Tag Archive | "food"

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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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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