Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Is the North Korean economy in crisis territory?

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Is the North Korean economy in a crisis following years of tough sanctions and the Covid-19 border closure? In a new report, the Bank of Korea’s answer is yes. They point to factors such as vast price increases on several basic goods to show that shortages have led to a price inflation virtually across the board for crucial consumer products:

The price of sugar in North Korea has multiplied by a factor of 8.3 between 2017 and late June of this year, from 5,201 won to 43,000 won per kilogram. During the same time period, the price of flour grew 3.7 times in the country as well, from 5,029 won to 18,700 won per kilogram.

Sugar and flour are two of the main food products North Korea imports from other countries. The extent to which their prices jumped in North Korea exceeds what might be observed in South Korea today due to high inflation. What could have happened in North Korea in the past five years to occasion such a surge in prices?

On Monday, the Bank of Korea published a report titled “North Korea’s Economy in the Past Five Years and Its Future Outlook,” which pointed to how the country’s economic environment changed during the time period. In a nutshell, the report argued that North Korea’s economy has entered yet another period of crisis after the 2000s, when its economy grew, following the 1990s, when the country experienced an economic crisis and a famine, also known as the Arduous March. North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 2.4% on average every year from 2017 to 2021 and is estimated to have dropped by a total of 11.4% during this time period.

What prompted the crisis in North Korea were economic sanctions against the country as well as border closures due to COVID-19.

(Source: Park Jong-O, “Why the price of sugar went up 726% in N. Korea over the last 5 years”, Hankyoreh, September 6th, 2022.)

Broadly speaking, given the data available, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion. At the same time, it is crucial to keep a few things in mind. First, much of the economy is adapted to a situation with very little foreign trade, because even in a normal year, North Korea’s external trade is exceptionally small compared with most countries in the world.
Second, there’s like to be considerable regional variation in the economic situation. Transportation inside North Korea has improved considerably over the last 10-15 years but getting goods from, say Hyesan in the northeast to Pyongyang, or a southern city like Sariwon, is still difficult, complicated and time consuming. So we are not necessarily talking about one, unified market with similar conditions across the country, but rather about a very fractured system.

Third, the word “crisis” in the context of the North Korean economy comes with very serious connotations since the famine of the 1990s. But we are decidedly not talking about a situation with mass starvation, and the Bank of Korea acknowledges this. Because of the expansion of the market system, the economy can respond very differently to shortages today than it could in the 1990s and early 2000s. Consumers can and likely have switched to less desired goods that can be procured and produced domestically. Both flour and sugar can, after all, to some extent be substituted for less desired but more easily available goods. We’ve also seen an increase in the price over corn over rice, which exemplifies this well: when the more desired good (rice) becomes more expensive, a greater number of people switch over to corn. This does suggest economic conditions have worsened, but not necessarily that they are disastrous.

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Market conditions in North Korea, amid rising prices

Monday, July 11th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Unfortunately, Daily NK recently ceased general publication of their detailed price data, but a recent report details how prices are rising in the country. In combination with the crackdown on unauthorized small-scale trade, conditions are tough for the many North Koreans sustaining themselves through market trade:

A recent spike in the price of staples such as rice and corn at North Korean markets is making things even tougher for ordinary people in the country.

A source in Yanggang Province told Daily NK on Wednesday that the price of rice at markets in the city of Hyesan has been increasing since the beginning of last month.

Moreover, since June 30, the price of one kilogram of rice has gone above KPW 6,000, leaving more North Koreans without access to grain and stoking anxiety among the public, the source said.

He also reported that rising food prices have made things even harder for street vendors, who were already hit hard when the North Korean authorities closed the national borders  and intensified crackdowns on the vendors.

According to the source, one resident of Hyesan who supports herself by selling rice cakes on the street has made few sales since June. Crackdowns by the Ministry of Social Security have kept her from selling rice cakes, putting her further in debt.

Without any income, the woman cannot even keep up with the interest on the loans she took out to fund her business. If she misses a second deadline for making her interest payment, the interest will balloon and her credit will collapse, leaving her unable to borrow any more money, he explained.

On top of her predicament, food prices in the market continue to rise, and the woman is now afraid she will become completely destitute.

“Even though the ‘barley hump’ has passed, food prices just keep getting higher and higher. The mood among the populace is so grim that some are afraid people will resort to cannibalism if things keep on like this. Many people are so famished because of the high cost of food that they can’t even go to work,” the source said.

(Source: Lee Chae-un, “Recent spike in rice and corn prices make things even more difficult for ordinary N. Koreans,” Daily NK, July 8th, 2022.)

Price data from Rimjingang also reflects this trend. Prices in their data set went from 5,400 won/kg for rice on June 10th, to 6,700 on the 17th and 6,600 on the 24th, and stabilized somewhat at 6,300 won on July 8th. In USD terms, that’s an increase from 0,72/kg to 0,86 most recently, an increase of almost 20 percent.

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(Updated) North Korea’s 2022 flooding season

Friday, July 1st, 2022

North Korea’s flooding season has begun. AP:

North Korea’s weather authorities predicted this year’s rainy season would start in late June and issued alerts for torrential downpours in most of its regions from Monday through Wednesday.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday that authorities in the North’s central and southwestern regions “have concentrated all forces and means on the work to cope with possible flood and typhoon damage.”

Officials and workers were working to protect crops, equipment at metal and chemical industrial establishments, power plant facilities and fishing boats from heavy rains, KCNA reported. It said the country’s anti-disaster agency was reviewing the readiness of emergency workers and medical staff.

KCNA said North Korean officials are urging residents and laborers to abide by pandemic-related restrictions during the country’s monsoon season. It said medical workers were ready to deal with any potential major health issues and officials were working to ensure epidemic control measures at shelters for people evacuated from flood-damaged areas.

As flooding spreads, the work to contain the damage ramps up. As state media reported on June 30th:

Officials and working people across the country are striving to minimize the damage by disastrous abnormal weather to the crops.

As soon as a warning on downpour was issued, the North Hwanghae Provincial Party Committee sent its officials to reservoirs, emptying gates and drainage pumping stations and ensured that officials in cities and counties went to the medium and small rivers and co-op farms in their areas to take measures for flood damage prevention. The province also pays attention to the threshing and keeping of wheat and barley.

South Hwanghae Province takes the best possible steps to send powerful forces and means to stricken areas in an emergency. Hundreds of excavators, lorries, tractors, etc. are ready to go to the afflicted areas.

(Source: “Proactive Efforts Made in DPRK to Minimize Damage by Flood to Crops,” Korean Central News Agency, June 30th, 2022.)

How well prepared can we presume North Korea to be to meet this year’s floods? Over the past few years, the regime has directed increasing attention and effort to disaster risk mitigation. It is obviously not a coincidence that Premier Kim Tok Hun inspected the State Hydro-meteorological Administration and the State Emergency Disaster Committee this week:

Learning in detail about the weather observation of the State Hydro-meteorological Administration, he said that it is very important to ensure the exactness and promptness of weather forecast in guaranteeing the successful implementation of the state policy tasks for the latter half of the year, including the grain production plan for this year, set forth at the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Eighth WPK Central Committee.

He stressed the need to minimize the damage from such disastrous weather phenomena as typhoon and downpour by enhancing the level of scientific forecast and analysis of the ever-changing weather conditions and their effect.
Visiting the State Emergency Disaster Committee, the premier called on all the sectors and units out in the campaign for preventing damage in rainy season to swiftly cope with any emergency and meticulously organize the work for protecting the state assets and ensuring the normal economic activity, regarding it as a core issue to protect the safety of the people.

He also called for establishing a proper work system and order to control in a stable way any crisis under the state’s unified direction and push ahead with the work for securing enough means and materials needed to tide over the crisis.

(Source: “Premier Inspects Hydro-meteorological Administration and Emergency Disaster Committee,” Korean Central News Agency, 29/6/22.)

I will continue to post updates on the events here as they are reported.

Update 10/7/22: The raining continues. From Reuters:

North Korean towns along the border with China were flooded this week after heavy rain, threatening to exacerbate an already critical food and economic situation in the country.

North Korea state broadcasters said the city of Sinuiju had reported its heaviest rainfall of the year on Thursday, with at least 132.5 mm (5.2 inches) of rain by 4 p.m.

To the east, in North Hamgyong Province, officials were working to ensure water supplies remained sanitary by supervising sewage disposal and ensuring that residents boiled water before drinking, state news agency KCNA reported.

North Korea has reported an epidemic of an unspecified intestinal disease – suspected by South Korean officials to be cholera or typhoid – and has blamed foreign objects from the border with South Korea for sparking a COVID-19 outbreak.

(Source: “North Korean streets flooded as heavy rains exacerbate economic crisis,” Reuters, July 8th, 2022.)

Meanwhile, more state publications that focus on disaster management and planning. Rodong Sinmun: 

Scientists and officials of the State Hydro-meteorological Administration and the Academy of Agricultural Science in the DPRK have jointly conducted the crop growth forecast to cope with the unfavorable weather conditions.

A command group consisting of guidance and research forces from the two units publishes a bulletin on the crop growth forecast at 10-day intervals.

The State Hydro-meteorological Administration strengthens the grasp and analysis of the mean temperature, precipitation, sunshine rate and current agricultural climate conditions in liaison with the meteorological observatories across the country. And it provides the Academy of Agricultural Science with the basic information on the predicted agricultural weather conditions.

The Academy of Agricultural Science informs, through the forecast bulletin, of detailed agricultural technological measures according to cereal, vegetable, industrial crops, fruit and other sectors. It also presents to each issue of the bulletin excellent experiences on farming, agricultural sci-tech common knowledge, advanced farming technological data and answers to the questions conducive to the farming works in corresponding period.

(Source: “DPRK Pays Efforts to Crop Growth Forecast,” Rodong Sinmun, July 7th, 2022.)

 

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Some brief thoughts about North Korea’s food situation, late June 2021

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

By all accounts, the current food situation in North Korea appears difficult. It’s a crucially important topic that I unfortunately have not had much time to follow over the past few weeks. A few brief thoughts:

First, it’s important to keep in mind when hearing phrases such as “worst in a decade” that North Korea went through an actual famine in the 1990s and early 2000s. So that the food situation has gotten better over the last decade, while the country was arguably still rebounding from the famine, should not come as a surprise.

Second, it’s difficult to tell precisely how bad things are. Food production estimates, though only approximations, paint a picture of relative shortage compared to the past few years, but still not near disaster levels. North Korean authorities and international organs often sound the alarm bell over looming disasters, while little follow-up is done about what actually happened in the end. Anyone remember the famine warnings in early 2019, by the state and some foreign analysts alike? It’s impossible to tell how representative this report by Daily NK is, but if it’s true, the government is failing to stabilize prices because consumers choose not to buy rice in bulk for cheaper but lower quality from state-owned stores. If the country was approaching a genuine famine, this likely wouldn’t be the case.

Third, all this said, things do seem difficult. Bill Brown outlines in an excellent and thorough report here some of the alarming signs: relatively major fluctuations in both exchange rates and food prices. Although price levels aren’t at levels never seen before, fluctuations like this are relatively unusual. I suspect much of it is driven by future expectations of shortages based on information suggesting that the state will not open the border to China for trade within the foreseeable future.

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Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “worst-ever situation”

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Perhaps I am late to the game already (the long weekend here in Israel is to blame for that), but it has been puzzling to see the media reporting on Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea faces its “worst-ever” economic situation at the moment, under both international sanctions and a self-imposed border lockdown.

It seems that Kim’s words have been misinterpreted or lost in translation. Colleagues at 38 North have rightly and importantly pointed out that the original Korean-language statement is not nearly as drastic. This is often the case with KCNA articles and translated statements from North Korea:

In the vernacular report, however, this term read kuknanhan (극난한), which would be better translated as “very hard” or even “extremely difficult.”[2] North Korea’s English-language media sometimes omit passages or provide translations that are different from the vernacular text, and without analyzing years’ worth of data, it is impossible to conclude whether they do so deliberately, or if they are simply oversights.

It is clear, however, that Kim did not say “the worst-ever situation” at this event. Even if he had, the North Korean leader has made similar remarks in connection with the country’s current circumstances in recent months. For example, Kim’s opening address at the Eighth Party Congress in January referred to the past five years as a period of “unprecedented, worst-ever trials.”

None of this means that the situation is not bad. But “worst-ever” would be extremely drastic for a country where the failings of the economic system led to a famine in the 1990s and early 2000s that took the lives of between 600,000-1.5 million people. Today’s conditions simply aren’t grave enough to warrant such comparisons.

Precisely how difficult conditions are remains hard to tell. The Russian ambassador to North Korea recently gave an interview where he said that the country’s food situation is not at all catastrophic, and that there are no signs suggesting an ongoing famine. He is probably right, but at the same time, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much about the situation in the provinces, for example, based on an assessment of the store shelves in Pyongyang. The country’s society is highly stratified and its economy relatively fragmented. The situation in one locality may well be much more dire than in another.

At the same time, we should also be careful not to take Kim Jong-un at his word. What, except for Kim’s own statement, suggests that today’s situation is worse than the one in 1995, after both economic collapse and heavy flooding took a severe toll on the economy? Sure, things are incredibly messy right now, a view that both circumstances and data support. Kim’s own statement, not least, is another solid data point showing just how grim things appear to be. But famine, meaning large numbers of people dying from starvation or malnourishment, is simply a different dimensions. Let us hope that North Korea does not get there, neither now nor in the future.

There are reasons to believe that it will not. The market system, for its faults and flaws, is able to react to changes in supply and demand, unlike the state distribution system in the 1990s. Moreover, China would likely step in with serious quantities of food aid if the situation got truly disastrous. Many signs suggest that North Korea and China expect to resume and even expand trade in the short-term. Should a drastic need arise, China would likely increase humanitarian shipments as well, although it is far from certain.

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March 2021: North Korea’s skyrocketing corn prices

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Given the self-imposed border lockdown North Korea is under at the moment, the recent rise in food prices should come as no surprise. The precise factors are difficult to pin down, but whatever they are, there is some serious cause for concern.

The main reason is the rapid rise in the price of corn as of late. One Daily NK-source in North Korea attributes it to large-scale state purchases of corn for snacks manufacturing in honor of Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16th.

The article makes clear, however, that this is only a partial explanation. Indeed, looking at the price index, it’s clear that the rise started long before February. On November 15th last year, the average price for a kilo of corn was 1350 won. On February 23rd this year, the average price was 3137 won. That’s a rise of 135 percent in a relatively short period of time. Prices of corn have often risen in the beginning part of the year, but not by this much.

Average corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Looking at individual cities, the rise is even more staggering. In Hyesan, where food prices tend to be higher in general, corn prices rose from 1450 won/kilo on November 15th last year to 3620/kilo on February 23rd. That’s an increase of 150 percent in only a few months.

Corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Why is this a concerning development for corn prices specifically?

First, corn is, in the North Korean context, rice’s less desired sibling. Corn always makes up a significant part of the diet for a big proportion of the North Korean population. However, when food becomes more scarce, people switch over a larger portion of their diets to corn, since it gives more food for the same amount of money. So a rise in corn prices may be a signal of growing scarcity overall.

Second, even if a large proportion of the rise was indeed caused by increasing state purchases, this is also a troubling indicator for the state of the North Korean market for food. If state procurement for snacks manufacturing for one single day can impact prices so much, this suggests a market under considerable stress and volatility to begin with.

At the same time, rice prices have remained conspicuously low and stabile. Rice prices in the last observation in the price index are around their seasonal normal. I’d be careful to assume too much based on this, however. Rice prices are lower right now than around the same time last year. This may – and I want to stress how little we know for certain – indicate that they are in fact lower not because supply is stabile, but because demand is lower. More consumers switching over their consumption to cheaper foods such as corn would put downward pressure on rice prices.

Average rice prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

The current situation will only be possible to fully evaluate in a few weeks when we have more data points available. Suffice to say for now that, with all the caveats about the trappings of data from North Korea, the situation looks concerning.

Update March 16th, 2021: DailyNK recently published more info about the corn price situation, reporting that prices have stabilized in much of the country. Still, 3,000 KWP/kg, reported in “other inland regions” (than Hyesan), is high. It’s more than double the average price reported in Daily NK’s price index around one year ago.

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The economy in the Central Committee Plenum (February 2021)

Tuesday, February 16th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

During the recent (2nd) plenary meeting of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee, several remarks were made that focus on the economy. Most seemed to follow the statements during the Party Congress, both in tone and focus. Emphasizing the role of legal measures seems to be a way to regularize and formalize the orders set out at the congress. Legal supervision, after all, is something continuously ongoing, unlike rule by decree. It’s unclear what “irrational elements” means in the KCNA summary, but my sense is that it may be about semi-legal and highly dubious (from the state’s point of view) practices of essentially private entities partnering with and using the bureaucratic cover of state-owned companies for business purposes.

Here’s an excerpt of the KCNA coverage from the third day, with my emphasis added in bold:

The General Secretary in his report suggested important tasks for firmly ensuring the implementation of the national economic plan by law and channeling all Party works into the fulfillment of this year’s economic tasks.

The report stressed the importance to strengthen the legal supervision and control over the establishment and executive process of the national economic plan, the order of the Party and the law of the state.

It called upon the legislation sector to remove irrational elements becoming stumbling blocks to the implementation of the national economic plan and enact and perfect new laws for every sector which help promote the efficiency of the production and construction.

It said that legislative bodies including the prosecution organ should increase their role to make sure the national economic plan is properly distributed and correctly executed, and in particular, stage a strong legal struggle for checking all kinds of illegal practices revealed in economic activities, adding that all sectors and units should obey them unconditionally.

Analyzing that the faults revealed in the economic work in the last period are caused by the party organizations which failed to fulfill their responsibilities and role as organizers and standard-bearers in carrying out the Party’s policies, the report proposed tasks of the party organizations for intensifying the party guidance and political guidance from the standpoint of holding full responsibility for the result from the implementation of this year’s economic task.

It referred to the ways for the party organizations at all levels to positively play the role in properly steering the implementation of the national economic plan while giving priority to the organizational and political work for arousing the masses to the accomplishment of this year’s goal.

It also suggested tasks calling upon the party organizations of ministries and national institutions to properly grasp and guide the execution of Party’s economic policy by enhancing the level of the Party work in line with the characteristics of their units in charge of important portion in the overall work of the state and to strengthen the direction of the party life of public service personnel.

Concluding his report on the first agenda item made through three consecutive days, the General Secretary said that the plenary meeting was convened in the timely and necessary period in the sense that it helped rectify mistakes from the stage of planning this year’s work and newly decided on the great work for the people and also helped find out and correct the ideological maladies including passivism and self-protectionism latent in officials.

(Source: “Third-day Sitting of 2nd Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee Held,” Korean Central News Agency February 11th, 2021.)

Here is an excerpt of the second-day coverage, again with emphasis added in bold. The bottom paragraph restates much of the language from congress a few weeks ago about increasing state control:

Saying that propping up agriculture is an important state affair that must be successful at any cost to solve the food problem for the people and successfully push ahead with the socialist construction, the General Secretary analyzed the achievements and experience gained in the agricultural field for the recent several years and set forth tasks of stably and steadily developing the agricultural production based on them.

Emphasized in the report were the issues of taking prompt state measures for supplying farming materials on which success or failure of farming for this year hinges for the present, pushing ahead with the work of providing a material and technical foundation for the agricultural production in a planned way and bringing about a decisive improvement in the Party work in the rural areas.

[…]

The General Secretary in the report evinced the militant tasks to be carried out by the People’s Army and the munitions industry this year for implementing the decisions set forth by the 8th Party Congress, and the direction of future action to be taken by the sector in charge of affairs with south Korea and the sector in charge of external affairs, before underscoring the need to thoroughly carry them out without fail.

The report noted that the success or failure in this year’s economic work depends on the capability and role of the state economic guidance organs in the main, and made clear the issue that the Cabinet and state economic guidance organs should restore the function peculiar to them as economic organizer and their controlling function to improve the guidance and management over the whole economy, the one of improving the role of non-permanent economic development committee and other important practical issues for consolidating the Cabinet-centered system, Cabinet-responsibility system.

(Source: “Second-day Sitting of 2nd Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee Held,” Korean Central News Agency, February 10th, 2021.)

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Fertilizer factory shutdown and goods shortages

Monday, February 8th, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

KITA has a new briefing paper out about some developments relating to North Korea’s domestic economy and external trade. If true, the shutdown of the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex (청년화학연합기업소) is one of several examples of how the border shutdown due to Covid-19 is hurting basic industries through a shortage of spare parts. Goods such as cooking oil are also reportedly in short supply on the markets, and local government incomes from market stall fees are also reportedly dropping. As always with this sort of information, none of it is fully confirmed.

You can find the report here (in Korean), below is an excerpt from a summary by Nikkei:

The Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, north of Pyongyang, produces fertilizer and coal gas using anthracite mined in the area. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the site in 2013.

High-pressure valves and jet sprays at the complex have become too worn for continued use, according to reports the Korea International Trade Association received from North Korea in January. Without replacement parts, it is unclear when the plant can resume work.

The suspension hinders North Korea’s push to lift its meager agricultural output. Kim last year ordered a boost in fertilizer production and attended a completion ceremony for a separate fertilizer plant. Coal gas also serves as a valuable industrial energy source for the country, which faces an oil embargo in response to its nuclear and missile testing.

[…]

The resulting shortages also have struck North Korea’s jangmadang informal markets, which have flourished under Kim’s tenure. At one market in the city of Pyongsong, the volume of available flour and cooking oil has halved. Many stalls that used to sell Chinese-made apparel and appliances have shut down as well.

The slowdown of the jangmadang is eating into the coffers of North Korea’s regional authorities. South Pyongan Province, home of the Namhung plant, made about half as much from overseeing these markets in the last quarter of 2020 as in the year-ago period, heavily impacting provincial spending, the KITA report says.

(Source: Yosuke Onchi, “Key North Korea factory shuts down from COVID-19 parts shortage,” Nikkei Asia, February 8th, 2021.)

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Asahi Shimbun: China provided North Korea with substantial amounts of food and fertilizer this year

Wednesday, November 4th, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In a piece of news that should surprise no one, Asahi Shimbun reports that South Korean government sources say China provided North Korea with 5-600,000 tons of food aid and fertilizer this year. Although it wouldn’t entirely make up for the estimated shortfall, it is still a highly significant contribution:

But several South Korean government sources said China has provided North Korea with between 500,000 and 600,000 tons of food along with the fertilizer this year.

It also sent about 600,000 tons of corn and other types of grain between June and August, according to Chinese sources with inside knowledge of ties with North Korea.

Pyongyang requested more assistance in the aftermath of the summer typhoon damage and Beijing is considering sending an additional 200,000 tons of food, the sources said.

The South Korean sources focused on the volume of fertilizer shipped to North Korea as such assistance is considered highly unusual.

North Korean authorities equate one ton of fertilizer to 10 tons of food assistance, a former high-ranking North Korean government official said.

“Due to chronic shortages, fertilizer is highly prized in North Korea,” the official added. “The amount sent this year is equivalent to 5.5 million tons of food, which exceeds the yearly production of food. It was a very unusual level of assistance.”

Although North Korea is no longer in the grips of famine that raged in the late 1990s and claimed countless lives, the U.N. World Food Program has estimated that between 2018 and 2019 about 10 million North Koreans did not have enough to eat.

The situation is believed to be worse this year.

North Korea was plagued by flooding and other damage due to typhoons and torrential rain in summer after near-drought conditions in spring.

A source at a Chinese government-affiliated agency who is well-versed in issues involving North Korean agriculture said that the harvest estimate at planting time was between 3.5 million and 3.8 million tons for a shortfall of about 1.5 million tons.

Rice prices were kept stable through the release of grain stockpiled for emergencies, but the situation without China’s assistance was expected to be dire from next spring.

China’s decision to bail out its unpredictable neighbor may reflect a strategy to keep North Korea in its corner as Beijing’s confrontation with Washington worsens. In this regard, Beijing made a big fuss of its involvement in joining fighting in the Korean War on the 70th anniversary of China’s participation.

“China and North Korea have always shared interests in terms of their view of the United States, but that has strengthened recently,” said a North Korean source. “China is sending a message to the United States through its appeal of a honeymoon period with North Korea.”

With no signs of progress in denuclearization talks with the United States, the easing of economic sanctions against North Korea appears unlikely in the short term.

That suggests North Korea will continue to lean on China for support, analysts said.

“If North Korea receives support from abroad, it will no longer be able to say it is getting by with its own efforts,” said a South Korean expert on the North Korean economy. “But North Korea can continue to save face because China does not announce the assistance levels.”

(Article source: Takeshi Kamiya in Seoul and Yoshikazu Hirai in Shenyang, “China bailout to North Korea: massive food and fertilizer aid,” Asahi Shimbun, November 3rd, 2020.)

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North Korea’s disaster management: a comment about a comment

Wednesday, November 4th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It might seem a strange topic to post about on the day after the US elections, but perhaps some readers might like a break from the incessant commentary for something completely different.

If so, I highly recommend the article that former ambassador James Hoare published yesterday on 38 North, partially as a comment to my earlier article about North Korean disaster management. Ambassador Hoare gives a highly interesting historical perspective partially based on his own experiences in the country, noting that deforestation is a problem on the Korean peninsula much older than North Korea itself. He also notes that North Korea is far from the only country where homes constructed near riverbeds are regularly flooded, and argues that North Korea’s flooding problems are, after all, not so unusual in an international context.

I fully agree with all of these points, and the historical context is very valuable and crucial for understanding the current situation. If anything, there are perhaps two points of minor disagreement that I have with Hoare’s text.

First, the current North Korean situation is in large part a result of changes that could have been avoided. Deforestation was acutely exacerbated during the Arduous March, because people had few other alternatives than to cut down trees for firewood and to clear the ground for farming. Deforestation and flooding, therefore, are not phenomena entirely endemic or “natural” neither to the Korean peninsula nor to North Korea in particular, because things were not always this way. There is nothing natural or inherently necessary about North Korea’s economic system, as the many former communist states who have adopted programs of systemic overhaul have shown. Natural disasters may be natural, but each state has a choice in how to meet them.

Second, ambassador Hoare rightly points out that one should perhaps applaud the progress being made rather than to note that improvements have a long way to go. My article neither sought to decry nor applaud any improvements, but simply to show where things stand, based partially on conversations with several people who have themselves worked in natural disaster mitigation in the country.

And despite the improvements that have been made, there is a real and substantive risks that North Korea’s disaster management improvement plans and ambitions will stop at being just that. In this realm, there should be little doubt that the government’s ambitions are high and praiseworthy. The problem is that we have seen too many examples of ambitions without implementation to conclude that they will in fact be realized. Oftentimes, the policy process, opaque as it is, often appears to stall, and political interest and attention may wane. In this, too, North Korea is not alone in the world.

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