The Food Situation in North Korea: Contested facts and possibly incoherent behavior



An occupational hazard of trying to follow the North Korean food economy is a perverse variant of the cry wolf syndrome. In the original “cry wolf” folk tales, the townspeople come to discount the warnings because they don’t materialize—until they do. In the perverse variant, the warnings are always true but the audience simply gets tired of hearing them. The current North Korean case appears to manage to combine both variants simultaneously.

Yesterday we covered the natural disaster story. To recap, North Korea got too much rain last year damaging farmland in the southwest breadbasket. According to reports from multiple sources, the state has overreached this year, extracting too much food from the region, generating acute shortages, and possibly even hunger-related deaths.

This year drought appears to be developing which could adversely affect the main fall harvest in North and South Hwanghae provinces, though all or nearly all of the public discussion is based on North Korean official data that has not been subject to independent verification.

These developments occur against a backdrop that was not particularly good to start.  In October 2011, the FAO/WFP estimated that despite an improved harvest, that the country faced an uncovered grain deficit of 414,000 metric tons, equivalent to two months of PDS rations for the entire country, largely due a lack of commercial imports. We argued that the UN estimate was exaggerated, but nevertheless, the country faced a shortage on the order of 240,000 metric tons.

Much of the distress is concentrated in the northeast which continues to face chronic problems that have existed for 20 years or more: with limited arable land and either large urban agglomerations or sparsely populated mountainous areas, this part of the country is vulnerable to the weaknesses of the food distribution system. In the modern world, you should not have to live near a farm to be fed. But this part of the country has the highest levels of child and adult malnutrition and has historically been triaged when the food situation deteriorates seriously. Just last week, we reported on child malnutrition across provinces the rates of stunting and underweight in North and South Hamgyong and Yanggang are 70-100 percent higher than in Pyongyang.

Serendipitously our estimate of unmet needs coincided with the figure reached in the “Leap Day Deal” which was scuttled by the North Korean missile launch. One hopes that the North Koreans got whatever internal pay-off they were after, because the launch appears to have adversely impacted their ability to meet their food needs. So how have the North Koreans, South Korean, and Americans reacted to these emerging problems?

Let’s start with the North Koreans. On the one hand, the regime appears to be scrambling to make up the food deficit (see Goodfriends 457 on a supposed directive by Kim Jong Un to loosen up Party money for food purposes). Yet James Church aka Brawlin’ Bob Carlin and others have emphasized that recent speeches by leader Kim Jong-un have denied the need for belt-tightening. An odd communications strategy if one expects to implement austerity. Moreover, the North Koreans declined to pay the $6 million owed on their past food aid loans, which would seem odd behavior if one was concerned about emerging shortages and the likely need to seek aid. Puzzling.

So what about the South Koreans?  Well, they made a public case of the $6 million loan repayment, presumably reducing the likelihood that the North Koreans would actually pay.  Then both named and unnamed government sources let it be known that if the weather-related problems could be independently verified, that they would be open to resuming aid.  Then within days they appeared to slam shut this door, announcing that the problems “do not seem as serious as expected.” More puzzling.

And how about the US?  In justifying walking away from the Leap Day Deal, the Obama Administration explicitly linked missiles and aid, a departure from the non-linkage policy that the US had articulated since at least the Reagan Administration. Then NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor let fly with the statement that millions of North Koreans were starving. Then the Senate took up legislation that would have prohibited the storied PL-480 account from being used to support food aid to North Korea.  The same legislation had been adopted in the House last year; this time around, the amendment to the Farm Bill offered by Sen. John Kyl (R-Az) was rejected in favor of an amendment co-sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations committee chair Sen. John Kerry (D-Ma) and ranking member Sen. Richard Lugar (R-In) which banned the use of PL-480 funds for North Korea, but contained a presidential waiver provision.  (How do you say WTF in Korean?)

In short, we’re not sure of the facts and all the players appear to be acting incoherently.

But Haggard wants to impose order on this mess, so here goes:

“What does it all mean? First, the leadership has a problem on its hands. Walking away from US food and undertaking policies that exacerbate shortages is not the way to meet expectations of a kinder, gentler leadership. Will Kim Jong Un respond by falling back on controls or will this nudge the regime to innovate? You can probably guess my priors; it will be a messy mix.

But the shortages could also be a factor in the new effort to project an image of restraint—in the form of the promise not to test--and to collect on it. My colleague Marc Noland has coined the term pre-emptive bribery [think that I could copyright it?] and I hope it sticks: get the world to pay for you decision not to be provocative. But there is a genuine humanitarian issue looming yet again; the drought will affect yields of the main rice crop now being sown. It’s déjà vu all over again.”

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