North Korea’s Leader Is Tapping His Own Private Food Reserve to Feed the Country, and It Could Be a Worrying Sign

 In North Korea, South Korea, N11
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is tap­ping into his pri­vate grain reserves to feed vic­tims of recent floods.
  • Nearly 1,500 acres of rice fields were flood­ed and about 730 singe-story homes and 179 hous­ing blocks destroyed as of early August, North Korea says.
  • Kim’s deci­sion to use his reserves may be a wor­ri­some devel­op­ment.
  • “It reflects the per­fect storm of eco­nom­ic stress­es that North Korea is suf­fer­ing right now,” a former chief of the CIA’s branch in South Korea told Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Severe flood­ing caused by intense mon­soon rains have prompt­ed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into an atyp­i­cal response that may signal a dire sit­u­a­tion in the iso­lat­ed coun­try amid the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic.

Nearly 1,500 acres of rice fields have flood­ed and about 730 singe-story homes and 179 hous­ing blocks have been destroyed as of early August, North Korea has announced.

Rains during mon­soon sea­sons have typ­i­cal­ly dev­as­tat­ed North Korea due to its lack­ing infra­struc­ture. Around 15% of the coun­try’s arable land was destroyed by floods in 1990s, accord­ing to one estimate, and a sep­a­rate study esti­mat­ed that over 2 mil­lion people died. North Korea claims that rough­ly 225,000 died during this period.

north korea

Students wearing face masks disinfect their hands and undergo a temperature check as they arrive for a lecture on preventative measures against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus at the Pyongyang University of Medicine in Pyongyang on April 22, 2020.
Kim Won Jin/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, Kim toured vil­lages dam­aged by recent flood­ing. While Kim’s visits through­out the coun­try are not unusu­al, as they allow state media out­lets to dis­sem­i­nate pro­pa­gan­da, his direc­tives on the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion did catch the atten­tion of North Korea observers.

According to the the regime’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim ordered grain from his spe­cial food reserves to be dis­pensed to vic­tims of the recent flood­ing. The regime also claimed that no one from the county Kim vis­it­ed died in the flood­ing, though sim­i­lar flood­ing has killed dozens in South Korea and China.

“It is of pri­ma­ry impor­tance to imme­di­ate­ly supply the vic­tims with bed­ding, daily nec­es­saries, med­i­cines and other neces­si­ties to sta­bi­lize their living as early as pos­si­ble,” KNCA quoted Kim as noting.

“Upon receiv­ing the grain, the res­i­dents expressed their heart­felt grat­i­tude to the benev­o­lent father of people who regards their mis­for­tune as his great­est pain and spares noth­ing for alle­vi­at­ing it,” KCNA claimed in anoth­er dis­patch.

The move, how­ev­er, drew scruti­ny from Thae Yong-ho, a former senior North Korean diplo­mat who defect­ed to South Korea and recent­ly won a par­lia­men­tary seat. Thae, who was North Korea’s deputy ambas­sador to the UK, is the senior-most offi­cial to defect and has pro­vid­ed a closer look at the regime’s lead­er­ship.

“I think every­one’s aware that Kim Jong Un’s grain reserve reserves a spe­cial stock­pile of grain that can only be used in the event of war,” Thae said during a panel hosted by the Heritage Foundation think-tank.

Thae Yong Ho

Thae Yong Ho, former North Korean diplomat, who defected to South Korea in 2016, speaks to the media in Seoul, South Korea, February 19, 2019.
Lee Jin-man/AP

“I think … this means that North Korea’s cur­rent food sit­u­a­tion is really, really dif­fi­cult; and the second, because of [these] coro­n­avirus cases, North Korea is really in a dif­fi­cult con­di­tion,” Thae added. “I think Kim Jong Un wants to send a kind of SOS signal to China, who is the only one who can send emer­gency aid to North Korea.”

Thae said that if North Korea needs to rely on China’s aid, it may have to temper its provo­ca­tions toward the US.

“In the second half of this year, if Kim Jong Un needs urgent­ly the help from China, he cannot [con­duct] big mil­i­tary provo­ca­tions against America,” Thae said.

North Korea has said it has the coro­n­avirus under con­trol and pro­vid­ed few details about its number of cases, claim­ing only one in late July. Pyongyang claimed that case was a North Korean defec­tor who escaped to South Korea and then swam back after he became the sub­ject of a sexual-assault inves­ti­ga­tion, though South Korea said he and others around him never tested pos­i­tive.

Given North Korea’s trade rela­tion­ship and prox­im­i­ty with China, one expert said the regime’s opti­mistic assess­ment is actu­al­ly rather bleak.

“It reflects the per­fect storm of eco­nom­ic stress­es that North Korea is suf­fer­ing right now,” Bruce Klingner, a former chief of the CIA’s branch in South Korea, told Insider. “It was already suf­fer­ing from being iso­lat­ed from the world.”

North Korea Pyongyang coronavirus

A nurse explains details about the COVID-19 and ways to prevent contracting the new virus at the Phyongchon District People's Hospital in Pyongyang, April 1, 2020
AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin

North Korea’s harsh mea­sures in response to the coro­n­avirus hurt its eco­nom­ic life­line, Klingner said, adding that the strug­gle is likely exac­er­bat­ed by the recent floods. From recall­ing its diplo­mats in Russia — who are sus­pect­ed skirt­ing sanc­tions by fun­nel­ing cash to Pyongyang —to shut­ting down state-spon­sored smug­gling oper­a­tions with China, the regime’s moves were “a one-two-three punch” against its econ­o­my.

Despite some damage to crops going into the fall har­vest, which is sup­posed to sus­tain the coun­try through the year, North Korea also announced that it would not accept for­eign assis­tance.

During a polit­buro meet­ing Thursday, Kim cited “the spread of the world­wide malig­nant virus” and announced the coun­try will not “allow any out­side aid for the flood damage” and enact stricter mea­sures near the border.

“What they should do and what they will do are two very dif­fer­ent things,” Klingner said. “Every coun­try is strug­gling with COVID-19.”

“There’s that con­flict­ing neces­si­ty to both shut down against COVID-19 but also to open up for aid, or human­i­tar­i­an and med­ical assis­tance,” Klingner added. “So the regime, like other coun­tries, are going to strug­gle with how to bal­ance those two con­flict­ing objec­tives.”

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