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N Korea at crossroads

Kim warns North Korea food crisis threatens state security

Leader assuages public with removal of key party officials and weight loss

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks to the Workers' Party Politburo on July 5. He appears to have lost some weight since the beginning of the year.   © KCNA via Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un replaced key party officials for their failure to deal with a protracted food shortage, noting that they put the security of the state and safety of the people at risk.

The market price for corn has been rising since the start of the year, while the price of rice soared in June, said the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. The South Korean state-affiliated think tank attributes both increases to a lack of supply. Rice prices jumped more than 50% last month in Hyesan, a city bordering China, according to the Daily NK, a website specializing in North Korean information.

North Korean grain production fell 5.2% in 2020, South Korea estimates, largely due to widespread flooding last summer in the country's southern agricultural region. Pyongyang also cut off land-based imports from China to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay, though it resumed some maritime trade with Beijing in March and April to secure fertilizer.

"The people's food situation is now getting tense as the agricultural sector failed to fulfill its grain production plan due to the damage by typhoon last year," Kim told the ruling Workers' Party Central Committee on June 15.

Some North Korea watchers think the food shortage helped trigger Kim's rebuke of senior party officials on June 29. At a meeting with the party Politburo that day, Kim warned of a "great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people" and replaced several key party officials, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.

Details of the shake-up have not been made public. But Ri Pyong Chol, who led the North Korean military's nuclear and missile development, is believed to have been ousted, after he appeared not to take part in a voting process aired on state TV.

The military might have failed to follow the party's orders to release rice reserves, said Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South and is now an opposition lawmaker there. Kim signed a special order June 17 that reportedly included releasing military rice to the public at below-market rates.

But the military lacked sufficient reserves to comply, according to a source familiar with the matter quoted by NK News. In response, the military is believed to have attempted to import rice from China without Kim's permission, violating strict quarantine measures imposed by the party leadership.

Kim appears to be taking special care to maintain public support during the crisis. He looked thinner upon reappearing in public during June after a roughly monthlong hiatus, a change believed related to propaganda efforts for quelling any backlash against North Korea's leadership.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service last year estimated Kim's weight at 140 kg. It believes the leader worked to lose over 10 kg since, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported.

A man appearing June 25 on Korean Central TV said he was "heartbroken" to see the leader so "emaciated" while attending a televised performance, and that people were fighting to hold back tears.

Experts think the food shortage will push North Korea to bolster ties with China. Kim sent President Xi Jinping a celebratory message for the Chinese Communist Party's centennial on Thursday. The countries also are expected to hold an event to commemorate their bilateral defense treaty, which turns 60 on Sunday.

Meanwhile, North Korea has pushed Washington to revise its adversarial policy toward Pyongyang. The U.S. holds joint military drills with South Korea every summer, and the North is likely keeping a close eye on President Joe Biden's plans.

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