The main planting season is underway in North Korea, amidst reports of food shortages due to the COVID-19 crisis. Judging by current conditions, food production this year may well be low, but probably not catastrophically so, or really much out of the ordinary compared to the past few years. Several factors make projections and analyses particularly uncertain. The border closure related to COVID-19 makes imports of fertilizer, seeds and most likely food much more difficult and time consuming, as all cargo has to go through thorough inspections and sanitization. China may well shore up North Korea’s food supply should the harvest turn out to be poor, although such aid may not reach those in greatest need. Regime crackdowns on some aspects of market activity may also hamper its ability to supply food in an efficient manner. Much will also depend on weather conditions over the coming months.
Last Year, Into the Present: The Food Crisis That Didn’t Come?
Last year, the World Food Program warned of possible large-scale shortages and appealed for aid. It still has not been fully confirmed how difficult things actually got, but no solid data suggested a widespread crisis. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) recently stated that North Korea’s harvest last year (presumably including this year’s winter harvest) was lower than the three-year average, making the current food situation difficult since what is currently consumed was harvested last year. This is an accurate but somewhat misleading representation of the South Korean government’s own research. The South Korean Rural Development Administration estimate, released last December, which the MOU built its statement on, claimed that North Korea’s harvest was 4.64 million tons. Although lower than the three-year average, this would, in fact, mark an increase from the estimate of the preceding year’s harvest of 4.55 million tons.
The numbers on the 2019 harvest are indeed confusing with lots of mixed signals. While his government asked for international aid some months before, Kim Jong Un late last year made the highly dubious claim that North Korea saw its “best harvest on record.” This would have required harvests to almost double, from around “five million tons in 2018, to surpassing eight million tons in 2019.”
This claim is extremely unrealistic, and even figures reported by the North Korean government itself contradict it. The United Nation’s “DPR Korea Needs and Priorities 2020” plan contains harvest figures provided by the North Korean Ministry of Agriculture:
Most likely, North Korean state authorities have been under political pressure to report inaccurately high figures because of the official claim, made by Kim himself, of a record harvest. The figure of 6.6 million tons is also unrealistically high, but nowhere near as far-fetched as the claim of a doubled harvest. Judging by all currently available information, North Korea’s food situation over the past year was somewhat difficult but not disastrous. Most likely, harvest yields were lower than they should be to support healthy consumption, but mitigated by aid from China to some extent.
The Current Food Situation
Total estimates such as those above do not give the whole picture. They say something about overall food production, but little about who can access it. The state distributes a proportion of total food production in the country, though it is unknown precisely how much. Under the new system introduced under Kim Jong Un, the state reportedly takes between 60 and 70 percent of the harvest and lets farmers dispose of the rest. This still leaves the majority of food subject to some form of state distribution, likely through workplaces such as state-owned factories and the bureaucracy. We do know that particularly during the lean season between May and September when North Korean food stocks run particularly low, a greater proportion of North Koreans rely on the market system for the majority of their food consumption. A significant proportion of the population, perhaps the majority, already does through the rest of the year.
Thus, market prices tell us something crucial about how much food is available, and about the general view of markets in the allocation of food. Market prices were somewhat higher than usual over the past few months. The COVID-19 border closure has made markets nervous in general, and it may be that the general public is aware that a shortage of fertilizer and other farming equipment looms, and thus expect future shortages. Reports from inside the country have also suggested that the situation after the last harvest has been quite challenging. The difficulty of importing goods in general, including food, likely contributed to the high food prices around March and April.
The markets are a crucial mechanism for food provision and, unlike state provisions, they react to changes in supply and demand. The signs that the regime is increasingly cracking down on some aspects of market activity—though by no means against the entire system itself—are, therefore, particularly worrying in the context of food security. General anxiety about the markets will likely cause prices to rise overall, and more constrained market actors will have a negative effect on the supply of food.
Shipments of fertilizer and seeds are among the goods that have reportedly been stuck in containers waiting to cross into North Korea from China, which is particularly troubling for the planting season. And after fertilizer is delivered, a few weeks are typically required to dispatch it around the country. Nonetheless, even late delivery of fertilizer would contribute significantly to harvest yields, particularly if the country experiences a warm fall season. Moreover, imports of fertilizer have been unusually low for this time of year, though they may still show an uptick when Chinese Customs data for May is released. Although food has been the top export item from China for the past couple of months, import quantities are still very small, totaling only around $20 million per month.
North Korea may also get substantial food provisions through aid. Radio Free Asia reported in January that significant aid shipments were planned from China to North Korea. This report was never officially confirmed, and the scale of the reported aid is unknown. Russia donated 25,000 tons of wheat earlier this month, but this is not a very sizeable amount since it is estimated that North Korea requires 5.5 million tons per year for the entire population to be fed, and the country may need almost 900,000 tons to reach this target. China will likely supply more substantial aid should the situation become dire and there are reports that such aid is in the works. A North Korean delegation was slated to visit Beijing in late April for talks on food aid and trade.
Finally, the weather is a crucial factor. So far this year, the rainy season has been similar to those of the past few years. Soil humidity has been good this year, according to a source with contacts in agriculture in the country, and this is an important factor for crop growth conditions. Rain over the coming few weeks, however, will be crucial for crop production as a whole.
More Muddling Through
The coming harvest will likely not be disastrously low, but will not be as good as it needs to be. Chronic food shortages are normal in North Korea, and much of the general public consumes far fewer calories than their daily need even in a good year. Nonetheless, for China, substantial aid to North Korea costs virtually nothing and Beijing will likely shore up food supply if necessary. The question is how such aid would be distributed. Unlike the markets, government distribution involves political choice, and the government may not prioritize those in greatest need. The rigidity of border controls will also be crucial to watch since it will determine how easily fertilizer, seeds and food can enter the country. And, of course, the most unpredictable factor—the weather—will be essential.
I am grateful to Keith Luse, Peter Ward and Daniel Wertz, as well as one analyst who wishes to remain anonymous, for valuable discussions on the topic.
I am grateful to Daniel Wertz of the National Committee on North Korea for pointing this out.