Why We Know Even Less Than Usual About North Korea’s Food Situation
Even in a normal year, North Korea’s food situation would be difficult to parse. This year, however, it is more trying than usual, largely due to the North Korean government’s response to the global pandemic. Since the country closed its border in early 2020, international humanitarian institutions, such as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP), have been unable to conduct on-site monitoring missions. Furthermore, trustworthy information from inside the country has been even harder to come by due to tight border controls.
So, what are we to make of the reports of food shortages over the past few months? Carefully scrutinizing the available data pertaining to North Korea’s food situation, we can surmise the broad contours of this and how it is likely to evolve over the coming months. Overall, the situation appears precarious and fragile, but not exceptionally dire.
How We Know What We Know
It is crucial to examine how we know what we know. With no monitoring missions allowed into the country during its lockdown period, there is virtually no verifiable, first-hand information about its current agricultural conditions. In May this year, state media warned that the food situation would become tense, and Kim Jong Un called for an “all-out fight” against drought. Since then, North Korean media has published little information on the food situation. For example, a recent cabinet meeting discussed the economy, but the country’s agricultural situation was not mentioned in state media.
The means available to understand the situation are few but vital. One assessment from the WFP published in June this year chiefly used satellite imagery and data from North Korean authorities to examine weather conditions pertaining to harvests. The FAO released a similarly sourced assessment in June 2021. This data is invaluable for surveying the North’s food situation, but it is not a substitute for on-site visits, which can give a much more detailed picture of what North Korean households are facing when it comes to food supplies.
Market price data is also a crucial source, but it comes with severe limitations as well. In theory, rapidly rising prices on staple goods, such as rice and corn, should broadly indicate whether there are food shortages in the country. The opposite—fixed or falling prices—should conversely indicate a somewhat stable food supply. However, in North Korea’s situation, prices may not rise even during a shortage. The general public’s declined purchasing power may make it difficult for sellers to raise prices even when supply declines. This likely serves as a partial explanation for the North Korean markets maintaining price stability during much of the pandemic.
Time is also a factor. North Korea is currently in the harvest season for spring crops, which are typically sown in March and harvested in July. Spring crops do not significantly contribute to the production of cereals, such as rice and corn. However, half of North Korea’s production of potatoes, which are an important staple during the lean summer months before the main autumn harvest, comes from the crops harvested in the spring. In North Korea, the spring cropping season stretches from April-October and coincides with the main rainy season. Thus, there is little we can say at this time about North Korea’s food situation as a whole. The information that exists is restricted to limited data for the country’s most recent winter crops (the last WFP assessment was published in June 2022) and some weather- and climate-based weather projections for the rest of the season. That said, this information can only be applied so far as actual harvest results do not always conform to predictions and estimates.
What the Data Tells Us
Considering these limitations, what does the available data suggest about current and future food supplies in North Korea? Since the country’s rainy season runs from July-September, we won’t have a clear picture of the exact situation for several weeks. The predictive and historical data that we have for the past year paints a mixed and somewhat concerning picture.
According to the WFP, the lack of sufficient snow the past winter poses a significant problem for this year’s winter crops (sown in October, harvested in June) and current spring ones. Ideally, there would be enough snow in the winter that would supply the fields with water when it melts. Snow coverage also protects winter crops from freezing. Snowfall this past winter, as estimated via satellite imagery, was “markedly below average,” resulting in a poor water supply for the winter, spring and summer crops. At the same time, while snowfall was significantly below average, it was, according to the WFP, slightly better than the “extremely dry” 2020-2021 crop year.
Similarly, while rainfall has been problematically low, it has not been too far outside the historical norm. Rainfall was lower than normal this past April and May. This led to a delay in planting and early crop development and the overall lower production of winter and spring crops. At the time of its release, the June WFP assessment projected that rainfall deficits would improve through the rest of the month, after the early weeks of June had already been very wet. Projections for the July–September period, which account for 65 percent of North Korea’s total rainfall each year, hold that rain accumulation will most likely be around average, but overall weather conditions will be warmer than usual, which means that crops will require more water than usual. It will be crucial to monitor weather conditions over the coming weeks and months, especially as the country’s food situation is already so fragile. At the same time, the current existing data does not seem to indicate that weather conditions for this year’s harvests will be exceptionally problematic.
While estimates of North Korea’s weather conditions are highly valuable for projecting its food supplies over the coming months, there are many crucial things the data doesn’t tell us. Aggregate production figures certainly matter for overall harvest prospects, but equally, if not more, important is distribution inside the country. In other words, we don’t know enough about who does and does not have access to food in North Korea or precisely what proportion of people’s food items come from the market, the state and kitchen gardens. While all of this information may be too much to realistically ask for, previous assessments by the FAO and WFP have included limited data such as market prices and agricultural production projections based on local soil samples. But for now, the combination of increased government-imposed seclusion and North Korea’s COVID-19 lockdown has undoubtedly made the country’s actual food situation and 2022 harvests even more difficult to evaluate than in pre-pandemic years.
World Food Program, “North Korea: Season 2022,” June 2022, retrieved at https://reliefweb.int/attachments/a052a7f2-5759-4cd2-bd58-5de5dced6bb6/WFP-0000140465.pdf, accessed 25/7/2022.