DPRK agriculture update

On May 12, 2008, The DPRK formally asked the UN World Food Program for emergency food assistance.  In June 2008, the UN WFP/FAO launched the “Rapid Food Security Assessment”.  They confirmed…

…a significant deterioration in food security in most parts of the country.3 Close to three quarters of respondents have reduced their food intake, over half are reportedly eating only two meals per day (down from three) and dietary diversity is extremely poor among two thirds of the surveyed population. Most families have daily consumption consisting of only of maize, vegetables and wild foods, a diet lacking protein, fats and micronutrients.


FAO forecasts that the October/November 2008 harvest will be 70-75 percent of an average year’s output due to inadequate fertilizer supplies, meaning the current food shortages will extend into the next agricultural year. The risk that the country will again suffer summer flooding remains, which could lead to further crop destruction and/or require general food distributions of emergency food aid. In such an event, WFP will have contingency stocks available in the country to rapidly respond. (UN Operations Report)

The UN launched a coordinated response lasting from September 2008-November 2009 which targets over 6 million people with 600,000 metric tons of food assistance.

But according to the Daily NK (Jan 13, 2009):

According to North Korean authorities, the total agricultural yield including rice, corn, potatoes and others reached its highest point since the food shortages of the 1990s this year, at 4.7 million tons.

According to the Joongang Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, a Chinese official involved in the agricultural business who had just gotten back from North Korea quoted a North Korean official as saying that they “had presumed the failure of last year’s harvest due to low temperatures in the Spring and Fall, but in fact recorded the highest level in recent years, 4.7 million tons.”

Regarding this, a researcher from the Korea Rural Economic Institute, Kwon Tae Jin said in a telephone conversation with the Daily NK that, “When I visited Pyongyang in December of last year, Ri Il Sok, Director of the Foreign Cooperation Team in the North Korean Ministry of Agriculture said to me that grain output last year was 4.67 million tons, up by 17 percent over a year ago.” (Daily NK)

Andrei Lankov, writing in tomorrow’s Asia Times (Jan 16), confirms the Daily NK story:

These worries seemed well-founded and the journalists who penned them were often among the most knowledgeable on North Korean issues. Furthermore, most of these stories were based on reports produced by reputable international organizations. By early September, North Korean watchers agreed almost unanimously that a great disaster was set to strike North Korea this coming winter.

Now it has become clear, however, that these were false alarms. The predicted famine has not materialized and does not appear likely to do so in the near future. North Korea has had its best harvest in years, and until next summer no North Korean is likely to starve to death – although some may remain severely malnourished.

This is good news. However, the contrast between the reality and recent predictions is remarkably stark. In recent years, we have come to believe that there are at least a few things about secretive North Korea which are known for sure. Yet the recent turnaround of events has again shed light on the severe limits of outside information about the Hermit Kingdom.

Lankov offers a couple of scenarios that could explain how this happened:

For example, why did reputable international organizations make such a serious mistake in estimating the North’s food shortage? It cannot be ruled out that international observers were deliberately misled by their North Korean minders. Perhaps foreign observers were shown the worst fields because the North wanted more food aid then would otherwise be available?

It also seems that some basic assumptions about North Korean agriculture are wrong. Unless the 2008 harvest was the result of incredible luck, it seems to indicate that fertilizer is far less important than previously believed. It is possible that North Korean farmers have devised strategies to deal with fertilizer shortages.

The false alarms of a disastrous famine in North Korea are a sober reminder that when dealing with the world’s most secretive society, predictions should be treated with the greatest caution.

To learn more, read the following documents/stories:
Emergency Operation Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Title: 10757.0 – Emergency Assistance to Population Groups Affected by Floods and Rising Food and Fuel Prices
UN World Food Program

2008 Agricultural Yield of North Korea
Daily NK
Kim So Yeol

North Korea reaps a rich harvest
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

North Korean Economy Watch topic archives:
Food, AgricultureForeign Aid Statistics


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