Almost a year after the alarm bells: following up North Korea’s food crisis (and an aid success story?)

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

There exists two very radically different narratives on North Korea’s food situation and harvest of last year. The strangest pat of the story is that the state, likely through its different arms, are able to hold both stories at once. The first was the one trumpeted out by the North Korean government and international aid agencies last year (as well as some scholars), that North Korea was facing a famine. The second one is from Kim Jong-un’s plenum speech in late December, where he claimed that North Korea’s harvest was the largest one “on record“.

The Red Cross (IFRC) released an assessment report last month, and though it leaves many questions unanswered, it’s a fascinating and much more detailed read than most assessments of North Korea’s food situation over the past two years. I list some of the highlights below.

First, the most remarkable finding of the report is perhaps how big of a difference aid and support to irrigation can make. I have previously written that the most likely reason the food situation turned out better than expected is that China stepped in with aid. This still seems to be the most plausible scenario, but it is also possible that aid came not in the form of food deliveries, but in equipment and fuel for irrigation, most likely it was a mix of both. If the report is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt its veracity and methodological grounding, we can extrapolate that improving irrigation can more than double harvests in certain environments. The table below comes from page 5 of IFRC, “DPR Korea: Drought and Food Insecurity Final Report DREF Operation n° MDRKP013,” 17 January, 2020,, accessed February 20, 2020:

(Note: mt/ha = metric ton/hectare. Click to enlarge.) 

As the table shows, expected versus actual harvests of early crops more than doubled in three of the communities surveyed. One farmer interviewed in the report says that thanks to the IFRC water pumps, their harvest was the best in a decade in the end, and not the worst, as the international community first projected. The total cost of the operation was the equivalent of less than $250,000 for a strong impact on communities holding 34,414 people. Scale that up by 100 and we have $25 million for measures that could drastically help around 3.5 million people. And so on and so forth. Of course, this isn’t a precise or grounded calculation by any means, but it does give a sense of the proportions at hand. $25 million is a third of what North Korea spent on tobacco imports from China last year. Remedying difficult farming conditions isn’t necessarily all that expensive, but can be very, very effective. (Before drawing any certain conclusions from this, do be sure to read the report. It highlights the specific conditions of the localities in question.) It is often said that North Korea’s geographical features make it naturally inhospitable to agriculture and food production, but efficiency and capacity could be vastly improved through investments in agricultural infrastructure.

Second, even with the improvements that came after the initial food crisis alarm bells, none of them make it even remotely likely that Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “best harvest on record” was true. The report highlights some of the difficult weather conditions the country faced in 2018 and 2019. For example:

The agricultural production this yea r(2019) in DPRK was seriously impacted by the after-effects of the droughts that have occurred consecutively over the past 5 years.The situation was worsened by th elittle snowfall last winter and almost no rainfall in the 1st quarter of this year. The unusually low levels of precipitation continued in April and May,combined with higher than usual temperatures. As a result, the water levels in the reservoirs are much lower than normal. These conditions have remained the same during the summer months.

(Source: p. 3 of the report.)

Third, the report raises several intriguing questions about the IFRC in North Korea. To the best of my understanding, the IFRC has a chapter in North Korea but like all organizations in the country, it is for all intents and purposes a government entity. The report references its personnel several times — ” DPRK RCS has a good volunteer network established in these areas” (p. 2), “the team also coordinated with and consulted the Red Cross branches, local authorities, and the State Hydro-Meteorological Agency” (p. 2), “workshop…with community people” (p. 8), et cetera — and it would be very interesting to learn more about how the organization functions on the ground, how its staff are recruited, what “volunteer” actually means, et cetera.

Notwithstanding the questions that reports such as this one give rise to, they are crucial resources for knowledge on North Korean agriculture and food production.

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