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Kim Jong-un says ready for negotiations with US as food shortages bite

·4 min read
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un - KCNA/KCNA via KNS
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un - KCNA/KCNA via KNS

Kim Jong-un has declared that North Korea should be ready for negotiations with the United States, striking an unusually conciliatory note amid a growing economic crisis that has led to dire shortages of fuel and food.

The dictator's comments come just days after the United States and others urged the totalitarian regime to abandon its nuclear program and return to talks.

Speaking at a meeting on the ruling Workers’ Party on Friday, the North Korean leader “stressed the need to get prepared for both dialogue and confrontation,” according to the state-run KCNA news agency.

Discussions at the government event reportedly focused on finding solutions to the lack of basic imported foodstuffs such as sugar, soy bean oil, and flour, all of which have rocketed in price since the government closed its Chinese border as a Covid restriction last January.

The scarcity of fuel, fertilizer and mechanical parts –all imported – has also affected local produce, with the cost of potatoes tripling in Pyongyang.

Kim himself has hinted at the scale of the problem facing North Koreans. In May he called on the nation to brace itself for another “Arduous March”, the euphemistic term for the four-year famine in the mid-1900s in which as many as 3.5 million people starved to death.

Has Kim Jong-un lost weight? Here he is pictured on in February (L) and again in June. - KCNA via KNS
Has Kim Jong-un lost weight? Here he is pictured on in February (L) and again in June. - KCNA via KNS

Rumours that Kim – believed to be a heavy smoker and drinker and fond of culinary delicacies - is losing weight have been circulating ever since he was pictured with the black trousers of his signature dark buttoned suit looking baggier than usual earlier this month.

His watch strap was also reported to be looser.

The images added to speculation that food insecurity and international sanctions are increasingly affecting even the upper echelons of North Korean society.

Kim’s latest comments have been interpreted as a sign that he is planning to change tack from his usually bellicose approach to the US.

As recently as 2019, state media proclaimed that President Joe Biden should be “beaten to death with a stick”, and more recently accused him of a “big blunder” for saying he would use “diplomacy as well as stern deterrence” to deal with the North’s nuclear programme.

Mr Kim’s comments “certainly appear more conciliatory”, said Rah Jong-yil, a former diplomat and head of the South Korean intelligence department charged with monitoring North Korea.

“The North has exhausted its means of pressuring the US and South Korea because they can keep developing nuclear weapons, but to what end?” he told The Telegraph.

“They can keep spending money that they don’t really have on more warheads and stockpiling them, but they are facing a different crisis now, of shortages of food and fuel - and the people cannot eat nuclear weapons.”

North Korea could soon be facing a famine. - Reuters
North Korea could soon be facing a famine. - Reuters

International aid agencies have cautioned of a possible famine as North Korea faces a shortfall of more than 1.2 million tonnes of grains to feed a population that is already suffering from malnutrition.

There have also been anecdotal reports of families in poorer, rural regions starving to death.

"People's basic household assets are being sold off to procure food. This is not sustainable and action needs to be taken immediately,” warned the South Korea state-run Korea Development Institute think tank earlier this month.

Even among the elite residents of Pyongyang, upon whom Kim relies heavily for support, there have been stories of rations not being delivered and ballooning prices of the few luxuries that are available.

A small packet of black tea is now £50, a bottle of foreign-brand shampoo is £150 and a pack of coffee is more than £70.

The North Korean leader appears to have finally recognised that the US will remain “adamant” on the sanctions and other pressures that are in place against his regime, Mr Rah said.

“Kim will not want to lose face, of course, but it will not harm him to be more conciliatory and see what that brings him.”