Drought and Fire

NASA’s Aqua satellite captures picture of fires burning across North Korea on April 25, 2014. Image via North Korea Tech

NASA’s Aqua satellite captures picture of fires burning across North Korea on April 25, 2014. Image via North Korea Tech

As the old saying goes, mother nature never takes a break – and no one knows this better than the farmers of North Korea.

This year, North Korea’s Central News Agency noted that the average rainfall from mid-February to the end of April totalled 23.5mm, the lowest recorded average since 1982. This ongoing drought has prompted the state authorities to call upon total mobilization to face the “rice planting battle.” According to DailyNK, the local population in Hwanghae provinces, including a large contingent of students, have been called to work on the state-run farms a full month earlier than they are usually called out to the field.

The urgency that is evident in these desperate measures is understandable. Late April to early June are the core rice planting months in North Korea, thus it is vital that the the rural sector somehow overcome the current conditions for the success of the agricultural output in 2014.

This brings us to the satellite picture at the top of this post. On April 25, 2014, NASA’s Aqua satellite captured an image showing large fires burning across the eastern part of North Korea. In addition to the large plumes of smoke which are clearly evident in the picture, the satellite was also able to locate the sources of the fire through its thermal imager.

North Korea Tech noted that NASA had two hypotheses regarding the cause of the fire.

  • Farmers may be burning old crop and clearing the land in preparation for sowing
  • Drooping power lines may have sparked forest fires across the region

Analyzing this satellite image, Max Fisher at Vox forwarded his view that the fires are definitely caused by farmers and that they reveal not only the technological backwardness of the resource-poor rural sector in North Korea but also the prevalence of private off-grid farms that have developed after the famine in the 1990s.

Fisher presents an interesting hypothesis – that it is the farmers working on private hillside plots who are adopting the antiquated technique. However, if this is the case, then how do we explain the concentration of the fire in Kangwon Province? Granted the province is poor and suffered immensely during the famine, but is there a higher concentration of private turfs in the southeastern province than in other parts of the country? This remains unsubstantiated in Fisher’s article.

Most of the fires appear concentrated in the southwestern province of Kangwon. Map made by our in-house cartographer and geospatial analyst Scott LaFoy

Most of the fires appear concentrated in the southeastern province of Kangwon. Map made by our in-house cartographer and geospatial analyst Scott LaFoy

So the key question is – what’s going on in Kangwon Province?

We at Rice and Iron believe that the fires may have been caused by poor farmers who are utilizing antiquated techniques to fertilize the field because they are not receiving adequate supplies of nitrogenous fertilizers from the state.

Supply of nitrogenous fertilizers to provinces in 2013

Province Planned (tonnes) Supplied (tonnes) Supplied/Planned (%)
Pyongyang 32,942 21,086 64
S Pyongan 80,174 72,981 91
N Pyongan 138,289 134,748 97
Chagang 31,664 23,924 76
S Hwanghae 167,872 173,569 103
N Hwanghae 80,743 72,377 90
Kangwon 41,879 30,113 72
S Hamgyong 77,219 66,631 86
N Hamgyong 54,747 44,754 82
Ryanggang 30,275 22,208 73
Nampo 32,826 23,624 72
Total 768,630 686,015 89

According to 2013 FAO Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission report – read the summary here

As you can see in the table above, Kangwon province received the smallest percentage (72%) of the planned supply of fertilizers compared to other provinces in 2013. Pyongyang of course received an even smaller percentage (64%), but being heavily urbanized, it is not intensely engaged in agricultural activities. The same goes for the seaport of Nampo, which also received 72% of the planned supply of fertilizers.

This leaves Ryanggang (73%) and Chagang Provinces (76%) which were also poorly supplied with fertilizer last year – however, the satellite image above does not betray as much smoke coming from these two provinces (well, Ryanggang province is only partially visible anyways) compared to plumes rising from Kangwon Province. This may be attributed to the fact that farming tasks in these provinces had not yet begun at the time of the image being taken by NASA in late April. According to Daily NK, the mass mobilization in the Ryanggang (or Yangkang) Province is expected to begin in mid-May.

Of course, being heavily forested and with the country suffering drought conditions, the smoke rising out of Kangwon Province could be caused by wildfires. Nonetheless, this is an interesting phenomenon that deserves revisiting in the near future as it may reveal some interesting facets of the agricultural sector in the Kangwon Province.

In any case, we hope that the precipitation moving across the Korean Peninsula this week will bring much needed rain to the overworked farmers of North Korea who are doing so much for so little for so many.

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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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2 Responses to Drought and Fire

  1. Pingback: Monetary stability and food security | Rice & Iron

  2. Pingback: How is North Korea responding to climate change? | Rice & Iron

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