Archive for the ‘International Aid’ Category

Did North Korea really see its best harvest “on record last year?

Friday, January 17th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As I and Peter Ward discovered some weeks ago, the claim by Kim Jong-un that North Korea had its “best harvest on record” did not make it into the English-language summary of Kim’s plenum speech put out by KCNA. Several media outlets have picked up on this claim, and that is not surprising. Not even a year ago, last spring and summer, both the North Korean government and UN organs sounded the alarm bells that North Korea’s harvest was so disastrous as to suggest a famine might be looming.

So what happened?

First of all, it should be noted, as always, that one must be extremely cautious in studying data on anything related to the North Korean economy. Most people who follow North Korea are well aware of this but especially when it comes to an issue like this, one cannot be cautious enough.

I focus here on the claim by Kim that the harvest was the best “on record”. It may well have been a good harvest, or at least a much better one than anticipated. This seems to be the case. The only attempt I’ve seen at a numerical estimate comes from South Korea’s Rural Development Administration. They estimate that North Korea’s harvest grew by around two percent in 2019 over 2018. This sounds fairly plausible and could perhaps be explained by weather conditions unexpectedly improving, or fertilizer donations from China, and the like. Or the government and FAO’s projections were simply wrong from the beginning.

To understand why it is so unlikely that this year’s harvest would be the best on record, we have to look at what ‘the record” really says. The following graph shows North Korean harvest figures between 1990 and 2017, as recorded by the FAO. These figures are not independently recorded or verified but, to the best of my knowledge, generated by FAO in cooperation with the North Korean government, or provided directly by the government. Usually, that would be a problem, but here, it’s actually quite helpful since it helps us analyze the claim about the “record”.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: FAOSTAT.

I downloaded these numbers from the FAO database some months ago. For whatever reason, I’m unable to access the data at their website at this time of writing, and therefore, can’t fill in the data further back. This data also differs somewhat from other data on North Korean harvests from the World Food Program and FAO. Still, they match quite closely with other data the two organizations have published in recent years about North Korean food production. Again, keep in mind that this data is produced and published in concert with the North Korean government. In that sense, these numbers are the “record”.

Over the past few years, estimated harvests have gravitated between four and five million tons in milled rice equivalent.  (You can read more here about what that actually means.) In 1993, North Korea’s record of harvests notes 7.5 million tons. Harvests hovered around 8 million tons in the 1980s – again, to the best of my recollection, as I can’t access the FAO statistics database numbers of North Korea at this time of writing.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: WFP/FAO. 2019 is a projected figure.

For Kim’s claim to be true, therefore, this past year’s harvest would have had to go from around five million tons in 2018, to surpassing eight million tons in 2019. I am no agricultural economist, but Kim would likely need something like a miracle of nature for this to happen. I am not aware of North Korea’s landmass suddenly doubling, for example, or the amount of arable land increasing by one third overnight. Therefore, Kim’s claim is most likely, beyond reasonable doubt, simply not true. Note also that outlets such as Daily NK have reported that the government has taken predatory measures against grain trade as a result of what the outlet describes as “poor agricultural yields”.

In other words, there is very little to back up the claim made by Kim (and subsequently by North Korea-affiliated Choson Sinbo). This claim is a break with a pattern over the past few years, where North Korean media has been very frank – often, probably exaggerating – in describing difficulties and damage caused by flooding and inclement weather. There are several reasons why this may have changed with regards to the harvest. For one, food security a very basic need for any country. With bad food security, North Korea appears weak in the face of sanctions. It would hardly be the first time the North Korean government lied for strategic, propaganda purposes. It is also possible that harvests were much better than anticipated, and that Kim’s claim is merely a strong exaggeration. Perhaps “best on record” should be read as a superlative, rhetorical claim rather than a literal one. At the end of the day, we simply don’t know, and the ways of the inefficient North Korean bureaucracy are mysterious.

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Seoul wires $8 million to North Korea in humanitarian aid

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Note: this is not a lot of money in context. It covers only a small part of what WFP and others estimate as the funding need.

Yonhap:

South Korea on Tuesday sent a pledged donation of US$8 million to U.N. agencies to support their efforts to provide assistance to North Korean women and children in need, the unification ministry said.

Last week, the Seoul government endorsed the donation plan for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for their projects to support the nutrition of children and pregnant women in North Korea and address their health problems.

Of the total, $4.5 million was allocated to the WFP and the remainder to UNICEF.

The money was remitted to the agencies Tuesday afternoon, according to the unification ministry.

A ministry official said earlier in the day that it will take more time before the money will be actually spent on the agencies’ projects in North Korea, adding that they are working on reducing the time before its implementation in consideration of the urgent need of many North Korean people.

Article source:
Seoul wires promised money to U.N. agencies for N.K. projects
Yonhap News
2019-06-11

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North Korean media reports drought impacts on rice harvest

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap:

North Korean state media highlighted worsening water shortages in one of the country’s major rice-producing regions on Wednesday, raising worries about possible harm to this year’s harvest.

“Not a few areas in the South Hwanghae Province are now facing serious water shortage caused by a combination of various factors,” the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North’s ruling party, said in an article.

The paper said that the water reservoirs in some areas of the province are falling below normal levels, making it hard for farmers to plant rice in their paddies as scheduled.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency also reported that the drought is hindering rice-planting efforts in South Hwanghae Province, expecting that precipitation will likely stay low until mid-June.

Hwanghae Province is known as one of the largest rice-producing areas for North Korea. The apparently ongoing drought in North Korea is feared to aggravate the already strained food supply in the impoverished state.

Article source:
N. Korean media highlight drought in major rice-producing province
Yonhap News
2019-06-05

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Famine, Amartya Sen, and the Markets of North Korea

Monday, May 20th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market factor in North Korea’s current food crisis* sometimes seems unclear. Some have talked about the market compensating for what the state doesn’t provide in the event of a food shortage. But the WFP’s methodology should cover for that. They don’t only calculate collective farms yields specifically, but arable land and production in general. Their estimates may (it’s not entirely clear) be based on data for total farmland available provided by the state, and there are some types of plots that wouldn’t be covered in that case. But WFP uses satellite imagery to verify official information on production figures (see p. 5 of their rapid food security assessment for North Korea).

We don’t know how big a proportion of the total amount of food produced in North Korea is sold on the markets, and how much is distributed through state and semi-state channels such as enterprises and factories, which are sometimes partially operated privately. In any case, when they measure total harvests, this likely, at the very least, includes most sources for the food that’s sold on markets. So a drop in total production still means lower market supply.

So why are markets still so important to understand food security, and why is it a problem that WFP cannot access them freely? Rest assured, this is not for a lack of trying. From pp. 6–8 (my emphasis added):

The assessment team also experienced challenges in accessing markets and acquiring market-related data. However, the team was not able to visit farmers’ markets during the field visit. While authorization was granted at national level to visit farmer’s markets, county authorities informed that they were not able to receive any foreign delegation on the day. Market visits are highly recommended to fill this information gap in future assessments. Finally, the team could only gather limited information on people’s incomes and expenditures during the household surveys.

Again, WFP’s conclusions are still highly relevant and meaningful. But as they themselves recognize, markets are crucial for understanding the microeconomic conditions on the ground in North Korea.

The most important reason, perhaps, is that distribution of food is just as important as food production for food security. As Amartya Sen has shown, food security is often more about who has an “entitlement” to food than about precisely how much food is around. This is where North Korea’s markets come in. Total production is an important metric to be sure, but to really understand how food is distributed, and who gets to eat, we have to also understand precisely how the markets work. We need to understand who uses them and how much they’re able to buy. Prices tell us something about overall supply (though as I have argued, probably not the full story).

Especially in a country like North Korea, where access to food and sustenance is a political matter, distribution (or entitlements) is more than total food production for food security. The markets are a crucial mechanism for distribution in North Korea. As long as WFP isn’t allowed to survey them, and to do more extensive household surveys freely in the country, we won’t truly know what food security looks like.

 

*We still don’t know that there is a crisis at hand, although the food situation appears very poor.

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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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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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