North Korea’s Food Production Down Five Percent in 2020

Food shortage expected to worsen in spring as country grows only 80 percent of what it needs.
North Korea’s Food Production Down Five Percent in 2020 Farmers on the Chongsan-ri cooperative farm start planting rice for the year on Tuesday, May 12, 2020, in Nampo, North Korea.

North Korea’s 2020 food harvest is projected to be five percent lower than last year, with bad weather hitting rice and corn output, adding to the risk of food shortages that are expected to worsen in the spring of 2021, a South Korean report said.

The Rural Development Administration under South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs announced its estimates in a report Friday, which said North Korea likely produced 4.4 million tons of food grains and potatoes in 2020, down 240,000 tons from last year.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations released reports last month, expressing concerns about food shortages in North Korea due to COVID-19 and damage from severe floods and typhoons this summer. The FAO report said that North Korea was one of 45 countries requiring external assistance for food.

In October, South Korea’s Unification Minister Lee In-young told a National Assembly meeting that the food shortage in North Korea will worsen after next spring.

The increase in the country’s food deficit means that that it will grow only 80 percent of the 5.5 million tons of food that experts say it needs each year.

According to the South Korean report, which took into account weather, pests, fertilizer supply and demand, crop data from domestic and overseas research institutes, and satellite imagery, rice production in North Korea was down by 9.8 percent compared to last year due to a growing season that saw months of severe rainfall that included several consecutive direct hits from typhoons in August.

“This year’s rice production is estimated to be around 2.02 million tons. It’s basically because of bad weather conditions. The amount of sunlight was low during the rainy summer, and in August and September, the plains in particular were damaged by typhoons,” Lee Young-hwa, a researcher at the Rural Development Administration’s Technology Cooperation Bureau, told RFA’s Korean Service.

Corn output was down 0.7 percent, while potatoes and sweet potatoes were down 5.3 percent, with a spring drought affecting the potatoes and the rainy season affecting both.

The harsh rains are estimated to have helped legume production, however. Increased water supply in the soil is expected to increase the bean crop by seven percent.

Additionally, the report expects a 6.7 percent increase in barley production, thanks to warm winter weather that is predicted to increase yields for this year’s autumn crop.

The report said that the food shortage in North Korea will worsen in the beginning of 2021, as the impact of the harsh weather on crops still in the ground will start to be felt, and imports will not be available to pick up the slack because of international nuclear sanctions and the continued closure of the border with China due to the coronavirus.

The estimated decrease in food output in 2020 follows last year, when North Korea saw its worst harvest in five years according to an FAO quarterly report published in September 2019.

A 2019 statement by Tapan Mishra, then the UN’s resident coordinator in North Korea said more than 43 percent of the population were undernourished.

“An estimated 11 million people in DPRK lack sufficient nutritious food…widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition,” the statement said.

Though the projections look dire for Pyongyang, they pale in comparison to the famine that struck North Korea in the 1990s.

The 1994-1998 famine -- the result of economic mismanagement and the collapse of North Korea's patron the Soviet Union – killed millions, almost 10 percent of the population by some estimates.

According to a 1998 nutritional survey conducted by UNICEF and the World Food Program, which surveyed children in 3,600 North Korean households, 62.3 percent were stunted, and 60.6 percent were considered moderately or severely underweight at that time. 

Reported by Seung Wook Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong. 







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