Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

A particularly good year for North Korean harvests? Not thanks to the state, says one citizen

Friday, November 27th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The flurry of divergent messages on North Korea’s food situation continues. While multilateral agencies have warned that this year’s food deficit might be particularly bad, news from inside North Korea tell a different story. The Daily NK reports that citizens speak of a particularly good harvest this year, despite the drought:

On the 24th, a Daily NK reporter spoke with a source in Yanggang Province, who informed us that although the Rodong Sinmun has been urging citizens and the nation on a daily basis to work hard to restore the damage that resulted from the tempestuous weather earlier in the year, so far there are no reports of lower-than-average rice harvest numbers.

An additional source in North Hamgyong Province reported the same trend in his region.

Small plot farmers have been particularly attentive to ensuring that their crops received adequate water supplies, with many using hand or motorized water pumps and water turbines for irrigation. “Some people are even saying that as a result of the careful attention paid by these farmers to protect their crops from the weather, this year’s rice harvest is looking better than average,” he said.

But it isn’t economic reforms by the state that is causing the bumper harvest, the article says. It’s hardly a shocker that people don’t trust the North Korean government too much:

However, the number of people working hard to ensure the success of the rice harvests on collective farms is dropping. This is in large part due to the fact that despite reassurances from the state that farmers will receive sizable allocations of the harvest for their own use, for the past several years this has not been the case.

After “repeated failures by the authorities to fulfill stated promises,” he asserted, farmers have concluded that it makes no difference to them personally whether the collective farms do well or not.

Read the full article:
Despite Mother Nature, a bumper year for rice harvest
Lee Sang Yong


The (Market) Forces of History in North Korea

Friday, October 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market is a common topic for debate in history. How did it impact the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the US and the UK? What impact did economic conditions have in the French Revolution? These questions are, and should be, asked in the current debate about North Korea’s socioeconomic development as well.

But despite the hope of many, the market might not simply be a story of growing individualism and disconnect from the power of the state. While such a trend may well be at work, it could also be the other way around.

This was recently illuminated through an interesting story by Reuters. In a visit to Pyongyang, they took a look at how markets and everyday business transaction function in North Korea at the moment. As they note, it is telling that a reporter from an international news agency can make transactions in the open, with a government minder by his side, at the black market rate. Business that previously had to be done in the shadows now happens in the open:

Shoppers openly slapped down large stacks of U.S. dollars at the cashier’s counter. They received change in dollars, Chinese yuan or North Korean won – at the black market rate. The same was true elsewhere in the capital: taxi drivers offered change for fares at black market rates, as did other shops and street stalls that Reuters visited.

The most obvious conclusion is that the state is adapting itself to the bottom-up development of the market. Indeed, this is the way the story is often told. In this narrative, the government is only reacting to developments and has long lost the economic policy initiative.

But one could also see a government that is confident enough to relax the rules. It just isn’t a certain fact that the state and the market are two opposing entities.

First, connections to the state still seem to be good for those wanting to trade on the market. For example, according to the surveys conducted by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that laid the foundation for Witness to Transformation (2011)party membership is still considered one of the best ways to get ahead in North Korea (or at least it was at the time when the surveys were conducted). A somewhat similar trend can be discerned in survey results presented by Byung-Yeon Kim of Seoul National University at a conference at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late September this year. Kim’s results also indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between party membership and participation in both the formal and informal economy.

Second, the government is making money off of the market. DailyNK recently reported that the fees charged by state authorities for market stalls was raised. They also noted that regulations of the markets seemed to have gotten more detailed over the years. As noted in this report published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, the space that the government allocates to markets has consistently increased in the past few years. Not only have official markets grown, many of them have also been renovated and given better building structures.

All in all, this paints a picture of a government that controls markets while allowing them more space to function. It is not clear that formerly black market activity happening in the open means that the market is gaining ground at the expense of the state. They may well be moving together. That is good news for those hoping for stability, but bad news for those banking on a market-induced revolution. Despite the hope of many that the market will cause the demise of the regime, the role of the market force in North Korea’s history is far from clear.


Growth and Geography of Markets in North Korea

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some shameless self-promotion: the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS released a report yesterday where I (with the help of Curtis and others) study how North Korea’s formalized markets have grown over time, and how they are distributed geographically using satellite imagery from Google Earth. The report is available here. These are the main findings:

  • With a few exceptions, formalized markets have grown in North Korea over the past few years. In some cities, they have more than doubled, while other cities have seen only nominal or no changes. Only Pyongsong, the capital of South Pyong’an Province, has seen a significant decline in aggregate market space.
  • There exists only a weak correlation between population size and aggregate market space. The correlation between aggregate market space per capita and proximity to Pyongyang, a large driver for demand in the North Korean economy, is also relatively weak. 

The largest aggregate market space per capita can be found in cities in the southwestern part of the country. This suggests that trade on formal markets may be driven by other factors than those commonly assumed, such as sea route trade and agriculture.


World Food Program North Korea funds down

Monday, October 5th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Voice of America reports:

The U.N. food aid agency said Thursday that its aid to North Korea’s vulnerable people dropped 44 percent last month because of a lack of funds.

A World Food Program spokesman said the organization in September provided 2,105 tons of food to 742,000 people who depend on external assistance, including pregnant women and children.

Last month’s amount was also significantly less than what the U.N. agency planned to provide. The agency’s goal was to provide 10,000 tons of food to 1.8 million people every month.

Recently, the agency scaled down distribution areas to 69 counties and cities across the country.

“The main reason for distributing less food in September was insufficient funding resources,” wrote Damian Kean, WFP’s regional communications officer, in an email to VOA.

To fund projects this year, the agency needs about $167.8 million, but it has secured only half of the amount so far, according to the agency’s website.

The FAO has also highlighted the problem. As mentioned in another post, while the North Korean government claims success for agricultural reforms and claims that the drought impact was very limited, international aid agencies paint a different picture. But data confusion is nothing unusual for North Korea, and perhaps the picture will change as both the North Korean government and multilateral agencies continue to reassess the situation.

Read the full article:

Cash-strapped World Food Program Cuts Aid to N. Korea

Voice of America



The Political Prestige of North Korea’s Economic Reforms, and why it may be a Problem

Monday, September 28th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This certainly has been the season of contradictory information on North Korea’s food supply. The North Korean government is celebrating and claiming success of their agricultural reforms, while the FAO reports that things have gotten worse. Let us recap what has happened:

First there was the drought. North Korean state media described it as the worst one in 100 years. UN agencies predicted large-scale crop failures and appealed for food aid, warning that large shares of the population would be at great risk if aid did not come. The UN’s emergency response fund (CERF) allocated $6.3 million to counter the impacts of the drought. The rains came, however, and the drought alarms seemed to have been exaggerated.

Next, the North Korean media – assuming you can even talk about it as a single, coordinated entity – went the other direction. In July, the weekly Tongil Sinbo claimed that thanks to agricultural reforms, this year’s harvest had actually increased “despite adverse weather conditions”.

And recently, reports turned the other way again. In early September, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN declared that the cereal production forecast for the main season of 2015 had declined drastically from last year due to a “prolonged dry spell”.

The rain that eventually came in July and August, causing flooding in the northern parts of the country and leading to an estimated loss of one percent of all planted areas. The FAO rice production forecast for 2015 is 12 percent below that of last year. State food rations, the importance of which can be debated, declined drastically, according to the agency.

In the midst of all of this, North Korean propaganda is still claiming success for the reforms. Earlier this month, the state news agency KCNA reported that a “dance party” had been held in South Hwanghae, part of the country’s rice bowl, celebrating improving conditions on the countryside:

The performers presented cheerful dances depicting the happy agricultural workers who work and live in the rural areas now turning into a good place to work and live thanks to the successful embodiment of the socialist rural theses under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

The picture gets even more complicated if one assigns meaning to the fact that cereal imports from China were reportedly lower in July this year compared to 2014. Figures from just one month might not indicate a trend, but given that July was a particularly dire month, these figures are still significant. If imports are being decreased because the official line is that agricultural conditions have improved, no matter the reality, that might be bad news for those in the North Korean public that rely on the public distribution system for any significant part of their consumption.

Either the FAO is right and the North Korean government wrong, or the other way around. Harvests this season cannot have been improving and getting worse at the same time. The FAO is probably far more likely than the North Korean government to have made a correct assessment here. Even if North Korean authorities aren’t claiming success of the reforms for propaganda reasons – which they may well be doing – it is hard to see why their statistical and monitoring capabilities would be better than those of the FAO.

So, the North Korean government is claiming that agricultural reforms are leading to better harvests and food conditions, even when they probably aren’t. Why would they do that? There are lots of possible reasons and one can only speculate.

One possible reason is that the agricultural reforms have become a prestige project. North Korean propaganda channels and news outlets have publically claimed that reforms are being implemented and leading to good results, even though some adjustment problems have been admitted. The same pattern, by the way, can be seen with regards to forestry policies – state media has publicized them with a bang and claimed that they just aren’t being implemented well enough by people on the ground when they don’t seem to be working as intended.

This could be an indication that agricultural reforms are indeed, like many have assumed, a major policy project of Kim Jong-un and the top strata.

That could be good news. After all, North Korea is in dire need of changes in agricultural structures, production methods, ownership and responsibility.

But it could also be bad news. When policies are strongly sanctioned and pushed by the top, their flexibility is likely to be inhibited. In other words, if the top leadership says that something should get done, it has to get done regardless of whether it works well or not.

Again, look at the forestry policies. According to reports from inside the country, those tasked with putting the new policies into practice on the ground say that doing what the central government asks isn’t smart or possible. Nevertheless, such orders are hard and risky to question.

At this stage it is only speculation, which is always a risky endeavor when it comes to North Korea. It may well later turn out to be wrong.

But if the state is placing enough prestige in the agricultural reforms to claim that conditions are improving even if they aren’t, that may lead to limited flexibility in how they are implemented and changed in the future. In other words, if the leadership thinks they are important enough to claim success even when things are getting worse, they may not be prone to changing their orders to fix what isn’t working.


How the North Korean media describes a market

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A recent brief from IFES (08-07-2015) details how an article in the North Korean newspaper Tongil Ilbo describes sales at Kwangbok market in Pyongyang (emphasis added):

According to the Tongil Ilbo, there are now a number of local products sold at Pyongyang’s Kwangbok Area Supermarket, which was built in October 1991. “By achieving the informatization and computerization of all business activities, from warehousing to the sale of goods, the Kwangbok Area Supermarket guarantees accuracy and speed in its service. It is a commercial service center managed to guarantee the maximum convenience of its customers,” North Korea’s independent newspaper reported on July 11, 2015.

It explained that the Kwangbok Area Supermarket, which has a total floor area of 12,700 m2, sells household products, electronics, general textile products, and grocery products such as confectioneries on every floor. In addition, each North Korean brand is sold in the relevant department, including brands such as ‘Ryongmasan,’ ‘Kuryonggang,’ ‘Kumkop,’ ‘Hwawon,’ ‘Mirae,’ ‘Songchon,’ and ‘Bommaji.’

Located on the first floor, the grocery department displays local products produced by factories like the Pyongyang Flour Processing Factory, the Kumsong Food Factory, and the Kumkop General Foodstuff Factory for Sportspersons. “People like to purchase locally-produced products […] In the future public service networks like the Kwangbok Area Supermarket will emerge in other places as well,” the newspaper reported.

Kim Song Won, manager of the Kwangbok Area Supermarket, commented, “With the unprecedented growth of the country’s self-sustaining economic foundation, there is greater demand among the people for variety and quality in their products […] Accordingly, we are bringing in many domestic products and are working to provide services so that customers can purchase products that they like.”

Several things in this report are interesting to note. For example, while I am not sure that the market-oriented language is itself anything new in North Korean media lingo, the emphasis is striking. It is consumer preference that matters. Variety is considered important, not just the quality of the products. Again, Kim Il-sung too I believe talked about the importance of quality, but here it’s a matter of producing what people like, rather than what they need.

Read the full text:

IFES Kyungnam

Surge in Local Product Sales at Kwangbok Area Supermarket



The paradoxes of North Korea’s food situation

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

A lot of things are going on in North Korean agriculture and food production these days. First, there was the drought. I haven’t seen any unequivocal assessments showing with certainty that the damage wasn’t as bad as feared, but both outside and regime sources certainly seem to be indicating this. Then, a few weeks ago, a regime source said that food production had even increased this year, thanks to management reforms in agriculture. And now, international relief agencies are reporting that the nearly yearly flooding has hit the country once again, damaging food production.

How can one reconcile all these events?

It may of course be that the earlier assessment published in Tongil Sinbo, with an optimistic forecast of food production, took the coming flooding into account and assumed that food production, overall, would still be up. Crop damage so far seems far smaller than it has been in previous years. 4,000 hectares have been reported as damaged this year, while the equivalent figure in 2013 was 13,300.

It may also be that the Tongil Sinbo claims were premature, but it is difficult to see why a North Korean regime source would claim production increases without taking potential damage from torrential rains into account. After all, they keep on coming year after year. Still, it seems risky to claim success for agricultural production before the August rains. North Korean publication routines are too murky to tell exactly how it is decided what information should be released and when.

It could also be that regions were agricultural reforms have been implemented have seen harvests increase, while others have been hit worse by both the drought and the floods. Reforms have so far been implemented on a local experimental basis and it could be that the success has been so great in localities where they have been tried that production has increased overall, despite both the flooding and the drought.

Hopefully, some of the confusion will clear as more information becomes available about the flooding damage. Natural disasters, after all, tend to increase the information flow from North Korea somewhat through the extended work of relief agencies.


2015 North Korea floods

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Just like most summers for the past few years, North Korea has once again been hit by flooding. According to the International Red Cross (IFRC):

The Democratic People’s Republic of  Korea (DPRK) is experiencing flooding associated with seasonal rains, hitting areas like Hwanghae and the south and north Hamgyong provinces since early August. According to the State Committee on Emergency and Disaster Management (SCEDM), the Government of  DPRK and DPRK Red Cross Society, 3,455 people were affected, 21 were reported dead while 9 others remain missing. The floods have damaged or destroyed 968 houses and are expected to worsen in the coming days as the rainy season continues.

So far, the damage seems far smaller than the floods of both 2012 and 2013. For example, the number of people “affected” is reported as 3,455 people and 968 houses have been destroyed (see above quote), but in 2013, about 4,000 families lost their homes and 50,000 people were displaced. The number of deaths is also far smaller than in 2013 (33) and 2012 (169).

The South Korean government is thinking about stepping in. Korea Herald reports:

The Unification Ministry said that the government is reviewing whether to help North Korea cope with the flood.

“We are checking the damage from the flood in North Korea, based on data by the weather agency and international organizations,” Jeong Joon-hee, the ministry’s spokesman, told a regular press briefing.

Jeong said that the government would take into account various factors, including the level of the damage and the North’s reaction before making its decision.

Either the Red Cross and the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are using different assessment methods, or the counts have been upped in between August 10th and 12th. Of course, it is also possible that more rain has fallen and increased the damage. The OCHA reported in their “Snapshot” document for the period between August 4th and 10th that “over 698 houses” had been destroyed while the Red Cross gave the figure 968.

The UPI also reports on the flooding, citing the OCHA figures:

North Korea is recovering from torrential rains that caused 21 deaths between Aug. 1 and 5, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The OCHA report published Monday said rains and subsequent flooding in South Hwanghae, South Hamgyong and North Hamgyong provinces affected 3,400 people.

The U.N. said 21 have died and nine are still missing. The floods destroyed 690 houses and brought down public infrastructure, including roads, bridges and dams.

Crops also were seriously damaged – 4,000 hectares in total, according to the report.

The U.N. agency said the North Korean Red Cross is closely cooperating with local authorities to assess the scope of the damage. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is working with Pyongyang’s Red Cross to distribute relief aid to seven communities across the three provinces.

Rodong Sinmun also reports on the flood damage today, saying that the previously purged but resurrected Premier Pak Pong-ju has surveyed the flooding damage:

DPRK Premier Pak Pong Ju made a field survey of the flood damage in South Hwanghae Province.

Torrential rain and tsunami hit the province early this month, leaving breakwaters partially destroyed and dwelling houses, roads, railways and bridges inundated and damaged.

Farmland in some areas was inundated and washed away, making it hard to expect any harvest.

Going round several afflicted areas in Haeju City, Pyoksong and Sinwon counties, he learned about the damage there.

The consultative meeting convened on the spot discussed the issue of conducting the work for recovering from damage, directing primary efforts to bringing the living of the people in the afflicted areas to normal.

As the summer moves on, more is sure to follow.

(UPDATE): Here is the report from KCNA (2015-8-12):

Flood Damage in DPRK

Pyongyang, August 12, 2015 19:51 KST (KCNA) — South Hwanghae Province of the DPRK was hit hard by flood.

Early this month, the province witnessed downpour and tidal waves due to the seasonal rainy front that swept over the whole country.

Much rainfall was registered in all parts of the province. In particular, rainfall of 397 millimeters was observed in Pyoksong County between 18:00 of August 4 and 12:00 of August 5, 205 mm in Haeju City, 152 mm in Ongjin County and 125 mm in Sinwon County.

The downpour left more than 10 people dead, hundreds of dwelling houses destroyed and more than 1 000 hectares of arable land inundated or washed away.

Meanwhile, tidal waves left the dykes partially destroyed and roads, railways and bridges inundated or ruined.

At present servicepersons and inhabitants in the afflicted areas are working hard to clear away the flood damage.

(UPDATE): Radio Free Asia (2015-8-14) reports that river barriers ordered built by the government have come to exacerbate the flooding damage:

River barriers that North Korean authorities built to help irrigate crops affected by a recent drought may have contributed to the destruction caused by floods in certain parts of the country, sources inside the isolated nation said.

The barriers constructed by authorities in spring blocked the flow of water through gorges, so that torrential rains which fell in parts of the country at a high elevation in early August overflowed, destroying farmland and houses, said a source in North Hamgyong province, one of the affected areas.

“Despite strong opinions that the barriers to enable irrigation should be eliminated to prevent flood damage, nobody took any action,” he said. “Since the barriers were set up under [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un’s order, no executive order could bring them down.”

Before the river barriers were built, some North Koreans pointed out that building them could cause greater flood damage, he said, but the warning fell on deaf ears.

The city of Hoeryong in North Hamgying province experienced downpours from late July to early August, and authorities declared Hwadea, Kiljou, and Myongchon counties flood-affected areas, he said.

They also declared the city of Tanchon and Heocheon and Riwon counties in South Hamgyong province flood-affected areas, he said.

The drought damage has become worse because of Kim Jong Un’s inflexible instructions, the source added.

Read the full story here:

North Korean flood Damage Made Worse by River Barriers

Sung-hui Moon

Radio Free Asia



The drought that didn’t matter, North Korea says – thanks to agricultural reform?

Monday, August 10th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

During the past few months, the World Food Program (WFP) has made reoccurring pleas for increased food assistance to North Korea to alleviate the food shortages expected from a severe summer drought. The North Korean government made similar statements and claimed that the drought was the worst one to occur in 100 years. Aid to the country was subsequently increased from the originally planned level, due to the drought. But now, one North Korean official is saying that food production ended up increasing, after all, thanks to agricultural reforms.

A recent brief by the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University (IFES) cites a July issue of Tongil Sinbo, a North Korean state-run weekly newspaper. There, Chi Myong Su, director of the Agricultural Research Institute of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the country, says that

“the effectiveness of field management system (pojon) from cooperative farm production unit system (bunjo) is noticeable and succeeded in increasing grain production despite the adverse weather conditions.”

The article cited by IFES highlights the smaller work-team structure as key to the success of the reforms. Also, it almost outright states that greater economic incentives were the main factor (although they call it “enthusiasm” and “patriotism”):

“Despite the adverse weather conditions last year, the high grain yield was possible due to implementation of scientific farming methods and field management system to increase enthusiasm of farmers,” and “based on this experience, many cooperative farms across the country will expand subworkteam management system to field management system.”

This is interesting for several reasons.

First, the agricultural reforms seem increasingly pronounced. Though other reforms were reportedly backtracked earlier this year, the government seems eager to claim success for the road travelled in agriculture.

I have written elsewhere that the data doesn’t necessarily support a claim that reforms are working. There is still reason to be skeptical – after all, a North Korean government official claiming that his government’s policies are working is not surprising – but even the claim itself is interesting.

Second, the statement raises questions about monitoring and data gathering capacities, both of the regime and relief organizations in Pyongyang. Again, just a few months ago, alarm bells were ringing about a potential food shortage, and now, a regime official claims that food production has increased. What was the basis of the WFP and regime claims that a food shortage was imminent a few months ago, and what has changed since those claims were made?

Another recent IFES brief also deals with North Korean press reports about the agricultural reforms. It quotes a Rodong Sinmun article from earlier in the summer that brings up some adjustment problems that farmers have had, such as learning how to properly use fertilizers. The most interesting part in my opinion is the following:

The newspaper stressed that “when all farmers claim ownership of their field and subworkteam, one can create innovation in the farming operations.”

Thus, it seems like Pyongyang wants to encourage experimentation and diversity in production methods. This would be a potentially important step towards more efficient agriculture. Perhaps it is part of a pattern. Provinces have reportedly gotten significant leeway in setting up their respective special economic development zones, which could also be a way to encourage experimentation in policies and management methods.

According to the Tongil Sinbo article, reforms are set to expand further in the country given the alleged success. Perhaps it won’t be too long before we can learn more about them through assessments by multilateral organizations like WFP.


Aid to North Korea up by 110 percent in July

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

According to UPI citing World Food Program sources, aid to North Korea increased by more than 100 percent from June to July of this year:

Food aid to North Korea more than doubled from June to July and over 3,000 tons were distributed to pregnant women and children, according to the World Food Program.

Damian Kean said Monday the July delivery of 3,231 tons of highly nutritional food items for infants and expectant and nursing mothers is this year’s largest, Voice of America reported.

In June, the World Food Program said 1,528 tons of food was sent to North Korea, and aid reached a low in February when only 1,187 tons of food reached the reclusive country.

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported the July food aid package was the biggest in 19 months, but the number of aid recipients decreased from 632,000 to 620,000 between June and July.

The World Food Program’s fundraising goal of $168 million – needed to provide highly nutritional food packages to 1.8 million hungry North Koreans – has only reached half, or $82.9 million, of its target number.

The U.N. organization has postponed the termination of its North Korea food aid program, due to an ongoing drought in the country that is posing risks to the food supply.