SEOUL — The shutdown of the border between China and North Korea is testing the limits of Pyongyang’s commitment to “self-reliance” as shortages of food, electricity and vital goods contribute to an increasingly severe economic crisis.
North Korea is producing around a million tons less in food grains than the annual demand of 5.5 million tons, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. The North is truncating soldiers’ terms of service by one or two years to send more labor to short-handed production sites, the NIS says.
Meanwhile, a major fertilizer and coal gas plant has been forced to shut down by a lack of replacement parts. Electricity is in short supply, with only a quarter of North Koreans having access to power, according to some estimates.
Much of the pain stems from the border lockdown, which began in January 2020 in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
China is by far the North’s largest trade partner, accounting for 90% of its total. Trade between the two countries plunged 80% last year to $539 million, with shipments into North Korea making up the vast majority, according to Chinese customs data. Some observers have suggested that Pyongyang will be forced to resort to asking Beijing for aid.
In the Feb. 8-11 meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, North Korean President Kim Jong Un acknowledged the severity of the power shortages that the country is facing.
But he responded by castigating officials for overly pessimistic economic plans and removed his top economic official, who had been appointed just a month earlier. The five-year economic plan decided at January’s party congress, which emphasizes “self-reliance” and “self-sufficiency,” remains the same.
“Under these conditions, they can’t overcome the crisis through self-reliance,” said Thae Yong-ho, a South Korean lawmaker and former North Korean diplomat.
Kim Song Nam, who has been involved in diplomacy with China, was appointed as an alternate member of the Politburo at the meeting, which some see as evidence that the North will seek support from its neighbor.
Despite the country’s dire straits, Kim Jong Un has ordered the munitions industry to “thoroughly achieve and carry out” plans for this year. Though dialogue with the administration of new U.S. President Joe Biden looks unlikely now, Pyongyang sees enhanced nuclear and missile capabilities as a key card to play in eventual future talks.
The North Korean military is currently in the middle of its annual winter exercises, not long before joint U.S.-South Korean drills are set to start in early March. Washington is on the lookout for any provocations from Pyongyang, and has sent a reconnaissance aircraft and a missile-tracking ship to the Korean Peninsula area, according to media reports.