GIEWS Special Report: The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, December 1996

Korea DPR faces bleak new year unless more food gets through

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea enters the new year with more severe food shortages than in 1996 and requires large-scale international assistance to meet minimum food needs.

And this warning comes despite cuts in the country's daily food rations and grain use for feed and industry, says a new special report compiled by the Rome-based organisations, FAO and the World Food Programme.

Heavy rainfall and floods in late July caused widespread damage, particularly in key agricultural zones, including North and South Hwanghae Provinces, Kangwon Province and Kaesong Municipality. These areas together produce some 60 percent of Korea DPR's food grain, principally rice.

"Two successive years of floods have undoubtedly set back agriculture and significantly compounded underlying food production problems in the country", said the report, which was based on an FAO/WFP mission to Korea DPR.

Total grain production for 1996 is estimated at just over 4 million tonnes of cereals (including milled rice), significantly below the 5.4 million tonnes required for food and other uses.

But almost half the maize harvest and most of the potato harvest were consumed prematurely during the period of acute food shortage in August and September, and losses from the July floods reduced output by a further 300 000 tonnes.

Allowing for these deductions, the net output of milled rice and maize available for 1996/97 is estimated at only 2.84 million tonnes, leaving an overall import requirement of more than 2 million tonnes.

"The overall trend shows clear decline", the FAO/WFP report states, "suggesting that the country would have carried a substantial food deficit in 1997 irrespective of flood damage."

The underlying food prouction problems cited in the report include steep declines in domestic fertilizer production and in imports of essential materials such as fertilizers, pesticides, fuel and spare parts.

And in the effort to increase production from limited land and a harsh climate, rice and maize have been cropped continuously, without fallow periods or crop rotation that would replenish the soil. So soils are severely depleted and yields have declined.

Korea DPR's capacity to import food commercially is highly constrained by the lack of foreign exchange, large international debts and virtually no access to credit. Under these conditions, it will have to resort to bartering badly needed raw materials for grain as it did last year.

Acute nutritional and health problems have only been averted, for the time being at least, largely through the country's effective public distribution system which has spread the effects of food shortages evenly and has proven to be a highly effective channel for food assistance.

Rations for children were not reduced throughout the period, and young children were protected through feeding programmes in nurseries and kindergartens. But the FAO/WFP team found that the general standard of health among adults showed clear signs of nutritional deficiency.

With a projected shortfall of more than 2 million tonnes and a population already weakened by long periods without enough to eat, "the situation in 1997 is likely to be considerably worse than this year", the report concludes.

The critical period will come from July to September next year, the agencies reported. "Only if adequate food assistance is mobilized before the onset of this period", they said, "will further hardship in the population be averted."

9 January 1997

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