Significant Food Shortages Likely in North Korea

North Korea has experienced a very severe drought in 2017 that has undoubtedly had a major impact on food crops and the ability of the state government to feed its people. Weather conditions and rainfall through the month of July show few indications of relief for North Korean agricultural producers. All signs suggest that the early and mid-season drought will take a heavy toll on food crop production.

In mid-July, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a special report warning of extreme risk to the 2017 food production output due to early-season, prolonged dry weather conditions. The report stated:

A severe dry spell from April to June has acutely constrained planting activities for the 2017 main season and adversely affected yield potential of the early-planted crops. Rainfall volumes from April to June (a critical period for crop development) in key-producing areas were well below the Long-Term Average (LTA) and lower than the rainfall levels of the corresponding period in 2001, when cereal production in the country decreased to the unprecedented level of around 2 million tonnes (rice in paddy terms), causing a sharp increase of food insecurity levels. Although some rains in the first dekad of July over most of the growing areas provided some relief, they were likely to be too late to allow normal planting and development of the crops. (Zappacosta, 2017)

Assessment of crop conditions throughout July and August, confirm the impact to the primary agriculture production areas. Figure 1 shows the main cereal production areas of North Korea.

Figure 1. Primary cereal production areas of North Korea (Josserand and Anthony, 2008).

Image: Josserand and Anthony, 2008.

The primary cereal production provinces are North Pyongan, South Pyongan, Pyongyang, North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae. By evaluating normalized-difference vegetation index (NDVI) measures of these regions between corresponding periods from 2016 and 2017, the data shows how crop conditions compare between the last two growing seasons, and subsequently the anticipated yield. The chart in Figure 2 illustrates the overall trend of crop condition for the period, for all types of agricultural production areas (e.g., including irrigated and non-irrigated crops) across North Korea. NDVI variances were grouped into four categories:

Strongly Positive (>25% better)
Positive (0–25% better)
Negative (0–25% worse)
Strongly Negative (>25% worse)

The data includes a mid-June time frame as a reference for the general condition of early season crops, leading up to the UN FAO Alert in mid-July. NDVI analysis confirms the effect of the drought on early season crops and the impact on new-planting in the early to mid-July time frame. From the analysis, nearly two-thirds of North Korea’s crops were in a “Negative” to “Strongly Negative” state. Although there was a slight reprieve in mid to late-July, the trend continues with slight improvement by late August.

Figure 2. Crop conditions compared with same period of growing season in 2016.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

Over the period from mid-June to late August, the North Hwanghae Province showed a second period when the crops began to get close to 2016 conditions, but then in late August, they are impacted again (Figure 3). South Hwanghae Province did not fare as well (Figure 4). Though there was a minor mid-July improvement, the month of August shows a significant impact on the crops, spiking above 80% in a “Negative” or “Strongly Negative” condition. Pyongyang province crops reacted similarly (not shown).

Figure 3. Crop conditions for North Hwanghae Province compared with same period of growing season in 2016.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

Figure 4. Crop conditions for South Hwanghae Province compared with same period of growing season in 2016.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

North Pyongan Province showed signs of impact from early dry conditions, but by mid-July, though there were ups and downs, this province looks to be recovering a bit for the latter part of the growing season (Figure 5). South Pyongan Province, however, shows similar patterns to the other provinces: the crop conditions continue to increasingly lag behind 2016 (Figure 6).

Figure 5. Crop conditions for North Pyongan Province compared with same period of growing season in 2016.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

Figure 6.  Crop conditions for South Pyongan Province compared with same period of growing season in 2016.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

Though the charts show some periods when the crops get closer to 2016 conditions, the overall trend for most areas is a significant decrease in crop health from 2016 to 2017. Figure 7 shows that the south-central areas were hardest hit by the early drought and some areas in North Pyongan Province were in at least fair condition in mid-June.

Figure 7. Crop conditions between June 11-20, 2017.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

However, Figure 8 shows how the worsening drought caused crop conditions to fall-off for much of the country. The darker red areas, which show up in the primary cereal production areas, are much more affected by mid-July. And though some precipitation had fallen across some of the growing areas, by late-August, the crop conditions are not uniform at all, with some areas better and some worse (Figure 9).

Figure 8. Crop conditions between July 1-10, 2017.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

Figure 9. Crop conditions between August 16-25, 2017.

Image: Andy Dinville/38 North.

All in all, the 2017 growing season has been very challenging for North Korean agricultural producers. With the impact observed throughout the growing season and the widespread nature of the impact, food supplies will very likely be substantially diminished. The impact of further sanctions and food security will likely bring further challenges to the situation in North Korea.

Agricultural production capabilities of North Korea have improved over the past decade, but it is difficult to quantify the true ability to react and adapt to extreme conditions like the 2017 drought. It is hard to imagine that these improvements will adequately offset the impact of the dry growing conditions, though it may give North Korea a better chance to attempt to adjust. The data presented here shows that not all production areas have received enough rain in recent weeks for crop conditions to improve. The early season crops clearly suffered (e.g., rice and early wheat), but late season wheat, corn and potatoes may have a chance to help with food supply if the latter half of the growing season is favorable. So far that is not happening across most of the production areas.

Works Cited:

Andy Dinville, “Assessing Agricultural Conditions in North Korea: A Satellite Imagery Case Study,” 38 North, The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), January 5, 2017, www.38north.org. Accessed 3 Sept. 2017.

Henri Josserand and Anthony Banbury, “FAO/WFP CROP AND FOOD SECURITY ASSESSMENT MISSION TO THE DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF KOREA,” GIEWS – Global Information and Early Warning System | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, December 8, 2008, www.fao.org/giews/. Accessed 3 Sept. 2017.

Mario Zappacosta, “Prolonged dry weather threatens the 2017 main season food crop production,” GIEWS – Global Information and Early Warning System | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization, July 20, 2017, www.fao.org/giews/. Accessed 3 Sept. 2017.

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