– North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged government officials to engineer a “fundamental transformation” in agricultural production, state media reported on Tuesday, amid fears that the country’s food shortage is worsening.

Mr. Kim said hitting grain production targets this year was a top priority and emphasized the importance of stable agriculture production during the second day of the seventh enlarged plenary meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Monday, according to state news agency KCNA.

The report did not elaborate on what measures North Korea would take, but Mr. Kim said the changes need to happen in the next few years.

Collective farms account for the vast majority of North Korea’s agriculture, according to researchers. Such farms typically host multiple small farmers who produce crops with joint labor.

Mr. Kim‘s remark comes amid reports of growing food shortages in the country, though North Korea has denied suggestions that it cannot provide for its citizens.

Earlier this month, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said the food situation in the North “seemed to have deteriorated”.

The ministry said at the time that it was rare for North Korea to announce a special meeting on agriculture strategy which was slated for late February.

In his address at Monday’s meeting, KCNA said Mr. Kim mentioned the “importance of the growth of the agricultural productive forces” in ensuring socialist construction.

North Korea is under strict international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and its economy has been further strained by strict self-imposed border lockdowns aimed at stopping COVID-19 outbreaks.

The full extent of the food shortages in North Korea is unclear, but in a January report, the US-based 38 North project said that food insecurity was at its worst since famines that devastated the country in the 1990s.

Food availability has likely fallen below the bare minimum with regard to human needs,” the report said.

North Korea’s pursuit of self-sufficiency means almost all its grain is produced domestically, but that has left the country vulnerable, 38 North found.

“Achieving adequate agricultural output in North Korea’s unfavorable soils has, ironically, generated a heavy reliance on imported goods and left the country exposed to global shocks, diplomatic conflicts, and adverse weather,” the report said.

The long-term solution to the problems lies partly in resolving the standoff over nuclear weapons and sanctions, but also requires economic reforms.

The initiation of domestic economic reforms would unshackle North Korea’s productive capacity and allow it to export industrial products and tradable services, earn foreign exchange and import bulk grains on a commercially sustainable basis, 38 North said. – Reuters