Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Food crisis looming in South Pyongan, according to Daily NK

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Following the recent publication of a UN report stating that North Korea’s food situation is critical and is set to worsen, sources in the country say that efforts for agricultural preparation are facing obstacles in some regional areas.

The DPRK Rapid Food Security Assessment was published by the World Food Program and Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations on May 3, and expressed concern that North Korea could face severe food shortages within the next ten years due to climate change, sanctions and other issues.

“May is the most important month because it is the period that determines whether the year’s harvest will end in success or failure. There’s a lack of workers for planting and this has led to alarm amongst officials,”a South Pyongan Province-based source told Daily NK. “Officials in the major west coast farming areas of Pyongwon, Sukchon and Mundok are concerned about labor shortages.”

North Korea conducts national agricultural support campaigns every spring and mobilizes students, office workers and housewives into the fields. This year, however, the country is facing a labor shortage of more than 50%, according to the source.

“Mobilization orders state that people have to prepare their own food to eat out in the fields,” he said. “Concerns have been raised that there’s a lot of people who can’t do that because there’s no food.”

The North Korean authorities are emphasizing the need to increase rice production and the importance of agriculture through state-run media as the planting season begins, but mobilizing workers into the fields will be difficult due to the country’s poor economic situation.

Concerns have also been raised that laborers will refuse to work in the fields because they are already involved in manure collection activities, construction projects and other labor-intensive work for the state.

Daily NK recently reported that even one of Kim Jong Un’s banner projects, the Samjiyon modernization effort, is facing labor-related difficulties.

The authorities have even created “emergency measures committees” to identify ways to forcibly mobilize residents onto the fields.

“Labor departments in provincial agriculture business committees have formed emergency measures committees to deal with the lack of workers recruited from factories and schools,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province. “Schools and factories are being investigated and will face legal action if they fail to provide the proper quotas of labor.”

Some parts of the country are faced with issues in agricultural planting stemming from insufficient supplies of farming materials and fertilizer.

“Farmers should have ensured the soil didn’t freeze by creating special seedbeds and covering them with vinyl film. They failed to do so because there was a lack of vinyl film available this year and seeds didn’t grow properly because of the cold,” she said, adding that “they also lacked manure and fertilizer.”

Source:
South Pyongan Province faces severe food security crisis
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-05-16

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Washington Post on sanctions and North Korea’s food crisis

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A few interesting snippets from this Washington Post report:

Analysts say there is no doubt that the ultimate blame for the humanitarian crisis rests with Pyongyang, which has spent hugely on nuclear advances and other military projects while neglecting the welfare of ordinary citizens.

[…]

“Other than the most basic of subsistence agriculture, there is no agricultural sector in the world that can survive without oil-based inputs,” said Hazel Smith, a professor in Korean studies at the SOAS University of London.

Smith argues North Korea can feed its citizens only if it can access oil and natural gas — to fuel farm machinery, power processing and storage facilities, used in irrigation and to transport crops and food.

United Nations report issued Friday showed more than 10 million people do not have enough food to last until the next harvest. Last year’s crop was the worst in a decade, it said, and was buffeted by dry spells, heat waves and flooding.

But it also found that “limited supplies of agricultural inputs, such as fuel, fertilizer and spare parts have had significant adverse impact.”

The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program spelled out “the unintended impact of sanctions on agricultural production,” most obviously “the importation of certain items that are necessary for agricultural production.”

Article source:

North Korea is facing a food crisis. ‘Maximum pressure’ by the U.S. may make it worse.
Simon Denyer
Washington Post
2019-05-08

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Taxes increase on some North Korean markets

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This sort of news is very interesting, particularly in context: I’ve heard from people who deal with North Korean firms that some of them have received orders to tighten up their accounting, and report their assets to the state in greater detail. Taken together, these snippets of information suggest an overall difficult economic situation, though not desperate or in crisis-mode, where the state is taking more and more measures to drive in cash from the public.

Daily NK:

Sales fees levied on private distributors have risen in some areas of North Korea. The fees are managed by North Korea’s collection agency and essentially provide a source of tax revenue for the state. Private distributors are expressing discontent over the changes as many are suffering under the country’s already poor economic conditions.

“The authorities recently began demanding outrageous and unfair selling fees from private distributors,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on April 25. “Collection offices (i.e. tax offices) attached to local people’s committees are required to pay varying fees depending on the product, and the number of fees have been doubled.”

These de facto tax offices were established in each city and county as part of the July 1 Economic Management Improvement Measure in 2003 and are managed by the Ministry of Financial Administration. The offices collect fees for land use, market stalls, and various other reasons.

“The authorities are demanding a huge amount of fees to gain control over and restrict the activities of private business people who live in Pyongsong but bring in products from Sinuiju, Rajin-Sonbong, Nampo and Hyesan,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province.

“Soybean oil sellers, for example, had to pay 3% of their income before, but now have to pay twice that amount.”

The skyrocketing fees are likely due to the fall in tax revenue arising from the economic difficulties the country is facing.

“The government increased the fees they were collecting just as incomes fell among private business people,” she said. “The authorities are simply taking money from the people to make it seem like the state is self-sufficient.”

North Korean authorities have made the fee system more sophisticated while raising fees as part of efforts to generate more income for the regime.

Article source:
North Korea doubles de facto sales tax levied on distributors in some areas
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-05-03

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Why the market and state sectors cannot be fully separated in North Korea (and what it tells us about price stability)

Friday, April 19th, 2019

Anecdotal but highly valuable observations from inside North Korea suggest that the market economy is taking a hit from the overall decrease in economic activity in the state sector. None of this is surprising, and it makes perfect sense. As workers at factories and state enterprises either get paid less or not at all, their purchasing power drops. Fewer people can spend less money on the markets, leading to an overall depression of economic activity. Reports Daily NK:

Following news that most state-run factories in Pyongyang and other major cities have suspended operations, North Korean sources report that the number of merchants in some areas of the country have fallen drastically. This situation is reportedly due to decreased purchasing power among ordinary North Koreans on the back of the country’s economic stagnation.

“Before international sanctions, there were around 1,000 to 2,000 merchants, including those selling their wares outside the market, but now I only see around 100,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told the Daily NK on April 10. “Even those remaining merchants are just barely holding on. Some of them went to other places to do business but had to return because their efforts met with no success.”

“Only half of the market officials that once collected market fees are visible now,” said the source. “The officials face physical harm by the merchants when they try to collect the fees, so they avoid being out in the open.”

The source also reported that “Merchants have to sell 15 kilograms or more of food per day to pay the market fees. They aren’t selling even one kilogram a day” and that “Merchants are asking themselves rhetorically whether they’re just selling wares at the market to pay the fees.”

An investigation by the Daily NK has found that there has been little change to the number of active merchants in Pyongyang, Sinuiju, Hyesan, Pyongsong, Chongjin, Hamhung and other major cities. Small markets, however, appear to be facing a decrease in merchants.

The source said that economic stagnation has impacted North Korea’s poor classes, including those living in agricultural areas.

“The factories are shut down so people can’t get paid, and this means that no one is heading out to the markets,” said the source. “The international sanctions are so bad that there’s no work left. People don’t have money to buy anything.”

This all gets at a problem with analyzing North Korea’s economic situation based on price stability. Simple analysis of supply and demand holds that if overall availability of food goes down, prices go up. They haven’t in North Korea.

But what if people just don’t have money to spend on food if prices go up? Then, market suppliers couldn’t really raise prices much, because they’d already be pretty much at the highest level at which people are willing to purchase food (also known as the “reservation price”). It’s also important to remember that cash, according to a lot of anecdotal observations – and suggested by the state of the exchange rate – is generally rather scarcely available in North Korea, as the government seems to have contracted the money supply quite significantly over the past few years.

This is what I suspect is part of what’s going on the markets in North Korea, and some may have looked much too simplistically at food and currency market prices for a long time. Price stability doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of problems in the economy.

Article source here:
Drastic fall in market merchant numbers in some areas of North Korea
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-04-18

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North Korea trying to acquire South Korean seeds, RFA reports

Monday, April 15th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korean authorities are trying to procure higher-yield South Korean rice seeds to cope with chronic food shortages. But instead of simply asking Seoul for the seeds, which are not subject to economic sanctions, Pyongyang’s trade representatives are attempting to bring them in via China, posing difficulties with Chinese customs inspections, sources say.

“I was asked by a North Korean trade worker in China to get South Korean rice seeds, but there’s no easy way to bring seeds from Korea into China, so I am not sure what to do,” said a source in a Chinese border city.

The source said relatives living in South Korea have already procured 30 kilograms of the seeds and are ready to ship them.

“But I have to go through a very complicated process to bring the seeds here, so I am hesitant about the whole thing,” said the source, adding, “Plant seeds, especially those for agricultural products have a meticulous customs inspection that takes forever to get through.”

Other products from South Korea can be brought into China with relative ease, according to the source.

“Merchants who do the China-South Korea run by ferry can usually bring whatever they want into China but most of them avoid anything having to do with farming, because clearing customs is so difficult,” said the source.

In recent years, farming conglomerates worldwide have vigorously defended their intellectual property rights for engineered seeds. Seoul, however, doesn’t mind if merchants take the rice seeds out of the country.

“It isn’t too difficult to pass South Korean customs, but [merchants] have to report the seeds to Chinese maritime customs. Then they have to pay high tariffs and go through a strict quarantine,” the source said.

“If they try to smuggle them (into China) to avoid the hassle, they face [the possibility of] heavy fines and criminal punishment,” said the source.

“I am pretty certain that North Korean authorities are ordering their trade workers in China to find South Korean seeds. They aren’t really asking for a lot of them. I think they will conduct experiments on the seeds to see if they are suitable for North Korea’s soil and weather,” said the source.

A second source, from a Chinese border city, noted that North Korea was able to bring beech seeds from Ulleung-do, a South Korean island east of the Korean peninsula, but wondered why Pyongyang is trying to get Southern rice seeds in such a roundabout way.

“They can have these kinds of plant seeds easily if they just ask the South Korean government, especially now that North and South Korea are trying to be friendly with each other,” the source said, adding, “It is hard to understand why they are being so secretive.”

Article source:

North Korea Tries to Secretly Get South Korean Rice Seeds Using Traders in China
Joonho Kim and Jae Wan Noh
Radio Free Asia
2019-04-15

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North Korea’s harvest numbers: what “food production” really means

Monday, March 11th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I wrote about the confusing harvest numbers this past Friday, and I’ve been able to find little new information to make things clearer. Basically, the problem is that talking about “food production” is too vague, since that can mean a lot of different things. In the standard World Food Program/FAO crop assessments, there are usually two numbers quoted: one estimate for total production of food,  and one for “milled cereal equivalent”, a standardized measurement used to translate the varying nutritional contents of different crops into a standardized weight measure.* (See below for a more detailed explanation.) Basically, the “milled cereal equivalent” figure tends to be significantly smaller, by about 20 percent or so, than the original, total food production figure.

Since we don’t actually know exactly which number is being thrown around in analyses of the current harvest, I’ve calculated a possible milled-equivalent harvest figure, using the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I have the two different numbers from the WFP/FAO crop assessments. None of the historical estimates I’ve found correspond with the harvest numbers for previous years in the 2019 UN Needs and Priorities Plan. Crop production figures are usually given in terms of “marketing years”, not in calendar years. For simplicity’s sake, I denote each year by the second half of the marketing year, when most consumption will occur. So “2019” is the 2018/2019 marketing year, “2018” is the 2017/2018 marketing year, et cetera.

The following shows the scenario where the 4.95 million tonnes production figure is the “unmilled” cereal equivalent measure. Based on the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I’ve had data available from UN institutions (0.85 million tonnes), I’ve added and subtracted to complete the figures where necessary. This is not an exact, scientific way of looking at the harvest numbers. For exact accuracy, I’d need to calculate the milled cereal equivalent of each crop, something I don’t have time to do right now. This may well make the figure even lower. (Hazel Smith’s figure, for reference, is 3.2 million tonnes.) But the following does, at the very least, give a sense of the proportions at hand. And it makes the numbers look different from my initial assessment.

Food production, million tonnes (unmilled) Food production, million tonnes (milled)
2009.00 4.20 3.30
2010.00 5.17 4.32
2011.00 5.33 4.50
2012.00 5.50 4.66
2013.00 5.80 4.90
2014.00 5.98 5.03
2015.00 5.93 5.08
2016.00 5.92 5.07
2017.00 6.03 5.23
2018.00 5.75 5.00
2019.00 4.95 4.10

Table 1. Figures are sourced from various assessments by the WFP and FAO; contact me for exact sourcing on specific figures. 

Graphically, the trend in food production in milled terms, i.e. the lower-end, more realistic figure of how much food is available for consumption, using the above assumption for the 2019-figure, looks like this:

Graph 1. Estimate food production in North Korea, million tonnes, in milled cereal equivalent terms.

In short, this does give a rather grim and highly problematic food situation, putting the quantity of the harvest at 4.10 million tonnes. It puts North Korea back to a state of food production prior to 2010–2011, when harvest started to climb. And now, North Korea receives far less aid than it did a decade ago. Plus, its imports will only amount to 200,000 tons, the government seems to be saying, a similar amount to what it procured in imports and humanitarian aid in 2016/2017, when the harvest was much larger.

For long, this is how low North Korean harvests were. Only a few years ago, this would have looked like a rather solid harvest. Looking back in the future, it might turn out that the past few years of food production growth, since around 2011, was an abnormally good period of time. None of this means that this food situation is anything but poor.

To me, among the figures I’ve been able to find, it’s the only one that make sense in the context of the statement from UN representatives that this harvest was the worst “in a decade”. Hopefully things will become clearer over the coming days and weeks, as more information may be published, in which case I’ll update this post.

In sum, the actual food available in North Korea is, in all likelihood, much lower than the 4.95 million tonnes-figure quoted by the UN and the North Korean government. As the following graph shows, even using the North Korean government’s figures, the drop from last year doesn’t appear all that massive. But on closer inspection, the actual quantity of food available may be significantly lower than the figure the North Korean government states, as I’ve tried to show in this post.

Graph 2. Food production in North Korea, from the UN’s “2019 Needs and Priorities” report on North Korea.

Finally, a note on the issue of the markets and the public distribution system. I maintain that it’s impossible to get a sense of total food availability and circulation in North Korea as a whole, without taking the markets into account. According to most studies we have, the majority of North Korea’s population rely on these markets, rather than the public distribution system, for their sustenance.

But one has to acknowledge that just like the UN and North Korean government figures may not reflect the whole situation accurately, there may be a fair bit of bias in the data on the prevalence of the markets too. Most of this data comes from surveys done with defectors in South Korea. They overwhelmingly tend to come from the northern provinces of the country, closer to China, where market trade has traditionally been more prolific. Most sources for news from inside North Korea are based in the northern parts of the country, where one can get access to Chinese cell phone network coverage.

There’s likely another form of bias present in these surveys, too. Most people who are reliant on the PDS for their sustenance are likely underrepresented among defectors. People in state administration and security organs, for example, are less likely to leave North Korea, though that of course happens too. And in any case, we’re talking about a quite large demographic of people, whose livelihoods would be significantly impacted by cut rations. Such cuts are already happening, Daily NK reports, with some professional groups receiving only 60 percent of  what they otherwise would. The PDS may have changed shape and function quite drastically since the early 2000s, but it may also be more important to the North Korean public than the currently available survey data and reports from inside the country tells us.

Conclusion

North Korea’s food situation, though not at famine-time levels, does appear to be dire. The figures, in combination with reports from inside the country, gives serious cause for concern. Government numbers may not tell the full story since they likely underestimate the role of the markets. Nonetheless, things do look serious. The government could easily alleviate the situation by changing its spending priorities and policies. Chances are that it won’t.

Footnote:

*I’m borrowing here a footnote from a 38 North piece by the late scholar Randall Ireson, whose archive of articles remain one of the best sources for information on North Korean agriculture:

The FAO has consistently used grain equivalent (GE) values for the major crops to compensate for varying moisture and energy content. Thus, husked rice (GE) is .66 of the paddy weight, potatoes (GE) are .25 of the fresh weight, and soybean (GE) is 1.2 times the dry weight because of the high oil and thus calorie content.

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A few thoughts on North Korea’s harvest numbers

Friday, March 8th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

 

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North Korea’s 2018/2019 harvest and food shortage

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The UN has officially compiled and published the estimated harvest figure for North Korea during the 2018/2019 marketing year, and as we already knew, it lands at 4.95 million tonnes. AFP:

North Korea recorded its worst harvest for more than a decade last year, the United Nations said Wednesday (Mar 6), as natural disasters combined with its lack of arable land and inefficient agriculture to hit production.

The isolated North, which is under several sets of sanctions over its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes, has long struggled to feed itself and suffers chronic food shortages.

But last year’s harvest was just 4.95 million tonnes, the United Nations said in its Needs and Priorities assessment for 2019, down by 500,000 tonnes.

It was “the lowest production in more than a decade”, the UN’s Resident Coordinator in the North Tapan Mishra said in a statement.

“This has resulted in a significant food gap.”

As a result 10.9 million people in the North needed humanitarian assistance – 600,000 more than last year – with a potential for increased malnutrition and illness.

It is equivalent to 43 per cent of the population.

But while the number of people needing help rose, the UN has had to cut its target for people to help – from 6.0 million to 3.8 million – in the face of a lack of funding.

Only 24 per cent of last year’s appeal was met, with Mishra describing it as “one of the lowest funded humanitarian plans in the world”.

Several agencies had been forced to scale back their programmes and some faced closing projects, he said, appealing to donors to “not let political considerations get in the way of addressing humanitarian need”.

“The human cost of our inability to respond is unmeasurable,” he said, adding that sanctions had created unintended delays and challenges to humanitarian programmes, even though they are exempt under UN Security Council resolutions.

[…]

It was hit by a heatwave in July and August last year, followed by heavy rains and flash floods from Typhoon Soulik. As a result, the UN said, rice and wheat crops were down 12 to 14 per cent.

The figure is significantly larger than in the South, where rice production was down only 2.6 per cent last year, according to Seoul’s statistics, even though it experiences similar weather and climate.

The North’s soybean output slumped 39 per cent and production of potatoes – promoted by leader Kim as a way to increase supplies – was 34 per cent down, the UN said.

Last month Pyongyang told the UN that it was facing a shortfall of 1.4 million tonnes of food this year.

Full article and source:
North Korea food production ‘lowest for a decade’: UN
AFP
2019-03-06

A few thoughts on this:

The UN figures must have been updated and adjusted over the past few years, because according to the data I have at hand, 4.95 million tonnes is not nearly the worst production figure in a decade. I’m assuming that the 4.95-figure refers to the “milled tonnes equivalent” number. According to the World Food Program’s November 2011 estimate, for example, the equivalent figure for 2011/2012 was 4.66 million tonnes. But again, the numbers might have been adjusted since they were first calculated.

Like I wrote a few weeks ago, there is little to suggest a true food emergency of massive proportions. Market prices for rice, for example, have barely moved over the past few weeks, and are actually down quite a bit in the latest observation, from 4,600–4,870, to 4,200–4,210 won/kg. This might not mean much, but still, these prices tell us something. Usually, prices seem to only climb in reaction to shortages as the market gets closer to the next harvest season, and food availability becomes increasingly scarce. Expectations aren’t easy to calculate or project. It may be that the market as such isn’t even fully aware of the shortages.

While current prices alone aren’t necessarily a sufficiently certain indicator of the food situation, however, were the situation completely disastrous, we should have seen prices rise already, as farmers and others hoard grains to store up for worse times to come. Instead, prices remain stabile.

Again, that’s not to say that things aren’t bad. A ten percent decrease in the harvest, even though not disastrous, is still a notable decrease. The view from the ground in North Korea seems to unequivocally be that yes,  this year’s harvest is much worse than those of the past few years, mainly due to the dry, hot weather in the summer and fall of last year. News outlets with sources inside North Korea, such as Daily NK, have also reported – independently of the North Korean government, unlike the UN – that harvests have been notably poor.

Conditions also vary a lot between different regions and socio-economic groups. Though there’s been no wide-spread starvation in North Korea since the early 2000s, some particularly vulnerable groups do likely rely on humanitarian assistance for their sustenance.

It really is striking and strikingly problematic how little we know though. The fact that the international community isn’t even allowed to monitor the markets, the most important source of sustenance for most North Koreans, is problematic. To my knowledge, international humanitarian organizations are not allowed to survey the market system in any comprehensive way.

There’s also an important overarching question we should be asking: what about the long term? Food insecurity in North Korea did not arise with “maximum pressure” or the sanctions. It’s been a fact since the late 1980s. Humanitarian international institutions are,  I am sure, doing their best. Hopefully, they continuously to ask North Korean regime representatives what institutional, systemic changes the government is undertaking to alleviate the problem. Giving humanitarian aid without making demands for systemic change would be to let down the people in greatest need of help.

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Is North Korea’s food situation as bad as the government says? Probably not.

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(Updated 27/2: see below for clarification on the nature of the North Korean memo; the appeal was never meant to be publicized. Another minor clarification below done on 11/3.)

During the past week, both the UN and the North Korean government has made claims that its food situation is bad enough for the country to need international emergency aid. AP:

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday that food production figures provided by North Korea show “there is a food gap of about 1.4 million tons expected for 2019, and that’s crops including rice, wheat, potato and soybeans.”

Dujarric says the U.N. has “expressed and will continue to express our concern about the deteriorating food security situation” in North Korea.

He says the U.N. “at various levels” is consulting with the North Korean government “to further understand the impact of food security on the most vulnerable people, in order to take early action to address the humanitarian needs.”

A few days ago, North Korea’s UN ambassador distributed a memo (presumably to UN officials) saying that because of sanctions and unusually warm and dry weather last summer, this year’s harvest was worse than expected. NBC reported some of the contents:

Kim’s claims are difficult to verify, and his government has not always been a reliable source of internal statistics. He said a food assessment, conducted late last year in conjunction with the UN’s World Food Program, found that the country produced 503,000 fewer tons of food than in 2017 due to record high temperatures, drought, heavy rainfall and — in an unexpected admission — sanctions.

The food agency could not immediately confirm that the organization conducted an assessment with North Korea or the conclusions the country shared in the memo.

In a plea for food assistance from international organizations, however, the memo states that sanctions “restricting the delivery of farming materials in need is another major reason” the country faces shortages that has forced it to cut “food rations per capita for a family of blue or white collar workers” from 550 grams to 300 grams in January.

“All in all, it vindicates that humanitarian assistance from the UN agencies is terribly politicized and how barbaric and inhuman sanctions are,” the memo says.

The memo is worth reading in its entirety.

There are a lot of things that are strange about this memo and its contents. I’ll try to deal with as many of them as possible here. But first: how bad is the food situation, really?

This question is virtually impossible to answer accurately, because no one really knows how much food is being produced in North Korea. The World Food Program that works with the North Korean government to estimate harvest yields does what it can under difficult circumstances to accurately measure harvest yields in the country. But these measurements are severely restricted by the fact that much of food supply and production in North Korea still completely lacks transparency. For one, we know that most citizens get the majority of their food through state-administered private markets.

International agencies, however, still cannot survey these markets or study their role in food provision, because the government’s attitude to the market’s very existence remains somewhat ambivalent. The crop surveys conducted with the North Korean government simply cannot answer how much food is available throughout the system, because the markets, the most important node, cannot be assessed and studied accurately. Surveying the markets would let the WFP study the situation in its entirety,  since that way, they could take into account both imports, private plot farming, and the like.

But taking the numbers provided by North Korea and the UN at face value, it’s clear that if these numbers reflect reality, domestic food production is down since the past couple of years, but not by disastrous amounts. There’s no second “arduous march” lurking behind the corner, judging from these figures. In fact, harvests have been growing for several years, largely thanks to changes in agricultural management under Kim Jong-un.

Food production in North Korea, in millions of tons. Harvest data is usually given in “marketing years”; figures here partially based on full-year estimates earlier in the respective year. Data source: World Food Program/Food and Agriculture Organization. Graph by North Korean Economy Watch.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, market prices for rice have remained stabile. So the markets don’t seem to think there really is a true food shortage coming, even though things do seem to have gotten more difficult due to the drought. I cover this in more detail in this post, but the following graph speaks its clear language.

Average rice price for three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

At the very least,  had there been major signs of stark shortages, it would have been visible in the price data. Reports from North Korea do confirm that food production seems to be down overall, but remember, that’s from a fairly high level and after several years of increases. Over the past few years, the North Korean government and UN agencies have made similar appeals, but in the end, fortunately, no major crises seem to happen.

The strangest part about the North Korean memo is that it speaks of reduced rations of grains to  “a family of blue or white collar workers” as a result of the drought  and  sanctions. The thing is, only relatively few people and almost no civilians in North Korea actually get  their food through these government rations. The Public Distribution System (PDS, or 식량배급제도) essentially only operates for the military, shock work brigades (돌격대), and within the judicial administration (more accurate would be to say “government administration”; this is a rather nebulous category in North Korea, including large numbers of civil servants within both the central state, local government level, and policing organs). So this “white or blue collar worker” likely wouldn’t necessarily get her or his rations anyway. As far as we know, they’d go and buy their food at the market with cash instead, in most cases.

It’s often believed that North Korea doesn’t admit weaknesses such as food shortages out of political principle, but over the past few years, the government have been very public with claims of shortages on the horizon, and in asking for aid. Not because the state can’t afford to compensate for the shortfall, but because it simply has other priorities.

Reading the North Korean memo, it’s easy to suspect a connection with next week’s summit in Hanoi and the sanctions situation. By getting news stories out that civilians are starving because of sanctions – a highly questionable claim of causality – the North Korean government may be trying to create more bad press for the sanctions as such.* How can the US argue that they should be preserved, if they’re even preventing North Koreans from getting access to food? There are certainly troubling humanitarian aspects of the sanctions, but it’s difficult to imagine how they could have directly caused the harvest to dwindle.

None of this is to say that North Korea shouldn’t get food aid, that’s a different question. But the government’s basis for the appeal is rather dubious, to say the least. Hopefully, one day international humanitarian agencies will have good enough access to actually get to evaluate the country’s food situation, without constraints.

*Apparently, the memo from North Korea’s UN ambassador was leaked, not intentionally distributed. A person with insight into the issue and appeals process tells me the appeal was never meant to be publicized. This makes my interpretation above far less likely, though the direct impacts of sanctions on the harvest is still questionable.

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Popular mobilization for manure collection in North Korea

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

Daily NK reports that large-scale mobilization is underway in North Korea, for citizens to gather manure for agricultural use:

The North Korean authorities have launched a new “battle” to support the aims of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address, and are moving to restrict residents from engaging in private business.

The country held a massive rally on January 4 at Kim Il Sung Square to garner support for the aims set out in the address. Another rally was held outside Pyongyang where Kim Jong Un pledged to continue North Korea’s economic development.

“The government decided that the first ‘battle’ of the New Year in support of Kim Jong Un’s address was to be held from January 4-10,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on Sunday. “Orders for the battle were handed down on January 5 and mobilization began thereafter.”

The new battle focused on the annual drive to collect manure (including night soil) for biological fertilizer from farms in the country’s agricultural regions, while city residents focused on improving their collection rates. The “manure collection” in rural areas also involved organizations and people from the cities.

In an effort to ensure that an atmosphere of total mobilization was created, local police actively restricted freight trucks, vans and other vehicles transporting goods and people from driving on the streets during the course of the battle.

“The authorities threatened to send private business people violating the order to disciplinary labor centers (rodong dallyeondae),” a source in South Hamgyong Province reported.

Local provincial governments generally engage in “battles” at the beginning of each year in tandem with the annual New Year’s Address, but it’s unusual for the whole country to hold a battle for an entire week.

Full article:
North Korea’s population mobilized for manure collection
Kim Yoo Jin
Daily NK
2019-01-15

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