On May 1, 2020, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un made his first public reappearance after a 20-day absence during which international speculation about his health had been running rampant. The following day, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), released images of Kim cutting a ribbon at the opening ceremony for the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, declaring that “the whole area of Sunchon is a political frontline where the legitimacy of the head-on breakthrough ideology is proven a reality, and a precious outcome that adds vitality to the chemical industry, part of the twin pillars of economic development [the other pillar is the metal industry].” The Sunchon facility symbolizes a shift in the economic policy priorities of Kim, who quietly scrapped the five-year economic development strategy due to be completed this year and instead set a head-on breakthrough as the new mission of economic growth.
In fact, the policy shift had already emerged from the report of the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the WPK (which can be considered Kim’s 2020 New Year’s address), which made no reference to the five-year economy development strategy, instead mentioning the term “head-on breakthrough battle” twenty times. The WPK report indicated that “the key front in today’s offensive for making a head-on breakthrough is the economic front, he [Kim] said, setting it forth as an immediate task for the economic field at present to rearrange the economic foundations of the country and tap all possible production potentials so as to fully meet the demand needed for economic development and people’s lives.” It also pointed out that “the construction of the Wonsan Kalma coast resort, Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, Orangchon Power Station, Tanchon Power Station … is being pushed ahead under meticulous planning … showing a trend of remarkable growth”, noting that “the agricultural front is the major thrust area in the offensive for making a head-on breakthrough… the strong wind of increasing crop yields should be raised more fiercely … creating the foundations for agricultural production free from crop failure.” For Kim, thus, the fertilizer plant in Sunchon represents one of the initial accomplishments of the head-on breakthrough on the economic front in general and on the agricultural front in particular.
Despite the completion of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, however, it is far from certain whether North Korea’s agricultural production actually will not suffer crop damage or failure. According to a report issued by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as of April 2020, 10.1 million people (40 percent of the population) in the country are food insecure and are in urgent need of food assistance. The country has suffered from food insecurity for decades with the magnitude of more than 10 million people in need of food assistance. The OCHA report also indicates that one of the most devastating consequences of prolonged food insecurity has been the prevalence of undernutrition: 12.2 million people (48 percent of the population) in the country were estimated to be undernourished between 2016 and 2018. In addition to inadequate access to clean water and lack of improved sanitation, this chronic undernutrition remains a major public health concern that puts the country amongst the least prepared states to handle a pandemic outbreak like COVID-19. Indeed, the 2019 Global Health Security Index, the first comprehensive assessment and benchmarking of health security and related capabilities across 195 countries, ranked North Korea 193 with an overall score of 17.5 out of 100. To put it simply, North Korea has developed a chain of systematic vulnerabilities that can easily transform protracted food insecurity into large-scale public health distress amid the coronavirus pandemic, potentially exposing the foundations of the regime’s political legitimacy to danger.
A report circulated by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) designates North Korea as one of the forty-four countries requiring external assistance for food in 2020. The FAO report includes the country among those suffering from a “widespread lack of access” according to which “a majority of the population is considered to be unable to procure food from local markets, due to very low incomes, exceptionally high food prices, or the inability to circulate within the country.” The lack of access issue has compounded the country’s food insecurity and undernutrition, creating “donor fatigue” with regard to humanitarian aid and fueling speculations that food was not given to those in need. Instead, it is widely suspected that shipments have been transferred to Pyongyang residents and workers in key industries due to the lack of monitoring mechanisms and independent distribution channels. In fact, the OCHA report lends weight to the lack of transparency suspicion by identifying the most urgent needs in the southern provinces of North and South Hwanghae, Kangwon, and Nampo, to which a severity of need score of more than 55 was assigned, whereas the least severe needs were found in Pyongyang with a score of less than 43 during the 2019 country analysis. It also gives substance to the donor fatigue hypothesis by noting that the 2019 financial requirements for humanitarian activities in North Korea were “only 27 percent funded at 32.9 million dollars, being the lowest in amount and third lowest in percentage globally.”
In spite of North Korea’s claims of a record harvest of over 6.6 million tons in 2019, which would exceed that of 2018 by 30 percent, the food insecurity and undernutrition in the country remain chronic and widespread, requiring continued support from the international community. The completion of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, which could well become an exemplary head-on breakthrough on the propaganda front for Kim, is unlikely to resolve any of the inherent institutional deficits of the country’s political economy. Amid the lack of improved quality of access to food, increased transparency of the distribution channels, and lessened donor fatigue, the issues of food insecurity and undernutrition will linger long in the country that falls short of international expectations.