Latest round of UN assessments revealed a modest improvement in the output of grain in North Korea, but not enough for the country to fulfill all its subsistence needs. Based on visits to nine provinces during the harvest season (September-October), the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization calculated that there was a 10% increase in cereal output compared to last year – aggregate yield is expected to stand at 5.8 million metric tons (main harvest 2012 + early season 2013; this figure includes estimates for private cultivation). Nonetheless, the country is still 507,000 metric tons short of its basic food needs. With the state setting cereal import target at 300,000 metric tons, it leaves a 207,000 ton deficit, lowest in years for the country but still a figure that betrays serious food insecurity.
The slight increase in food production has been attributed to better use of fertilizers and enhanced farming techniques such as the placement of protective plastic sheeting over crops, which proved vital as North Korea faced series of droughts and floods earlier this year. Furthermore, mass irrigation efforts mitigated the effects of a potentially devastating dry spell.
However, what is painfully evident is how much of these efforts are extremely labor intensive. The irrigation efforts mentioned in the above paragraph were accomplished through mass mobilization of the rural workforce. For a relatively urbanized country like North Korea, solutions that require labor abundance are intuitively not the most efficient. Usually this can be resolved through the application of machines, but North Korea does not have the fuel capacity to accommodate the necessary mechanization nor the means to supply replacement parts to all the regions for their long-term use. This goes back to Pyongyang’s historic problem of having to contend with the legacy of over-dependence on fuel subsidies from the Soviet Union.
It is also important to remember that people cannot maintain a healthy life on cereal grains alone. The report went into detail about shortfalls in people’s acquisition of key nutrients – in particular the population’s low protein intake was highlighted as a key area of concern. This raises an important issue that is often forgotten when only calculating the aggregate volume of grain produced and consumed.
Given the nature of the North Korean state, the data should be examined with a critical eye. At the same time, this is the only data that we have coming out of North Korea in recent months – general observations/recommendations from the mission provides a better picture of the current situation at both a macro and micro level.
Here is a rundown of the report’s findings:
- insufficient number of mechanized farming equipments and fuel to power them, in particular tractors
- lack of proteins and fats in the diet
- Decline in soybean production
- shortage of wheat, barley and potato seed for the 2013 winter and spring crops
- Household food consumption has improved but serious gaps remain between recommended and actual nutrient intake
- Supply of fortified biscuits and other highly nutritious supplements to vulnerable members of society (elderly, pregnant/lactating women, children)
- Allow farmers to freely sell surplus food at the market
- Legalize cultivation of household gardens
- “increased production of protein commodities, namely soybean cultivation and fish pond development”
- “revitalization of the double-cropping programme by providing inputs (e.g. seeds and fertilizer for the early crops wheat, barley and potatoes), improved mechanization and sufficient incentives to cooperative farms”
- “general assistance for household garden production. In the medium to longer term, adoption of incentive system through relevant changes in agricultural marketing would help elevate production and improve the country’s food security.”
Further analysis of the report’s findings to follow soon
The full text of the report can be found here