As he launched a major political summit to explore ways to restore a broken economy, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un warned of possible food shortages and cautioned his people to prepare for long Covid-19 restrictions.
Mr. Kim also asked for debates on how the North should deal with the "present international situation," according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency, though it did not include any particular statements from Mr. Kim concerning the US or South Korea.
North Korea has so far rebuffed pleas from friends to resume nuclear talks, which have been deadlocked for two years when Mr. Kim's ambitious summitry with former President Donald Trump collapsed. Those discussions fell apart due to disputes over swapping respite from severe US-led sanctions in exchange for North Korean denuclearization efforts.
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Meanwhile, the North's economy has deteriorated further as a result of periodic border closures that stifled trade with China, while terrible typhoons and floods damaged crops last summer.
While observers in North Korea have yet to see signs of mass famine or severe upheaval, some analysts believe the conditions are ripe for a perfect storm that would destabilize food and currency markets and cause widespread panic.
Last month, the Korea Development Institute, a South Korean government think tank, predicted that the North will suffer a million-ton food crisis this year.
Mr. Kim asked officials to find measures to enhance agricultural production during the plenary meeting of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee, which began on Tuesday, saying the country's food situation "is now growing severe."
Mr. Kim also "laid forth the tasks for the state to preserve (a) perfect anti-epidemic state," according to KCNA, implying that North Korea will continue its pandemic lockdown despite the economic strain.
Given North Korea's poor health infrastructure and open border with China, its main ally and economic lifeline, experts reject the country's assertion that it has never had a single case of Covid-19.
Mr. Kim convened the party gathering to assess the country's economic recovery efforts in the first half of the year.
On Tuesday, Mr. Kim addressed the "unfavorable" conditions and obstacles, but he also expressed gratitude for what he called advances, claiming that the country's industrial output had improved by 25% since last year, according to KCNA.
In January, North Korea conducted its first ruling party conference in five years, laying out its five-year growth ambitions. Mr. Kim exhorted his people to be resilient in the fight for economic self-sufficiency, calling for greater state control over the economy, more agricultural production, and a focus on the development of chemicals and metal industries.
Experts say those industries are critical to reviving North Korean industrial production, which has been harmed by sanctions and a stop in manufacturing material imports due to the virus.