Throughout the last month, the world media has written extensively on the food situation in North Korea. The scare was produced by a drought that is affecting a significant part of the country. Recently, the North Korean media claimed that this drought is “the worst in a hundred years”, and the foreign media response has been to recall the disastrous famine which in the late 1990s killed between 600,000 and 900,000 North Koreans.
There is little doubt that the reports about the drought are true. Foreigners who recently visited the North Korean countryside report massive water shortages. In many cases soldiers and students are mobilized to bring water to the fields in baskets. Blackouts are common, since electricity generation in North Korea heavily depends on the water supply, and reservoirs are almost empty now.
Nonetheless, it appears that the alarming reports which recently flooded world media are exaggerated. Over the last two decades North Korea has changed, and now it is much better equipped to deal with the challenges presented by the forces of nature.
There are at least two reasons why North Korea is much less vulnerable now. The major reason is related to the changes in how the country’s agriculture is managed, but changes in the attitude to the outside world are likely to be helpful as well.
One should keep in mind that the last year was marked by very similar reports. Indeed, in the spring of 2014 a massive drought hit North Korea, and alarming reports predictably appeared in the world’s media. However, the much-feared famine did not happen. On the contrary, in 2014 the North Korean farmers produced the best harvest in 25 years.
The major reason behind this success is changes in agricultural management. Since 2013 North Korea began a slow and largely unannounced switch towards a household-based system of agricultural management. While exact details differ from one area to another, the basic principles are the same everywhere. Now the harvest is shared between the farmers and the state.
In the past, the farmers worked for fixed rations, and the results of their efforts had little or no impact on their income. But North Korean farmers are not modern-day slaves any more. Rather, they are sharecroppers, so they work much harder.
The first year in which the new system was operational, 2013, saw a record harvest. For the first time in decades, North Korea produced nearly enough food to feed its population, albeit on a subsistence level. The next harvest, in spite of the drought, was even better.
There are good reasons to believe that this year, once again, North Korean farmers who now work not for the glory of the party and leader, but for themselves, will again produce a great harvest. It is more likely, though, that the harvest will be less impressive than last year, albeit not disastrously low.
However, if there are shortfalls, North Korea now has a second line of defense. It is not coincidental that talk about the “worst drought in a hundred years” was initiated by the North Korean government media. Gone are the times when North Korean journalists were banned from reporting anything bad about their country.
Nowadays, North Korean authorities understand that if they need foreign aid, they had better prepare world public opinion to draw pledges. This is done in a simple but efficient way: Once the North Korean government comes to the conclusion that foreign aid might become necessary, it orders its media to run stories about natural disasters, and even invites foreigners and representatives of aid agencies to witness the problems of the North Korean countryside. This is what the North Korea media did in 2007, 2012, 2014, and this is what it is doing right now.
So, if things get really tough, North Korean government will not hesitate to request aid. In the 1990s that was seen as shameful, but this is not the case anymore. If anything, the North Korean authorities have learned how to manipulate donors, and this is exactly what they are doing now.
At any rate, their efforts are not in vain. China and South Korea have already made clear that they would provide food assistance if requested by the North Korean government.
The drought is therefore a test. But there are good reasons to think that newly empowered North Korean farmers will cope with the situation. And, if worst comes to worst, the world is both willing and able to help.