In anticipation of international sanctions this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the military to begin stockpiling food last year, as he planned the country’s fourth nuclear test and long-range missile launch in early 2016, according to sources inside the country.
“Last year, Kim Jong Un had ordered the military to prepare by stockpiling rice for the next three years and has occasionally checked on their progress,” a source from the capital Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service while he was visiting China earlier this month for the Lunar New Year holiday.
North Korea defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket on Sunday just a month after testing a nuclear device.
The United States, South Korea, Japan and other members of the international community condemned the launch, which North Korea said had successfully put a satellite into orbit. The U.N. Security Council vowed to impose sanctions on the hard-line communist state for both the missile launch and its fourth nuclear test.
On Wednesday, South Korea said it was closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the joint inter-Korean economic project north of the demilitarized zone, in retaliation.
The move prompted the North Korean government the next day to order all South Koreans out of the industrial complex, freeze all South Korean assets there, and declare the area to be under the military control.
Most North Korea residents did not pay special attention to Kim Jong Un’s order to the military last year to build up its food supplies, because they were not aware of the purpose behind it, the source from Pyongyang said.
“[But] senior officials or perceptive ones guessed that Kim was preparing for something big,” the source said. “Now it turns out to be because of the nuclear test and missile launch.”
Squeezing the system
There is no realistic way to provide more food for the military other than squeezing yet more grain out of North Korean farmers, the source said.
“Now it is understandable that Kim Jong Un could not keep the promise of production allocation under the small unit management system,” he said referring to what’s known as bunjo, or the system of individual farm production units in certain parts of the country.
The government put the system in place more than three years ago as part of wider reforms to improve the overall economy and lives of people in the impoverished nation grappling with chronic food shortages and food rationing.
Under the policy, cooperative farm work units consisting of 10-25 people are divided into smaller units of three to five members who are responsible for farming smaller portions of fields. The state takes 70 percent of the target production, while farmers are supposed to receive the remaining 30 percent plus any surplus if they exceed their targets.
But farmers have complained about the system’s many shortcomings, such as the government taking more than its fair share to feed the army, which has left them feeling exploited.
At the end of 2013, for example, the government took 90 percent of the grain yields and allocated them to the military, North Korean sources told RFA at the time.
“Since the military extorts almost all agriculture products from each farming unit, there is nothing left for the work units’ members,” a source from North Hamgyong province told RFA.
The country’s wheat, barley and potato supplies are also affected by droughts and floods each year. This means that the food rations that North Koreans are subjected to fluctuate from time to time, but are usually less than the United Nations daily recommended amount of 600 grams (21 ounces) per person.
“The food rationing situation has been aggravating people in Pyongyang, which is subject to special rationing,” the source said. “This is related to Kim’s order to prepare rice for the military for the next three years.”
Authorities have lectured citizens that there will be a “great war for unification” this year, and that newly recruited solders are referred to as “unification soldiers,” the source in North Hamgyong province said.
“All culture courses teach us repeatedly that America’s hostile policy and sanctions are responsible for the country’s economic challenges,” he said. “As a way to overcome the challenges, the government recently replaced the phrase ‘self-survival’ with ‘self-strenuous efforts.’”
For North Koreans not to starve under the current circumstances, they must continue to rely on food aid from other countries.
“There is no other way than relying on Chinese and Russian aid as Kim Jong Un makes preparations in response to international sanctions,” said a Chinese source who lives in China and is familiar with what is happening in North Korea.
“But because aid from China and Russia will also be limited this time around, North Korean residents will suffer the burden even more,” he said.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan began preparing a U.N. draft resolution to impose tough sanctions on North Korea and discussing it with other Security Council members weeks ago in anticipation of the missile launch, which Pyongyang announced in advance. It is believed that China, North Korea’s main ally, is against such sanctions.
Although North Korea maintains that its space program is purely scientific in nature, the U.S. and its allies believe that its rocket launches are aimed at developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Ahreum Jung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.