China: North Korea’s food savior?



Former President Jimmy Carter’s recent claim that the United States and South Korea were violating North Korea’s human rights by denying it food aid produced a firestorm of protest, and a counterargument that China has massive grain stores, and if North Korea needs aid, it can easily be supplied by China. (Ergo if Carter wants to hector someone, buy a ticket to Beijing.)

But discussions in the food security community are calling into question the basic presumption that China’s reserves are really all that they are claimed to be.  There are two strands to this dissent.  As summarized by Zhang Hongzhou at the RSIS in Singapore, the are suspicions that the reported reserve figures themselves are false: “it has been suspected by that many of the state-owned grain depots have in fact been empty or been used for other purposes. Although this suspicion was denied by the grain authorities, reporters’ investigations seemed to defy the official conclusion. The grain depots that caught fire in Sichuan and Jiangxi provinces recently exposed non-grain items being stored such as jelly, coke and meat. This suggests that China’s grain reserves might be lower, if not significantly, than the official figures.”

The second line of argument is that even if current reserves are high, they may be drawn down for purely domestic purposes, and their long-run viability is questionable. Adam Wolfe, of Roubini Global Economics writes: “The fear this year is that China’s wheat production could fall well short of its consumption needs, which would result in a large jump in demand for globally traded wheat. In February, the Food and Agriculture Organization issued a warning that drought and freezing weather in China’s major wheat-producing region could threaten the winter harvest. While growing conditions have improved, in part thanks to the government’s irrigation efforts, prospects for the more important autumn harvest remain uncertain. China has enjoyed a bumper crop for five consecutive years, and a reversion to the mean would imply about a 15-million-ton decline in wheat production for 2011. China’s wheat stocks are estimated to be somewhere between 60 million tons (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and 100 million tons (National Development and Reform Commission), which should be enough to cover the shortfall for this year. However, in the longer term, China’s wheat imports are likely to follow the path of corn and soybeans.” Wolfe goes on to argue that China’s evolution could determine the secular trajectory of global grain prices—which matter enormously for North Korea’s food security.

Wolfe’s argument points to an observation that we have made repeatedly: there is a tendency for Korea-watchers to overemphasize foreign policy concerns and ignore the role of Chinese domestic politics (particularly food prices) in determining China’s aid policy toward North Korea.  Each time that North Korea has been pushed to the food security brink in the last twenty years, Chinese policy, motivated by internal concerns, has been the precipitating driver. Such is life in a tributary state.

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