Food Backgrounder



In the next several weeks, we will be following the unfolding food crisis and aid debate in the US and South Korea very closely. But it is worthwhile to begin with some background on the current crisis.

The problems started last April with an unusually cold planting season for winter wheat (harvested in November-December); even though wheat only accounts for 3-5 percent of the annual cereal harvest, marginal supplies always matter greatly when there are severe shortages. The cold delayed the planting of rice as well. Relatively favorable rainfall in June and July raised hopes, as did reports of improved access to inputs, no doubt from the Chinese. Inputs have been a major constraint since the Lee Myung Bak cut fertilizer shipments to the North in 2008.

But then flooding in late August and September of last year led to crop loss in South Hwanghae, North and South Pyongan and South Hamgyong provinces. When the FAO did its crop assessment in November, its headline crop figure—a 3 percent increase over 2009/10—was misread as signaling a substantial improvement. In fact, this was by no means adequate to overcome a very large food deficit for the year (“Despite the relatively good harvest, based on the Mission’s estimate of total utilization needs of 5.35 million tonnes of cereal equivalent (rice in milled terms), there is an import requirement of 867 000 tonnes for the 2010/11 marketing year (November/October).”

We have taken issue with FAO crop assessments in the past because of a tendency to overstate the level of distress. Additionally, shortages could be the result at least in part of inventory building, either for the military or for the celebrations planned for 2012 when North Korea will emerge as a “strong and prosperous” nation.

But with those caveats, information leaking out from the NGO assessment as well as initial press briefings from the FAO/WFP joint assessment team that just left the country paint a dire picture. One of the coldest winters in the postwar period could result in crop losses of up 50 percent of spring wheat and barley crops as well as potato seedlings in seriously-affected areas. These spring crops don’t account for much of total cereal production but they break the “lean season” in the spring and soften the blow of crops lost due to summer rains. The NGO team saw all the typical signs of mounting distress: increasing signs of malnutrition, declining birth weights, evidence of foraging for inferior foods.

On top of that, food prices have been rising both globally and particularly in North Korea itself, as we have documented. North Korea had planned to purchase 325,000 metric tons of food on the global market this year, but rapidly rising food prices have caused them to reduce that estimate to 200,000 metric tons. Only a fraction of this amount has been purchased thus far.

Kurt Campbell has been in Seoul seeking to work out a joint approach with the South Koreans, who remain hesitant to move; Hankyoreh outlines the predictable splits on the issue in the South.

But there have been some pretty strange reactions in the US as well. Chris Hill ends a recent editorial by asking “whether the short-term cost in human lives is worth the potential long-term benefits (also in terms of human lives) that a famine-induced collapse of North Korea could bring.” That would be a great bet if Ambassador Hill could assure us that North Korea would indeed collapse into our hands. But this sounds like the old “regime change” trope to us. The likelihood that North Koreans will go malnourished is not a fantasy, however; it’s happening as we dither.

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