh lean period" later this year. Flooding, the pandemic and U.S.-led sanctions have all combined to take a heavy toll, bringing back memories of the crippling famine that left millions dead in the late 1990s.

Jean Lee, a North Korea expert and senior fellow at the Wilson Center, says Kim's remarks could serve as a signal for the Biden administration of a potential opening to talks with the North Koreans.

"In the 1990s, when North Korea was undergoing a famine, there was an opportunity to provide humanitarian aid to North Koreans. And perhaps we're starting to see the groundwork for discussion around some sort of humanitarian aid," Lee said in an interview this week with Morning Edition.

Lee spoke with NPR about the chances for a return to talks, the forces driving the food shortage and why it is such a big deal that the North Korean leader spoke about it in public. Below are excerpts from that conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.


Interview Highlights

On whether Kim Jong Un's remarks could be an opening for talks over the North Korean nuclear program

It's possible. I think the North Koreans are clearly setting up for their eventual reemergence. They've been in this self-imposed isolation and it can't continue forever. But they need to find a way that makes sense to not only the outside world, but to their own people. And so what I mean is that Kim Jong Un is doing two things. He's both putting it out there and acknowledging that they have this food shortage.

Which is a big deal in and of itself, right? He doesn't go around saying this publicly very often.

Absolutely. So perhaps laying the ground for if we do accept some aid, this is why. That's not something they like to do. But the situation is very dire. But he's also bracing his people for this hardship to come and trying to get them to work harder on their own. This is the self-reliance philosophy and ideology that the North Korean regime promotes — that we can do this on their own.

Kim Jong Un blames international sanctions for the food instability, as he often does. Can you give us some ground truth on that?

It's a complicated issue. This is a country that is just not suited for agriculture. It is mostly mountains. It's 85% mountains, really tough land to deal with. And the little land that they have, they've just over-farmed. So I would say part of it is bad luck in terms of their geography, also bad policy in terms of agriculture. These sanctions certainly have made it difficult to get supplies into the country, but those are not aimed at harming their agricultural sector, per say. Those are largely aimed at stopping the flow of money that they believe is going to building the nuclear program.

And I would say one of the other things is their own policy of shutting the border. These restrictions were put into place in January 2020 at the start of the pandemic, but they sealed that border so tight that it wasn't just the virus that wasn't getting in; there was very little flow of people and goods across the border as well. And in order to grow the crops that they need because their land is so infertile, they need additional supplies, and that stuff is not coming in. And that is their own policy. They've prioritized their nuclear program, in a sense, over the well-being of their people because they're looking at the long game.

And we have to say that you're saying it's difficult in the best of times. And there are all these compounding factors today. I mean, the flooding that's been happening there, and the pandemic has been a compounding factor as well.

Absolutely. I mean, they're not able to get medicine in. They're not able to get food imports in. Humanitarian aid isn't coming in because they've sealed that border. But what is coming up is the monsoon season. And this hits the Korean Peninsula usually around June, July. Torrential rains. And North Korea is just not equipped to handle it. And so if they have another torrential flooding situation, because of the monsoons, it's going to be a very dire situation for the harvest come fall.

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