This undated picture, released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 30 shows the newly thinner North Korean leader Kim Jong Un taking part in the First Workshop of Korea People's Army commanders and political officers, at April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang. Photo: KCNA VIA KNS

A major general has been executed for saying Kim Jong Un’s order to open military storehouses and release wartime grain reserves to the hungry public was “unrealistic,” according to the Seoul-based specialty news outlet DailyNK.

The organization, which keeps in touch with people inside North Korea, quoted one of its sources there as saying: “The major general in charge of the logistics headquarters of Training Camp 815 was court-martialed and shot on July 18 after he criticized Kim’s special order as ‘an order ignorant of reality.'”

On July 22, the regime notified “military officers ranked department head and above” of the punishment in a warning message that included “detailed recent examples of ‘stern judgments'” in other cases, DailyNK’s source said.

The notification said that after receiving the special order from the ruling party, the commander “indiscreetly” complained that “military granaries are facing more serious problems than the food [shortage] issue facing the people.” 

He also reportedly said: “If they’re going to squeeze us while remaining ignorant of the situation in lower-level rear areas, from where on earth are we going to produce all that rice, not sand from the river bed?”

By criticizing Kim’s supposedly insufficient sense of reality, he basically became a “sectarian” in the view of the authorities …

[B]y punishing cadres, Kim seemingly intends to turn attention away from his own loss of face in ordering “three months of food provisions” without first ascertaining the state of military food stocks. This means Kim plans to minimize risk by turning the situation into a political and ideological issue regarding the military’s logistics commanders …

Regarding the joint investigation by the military’s Political Guidance Department and Military Security Command, the source noted emerging criticism that stores of military supplies “have been empty since the time of Kim Jong Il” [Jong Un’s father and predecessor as leader] and “it’s a bigger problem that the government is starting to get a grip on conditions on the ground only now, 10 years after Kim Jong Un took power.”

DailyNK in an earlier article had reported that “food shops recently established by the North Korean government to control the supply and price of rice have little or no rice to sell.” Those shops were supposed to sell the rice from the military storehouses.

This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 4, 2019, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting a vegetable greenhouse farm and a tree nursery in Jungphyong in Kyongsong County, North Hamgyong Province. Photo: AFP via KCNA and KNS / South Korea OUT / Stringer

Once again swallowing their pride: “North Korean authorities have reportedly established plans to accept food aid – should the international community offer it – and sell it to locals through the state food shops,” that article reported. It continued:

In a Voluntary National Review (VNR) to the United Nations High-level Political Forum (HLPF) on July 13, North Korea said its plan to produce seven million tons of grain faces problems. It confessed that grain production had plummeted to the lowest level in a decade, since the country produced just 4.95 million tons in 2018.

A high-ranking source claimed that North Korea revealed its domestic food situation through the UN after deciding to accept international food aid.

Within the Workers’ Party, some have reportedly argued that if the country were to cheaply sell rice and corn received as international food aid through the state food shops, it could kill several birds with one stone: rice prices would stabilize, the state’s hurting finances would be bolstered, and the government would be provided a propaganda boost for supplying food to its people.

Pyongyang may energetically move forward on the rice aid issue given these potential benefits. However, it appears likely the government will not accept food aid from organizations or governments that demand monitoring of the aid’s distribution.

Depending on the donor, the foreign monitors in previous food crises often sought to prevent the distribution of donated food to the military.

How bad is the situation? “More and more locals are suffering malnutrition,” Daily NK in a still-earlier story quoted a source as saying, “and some people are even starving in certain areas. If the closure of the border and market controls continue under the guise of coronavirus quarantine efforts, even people with excellent survival skills will have a tough time getting through this.”

Other news outlets with sources inside the country agree that the situation has become desperate.

“Last Resort: Urban Poor Flee to Farming Villages to Beg for Food” is the headline on an article published by Osaka-based AsiaPress/Rimjingang, which teaches reporting to North Koreans who travel outside the country and sends them back home with Chinese cellphones with which they can pass along their reports.

And it’s clear that, in case you’re a starving North Korean, it’s not a smart move to get sent to prison in the hopes of being fed. “Death of Two North Korean Prisoners Highlights Starvation Diets” is the headline of one recent article by US-funded Radio Free Asia, another news outlet that deals directly with North Korean news sources.

Freight cars stopped on a line at Dandong Station in Liaoning Province, China, on July 4. Overland commerce between China and North Korea has been at a near halt. North Korea has put severe limits on trade over concerns about letting in the novel coronavirus, but worsening food shortages seem to have forced a change of tack. Photo: AFP / Daisuke Kawase / The Yomiuri Shimbun

In another article, RFA suggests that food (and Covid-19) desperation could be behind Pyongyang’s move last week to restore the hotline with Seoul:

Several experts outside of Korea told RFA that Pyongyang’s motive for restoring communications was open to debate.

“We know and have seen reporting on North Korea’s dire food situation brought on by the pandemic. While we can’t pinpoint Pyongyang’s motivation for restoring the communication lines to the food situation, it’s certainly a possibility,” analyst Soo Kim of the California-based Rand Corporation’s told RFA.

“Kim’s foolish pride is a hindrance to directly appealing for international aid. But he knows that the current South Korean government is unlikely to turn a blind eye to the North’s humanitarian situation. By opening the door to ‘communication’ with Seoul, Kim may be indirectly appealing for assistance from the South,” she said.

Seoul could and probably, under Moon, would provide both food aid and Covid vaccines – perhaps the Russian Sputnik version, manufactured under license in South Korea.

In one sad story from RFA, we learn that a North Korean diplomat’s wife died in Vladivostok because her mission couldn’t afford to have her vaccinated.

Meanwhile, here comes the international cavalry to the rescue. “Concerns are mounting over the food security situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, due to strained access and the potential impact of trade limitations, which may lead to food gaps,” said the United Nations’ latest outlook report.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.