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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, marking his 10th year in power, delivered a speech at a Workers' Party of Korea conference in which, according to state media summaries released Saturday, he avoided bellicose rhetoric. Instead, Reuters reported, the dictator focused on domestic, pocketbook issues.
Kim broke with precedent by making only vague allusions to ongoing tensions with South Korea and the United States. He did, however, pledge to make "radical progress in solving the food, clothing, and housing problem for the people."
North Korea, always insular, closed its borders in January 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to BBC. State media claims North Korea has had zero cases of the virus, but most external observes doubt this assertion.
This self-imposed isolation has led to food shortages. "North Korea's trade with China, its biggest trading partner and an economic pipeline, shrank by about 80 percent in 2020 before it plunged again by two-thirds in the first nine months of last year," NPR reports. According to Newsweek, North Koreans were paying more than $20 a pound for bananas by June 2021.
Chad O'Carroll, founder of Seoul-based NK News, tweeted that this shift suggests "North Korea is more or less in survival mode for 2022 — and doesn't really know what to do re: foreign policy right now."
In addition to keeping much-needed food out, the authoritarian nation's increased border security and tight restrictions on internal movement have also kept people in. Defections to South Korea fell from more than 1,000 in 2019 to just 229 in 2020, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies. That number continued to dwindle in 2021.
Defections from South Korea to North Korea are far rarer, but on New Year's Day a South Korean man did manage to cross into North Korea, Reuters reported. The South Korean military made a call on a special hotline asking that the man not be harmed but cannot confirm whether he is still alive.