Famine in North Korea? The Evidence

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Marcus Noland (PIIE)

Op-ed in the Korea Herald

May 20, 2008

Once again North Korea is headed toward widespread food shortages, hunger, and famine. Hunger-related deaths are now virtually certain. These developments require the international community — the United States, China, Japan, nongovernmental organizations, and above all South Korea — to make difficult judgments about the extent of the distress and the appropriate response.

Before considering the options, it is important to review the evidence in a measured way. Exaggeration will only breed cynicism — as it already has — making it more difficult to respond when real crises erupt. But some unpleasant arithmetic and evidence we have from NGOs, the media, church groups, and the North Korean government’s own pronouncements all point to the onset of serious distress.

Food balances

A central challenge of dealing with authoritarian regimes — now visible in Burma as well — is that even basic economic information is guarded like state secrets. To take the most obvious example, we do not know with any certainty the population of North Korea and by extension grain requirements for human consumption, the largest component of demand. Nor do we know with much precision local grain production, the largest component of supply.

It appears that local harvests have been declining since 2005 as a result of fertilizer shortages, bad agricultural policy, and adverse weather. Current fertilizer shortages are setting the stage for a reduced harvest this year as well.

For years U.N. agencies have overstated grain needs in North Korea. These agencies are forced by diplomatic protocol to rely on North Korean official numbers. We now believe that they are understating supply. For example, the Food and Agricultural Organization recently cut their estimate of North Korean output downward by a whopping 25 percent, claiming a shortfall of over 1.6 million metric tons. If these numbers were correct, North Korea would already be experiencing widespread famine; South Korean think tanks have argued, rightly in our view, that the declines are more modest.

The result of these claims is that year after year the U.N. agencies calculate implausibly large shortages. In effect, these agencies have been crying wolfbut now the wolf really is at the door.

We have adjusted the U.N.’s human consumption estimate, in part by considering the role of other types of food in the North Korean diet. We also calculate total supply on the basis of less politicized sources. This exercise, shown in Figure 1, demonstrates that food balances in North Korea are more precarious that at any time since the famine of the 1990s. The margin of error between grain requirements and available supply has virtually disappeared and may be as low as 100,000 metric tons.

The changed aid picture

Declining local harvests mean that North Korea is ever more dependent on foreign grain, either in the form of aid or commercial imports. At one level, this dependence makes sense. Given the scarcity of arable land and unfavorable weather, North Korea’s pursuit of self-sufficiency has always been fundamentally misguided. The ultimate solution to the country’s chronic food problems is to export industrial products and import bulk grains on a commercially sustainable basis — just as its neighbors, South Korea, Japan, and increasingly China, do.

But with the regime unwilling or unable to pursue such reforms, North Korea has become highly dependent on aid, receiving large donations of food year after year despite claims of selfreliance and juche.

However, the willingness of donors to support the regime has declined. Pyongyang’s nuclear provocation and its refusal to guarantee the integrity of its aid programs, including diversion of aid to both the military and the market, have soured North Korea’s relationships with key donors.