Food crisis in Korea DPR expected to worsen, according to mission report

"The food crisis in Korea DPR is far from over," confirms an FAO/World Food Programme mission that visited the country from 2 to 12 June. "The food supply situation remains precarious and is expected to worsen over the next two critical months" before this year's crops can be harvested, according to the mission report. Food security will be at risk "as stocks become exhausted, the Public Distribution System (PDS) ceases operation in many areas and coping mechanisms become increasingly strained."

The mission assessed the food and crop situation in eight of the country's 12 provinces and municipalities: South Hamgyong and North Kangwon; South and North Hwanghae and South and North Pyongan, Chagang and Pyongyang City. Together, these areas account for some 90 percent of rice and over 80 percent of maize production in the country.

At the time of the visit, crops generally appeared to be in a satisfactory condition. Maize had been entirely planted and 85 percent of rice transplanting had been completed. The area to which a second crop of barley has been introduced under at joint government-United Nations programme has nearly doubled, from 38 000 hectares in 1997 to 70 000 hectares this year.

"But early indications should be viewed with caution," warns the report, "as a great deal will depend on rainfall in July and August." More than half of annual precipitation is received in these months and, the report points out, "ominously, the disasters in the last three years also occurred in this period."

Extensive floods in 1995 and 1996 followed by the worst drought in decades in 1997 crippled the country and its ability to feed its population. The series of natural disasters came on top of several years of economic slowdown and stagnation following the collapse of economic ties with the former Soviet Union.

Other constraints to production will be the lack of water in reservoirs, a serious lack of fertilizers, the limited extent of mechanization and energy shortages. It is estimated that only around one-third of the requirement of fertilizers for optimum yields will be available this year. Even assuming good weather and no further climatic disruptions, cereal productivity, therefore, would, at best, be considerably lower than potential and harvests would still fall far short of needs.

The Public Distribution System (PDS) has virtually run out of food to distribute to the population. Rations fell gradually from 400 grams per person per day at the end of 1997 to 100 grams in March. Approximately 450 grams per person per day is the minimum consumption requirement to meet 75 percent of an average person's daily calorie intake. Today, the PDS centres have negligible contingency stocks and are making no distributions apart from limited quantities of food aid for specific target groups.

Families once dependent on the PDS for supplies are relying more and more on savings from rations in earlier months, vegetables grown on family plots, alternative foods, such as wild plants and berries, and on food contributions from relatives in agricultural areas. They have also taken to consuming maize in its green state in an attempt to cope with diminishing food supplies. "Although this has become a necessary source of food it inevitably reduces supplies for the next marketing years and in doing so only defers the problem," according to the report.

The report credits the unprecedented levels of food aid delivered since 1995 for ensuring the basic nutritional needs of vulnerable groups. "Given that the overall food situation remains precarious, the comparatively healthy status of children can only be attributed to successful targeting of international food assistance," it concluded.

Apart from food assistance to vulnerable groups, which is essential in the short term, the report recommends a variety of medium-term methods to support agricultural rehabilitation and improve food security, including:

  • additional food-for-work programmes
  • irrigation development and water resource management
  • development of appropriate drainage systems
  • crop diversification
  • seed improvement and research on early and short-maturing varieties
  • research into effective crop rotation schemes
  • research and development of integrated crop and livestock systems.

But in the long term, according to the report, "It is vital that the Government address the major issue of how the industrial and other important sectors in the economy are to be revitalized to generate the much needed foreign exchange to support domestic food production." The report warned, "In the absence of such interventions, prospects for future food supply in Korea DPR remain extremely fragile even without emergencies."

2 July 1998

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