North strives for autarky even as food shortages worsen
Pyongyang’s main state-controlled newspaper on Wednesday urged North Koreans to strive for “economic independence,” suggesting the regime has little intention of abandoning its autarkic economic policies despite mounting signs of food insecurity.
The Rodong Sinmun, a daily newspaper controlled by the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, warned that “aid from the imperialists is a trap that will open the door to looting and subjugation” in an editorial titled, “Economic independence is the material security of independent state construction.”
“Foreign aid is [the imperialists’] way of giving one and taking ten and hundred,” it argued.
The editorial also claimed foreign aid is “a bait used to curb and subjugate other countries’ economic development and undermine their economic prestige and interests,” warning that the aim of foreign aid is to precipitate the collapse of leader Kim Jong-un’s regime.
“It is a mistake to try to boost the economy by taking this poisoned candy,” the editorial said, adding that “if [North Korea] doesn’t stand on its own two feet economically, it will be forced to bow its head and kneel to others.”
In an implied acknowledgement of the regime’s ongoing economic struggles, the editorial said, “Pursuing independent development requires us to overcome countless challenges,” but argued the regime “has been able to endure military blackmail and high-intensity pressure and constantly elevate its national power on a strong foundation based on the independent national economy prepared by the entire people tightening their belts.”
North Korea has largely refused aid from international organizations over the past three years since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Food shipments from neighboring China have also fallen, with statistics from China’s customs office recording 130,383 tons in rice last year, compared to 500,000 tons of rice and 550,000 tons of fertilizer delivered by Beijing in 2021.
South Korea’s Rural Development Administration estimated that North Korea’s total food production last year fell to 4.51 million tons — a decrease of 180,000, or 3.8 percent, from the previous year, which the agency attributed to colder temperatures and heavy cloud cover that reduced sunlight in July, the prime rice growing season in the North.
A photo of North Korean farmers holding up manure that was released by the Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday was accompanied by the caption, “A handful of manure is a handful of rice,” which suggested the regime was encouraging the collection of more manure to boost agricultural productivity.
North Korea increased its budget for agricultural production by 14.7 percent at the most recent session of its rubber-stamp parliament held on Jan. 17 and 18.
Photos released by state media just before the legislative session showed a large procession of trucks carrying fertilizer lined up at Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang.
Defectors have testified that the regime uses the fulfilment of human excrement quotas as one criterion when evaluating the political loyalty of individuals and organizations to make up for its lack of chemical fertilizers.
Defectors have also testified that North Koreans not only buy and sell human feces to fulfill their quotas, but also raid warehouses where night soil is stored before processing.
But it remains unclear if these measures are sufficient to stem food insecurity under the regime, which according to a recent report by the Stimson Center’s 38 North think tank has reached a level not seen since the famine of the mid-1990s.
An official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry told reporters recently that “North Korea’s food production has decreased, and changes to the food distribution policy by the authorities appear to have disrupted supplies.”
But the official did not clarify which areas of the North were particularly hard-hit by food shortages, saying only that the ministry was aware that deaths due to starvation had occurred in “certain regions.”
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]