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North Korea’s Hunger Problem

By Mark Tokola

Five years of relatively good harvests have pushed the issue of malnutrition in North Korea down the list of international concerns. Reports of visible improvements in Pyongyang (but much less in the countryside), nuclear and missile testing, cyber-attacks, and Kim Jong-un’s public appearances have dominated recent media coverage and have caused memories of North Korea’s agricultural problems to fade. Now, however, hunger in North Korea may be reemerging as a concern.  We are unlikely to see a repetition of the 1994-1998 famine that killed somewhere in the range of a half-million North Koreans. Instead, the situation now may be more like earlier in the decade when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made international appeals for food assistance and the conditions under which the United States would be able to assist were being negotiated.

The FAO’s “Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture” (GIEWS) warned on April 27, 2016, that North Korea’s food security situation was deteriorating and could lead to a deficit of 394,000 tons of cereals for marketing year 2016, the highest since 2011 and four times the size of the gap in 2014. The accuracy of the FAO’s warning seemed borne out in a June 10 Voice of America interview with Cristina Coslet, the FAO’s GIEWS office in charge of Far East Asia. She told the VOA that the North Korean government had reduced the country’s food rations for July to 310 grams per person, a 25 percent decrease since June and far below the DPRK’s target of providing 573 grams per person per day. The United Nations World Food Program recommends a minimum diet of 600 grams per person per day.

In June, North Korea’s official media acknowledged the problem, blaming it on “the worst drought in 100 years,” that is “causing great damage to the country’s agricultural fields.” The European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) confirms that rainfall in North Korea during mid-April through June 2015 was well below average and had considerably reduced the country’s rice planting area. A 26 percent drop in rice production has been offset to some extent by planting crops that require less water, such as soybeans, millet, and sorghum. But simultaneously, production of potatoes and winter wheat will also fall by more than 20 percent from last year, creating an overall shortage. Furthermore, there is no equal substitute for rice in a Korean diet.

There are indications that drought isn’t the only problem afflicting North Korean agriculture, and that government choices have exacerbated the problem. Crop production could be increased if there was a larger shift from oxen to more mechanized farming. Currently, 40  percent of North Korea’s arable land is farmed using oxen.

In addition, fuel consumption for farming, according to the DPRK Ministry of Agriculture, declined from 71 thousand tons of diesel and gasoline in 2013 to 61 thousand in 2015. Similarly, fertilizer use dropped from 750 thousand tons in 2014 to 623 thousand tons in 2015. Under drought conditions, fewer inputs might be used, of course, but the year-by-year figures show that the DPRK has underinvested in its agricultural sector and has mismanaged agricultural policy. International donors, who have been asked to provide food assistance during many of the past twenty years, might well ask whether they are responding to a series of natural disasters or are being asked to make up for North Korea’s own failure to reform its agricultural system..

One factor which may make the food shortage less grave is the increase in small, family-run vegetable plots which the government now encourages. And an increase in ‘market’ activities may mean that families can find some supplemental items for sale. However, none of this will make up for the hundreds of thousands of tons of cereals which will be absent from North Korea for the coming year, unless there is a response to an international appeal or North Korea decides to use some of its resources to buy food to feed its people. Fortunately, according to the FAO, it appears that next year’s harvest will be better than this year’s. The question is whether this year’s shortages will encourage the DPRK to reform its agricultural sector with the same zeal with which it is building weapons.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

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