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Drought in North Korea — What Should Be the Response?


By Robert R. King

Just a few days ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report that North Korea is facing its worst drought in 16 years.  The report, prepared by the FAO in cooperation with the European Union’s Joint Research Center, concludes that the period April through June of this year was particularly dry, which has delayed planting and stunted plant growth in key crop-growing areas.  Food security in the DPRK has been precarious since the famine of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now the UN agency is warning that “cereal output may decrease significantly.”

The other shoe that has yet to drop this year are floods.  North Korea frequently faces late summer monsoon rains and occasional typhoon rains in September that complicate farm production.  Because North Korean government policies limit private farming on good farm land in the flatter bottomlands, farmers end up over-cultivating hillsides.  Then when the late-summer rains come, they can accelerate the runoff, causing devastating damage to the hillsides through erosion.

The late August 2016 floods along the Tumen River on the northern DPRK border with China and Russia were caused by Typhoon Lionrock.  In North Korea, the floods killed over 500 people, left over 100,000 homeless, and did major damage to farmland in the area.  Flooding such as this is an all too common occurrence, and exacerbates existing food scarcity.

Unfortunately, food shortages in the North are not unusual.  Even in an average year, the country has to stretch to meet the food needs of its 25 million people.  The government provides only limited resources for agricultural inputs and equipment, farming methods are not the most modern or effective, and central planning generates further inefficiencies.  Some improvements have been made in recent years with better farming practices that reward individual efforts to encourage greater efficiency, but shortages are still serious.

In the 1980s, annual grain production (principally rice and corn) averaged around 8 million tons.  During the famine (1996-2003), annual production averaged 3 million tons, with some years considerably lower.  For the last five years, it has averaged just below 5 million tons.  Furthermore, gaps between regions and a poor transportation system make it difficult to adjust for regional differences.

The suffering of the North Korean people is certainly not their own fault.  They have little, if any, ability to influence the decisions of the tyrants that control their fate.  The food shortages are the responsibility of the regime.

In fact, the regime provides ample food and luxuries for the elite in Pyongyang, and the military leadership and elite military units will have sufficient food.  Resources that could provide much-needed inputs for agricultural production will be spent for nuclear and missile development and maintaining the military, and of course the supply of luxuries will continue to flow to the privileged.

Certainly UN agencies will appeal to member states to help North Korea. However, humanitarian assistance from the UN, particularly the World Food Program, will likely be difficult to secure.  There are great demands on UN humanitarian resources in other parts of the world right now, and in recent years special appeals to provide aid to the North Koreans have secured only limited help.  North Korea has lavished resources on missile and nuclear capabilities, despite the urgent humanitarian needs of its own people and the condemnation of its military actions by the UN Security Council.  Thus, aid to North Korea will be a particularly difficult case to make to elected political leaders.

In addition, the U.S. government is unlikely to be responsive.  A sharply divided Congress, preoccupied with healthcare, taxation, and other divisive domestic issues, will find it very difficult to support humanitarian aid to a country which has announced that its nuclear and missile programs are aimed at Washington.  Furthermore, the Trump Administration has indicated its intent to significantly cut back on all U.S. foreign assistance.

The new government of the Republic of Korea is likely to give the most serious consideration to the humanitarian needs of the North.  These suffering Koreans are their cousins, and many Koreans in the South have roots in the North.  In fact, Seoul has put forward an initial proposal for engagement with Pyongyang.  Based on previous experience, the North will likely expect to be paid to engage, and in the past humanitarian aid has been a place to start.

Another avenue for assistance in coping with the effects of drought is private humanitarian groups.  A good number of them are American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which have a good record and experience in aiding the North.  Unfortunately, these NGOs face serious difficulties raising funds.  These groups are well-organized and managed, do extremely good work, and have dedicated and compassionate leaders.  The DPRK, however, has become such an international pariah because of its nuclear and missile programs, its periodic provocations, and crude verbal outbursts that large and small donors alike are reluctant to be involved.

In considering a possible response by governments, international organizations, and private non-profit organizations to the growing signs of an impending food shortage in the DPRK, two considerations are important.

First, they must assess the need for help.  Our satellite imagery is remarkable, and we can make reasonable estimates about the extent of the need from afar.  But on-the-ground assessment is essential to determine the reality.  What crops and which regions are most affected?  What steps is Pyongyang taking to deal with this problem?  What are the transportation issues?  Does the North have the capacity to move aid from ports to affected areas?

Second, agreements must be reached to allow on-the-ground monitoring by designated representatives of the country or organization providing the aid.  In the past, South Korean and international organizations delivered food aid to the border or to the ports, and Pyongyang determined where the aid was sent.  Some was apparently sold on the black market and the payments may have helped fund the military. Other funds subsidized the lifestyles of the rich and infamous.  If aid is provided, foreign donors and the international community need to be assured that humanitarian assistance is going to those most in need.

The longsuffering North Korean people have limited alternatives for humanitarian help.  Unfortunately, the bad decisions and self-destructive policies of its own leadership, over which they have little or no control, make it very difficult to find help for them.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.   He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from (stephan)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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  1. […] meanwhile, may be on an upswing as drought followed by flooding diminishes prospects for the critical fall rice crop, and as worries about Chinese supplies may have pushed up gasoline and diesel prices.  An informal […]


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