Is North Korea in a pre-famine state? Part 1



I have heard considerable worry expressed that North Korea may be sliding back into pre-famine conditions. The alarm seems to stem from two basic concerns: reports from international organizations that existing nutritional conditions are bad together with reports of inadequate rainfall or drought, possibly linked to a developing El Niño weather pattern, foreshadowing a poor harvest.

On the first issue, historically the most reliable information in nutritional conditions has come through the World Food Program. But the WFP’s activities in North Korea have been so scaled back that they no longer conduct household surveys or focus groups with the rigor that they did 10 or 15 years ago. So the quality of the information coming through the WFP is by necessity sketchier than it once was. Another, and at this time perhaps more rigorous source of information, are surveys done by UNICEF. The most recent one found that 10 percent of the two-year olds in the country were severely stunted. Most recently the press reported that one in six North Korean children under the age of 5 years old were chronically malnourished, citing the World Bank.

But the figure was taken from a large cross-national data set, and frankly, the specific figures for countries like North Korea in such data sets are sometimes speculative. So it pays to check. In this case, the press seem to have gotten it wrong: the 15.2 percent figure applies to “underweight,” a short-term indicator, not “stunting,” the conventional measure of chronic malnutrition. The World Bank got the data from the World Health Organization. But when one goes to the WHO website, the most recent observation dated September-October 2012 does not appear to be consistent with the one out of six claim. Indeed, it appears to be the aforementioned UNICEF survey. Talk about being in an echo chamber.

So what we seem to have are a variety of noisy surveys pointing to a common conclusion: existing nutritional conditions are bad, and that the severity of the issue varies by socio-economic status and geographic region.

Then there are the related issues of the existing “grain balance” and weather conditions. As in the case of nutritional standards, North Korea does not cooperate with the international agencies as it once did, and the Food and Agriculture Organization was forced to use indirect observation in its last food assessment. That report concluded that the country would experience an uncovered grain deficit of 107,000 metric tons during the current harvest cycle. (A more recent update dated February 2015 does not change this story materially or alter the specific figure.) However, given world grain prices, it would seem that this gap could be closed via minor expenditure switching in the government, of even the military, budget. As in the case of nutrition, the starting point is not good, but at least in terms of the grain balance, the resolution would seem readily amenable to policy.

Now weather. Rainfall was low in 2014, and on the basis of satellite imagery, Curtis Melvin has reported significant shrinkage of lakes and reservoirs, including in the breadbasket of North and South Hwanghae provinces. Curtis also reports a statement carried in the Pyongyang Times which appears to acknowledge the growing challenge. Resident UN coordinator Ghulam Isaczai is quoted in a Reuters story that the water scarcity is causing problems for electrical generation. This situation could rebound negatively on agricultural production: while the North Koreans have made progress is shifting to gravity-based systems, they are still reliant on electricity for some irrigation. Earlier this month, an unnamed South Korean Unification Ministry official was quoted by Yonhap as indicating that food production could fall by 15-20 percent this year if the normal seasonal rain pattern in June and July does not pick up. (He also indicated that the difficulties were exacerbated by irregular fertilizer supplies.) The reported mobilization of urban residents to support agricultural activities could be interpreted as an indirect indicator that something is amiss, and that the authorities are trying to, in effect, substitute labor for other inputs. Indeed, the International Food Policy Research Institute reports that land productivity in North Korea actually fell between 2007 and 2012, making it the worst performer in Asia.

If the rains come, production might take a smaller hit, on the order of 5-10 percent, according to the unnamed MOU official quoted by Yonhap. And other analysts argue that policy changes in agriculture are raising farm productivity ameliorating the impact of the adverse weather. Kwon Tae-jin, a longtime observer of North Korean agriculture maintains that agricultural reforms are working, and that “Supply this year will be even more stable and any shortfall is likely to be met sufficiently with imports.” Yet at the same time, the DailyNK is reporting that weak harvests are posing problems for the sharecropping arrangements of the so-called June 28th agricultural reform measures by unduly squeezing producers.

So again, the situation is not good, but it is contingent on weather over the next month or so. And even if the country dodges the bullet this year, the El Niño effect could extend this drought into the next.

Tomorrow: prices and the bottom line.

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