Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

North Korean food prices after the floods

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A recent report by Radio Free Asia/Asia Press (and recapped below by Yonhap) claimed that food prices had doubled in northern North Korea as a result of the floods last month:

Food prices in North Korea’s northeastern region, which has been hit by devastating floods, have doubled due to the slow pace of recovery and poor distribution networks, U.S.-based media Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported Thursday.

Citing a report by Japanese media outlet Asia Press, the RFA said the country’s northern cities of Hoeryong and Namyang are experiencing a spike in rice and corn prices which soared to 8,000 won (US$7.24) and 2,000 won per kilogram, respectively, from 4,300 won and 1,000 won before the worst-ever floods in decades. The flooding caused severe property damage with many people being reported dead or missing.

The Japanese media said there is a likelihood that other commodity prices will likely soar following rice.

Jiro Ishimaru, who heads the Osaka office of Japan’s Asia Press, told the RFA that rice prices rose rapidly as the transportation situation in the flood-damaged area is very serious, with the railroads and overland routes being almost blocked. The official said the lack of transportation means is leading to poor distribution of food and commodities.

Ishimaru, in addition, warned that water shortage and sanitary problems will also follow due to a shortage of personnel equipment needed to speed up recovery.

Full article here:
Food prices in N. Korea’s flood damaged area doubles: report
Yonhap News

According to DailyNK, the government has therefore started implementing price controls to keep the market prices for food from skyrocketing:

북한 당국이 ‘60년 만의 대재앙’ 수해 피해를 입은 함경북도 지역의 물가 안정을 위해 총력을 기울이고 있는 것으로 전해졌다. 인민보안성(경찰) 인력을 동원해 쌀 사재기와 가격 인상을 통제하면서 내부 안정화를 꾀하고 있다고 소식통이 알려왔다.

함경북도 소식통은 27일 데일리NK와의 통화에서 “현재 쌀 가격 등이 큰물 피해 이전과 거의 차이가 없다”면서 “보안원과 순찰대가 출동해서 쌀 사재기 및 가격을 올리는 행위 등을 강력하게 막았다”고 전했다.

소식통은 이어 “(수해가 일어나고 얼마 되지 않아) 어떤 장사꾼은 1킬로(kg)에 5000원, 5300원하던 쌀을 8000원에 팔려고 하기도 했다”면서 “하지만 보안원들의 통제 때문에 눈치만 보다가 그렇게 하지 못했다”고 설명했다.

그러면서 소식통은 “회령시의 경우 한때는 쌀 가격이 6000원까지 폭등하기는 했으나 지금은 5000원 대로 하락했다”면서 “돼지고기 가격도 1kg에 13000원 등 원래 가격과 같다. 물가가 전반적으로 차분하다(안정돼 있다)”고 덧붙였다.

Full article:
North Korea making efforts for price stability in flood damaged areas…”Don’t raise rice prices”
Kang Mi-jin
Daily NK

Yonhap offers a summary of the article in English:

North Korea is going all out in blocking the cornering and the skyrocketing of rice prices in its flood-devastated northeastern areas, a Seoul-based news outlet specializing in the North reported Wednesday.

This summer, six areas in North Hamkyong Province in the North were devastated by heavy rains accompanied by Typhoon Lionrock, with the United Nations having estimated that 138 North Koreans were killed and 400 others are missing by the floods, with about 20,000 houses destroyed.

“Security agents and patrolmen are strongly cracking down on activities of cornering rice and raising rice prices (in flooded areas),” the Daily NK quoted a source from the North’s North Hamkyong Province as saying.

Therefore, there’s no big difference in rice price before and after the worst-ever flood hit the region, the source said.

“A merchant was trying to sell 1 kilogram of rice at 8,000 won shortly after heavy rains flooded the area, but was unable to do so due to strict control by security agents,” the source said.

Rice price once soared to 6,000 won from 5,000 won per kilogram before the floods, and now remains at the 5,000 won level, according to the source, adding that pork prices also showed no noticeable change, selling at 13,000 won per kilogram as before.

“Prices in the deluged areas are stable, in general,” the source said.

Full article:
N.K. strongly controls prices in flood-stricken areas
Yonhap News

Several things are worth noting here. First, historically, it is common for food prices to rise as a result of seasonal flooding in North Korea. After the severe floods in 2012, rice prices shot up from 4866 won/kg in July to 6533 won/kg in late September. Second, the rise in prices reported by RFA/Asia Press might have been a temporary shock. The DailyNK price graph, last updated in early September, shows very moderate increases in prices after the floods hit in late August. Perhaps prices stabilized quickly as supply did (i.e., deliveries coming in from other areas; this is only speculative though). Third, price controls are difficult to maintain under pressure. Had there been a massive pressure for prices to go up due to drastically decreased supply, it is hard to see that the government would have been able to effectively keep market prices at a certain level across the board. I will try to keep this post continuously updated as market price information gets updated.


Pyongyang under UN Sanctions

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

There has been much interest in Kyodo’s (a Japanese wire service) reports on the atmosphere in Pyongyang following the imposition of sanctions on North Korea back in March by the UN Security Council. According to Kyodo’s ‘current report’ on the subject from August 21, ‘200 Day Speed Battles’ and ‘Mallima Speed Creation’ slogans can be seen in many of Pyongyang’s streets.

While surprisingly Pyongyang appears unchanged following UN sanctions, the entire nation is subject to a general labor mobilization. The 200 day speed battle began in June and aims to raise food production. Mallima Speed Creation is a slogan created to inspire workers to engage in productive activities at the same speed as a horse that can cover 10,000 li (around 3,927 km) in a day.

Construction of the frame for a 70-storey apartment block on Ryomyong Street, which began after the announcement that the block would henceforth be a site to house educators, has almost been completed. There are large tour groups to be seen at the Nature Museum and Central Zoo (the construction of both was completed last month). The Nature Museum, with its models of dinosaurs and taxidermied animals, is particularly popular, with a member of staff reportedly saying “there is a daily limit of 6,000 on the number of visitors admitted, and we have to turn people away every day.”

The Mirae Shop, a department store refurbished and reopened in April, has a tidy display of imported cosmetics and electrical appliances, but is largely devoid of visitors. A member of staff explained that “because people are busy with the 200 day speed battle, there are not many customers.” The Kyodo report thus argues that the effect of sanctions on Pyongyang is as yet limited.

The Kyodo report also includes an interview with Kim Cheol (43), the head of the Economic Research Centre in North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences. In the interview, Kim Cheol asserts that “the North has hewed to a line of constructing a self-sufficient economy, and therefore the [UN and other] sanctions have very little impact.” Kim offered an optimistic vision: “struggles to increase the proportion of facilities and raw materials sourced domestically continue. . . . With or without sanctions, with our energy and technology we shall construct an economy with a high degree of self-sufficiency.”

With respect to last year’s food production figures, he said that “though they have not been released, the price of rice remains the same as last year, while other cereals are around 65~70% the price they were last year. . . . Given price fluctuations, it is estimated that food production has increased.”

Regarding the supply of and demand for electricity, he stated that “while we cannot fully satisfy demand, the development and introduction of coal additives in coal-fired power stations has dramatically increased production. . . . Many hydroelectric power stations making use of rich hydropower resources have been constructed.” Hence it can be inferred that while electricity supplies remain insufficient, they continue to increase.

Moreover, with respect to effect of coal export bans, Kim said that “the development of the economy is on an upward trajectory, so actually coal resources are needed more inside the country. . . . Improvements are aimed at raising the proportion of domestic production [in all areas] thus raising the proportion of resources used within the country.” At the same time though, he acknowledged that “because of a reliance on imported oil products like kerosene and airplane fuel, there certainly has been some impact.”


Is North Korea’s food situation really getting worse? The markets don’t think so.

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Since early 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has been sounding the alarm bells on North Korea’s food situation. In an interview a few weeks ago with Voice of America’s Korean-language edition, FAO-official Christina Cosiet said that this years’ harvest would be the worst one in four years. One question, dealt with before by this blog, is how bad this really is. After all, the past few years seem to have been abnormally good in a long-run perspective.

But another obvious question is: why do market prices in North Korea tell the opposite story about food supply?

Prices for both rice and foreign currency (US-dollars) have remained remarkably stable for a situation where people should be expecting a worse-than-usual harvest. It is important to bear in mind that prices are largely seasonal and tend to increase in September and October. But unless prices somehow skyrocket in a couple of months, things do not look that bad.

There seem to be two possibilities here: either official production and food supply through the public distribution system simply does not matter that much, because shortages are easily offset by private production and/or imports. Or, the FAO projections simply do not capture North Korean food production as a whole.

For an overview of food prices in the last few years, consider the following graph (click here for larger version):


Graph 1: Prices for rice and foreign currency, in North Korean won. Prices are expressed in averages of local prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. Data source: DailyNK market prices.

As this graph shows, both the exchange rate and rice prices have remained relatively stabile over the past few years. Thus far, this summer has been no exception. The following graph shows exchange rates and rice prices from the spring of 2015 till July 2016 (click here for larger version):


Graph 2: Prices for rice and foreign currency, April 2015–July 2016, in North Korean won. Prices are expressed in averages of local prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. Data source: DailyNK market prices

This does not look like the behavior of a nervous market where supply is declining at a drastic rate. Of course, a number of caveats are in order: again, prices are likely to rise through September and October, as they have in the past. Moreover, markets may react to any harvest declines at a later point in time, as they become more apparent.

Even so, it seems inconceivable that market prices would remain so stable if North Korea was experiencing a steep dive in food production. After all, farmers would be able to see signs fairly early on, and their information would presumably spread through the market as a whole. In short, it is logically unthinkable that markets simply would not react to an unusually poor harvest.

This all begs the question of how much market prices tend to correlate with the FAO:s harvest figures overall. The short answer appears to be: not much. The graph below (click here for larger version) shows the average prices for rice and foreign exchange per year on the North Korean market since 2011, and harvest figures drawn from reports by the FAO and the World Food Program (WFP). (See the end of this post for a more detailed explanation of the underlying calculations.)*


Graph 3: Yearly average market prices for rice and US-dollar (in North Korean won), and FAO food production figures. Data source: DailyNK market prices

As this graph shows, there is generally fairly little correlation between market prices and harvests as calculated by the FAO. Harvests climbed between 2009 and 2015, while market prices climbed and and flattened out from 2012, around the time of Kim Jong-il’s death. Exchange rates and rice prices unsurprisingly move in tandem, but appear little impacted by production figures as reported by the FAO.

It is possible that prices react in a delayed manner to harvests, and that the price stabilization on the market is a result of increased harvests over time. But the consistent trend over several years, with prices going up as harvest figures do, is an unlikely one. Again, it is also difficult to imagine market prices not reacting relatively quickly to noticeable decreases in food production.

So what does all this mean?

It is difficult to draw any certain conclusions. But at the very least, these numbers suggest that the FAO food production projections are not telling the full story about overall food supply in North Korea. Moreover, market signals are telling us that food supply right now is far from as bad as the FAO’s latest claims of lowered production would have it. Rather, prices seem normal and even slightly more stabile than in some previous years with better harvests. In short, the narrative that this year’s harvest is exceptionally poor seems an unlikely one.


*A note on graph 3:

 For market prices per year, I calculated an average price from all observations in a given year. The DailyNK price data is reported for three cities separately: Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. I have used an average of these three cities for each data observation as the base for calculating yearly averages. This is a somewhat tricky way of measuring, as the amount of data observations, as well as their timing, sometimes varies from year to year. The steep decline in 2009–2010 is primarily caused by the currency denomination, and should not be taken for a real increase in supply.

The FAO food production figures are not reported by calendar year, but published in the fall and projected for the following year. Since these figures best indicate available supply for the year after they are reported, I have assigned them to the year following the reporting year. That is, the figure for 2014 comes from the WFP-estimate for 2013/2014, and so on and so forth.


North Korea summer 2016 food shortage reports

Sunday, June 19th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

‘Tis the season of news reports of food shortages in North Korea. Late spring and summer is the “lean season” for food in the country, when shortages tend to become more dire as the main harvest season approaches. In an interview with Radio Free Asia, the FAO-official Christina Coslet repeated the organization’s prediction of the harvest this year being the smallest since 2011. Moreover, PDS-distribution is reportedly down to 360 grams, the lowest since 2010 (click here for a recap in English by Korea Times):

기자) 코슬렛 담당관님, 우선 북한 식량 사정에 대해 살펴보죠. 요즘 북한의 식량 사정 어떻게 평가하고 있습니까?

코슬렛 담당관) “ The food security situation due to the decreased production is expected to worsen compared to the previous years….”

지난 몇 년 간 보다 훨씬 안 좋을 것으로 보고 있습니다. 아시다시피 지난해 가을 추수한 주요 곡물의 수확량이 크게 감소했습니다. 쌀의 경우 전년도에 비해 26% 감소했고, 옥수수도 3%가량 감소했죠. 북한이 올해 외부 지원이나 수입으로 충당해야 할 식량 부족량이 69만4천t에 이르는데요, 이 같은 식량 부족분 규모는 2011년 이래 최대 규모입니다. 하지만 현재 확보한 식량은 부족 분의 3% 가량인 2만3천t에 그치고 있습니다. [Summary: rice harvests are down by 26%, corn by 3%, the import need is the greatest since 2011 /BKS.]


기자) 북한 당국의 식량 배급량을 통해서도 북한의 식량 사정을 가늠할 수 있지 않나요?

코슬렛 담당관) “Yes, it is also another way to see the food shortage situation in the country…”

그렇습니다. 식량이 적게 배분됐다는 것은 그만큼 식량 사정이 좋지 않다는 걸 의미하죠. 올해 1월부터 3월까지 북한 당국이 주민 한 명 당 하루 배급한 양은 370g입니다. 하지만 4월부터 6월 배급량은 360g으로 줄었는데요 이는 지난 2010년 이래 가장 적은 양입니다. 그만큼 식량 사정이 좋지 않다고 볼 수 있죠. [Summary: PDS distribution was 370 grams per day between January and March this year, but went down to 360 grams between April and June /BKS.]

Full article:
FAO: Food shortages in North Korea largest in four years
Kim Hyun-jin
Radio Free Asia

Of course, given the way that the North Korean economy functions today, one might question how much PDS-distributions really matter. There is quite a bit of regional variation in dependency on the PDS, and whatever the actual state of food supply, different localities will be hit differently whenever food supply is lacking.


North Korea’s food situation: worse, but maybe just back to normal

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some days ago, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sounded the alarm bells on North Korean food production. The drought of last summer, among other factors, has caused North Korea’s food production to drop for the first time since 2010. (Recall that in the past years, both North Korean media outlets and some analysts touted Kim Jong-un’s agricultural reforms — the former claimed that food production was increasing despite the drought. It seems they spoke too soon).

Numbers like this, however, matter little without context. After all, five years is not a very long measurement period. Analysts like Marcus Noland have noted that the years following 2010 were probably exceptionally good. The current downturn might be best contextualized as a return to lower but more normal levels of food production.

How does the latest food production figure look in a larger context? The short answer is: not that bad, even though the downward trend is obviously problematic. Let us take a brief look at North Korean food production figures over the past few years. All following numbers show food production figures in millions of milled cereal equivalent tons:

  • 2008/2009: 3.3
  • 2010/2011: 4.5
  • 2012/2013: 4.9
  • 2013/2014: 5.03
  • 2014/2015: 5.08
  • 2015/2016: 5.06

(Sources for all figures except the 2015/2016 figure can be found here, in a piece I wrote for 38 North late last year. It seems the calculation I made for 2015/2016 was off by 0.01 million tonnes.)

In other words, yes, the latest food production estimate represents a decrease, but it’s not that big. North Korean food production is still far larger than it’s been for most of the 2000s.

It is also interesting to note the striking variation in North Korean government food imports. Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard wrote in Famine in North Korea that the government downsized food imports as a response to increasing aid flows. Whatever the rationale might be behind the regime’s food import policies, they tend to vary greatly from year to year. In 2012/2013, the country imported almost 400,000 tonnes of cereal. In the mid-2000s, imports were close to one million tonnes, and they dropped to under 300,000 tonnes in 2008/2009.  In 2011/2012, imports climbed to 700,000 tons.

For 2015/2016, FAO projects a gap of need versus production of 694,000 tonnes, but government imports stand at around 300,000 tonnes, a relatively low figure in a historical context. Thus, North Korea is left with an uncovered deficit of 384,000 tonnes. Presumably, this wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive to cover by doubling cereal imports. The economy seems far more healthy today than it was in 2011-2012, and still, it managed to import more than double its planned imports of 2015-2016.

All in all, North Korea’s food production appears to be far from sufficient or stable, but the situation does not appear acute in a historical context. Indeed, one could argue that it’s a matter of policy choices and priorities: the regime could choose to increase imports to offset the decline in production, but its funds are spent elsewhere. And, of course, more efficient agricultural policies overall would make North Korean agriculture and food markets far more resilient to weather variations.


North Korean market condition since new international sanctions

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

It has been almost two weeks since the enforcement of new sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and so far North Korea’s domestic economy seems calm. Following the sanctions, North Korea has been preparing for the 7th Party Congress in May with its 70-day campaign (or ‘speed battle’). In order for the people to focus on the preparation, the government has reduced the business hours of markets and has begun controlling the street markets (i.e., ‘grasshopper’ markets).

In particular, it was expected that the sanctions would reduce the inflow of goods into the country which would then lead to a rapid rise in market prices and exchange rates, but so far the market prices appear to have remained relatively stable. According to the Daily NK, a South Korean online newspaper reporting on North Korea, 1kg of rice is selling for 5,100 KPW, 5,150 KPW, and 5,080 KPW in Pyongyang, Sinuiju, and Hyesan, respectively. These prices are relatively similar to the prices prior to when the sanctions were in full effect (i.e., 5,100 KPW in Pyongyang and Sinuiju, and 5,260 KPW in Hyesan).

The exchange rate appears no different. One US dollar exchanges for 8,150 KPW in Pyongyang, 8,200 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,170 KPW in Hyesan. The rate has been only slightly reduced compared to the rate prior to when the sanctions were put in place (i.e., 8,200 KPW in Pyongyang, and 8,290 KPW in Sinuiju, and Hyesan).

The reason for the stability in the market and the exchange rate is because even though the market hours have been reduced due to the 70-day campaign, the markets actually are running better than before and in some regions the price has gone down for some goods, presumably because some of these items that were exported in large scale via China have been circulated in the North Korean domestic market.

Also, aside from the underground resources (i.e., minerals) — the sanctioned items that used to account for most of the exports — other goods are still sold accordingly, which helps in stabilizing the market. Furthermore, the improvement of the domestic market cannot be taken lightly when considering the stability of the markets. In other words, unless markets are completely closed, people in North Korea wouldn’t consider it an issue.

Meanwhile, despite the international community’s sanctions against the country, including that of the UN Security Council, North Korea is claiming overproduction in areas such as electrical power and minerals in the run-up to the Seventh Party Congress in May. The North Korean propaganda media ‘DPRK Today’ has mentioned about production and the country’s success in confronting the imposed sanctions.

More specifically, since the initiation of the 70-day campaign last month (February 23rd), in order to boost economic success, Namhung Youth Chemical Complex has reportedly turned out 60% more fertilizer; Pyongyang Railway Bureau increased the traffic by 40%; Ryongyang Mine increased its production of magnesite by 20%; and 2.8 Jiktong Youth Coal Mine produced 7,200t beyond its quota. In addition, Kim Jong Suk Textile Mill reportedly has seen more than 40 labors complete the plan for the first half of the year, while Baekdu Hero’s Youth Power Plant has reached 37,000m2 in dam construction. Previously on March 3rd, the Korean Central Broadcasting radio reported that many of the production targets for February in the national economy have been surpassed.


Russian food donation to North Korea

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The World Food Program (WFP) has announced that Russia has donated 4 million dollars worth of wheat to feed particularly vulnerable populations in North Korea. According to the WFP, the amount will contribute to feeding about 620,000 people for four months. I’ve pasted the WFP press statement below, but interested readers should also check out the Facebook post of the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang, which has pictures of the delivery ceremony. WFP’s statement:

PYONGYANG – A ship carrying wheat donated by the Russian Federation successfully delivered its cargo in the port of Nampo today. The wheat will help the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to meet the nutritional needs of more than 620,000 children and women for a period of four months.

“Russia takes an active part in WFP’s operations in general, and in particular in its activities in DPRK. We highly appreciate WFP’s efforts aimed at providing aid to the most vulnerable strata of the country’s population, including children and pregnant and nursing women. We know that the Koreans feel deep gratitude because of this timely and valuable help. We consider it important that Russian flour and wheat are used to produce nutritious cereals and biscuits in local factories,” said Alexander Matsegora, Russian Ambassador to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The wheat will be used in locally-produced fortified biscuits and “cereal milk blend” – a specially designed flour fortified with essential micronutrients, which is used to make pancakes or bread.

“I would like to thank the Russian Government for this generous donation and its continued commitment. The Russian contribution is timely following a poor harvest after last year’s drought and comes at the end of the cold and harsh winter. WFP’s assistance is crucial to ensure young children grow into healthy adults by giving them the nutritious food they need,” said Darlene Tymo, WFP’s Representative and Country Director in DPRK.

The wheat was procured by WFP thanks to a contribution of USD 4 million from the Russian Federation. In the last five years, Russia has donated a total of USD 22 million to WFP in DPRK.

Almost a third of children under five in DPRK do not have enough diversity in their diet and are short for their age – a condition known as stunting. If children miss out on crucial vitamins and minerals in the first few years of their lives, it can affect long-term development and growth. WFP’s nutrition assistance helps to provide vital nutrients to children, as well as to pregnant and nursing mothers.

Full statement here:
Russian Contribution Support WFP Nutrition Assistance In DPRK
World Food Program


UN releases emergency funds to North Korea

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

From a press statement today by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):


(Bangkok, 2 February 2016)

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 29 January 2016 released US$ 8 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for severely underfunded aid operations in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). These funds will enable life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people most vulnerable and at risk of malnutrition.

The DPRK was one of nine countries to receive such grants within the overall $100 million allocation to underfunded emergencies. Undernutrition is a fundamental cause of maternal and child death and disease: in DPRK, chronic malnutrition (stunting) among under-five children is at 27.9 per cent, while 4 per cent of under-five children are acutely malnourished (wasting).

Around 70 per cent of the population, or 18 million people, are considered food insecure. Food production in the country is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs and is highly vulnerable to shocks, particularly natural disasters. Due to drought in 2015, 11 per cent of the main harvest was lost.

Health service delivery, including reproductive health, remains inadequate, with many areas of the country not equipped with the facilities, equipment or medicines to meet people’s basic health needs. Under-five children and low-birth-weight newborns are vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia and diarrhoea if they do not receive proper treatment or basic food, vitamins and micronutrients.

Full press statement available here.


North Korea considers nuclear test a driving force of economic development

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Following North Korea’s self-proclaimed hydrogen bomb test on January 6, 2016, which highlighted the fact that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state, daily mass rallies have been held in order to stimulate economic development and cement national unity. The Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun proudly announced on January 8th that the fourth nuclear test had been a ‘success’. It has been reported that mass rallies were held in North Phyongan Province, Jagang Province, Kangwon Province, North Hamgyong Province, Ryanggang Province, Rason City, and other regions as part of the effort to continue building a strong and prosperous nation.

Each of these mass rallies included discussions on how to develop the economy so as to “achieve a golden age through the building of a strong and prosperous nation.” The purpose behind these daily mass rallies can be interpreted as both taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the nuclear test to strengthen solidarity of the people while also paving the way to maximize economic productivity ahead of the upcoming 7th Party Congress that is scheduled for May.

In fact, the North Korean media is asserting that the recent nuclear test was a measure to deter war in order to bring about a domestic economic revival. A front page editorial in the Rodong Sinmun encouraged the nation, saying “We will go full-speed ahead to raise North Korea’s human dignity, vigor, and glory, which are already well-known in the international community. With the success of our hydrogen bomb test as the main driving force, we will show off the mighty power of our nation, and we must aggressively take on the struggle of improving the lives of the people and building an economically strong nation.”

The Chosun Sinbo, which is the mouthpiece of Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) serving as the representative for North Korea in Japan, emphasized that, “We must have a powerful deterrent to endless warfare in order to have a peaceful environment that will enable us to build up our economy. Focusing all of our efforts on building an economically powerful nation and creating a new paradigm shift in which to develop our economy and improve the lives of the people is the most important task of this year.”

Meanwhile, North Korea’s propaganda outlets are stating that food processing plants and other sectors are producing a flood of globally competitive products. North Korea’s propaganda website aimed at the outside world (Chosun Today) stated on January 7th that “Recently, many North Korean food processing plants have been modernizing their manufacturing processes to produce foodstuffs that meet global quality standards, actively contributing to the improvement of the living standards of the Korean people.”

The Sonhung Food Processing Plant was introduced as a model case example. According to North Korean media, the foods produced at this plant are all globally competitive goods, and the best products of the country. Although the plant has only been in operation for 10 years, the media claims that current annual net operating profits per employee are a staggering 350 times higher than those of their first year of operation, and the plant is known for this remarkable record-setting achievement.

These formidable efforts also encompass the development of approximately 90 health products with high nutritional value over the past four years, including healthy danmuk. The news outlets also boasted that nine North Korean factories have received ISO 22000 (food safety management system) certifications.

In addition, 60 products were registered as ‘February 2nd products’, and not long ago five food products, including fruit bread, coffee sweetener, and healthy danmuk, received ‘December 15th quality medals’.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address emphasized “improving the lives of the people” and encouraged various factories to achieve success. The propagation of these successes through the North Korean media outlets demonstrates Kim Jong Un’s intentions of inspiring loyalty from the people through intensive efforts to increase the quality of their diets.


The limits of agriculture reform in North Korea

Friday, December 18th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Agricultural reforms in North Korea became a hot topic of discussion almost right away when Kim Jong-un took power in 2011. Only a number of months into his tenure, news began to come out of the country about attempts at agricultural reforms. It is unclear when (or even if) the June 28th Measures were finally extended to the whole country.

At the very least, three years in, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that North Korean agriculture has undergone major changes. These have been aimed at boosting production by creating better incentives for farmers to produce and sell more of their output to the state rather than diverting it to the market. The most important aspects of these reforms are the decreased size of work teams and new rules that let farmers keep 30 percent of their production plus any surplus above production targets, while the state takes the remaining 70.

These changes have been met with optimism among some. However, no one really knows exactly what impact these reforms have had. North Korean agriculture may be faring better than it used to – although this is also doubtful – but even so, it is too simplistic to assume that government reforms in agricultural management are doing all the work. As long as North Korea’s agriculture continues to be centrally planned by the state, there will be limits to how much better it can get no matter what reforms the state implements.

To see why, consider some of the news that have been coming out of North Korea in the past few months, as reported by Daily NK. In late November, the online daily reported that in despite by multilateral aid organizations, North Korea had seen relatively good harvests this year. However, the increased harvests, according to people inside the country, were not caused by changes in the agricultural management system of state-operated collective farms.

Rather, the North Koreans interviewed for the story claimed that private plot farmers had been better able to protect their crops from adverse weather impacts by using water pumps and other equipment. Even though trends like these alone probably have a limited impact, this shows that many circumstances other than state management matter.

A few weeks later, Daily NK published another interview carrying a similar message. According to sources inside the country, harvests from collective farms have declined, while private plot production has gone up (author’s emphasis added):

The amount of food harvested this year from the collective farms has “once again fallen short of expectations,” he said, adding that the farmers who work on them have criticized the orders coming down from the authorities, saying that “if we do things the way they want us to, it’s not going to work.”

Although the regime has forced people to mobilize, the source asserted that farm yields are not increasing. So, then, “the best thing to do would be to further divide the land up among individuals,” he posited.

Our source wondered if individual farms were not more successful because each person tending them personally grew and watered their plants. Currently, farmers must follow directives regarding the amount of water they can use on collective farms. He warned that if the system is not completely overhauled, crop yields will fail to improve.

In other words: as is so often the case, management orders from above often do not align with the reality on the ground.

One should be careful not to draw too many general conclusions based on individual interviews, but this is a well known general problem in all planned economies. Even with the best intentions, the state can never be fully informed about conditions and resources on the ground in an entire society.

This is one of the many reasons why economic central planning falters. We have seen this, too, with Kim Jong-un’s forestry policies. The state gives orders that have unintended consequences on the ground, because information is lacking. No central planning team can be fully informed about the reality prevailing throughout the system. The information problem becomes particularly dire in authoritarian dictatorships like North Korea, where people at the lower end of hierarchies often have strong incentives not to speak up about implementation problems when orders come from the top.

Ultimately, no matter what management reforms the North Korean regime implements, the country’s economic system remains the basic stumbling block. As long as central planning continues to be the ambition of economic and agricultural policies, there will be a limit to the success that agricultural policies can reach. We may expect to see agricultural reforms continuing, but as long as the system remains, they can hardly be revolutionary.