North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is tapping into his private grain reserves to feed victims of recent floods.
Nearly 1,500 acres of rice fields were flooded and about 730 singe-story homes and 179 housing blocks destroyed as of early August, North Korea says.
Kim's decision to use his reserves may be a worrisome development.
"It reflects the perfect storm of economic stresses that North Korea is suffering right now," a former chief of the CIA's branch in South Korea told Insider.
Severe flooding caused by intense monsoon rains have prompted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into an atypical response that may signal a dire situation in the isolated country amid the coronavirus pandemic.
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Nearly 1,500 acres of rice fields have flooded and about 730 singe-story homes and 179 housing blocks have been destroyed as of early August, North Korea has announced.
Rains during monsoon seasons have typically devastated North Korea due to its lacking infrastructure. Around 15% of the country's arable land was destroyed by floods in 1990s, according to one estimate, and a separate study estimated that over 2 million people died. North Korea claims that roughly 225,000 died during this period.
Earlier this month, Kim toured villages damaged by recent flooding. While Kim's visits throughout the country are not unusual, as they allow state media outlets to disseminate propaganda, his directives on the current situation did catch the attention of North Korea observers.
According to the the regime's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim ordered grain from his special food reserves to be dispensed to victims of the recent flooding. The regime also claimed that no one from the county Kim visited died in the flooding, though similar flooding has killed dozens in South Korea and China.
"It is of primary importance to immediately supply the victims with bedding, daily necessaries, medicines and other necessities to stabilize their living as early as possible," KNCA quoted Kim as noting.
"Upon receiving the grain, the residents expressed their heartfelt gratitude to the benevolent father of people who regards their misfortune as his greatest pain and spares nothing for alleviating it," KCNA claimed in another dispatch.
The move, however, drew scrutiny from Thae Yong-ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea and recently won a parliamentary seat. Thae, who was North Korea's deputy ambassador to the UK, is the senior-most official to defect and has provided a closer look at the regime's leadership.
"I think everyone's aware that Kim Jong Un's grain reserve reserves a special stockpile of grain that can only be used in the event of war," Thae said during a panel hosted by the Heritage Foundation think-tank.
"I think ... this means that North Korea's current food situation is really, really difficult; and the second, because of [these] coronavirus cases, North Korea is really in a difficult condition," Thae added. "I think Kim Jong Un wants to send a kind of SOS signal to China, who is the only one who can send emergency aid to North Korea."
Thae said that if North Korea needs to rely on China's aid, it may have to temper its provocations toward the US.
"In the second half of this year, if Kim Jong Un needs urgently the help from China, he cannot [conduct] big military provocations against America," Thae said.
North Korea has said it has the coronavirus under control and provided few details about its number of cases, claiming only one in late July. Pyongyang claimed that case was a North Korean defector who escaped to South Korea and then swam back after he became the subject of a sexual-assault investigation, though South Korea said he and others around him never tested positive.
Given North Korea's trade relationship and proximity with China, one expert said the regime's optimistic assessment is actually rather bleak.
"It reflects the perfect storm of economic stresses that North Korea is suffering right now," Bruce Klingner, a former chief of the CIA's branch in South Korea, told Insider. "It was already suffering from being isolated from the world."
North Korea's harsh measures in response to the coronavirus hurt its economic lifeline, Klingner said, adding that the struggle is likely exacerbated by the recent floods. From recalling its diplomats in Russia — who are suspected skirting sanctions by funneling cash to Pyongyang —to shutting down state-sponsored smuggling operations with China, the regime's moves were "a one-two-three punch" against its economy.
Despite some damage to crops going into the fall harvest, which is supposed to sustain the country through the year, North Korea also announced that it would not accept foreign assistance.
During a politburo meeting Thursday, Kim cited "the spread of the worldwide malignant virus" and announced the country will not "allow any outside aid for the flood damage" and enact stricter measures near the border.
"What they should do and what they will do are two very different things," Klingner said. "Every country is struggling with COVID-19."
"There's that conflicting necessity to both shut down against COVID-19 but also to open up for aid, or humanitarian and medical assistance," Klingner added. "So the regime, like other countries, are going to struggle with how to balance those two conflicting objectives."
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