Most of the food consumed in North Korea is produced locally and as a consequence weather has a considerable impact on food availability. Yet the importance of weather can be exaggerated, and has sometimes been used politically, as means to sidestep concerns about North Korean policy and instead move directly to attributing food shortages to acts of God. This misdirection is most notable with respect to the famine of the 1990s, where some supporters of aid to North Korea consistently frame that episode as a result of floods and other natural disasters, when it is quite obvious that the famine emerged before the disasters, which though surely destructive, were subsequently exaggerated in magnitude by the regime.
So it is understandable if outside observers regard North Korean weather-related claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. That skepticism is reinforced if the initial bearers of the news are KCNA, the state news agency, and AP, which has been caught propagating North Korean disinformation. So before delving tomorrow into a number of rapidly emerging policy issues surrounding the food situation in North Korea, we thought that it would be worthwhile to examine the weather story carefully.
There are basically two components. The first concerns problems stemming from events last year, and the second is prospective problems emerging from climatic events this year.
With respect to the first issue, in June and July 2011, typhoons and torrential rains reportedly damaged 60,000 hectares of farmland in the southwestern breadbasket region of the country. The real problem however, has been in how the state has responded in the aftermath. Due to its proximity to Pyongyang and key military installations, while this region is fertile, it is also heavily “taxed” and the nutritional status of civilian residents is surprisingly low, as Hazel Smith and others have pointed out. The Japanese group ASIAPRESS has developed networks in the region, and their reporting together with GoodFriends has underscored the political origins of emerging stories of acute shortages. These included excessive exactions from the region, including for the military and for the Day of the Sun celebrations in Pyongyang in April, coupled with a crackdown on markets during the 100-day mourning period. Rural residents may be more vulnerable to the closing of markets than city dwellers who have access to more numerous opportunities. Back in April, Tokyo Shimbun reported that 20,000 people had died in South Hwanghae since the death of Kim Jong Il; how they could possibly know this is anybody’s guess. But the reporting of ASIAPRESS, GoodFriends, and a string of good stories in the DailyNK lend credence to the claim that deaths are occurring in the region.
The second issue has to do with emerging stories of drought along the west coast, where much of North Korea’s grain is produced. A fundamental issue is how much credence to give data produced by the Hydro-meteorological Service of the DPRK. If these data are accepted at face value, then it is claimed that this year’s weather to date would constitute the worst drought in 50 years. We were able to find average monthly precipitation for Pyongyang and Haeju —which could be regarded as proxies for the southwest—and if the data provided by the North Korean authorizes is accurate then rainfall is indeed far below historical averages. In a widely cited report, the FAO noted this week that the North Korean National Coordinating Committee (NCC) had claimed that 17 percent of the national cropland had been affected, though the FAO report indicates that they were reporting the NCC statement, and does had not imply that they had independently verified this information themselves, a caveat lost in all the press coverage that we have seen.
Indeed, the FAO reported that in November and April the country had previously received “generally favorable rains” which had supported the spring harvest, but that the problem had emerged in May. During the first half of June the pattern had been mixed, with normal rainfall returning to South and North Pyongan, while North and South Hwanghae continued to experience below average rain.
In sum, we have stories of worsening food insecurity in North Korea connected in part to state behavior in the aftermath of weather problems last year. There are emerging stories of weather problems this year and by extension the possibility of worsening food availability later in the year, but this narrative appears to rest largely, if not completely, on unverified North Korean official claims. Given the past history, one is reminded of the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Tomorrow we look at the policy issues in more depth.