Archive for the ‘2015 Food Shortage’ Category

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.

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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):

UN EMERGENCY FUND RELEASES US$ 8 MILLION TO ASSIST MOST VULNERABLE WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN DPRK

(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.

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DPRK food imports from China down

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

According to UPI:

North Korea drastically reduced grain imports from China in 2015, and a South Korean analyst said the decrease is a sign North Korea’s food situation could be improving.

Kwon Tae-jin, director of East Asia research at GS&J Institute in South Korea, said grain imports were down 71 percent between January and October 2015, Voice of America reported.

South Korean newspaper Segye Ilbo reported Kwon used data from China’s customs authorities – which indicated imports of Chinese corn, rice, flour and soybeans had fallen to 42,000 tons, down from 144,000 tons in 2014.

Soybeans, or legumes, were the only category of grain imports that did not register a decrease, tripling in volume to 5,640 tons in 2015. Wheat flour imports dropped 80 percent, but it was unclear why some imports were more in demand than others.

The value of total grain imports was down 72 percent from the prior year, to $2.04 million, according to Kwon.

Imports of fertilizer used to grow crops also were down 41 percent between January and October, a trend that shadowed overall China-North Korea trade and investment activities, which have declined for two consecutive years, VOA reported.

China is North Korea’s No. 1 trading partner, but Pyongyang has been working to move away from economic dependency.

Kwon said that inside North Korea grain prices are very stable, and the food supply situation is not bad, judging by the numbers.

“This year [North Korea] did not need to import much grain, or receive a lot of support from the international community, in order to stabilize food prices,” Kwon said.

The South Korean analyst said the stable prices could be a sign the North Korean market has confidence in the regime in Pyongyang. The drop in demand for imported grain also indicates the supply situation is quite stable in North Korea.

Kwon said that North Korea’s dry spell in 2015 could have had a negative impact on the country’s harvest, but overall the situation is “probably not as dire as many fear.”

The researcher said the market also prices in future uncertainty into grain value, and stable prices indicate buyers are less concerned about future scarcity.

Here is similar coverage in NK News.

Read the full story here:
North Korea imports of Chinese grain decline 70 percent
Elizabeth Shim
UPI
2015-12-1

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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
DailyNK
11-26-2015

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Fall 2015 price reports

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

According to the Daily NK:

Recently in Yanggang Province, as both Kimjang and the harvest season draw to a close, the price of vegetables and rice has gone down, and with winter right around the corner, fuel prices have begun to rise.

“As we enter in November, the price of vegetables and rice are falling, and with the end of the Kimjang season and the beginning of rice threshing, market prices are fluctuating wildly,” a source in Yanggang Province reported to Daily NK on November 16th. “Families, preparing for winter now that Kimjang (making of kimchi for the season) is over, are using servi-cha for business regularly and the price of oil is also rising accordingly.”

An additional source in the same province corroborated this news.

At the height of Kimjang season in mid-October, cabbage was trading at 1,950 KPW (0.23 USD) per 1 kg, but by the end of October it had dropped to 1,500 KPW (0.17 USD), and now it has dropped further still to reach 900 KPW (0.10 USD) per 1 kg. Rice has also dropped from 5,200 KPW (0.60 USD) to 4,700 KPW (0.55 USD) per kilogram.

As North Korea moves to wrap up its fiscal year, residents who failed to complete their assigned tasks must make payments to fulfill their duty. Those without the money hand over part of the harvest from tending their personal plots to market sellers for cash and turn that in instead. The flood of harvested goods at the markets has thus driven down prices.

Our source tells us that in mid-October, using Hyesan City as the standard, petrol was trading at 6,000 KPW (0.70 USD) per kilogram and diesel fuel at 4,000 KPW (0.47 USD) per kilogram. But since the beginning of November the prices increased to 7,000 KPW (0.81 USD) for petrol and 4,500 KPW (0.52 USD) per kilogram for diesel. In mid-November prices have increased to 7,300 KPW (0.85 USD) per kilogram for petrol and 5,250 KPW (0.61 USD) per kilogram for diesel.

As the icy winter draws closer, hot foods are selling particularly well and the price of potato noodles, corn noodles, and others are more expensive compared to last year. Last year a small bowl of noodles was 1,000 KPW (0.12 USD) while a large bowl cost 6,000 KPW (0.70 USD); this year, small bowls of noodles are selling better than large bowls at a cost of 1,500 KPW (0.17 USD).

Read the full story here:
Veg, rice prices fall on back of ‘kimjang’
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin
2015-11-17

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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.

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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

10-01-2015

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World Food Program cuts aid to DPRK

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

According to Voice of America:

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 food aid cut came as the communist country has been reducing food rations. Last month, North Korea distributed an average of 250 grams of daily rations per person, a 21 percent decline from a three-year average, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The figure was less than half of the minimum amount recommended by the U.N. FAO officials blamed poor crop production caused by drought for the cut.

Experts warn that North Korea could face further food shortages next year.

“North Korea has not imported enough food this year, nor did it get significant aid,” said Kwon Tae-jin, an economic analyst in Seoul who specializes in North Korea’s agriculture.

The FAO said North Korea needs 421,000 tons of food from the outside world by the end of the month to feed its citizens this year.

Read the full story here:
Cash-strapped World Food Program Cuts Aid to N. Korea
VOA
Kim Hyunjin
2015-10-1

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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.

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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.

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An affiliate of 38 North