Another bad harvest in hungry North Korea underscores root cause of food crisis

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Another bad harvest in hungry North Korea underscores root cause of food crisis North Koreans distribute fertilizer on the banks of the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong in 2014.

A poor harvest in North Korea may raise the risks that the country will face a repeat of the devastating famine it suffered in the 1990s that left millions of citizens dead.

Sources said a number of factors have left North Korea on the brink of another disaster: devastating summer floods from climate change, compounded by a lack of effort in the country to meet the environmental threat; a trade ban with China that shut off its number one source of food imports; and an antiquated collectivist agricultural system that destroys incentives to produce.

Moreover, the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is likely to leave it largely ineligible for significant food aid from countries outside of traditional allies China, which resumed trade with North Korea on Nov. 1, and Russia.

This is a crisis that has been years in the making, and the normally secretive government in Pyongyang has been warning its citizens of troubles for months.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization projected in June that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, or the amount that the population of 25 million consumes in about two months.

With 40 percent of that population undernourished, according to World Food Program estimates, and with starvation deaths already reported this year, the autumn harvest had to go off without a hitch. It did not.

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Credit: Reuters

“Farming was not good this year” a collective farmer from the country’s northeastern province of North Hamgyong told the Osaka-based North Korea news service Asia Press, which contacted their source at RFA’s request.

“This year’s farming yields are worse than last year’s, so the farmers won’t be able to receive their proper rations,” the farmer told the Japanese outlet over text messages sent via a Chinese mobile phone illegally smuggled across the border.

News of the poor harvest has reached North Korean refugees who escaped and are now living in South Korea, many of whom still maintain contact with their families in the North.

“I don’t know how it is compared to last year, but I think it’s because they had no fertilizer. You can’t really farm without fertilizer,” a refugee identified by the pseudonym Han Young-sun, who lived on the outskirts of a city near the North Korean border until escaping last year, told RFA’s Korean Service.

The lack of imported fertilizer is the result of the decision by Pyongyang and Beijing to shut down their border and suspend all trade at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

The move devastated the North Korean economy and caused food prices to skyrocket. Without imports from China, the gap between domestic food production and demand couldn’t be closed.

In mid-October, authorities told citizens food scarcity problems could last through at least 2025. North Koreans previously had been warned shortages could be worse than during the 1994-1998 famine that killed, according to some estimates, as much as 10 percent of the population.

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Credit: Reuters

But as the government warns its citizens to conserve as much as they can, leaders are still promising to keep the nation’s soldiers as adequately fed as possible.

“They are saying that the rations from the farms are going to be short by about a month or two because the rice put aside for the military is the main priority,” the farmer told Asia Press.

In most years, the military would get 60 percent of the harvest and the farmers 40 percent, a resident from North Hamgyong province who requested anonymity for security reasons told RFA.

But this year the army will take whatever it needs. Given the low crop yields, the soldiers will likely literally eat into the farmers’ share.

Keeping the military fed is so important to regime survival that Kim Jong Un has said he feels like he is “walking on thin ice,” South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported in late October. 

To that end, authorities have bolstered surveillance of collective farms to prevent smuggling. Asia Press’ source said that farmers this year were unable to hide private gardens they use to supplement their official food sources, as they have in other years.

“From the farmer’s point of view, it’s hard to make a living by working on the farm, so they have been privately farming on small land in the mountains for extra food,” said Jiro Ishimaru, Asia Press’ chief editor.

“Our sources said that all of them were included in the farm crop calculation,” he said.

RFA reported recently that citizens mobilized for free farm labor during the harvest were subject to being frisked by guards to ensure they were not hiding grains of rice in their clothing.

Official statistics on the North Korean harvest have not yet been released, but figures are expected once the harvested rice is completely dried a threshed, a process that can take weeks.

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Climate, coronavirus share blame

The North Korean government has blamed the current food crisis on many outside factors—the pandemic, U.S. and U.N. sanctions aimed at choking off its nuclear weapons program, and bad weather.

In the two summers since the pandemic began, severe flooding from heavy rains and a series of typhoons destroyed farms and crops in many parts of country.

Climate change is seen as the cause for the unusually wet summers. But a professor at South Korea’s Kyung Hee University told RFA that North Korea’s lack of environmental protection compounded the damage from the flooding. For years, North Korea’s landscape has been stripped of vegetation that would have held up some of the water.

Starting from the Arduous March in the mid-1990s, people have gone to the mountains to find food, procure firewood, build terrace fields in the mountains, and export timber overseas to earn foreign currency,” said Kong Woo Seok, using the Korean term for the mid-1990s famine.

“Damage from meteorological phenomena coincided with the forests being destroyed,” he said.

Meanwhile, the trade ban with China imposed as a protection against the coronavirus left North Korea without a significant source of its food. The two countries resumed rail freight on Nov. 1, but the almost two years that the moratorium has been in place have taken a toll.

“North Korea is always short of food based on its own production, so it must import food. Humanitarian aid is needed if they cannot meet demands based on trade. But they are not procuring adequate imports or assistance this year,” Kwon Tae Jin, director for the Center for North Korea & Northeast Asian Studies at GS&J in South Korea, told RFA.

Kwon noted that from January to August, North Korea imported 4,000 tons of grain, a mere fraction of the 110,000 tons it imported during the same period last year, which included some months before the pandemic shut the border.

“Even if they import as much food as they can, they will still be short on food next year. They will have to ask the international community for humanitarian assistance,” said Kwon, who was interviewed before trade between China and North Korea resumed.

The international community is, however, wary of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and therefore unenthusiastic about providing Pyongyang with more food aid, Georgetown University’s William Brown told RFA.

“Until about four or five years ago, they steadily received food aid from the World Food Program, UN agencies and elsewhere, but in recent years since the sanctions came into effect, they have actually received very little food aid [except] some from China and Russia," Brown said.

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Credit: Reuters

No incentives

Brown said the overarching problem with North Korea’s food system is that it relies on a collective farming system.

“Farming is very difficult work and there's a lot of risk-taking. You don't know what's the weather is going to be like. So, you need to be rewarded for risk-taking. And you need to be rewarded for working hard. And the North Korean collectives don't reward," Brown said.

North Korea’s government mobilizes the broader public for free farm labor, but the practice hurts agriculture production rather than helping it, Mun Song Hui, chief editor of the Japan-based weekly magazine Shukan Kinyobi, told RFA.

“It is not easy to farm rice and you have to gain this experience over a long time, right? However, these mobilized students, who have no experience farming rice, are put out there and are not doing it correctly,” said Mun.

“I have heard from a North Korean farmer that the actual farmers have to fix it again and it puts more pressure on them. Also, if these mobilized workers come to the farms from far away, the farmers have to provide the meals and lodging for them. It becomes a large burden for the farmers,” she said.

Reported by Jong Min Noh, Soram Cheon and Sooyoung Park for RFA’s Korean Service and Nawar Nemeh for RFA’s English Service. Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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