Growing deterioration? Terrible or slightly-improved-but-still-bad news?

A new report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) highlighted the seriousness of the food crisis in North Korea.

The report utilizes the Global Hunger Index (GHI) which assesses a country’s condition through three main factors:

1. Undernourishment: the proportion of undernourished people as a percentage of the population (reflecting the share of the population with insufficient caloric intake)
2. Child underweight: the proportion of children younger than age five who are underweight (that is, have low weight for their age, reflecting wasting, stunted growth, or both), which is one indicator of child undernutrition
3. Child mortality: the mortality rate of children younger than age five (partially reflecting the fatal synergy of inadequate caloric intake and unhealthy environments)

Comparing the new GHI with the one from 1990, the report noted that North Korea had the greatest percent increase in its index (21%) out of all the countries in the world. The country currently stands at 28th place for worst hunger with the GHI at 19.0 – performing only slightly better than Kenya but worse than Liberia which is still recovering from the scars of its civil war.

From the report:

In North Korea, widespread starvation threatened in 1995 but was averted by large-scale food-aid deliveries (CIA 2012). The country’s GHI rose sharply between 1990 and 1996 and has declined only slightly since, providing evidence of chronic food insecurity in spite of considerable international humanitarian assistance… A weak economy, high military spending, weather related crop failures, and systemic problems in the agriculture sector have hampered progress

Media reports on the new statistics criticized the current state of affairs in the country, focusing on the fact that the GHI has increased dramatically since 1990.

The criticism is certainly fair, North Korea is the only non-sub-Saharan African country to have attained a worse GHI since 1990 (others being Burundi, Swaziland, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, and Botswana); however, the media reports seem to misplace the timing of the Great Famine and significant changes in international relations during the 1990s. The fact that North Korea is performing worse than in 1990 (DPRK GHI at 15.7) should come as no surprise – in 1990, the paradigm-changing collapse of the Soviet Union had not occurred yet and the country is only beginning to experience the rapid increase in food scarcity that will turn into the Great Famine of 1994.

What many of the media outlets also failed to note is that the IFPRI report shows that North Korea is improving, if only slightly – In 2001, North Korea’s GHI was 20.1 – today it’s 19.0. It is a minute difference, but considering what the index is measuring, it represents a very significant improvement. If anything, the IFPRI believes that a score of 19.0 is serious, but not alarming (>20.0).

In particular, prevalence of underweight children under five years has fallen from 22.4% in the years 1994-98 to 18.8% in the years 2005-10; under-five mortality rate has also fallen from 4.5% in 1990 to 3.3% in 2010.

Of course the statistics could be betraying an even darker side of what is going on/has happened in North Korea – it could be that fertility rate in rural regions that suffer/ed from intense food insecurity have fallen to a point where the average condition of a child no longer reflects the average condition in the country. If the children represented in the data are largely from Pyongyang, then it is no surprise that there was a statistical improvement in the overall mortality rate. The IFPRI report does note that the proportion of the population that is undernourished has steadily increased since 1990 – 21% in 1990-92, 30% in 1995-97, 34% in 2000-02, and 35% in 2006-08.

Also, there is no reason to ever discount the fact that IFPRI simply could not make an objective assessment of the conditions in the country based on its limited access to information.

The situation in North Korea is still undoubtedly grim. The numbers presented are valuable but come with too few qualifiers to make any concrete and definitive conclusions on the direction of the country.

Furthermore, as my co-editor Scott LaFoy notes, with a GHI score of 15.7 in 1990 (comparable to Tajikistan, Nigeria, and Gambia today), the country never started from a position of good endowment in the first place.

The lesson for now is that the food crisis in the country is historic and the solutions must ultimately account for not only the circumstances of the last three two decades, but also assess long-term limitations to food production and distribution in the region throughout its history.

On other news, although the June 28 Reforms have been halted, Pyongyang may be still attempting to make some changes to improve economic efficiency. Recent visit by the North Korean trade delegation to Sweden revealed Pyongyang’s growing interest in price and wage mechanisms.

More to come on this in the future.


About Yong Kwon

I develop trade advocacy strategies for a DC-based consulting firm. Studied economic history at the London School of Economics, and can be found on twitter at @ykwon88
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