North Korea is expected to hold a key party meeting later this month to solely discuss agricultural issues amid keen attention to whether it will unveil any practical measures to address its serious food shortages.
The secretive country earlier announced its plan to hold a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in late February to discuss "immediate farming issues and long-term goals for the agricultural development." It stopped short of specifying the date.
The North's state media said it is "very important and urgent" to establish the "correct strategy" for development and agriculture, and to take relevant measures.
Observers said the North's rare move to convene such a key party meeting for the second time in about two months points to the urgency to deal with the country's food crisis.
North Korea has reportedly faced chronic food shortages, but its food crisis has further deepened recently due to border lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to observers.
South Korea's unification ministry said the North's food crisis appears to be worsening, with more deaths from starvation being reported in "some regions."
Asked if starvation-related deaths are being witnessed in big cities, such as the border town of Kaesong, a ministry official did not elaborate, saying that North Koreans are dying of starvation in some regions and such deaths have occurred "recently."
North Korea underwent a massive famine and related deaths during the period of the Arduous March in the 1990s. The ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said the current food situation does not appear to be similar to what it was during the Arduous March, but it seems to be "grave."
"A fall in crop production and food distribution problems are apparently attributable to the North's food shortages," the ministry official said.
North Korea's crop production is estimated to have reached 4.51 million tons last year, down 3.8 percent from a year earlier, according to a report by the South's Rural Development Administration.
The North's crackdown on grain transactions at marketplaces also appears to have disrupted food distribution, the ministry said.
The North adopted a new policy in October last year to tighten state control on the distribution of rice and other grains. But the move is believed to have disrupted food supplies, as farmers and merchants refrain from selling rice to state-designated facilities due to fears of losses, observers said. (Yonhap)