Assessments and Shortfalls

The United Nations Development Project (UNDP) reported that while the recent floods in North Korea were terrible, they should not cause extreme food insecurity.

Although the KCNA reported that 45,000 hectares of farmland was submerged or has been washed away, the UNDP believes that significant damage to food production did not occur since the rice fields were not submerged under stagnant water for too long.

Nonetheless, to provide for the victims of the floods, the World Food Program plans to provide victims with an initial ration of 400 grams of corn a day for 14 days. Meanwhile, lack of clean drinking water, cited in the 2012 UN Overview of Needs and Assistance as a resource in critical short supply, continues to pose problems in flooded areas.

During an official state visit by DPRK Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Young-nam, Vietnam pledged 5,000 tons of rice to help North Korea overcome recent flooding. Vietnam’s Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong also agreed to “strengthen coordination at regional and international forums, such as at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)” to assist in North Korea’s endemic food problem. This is in line with talks within ASEAN to better ensure food security by creating a regional grain reserve, etc.

Meanwhile, North Korean news showed Kim Jong-un visiting at a farm and emphasizing modernization of equipments as a key task for the country’s agriculture industry.

Of course the key problem with that goal is North Korea’s energy shortage – a recent  report by Statistics Korea’s “North Korea Statistics Portal,” based on International Energy Agency (IEA) documentation, revealed that

per capita electricity consumption in 2008 remained just 819kWh, substantially lower than the 919kWh recorded in 1971… North Korean electricity consumption had risen steadily until 1991. By 1980 it had reached 1114kWh per capita, a figure that rose again over the next decade to reach 1247kWh by 1990. However, by 1995 it had declined precipitously to 912kWh, and at its nadir in 2000 per capita usage figure was just 712kWh. This decline was subsequently arrested; however, the following seven years (including 2004 (787kWh), 2005 (817kWh), 2006 (797kWh) and 2007 (762kWh)) reflected how the country was (and remains) unable to recover to the 1990 standard, with population growth outstripping improvements in electricity generation.

At some point in the 1980s, North Korea did reach food self sufficiency through mechanization and heavy use of chemical fertilizers, but these efforts came apart when the Soviet Union collapsed and could no longer supply them with subsidized fuel. Now, Pyongyang appears to be replicating the past by substituting Soviet subsidized imports with Chinese aid. Nonetheless, it’s doubtful that the North Koreans will ever receive enough equipments and fuel to jump back to their pre-1990s level of agricultural productivity.

Some observers see a brighter future for North Korea. In particular, Professor Leonid Petrov sees North Korea’s abundant deposits of Rare Earth Metals (REMs) as a means for the country to acquire much needed foreign capital.

But what does increased foreign capital mean for North Korea?

I argued in a recent article that growth derived from increased foreign import of resources (aid and subsidies included) or small-scale privatization will not be enough to pull North Korea out of the economic mess. Pyongyang’s over consumption of resources will create demands on both the market and the state’s distribution mechanisms. The much needed investments for agricultural cooperatives will likely be diverted to developing and maintaining urban projects.

More in depth reports on North Korea’s state of affairs in a few weeks when my co-editor returns from North Korea and Manchuria.

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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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