A few thoughts on North Korea’s harvest numbers

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I unfortunately don’t have time to do as deep of a dive into the different numbers going around on North Korea’s harvest as I’d like, but a few short thoughts:

  • The numbers are confusing, because there’s a whole bunch of different ones being cited. The UN (citing North Korean government figures) puts the harvest at 4.95 million tonnes, while Hazel Smith cites 3.2 million tonnes. I suspect that part of what’s going on is that some figures refer to total food production estimates, while others refer to the milled cereal equivalent, the most common measurement for actual food availability by international humanitarian organizations. But that can’t explain the full difference at play here since it’s simply too large. (For reference, see this WFP-report from 2010.)
  • The vast differences in numbers cited is a big impediment to really getting a grasp of how bad the situation seems to be. If the 4.95 million tonnes-figure refers to unmilled cereal production, it represents a significant drop from the past few years, but not one that would necessarily indicate a return to the famine-level supplies of the 1990s. If it refers to milled cereal equivalent numbers, which I don’t believe it does, it’s not that bad (milled equivalent production was reported at 4.48 million tonnes for 2011).
  • The reason that many may be suspicious about the claims of a bad harvest being exaggerated, is that it is an historical pattern on the part of the DPRK government. That doesn’t mean that this time isn’t different. The past may be a good indicator for the future, but it’s never proof.
  • No serious assessment can be fully trusted as long as it fails to take the market system into account. That the UN is unable to survey and study food supply from the markets, and their contribution to resiliency in food supply, is a massive problem. That’s surely not for a lack of attempts on the part of the WFP and other organs to get to visit markets. I’m sure they repeatedly press the North Korean government on this, thus far, to my knowledge, to little avail. Still, the magnitude of the drop in the production estimate still likely says something about the magnitude and direction of the dynamics of change on the markets as well.
  • Lastly, regardless of how things stand, North Korea’s humanitarian situation is precarious and very bad. While Kim Jong-un has spent much of his tenure cutting ribbons at avenue renovations in Pyongyang, the population in almost half of the country’s provinces are estimated to lack access safe drinking water. This is a matter of priorities on the part of the government. In any case, for the purposes of humanitarian aid, in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter whose fault the situation is. My skepticism of the numbers should not be taken as arguing that North Korean civilians shouldn’t receive aid; the humanitarian situation in the country, particularly in the souther provinces, is almost certainly more or less constantly bad enough to warrant it. This paragraph from Hazel Smith’s recent PacNet piece is particularly chilling, if these numbers are accurate:

The starkest confirmation of a catastrophic harvest in 2018 is the precipitous drop in output from the big food producing provinces. Between 2016 and 2018, South Hwanghae, the ‘granary’ of North Korea, had a 5 percent reduction in area planted but an enormous 30 percent decrease in output – with a 19 percent drop in agricultural output between 2017 and 2018.