A fast-spreading livestock disease in North Korea threatens to aggravate the chronic food shortage in the reclusive country, where oxen are key to farm production.
More than 10,000 oxen, cows, and pigs have been infected in the outbreak of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth (FMD) disease, and thousands have already died, North Korea’s official news agency said in a statement last week.
The statement came after RFA reported that North Korea had appealed to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for help in containing the spread of the disease.
Stephen Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, said on Monday that the impact of the disease will not be limited to direct effects on North Korea’s “precarious food supplies."
“North Korean agriculture is also heavily dependent on draft animals for both plowing and transport,” Haggard wrote in a Peterson Institute blog.
In an interview with RFA, Taeijin Kwon, the vice-president for agricultural economics at the Seoul-based Korea Rural Economic Institute, agreed, noting that only about half of North Korea’s arable land is tilled by tractor.
“The rest is plowed by oxen,” Kwon said.
“[And] if the foot-and-mouth disease is not contained, and the crops are not good from half the farmland, the food shortage could be very serious.”
“Even if they till the land later, using tractors, if you can’t till the land at the proper time, the damage will have been done,” Kwon said.
The FAO has now said it will send three to five experts, including a veterinarian, to North Korea to assess the likely impact of the outbreak and to determine what help North Korea may need to combat the spread of the disease.
An outbreak reported in late November by neighboring South Korea resulted in the culling of over three million head of livestock in that country, followed by then-unconfirmed reports that the disease had spread to the north.
North Korea faces a food deficit of 542,000 tons in the year ending October 2011, the World Food Program said on Nov. 17 after officials visited the country two months earlier.
"A small shock in the future could trigger a severe negative impact and will be difficult to contain if these chronic deficits are not effectively managed," warned Joyce Luma, chief of the WFP's food security analysis unit and co-leader of the mission to North Korea, in the November statement.
Outbreaks of the foot-and-mouth disease virus have also been reported in China, Japan, Mongolia, eastern Russia, and parts of Southeast Asia recently, prompting statements of concern from U.N. agriculture experts.
“The current FMD dynamics in eastern Asia, as well as the magnitude of the outbreak in South Korea, are unlike anything we’ve seen for at least a half a century,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth said at the end of January.
“Authorities in Asia should make sure they are in a position to detect any instances of the disease and respond rapidly in an appropriate way,” Lubroth said.
Reported and translated by Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Richard Finney.