North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and members of his cabinet visit Kumsuan Sun Palace in Pyongyang, which serves as a mausoleum for Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il, July 8 | Photo: EFE / EPA / KCNA

Speculation on the internal conditions of North Korea and the stability of its regime is increasing.

Reports of food shortages, a Covid-19 outbreak and political volatility have fueled much of the speculation. The recent prolonged absence of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un from public life has simply fueled the fire, sparking new rumors of ill health.

Still, it’s never worth selling the program short. He has already survived countless reports of his impending death.

Kim has now reappeared much slimmer than before, but that has only fueled further speculation. His return to the scene coincided with senior management meetings in which he warned of severe food shortages, a dangerous influx of foreign influence and a “serious” violation of the country’s defenses against the Covid-19 virus. . Some experts have interpreted the triad of failures as something that could lead to regime instability or collapse.

Kim acknowledged that the country’s food situation was becoming “tense”, even warning of another “hard march”, a reference to the famine of the 1990s that killed around 1 million people. Crop shortages, soaring food prices and the closure of markets have led to increasingly difficult conditions.

The Geneva-based capacity assessment project concluded that more than 10 million North Koreans are in need of humanitarian assistance. Last month, an unconfirmed report from North Korea said less than 30% of families were receiving adequate meals.

North Korea’s harvest is typically a million tonnes less than what is required for minimum nutrient levels, which is offset by trade or humanitarian aid. Pyongyang attributes the food crisis to typhoons and flooding last year, but decades of socialist economic mismanagement and draconian restrictions against Covid-19 imposed last year are the main culprits.

The regime closed its borders last year to prevent an outbreak of the virus. Subsequently, trade with China, the regime’s main trading partner, fell by 90%. Representatives of international non-governmental organizations that could facilitate food donations have left the country. Pyongyang has repeatedly refused international offers of support for Covid and the food crisis or has rejected control over aid distribution.

North Korea officially claims it has not suffered any cases of Covid-19. However, Kim recently strongly denounced senior officials for failing to properly implement Covid-19 security procedures, causing a “major crisis and serious consequences” for the security of the state and people. .

State media did not provide details of the incident, but the statement could refer to a Covid-19 outbreak or a breach of border security. Several employees were likely kicked out of their jobs to deflect Kim’s blame.

Since coming to power in December 2011, Kim has stepped up the regime’s efforts to prevent foreign information from reaching the population, perceiving it as contagion that undermines regime stability. He recently denounced even foreign dress or language styles as an “evil tumor that threatens the life and future of our descendants”.

Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s powerful sister, demanded that South Korea stop civil rights groups from sending information, rice and money to the isolated North. Seoul quickly surrendered, even introducing legislation to criminalize such efforts – an action that drew reprimands from the US Congress, the UN rapporteur for civil rights, and North Korean human rights groups.

While the combination of these factors seems to portend regime instability, if not collapse, three generations of the Kim family have proven remarkably adept at resisting and overcoming threats to their grip on power.

Some experts blame international sanctions for food shortages. However, there are no US sanctions on food, medicine, or humanitarian aid. All US resolutions and laws have language emphasizing that punitive measures do not cover these elements.

That said, Washington must work with the UN Sanctions Committee to swiftly process requests for exemptions from sanctions and ensure that humanitarian aid is not inadvertently blocked.

The impoverished and malnourished population is at high risk of a devastating Covid-19 epidemic. The country’s decrepit medical system, even under normal circumstances, is inadequate. US policy has been to separate humanitarian aid from denuclearization negotiations.

Despite North Korea’s previous denials of aid, Washington must once again provide medical and humanitarian assistance, maintaining the sanctions until the regime ceases the nuclear and ballistic activities that triggered the sanctions response.

Would Kim Jong Un accept the offer? Probably not. While the North Korean people suffer, they still have a life of luxury. Still, it’s an offer worth making.

Bruce Klingner, Senior Northeast Asian Researcher at the Heritage Foundation Center for Asian Studies.