Well, the rains came and it appears that the worst will be avoided. According to the Ministry of Unification, after May rains only reached 55 percent of their normal levels, precipitation picked up in June, reaching 90 percent of the norm. While the fall harvest may be adversely affected, the normal June-July monsoon type rains are most critical for most crops (see figure 1 of the GIEWS Update if you’re really into it).
This doesn’t mean North Korea is completely out of the woods or some might not suffer. UNICEF is reporting an upsurge in children’s diarrhea, a leading cause of death among children worldwide. According to UNICEF Regional Director Daniel Toole, “Lack of rain reduces access to clean water and undermines effective hygiene, putting children’s lives at risk.” The agency reports increases in childhood diarrhea: a 71 percent increase in North Hwanghae province; a 34 percent increase in South Hamgyong province; and a 140 percent increase in South Hwanghae province for the first six months of the year. As I observed in an earlier post, the sensitivity of the population to such shocks is heightened by the pre-existing poor nutritional status of many children in North Korea.
To make matters worse, the FAO reported last week that authorities had cut the July distributions through the public distribution system (PDS) to “310 grams per person per day, a 25 percent decrease from the previous month. Between January and June 2015, the average food ration was 410 grams per person per day.” This isn’t good news, but not clear how bad this news is either: the PDS had become largely irrelevant for much of the population, particularly the most vulnerable groups which have more or less operated outside of it for 20 years. Nevertheless, even though most North Korean households do not rely on the PDS for most of their consumption needs, a cut in rations does hurt at the margin, and could be propagated throughout the society if those who do get food via the PDS turn to the market, putting upward pressure on prices there.