25 June 1998


Extensive floods in 1995 and 1996 coupled with the worst drought in decades in 1997, crippled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s agriculture and its ability to feed its population. This series of natural disasters came on top of several years of economic slowdown and stagnation, which had already led to falling productivity and production in agriculture and dramatically reduced food availability. An adequate volume of essential inputs could not be supplied (imported or manufactured) to service intensive agriculture, whilst low foreign reserves meant that sufficient food could not be imported to meet the deficit. Consequently the country has had to rely heavily on international food assistance.

In view of the fragile food supply prospects and to keep the international community continuously appraised of the situation, a four member FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission visited Korea DPR from 2 - 12 June. The objectives of the Mission were to assess the food situation as the country enters the lean season and to review early prospects for food grain, harvest of which begins in September/October. The Mission follows an earlier one in October 1997 which warned of a grim food outlook for the country for 1998, with food production expected to cover minimum needs for only 7 months - up to May this year.

The assessment was based on discussions with Government Ministries and Departments; UN, bilateral agencies and NGOs based in the country and on field visits to selected areas. These included visits to 8 of the country’s 12 provinces and municipalities, namely; South Hamgyong and North Kangwon in the east; South and North Hwanghae and South and North Pyongan in the west, Chagang in the North and Pyongyang City. Collectively, these areas account for some 90 percent of rice and 82 percent maize production in the country. Mission members inspected crops in the main production areas, examined water levels in main irrigation reservoirs and observed conditions in public distribution centres, hospitals, nurseries and schools, to which food aid has been specifically targeted. In addition random visits were made to rural and urban families to assess the food situation at the household level. The Mission also had an opportunity of visiting areas affected by tidal waves in the east around Tongchon County on the 2-3 June in addition to areas affected by tidal waves last year on the West Coast. To verify area and crop statistics the team also had at its disposal satellite landsat images of land use and crop intensity.

The Mission confirms that the food crisis in Korea DPR is far from over. The food supply situation remains precarious and is expected to worsen over the next two critical months as stocks become exhausted, the Public Distribution System (PDS) ceases operation in many areas and coping mechanisms become increasingly strained. At the household level, the Mission observed that families formerly dependent on the PDS for supplies are becoming increasingly reliant on savings from rations in earlier months, vegetables produced on family plots, alternative foods, such as wild herbs/plants and berries and on food contributions from relatives in agricultural areas. It also noted that hospitals, in some areas, were not admitting patients due to shortages of food. At the provincial level barter exports, principally using timber in the areas bordering China, continue to be an important source for securing food through cross- border trade, though there are mounting concerns over the environmental impact of such measures. At the national the level another important coping strategy, over the last two years, has been the premature consumption of maize in the green or fresh state. Although this has become a necessary source of food it inevitably reduces supplies for the next marketing year and in doing so only defers the problem.

In the last three years of extreme adversity, the national and collective resolve of the people of Korea DPR to address their food and agricultural problems has also been impressive. This year again large numbers of people, including school children, were observed to be engaged intensively in agriculture to counter shortages in mechanization and other inputs and to provide the best possible foundation for recovery. The potential severity of food related problems has also, to some extent, been lessened by sharing of supplies and ensuring equitable distribution.

Notwithstanding strong family bonds and the collective determination of the people of Korea DPR to overcome food problems, unprecedented food aid since 1995 has been crucial in ensuring the basic nutritional needs of vulnerable groups, especially children and to some extent in stabilizing the food situation. Consequently, a discernible improvement in the health of these groups was observed compared to a year ago. It is essential that this form of food assistance be continued until the planned recovery in domestic food production materializes and the country’s commercial import capacity improves. To have a better perspective of the extent of food related problems in the country, however, the Mission reiterates the need for a scientific, representative survey of the nutritional situation to be undertaken as soon as possible.

To enhance national food security, it is also important that support be given to short and medium term measures for agricultural rehabilitation. In this regard the recent Roundtable consultation on Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection, supported by UNDP offers encouraging scope for much needed interventions in the sector.

For the year ahead much depends on agricultural recovery and the harvest this year. Although at the time of the Mission’s visit, crops generally appeared to be in a satisfactory condition, early indications should be viewed with caution as a great deal depends on weather in the coming months, especially on rainfall in July and August. More than 50 percent of annual precipitation is received in these two months and, ominously, the disasters in the last three years also occurred in this period. In addition to concerns over weather variability, 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 and, possibly, an increase in the incidence of pests and diseases due to the mild winter. It is estimated that only around one third of the requirement of fertilizers for optimum yields will be available this year. Even assuming an optimistic weather scenario and no further climatic disruptions, cereal productivity, therefore, would, at best, be considerably lower than potential and production would still be far short of needs.

Although in early June agriculture in the east was affected by tidal waves, the damage observed was not extensive mainly as the areas affected were marginal and there are opportunities for crops to be replanted.

Field assessments indicate that production of the recently introduced double crop barley will increase substantially over last year, with an estimated 70 000 hectares planted against 38 000 hectares in 1997. The double cropping programme constitutes an important element of the government’s strategy for agricultural recovery and needs continued international support.



In normal years, winter periods (December - February) in Korea DPR are extremely harsh and cold and the following spring season is characterized by low rainfall. A cyclonic effect from the west, is responsible for an intensive rainfall period, which spans approximately from the end of July to the end of August. Normally the intensive rainfall period is followed by a low rainfall season during autumn. Since 1995, however, this pattern has suffered serious disruption, including extensive flooding in 1995 and 1996 and the worst drought in decades in 1997. Although causal relations are still unclear, the drought last year may partly be attributed to the "El Niño" phenomenon, which severely disrupted weather patterns in a large number of countries.
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At the time of the Mission’s visit, maize had been entirely planted and 85 percent of rice transplanting had been completed. Although, crops generally appeared to be in a satisfactory condition at this stage, much will depend on weather conditions in the coming months, especially on rainfall in July and August, when more half the annual precipitation is received. Natural disasters in the last three years, also occurred during these two months.

So far this year rainfall has been generally above average and has been beneficial in supplementing soil moisture levels for planting and replenishing, to some extent, irrigation reservoirs, which had been severely depleted by the drought last year. Figure 1 indicates rainfall patterns for 1998 compared to the long-term average.

On the whole, the Mission observed that the recent damage by tidal waves on the East Coast, (around Tongchon, Kosong and Anbyon) was not extensive, as the areas affected were mostly marginal, from an agricultural perspective, and there is a good possibility for replanting.

The limited potential for area expansion and climatic limitations, have, in the past, favoured the intensification of production through irrigation, mechanization, the use of chemicals and electricity. However since the 1995-96 floods, a number of irrigation structures have remained in poor repair, whilst the provision of other services to agriculture has declined due to economic problems. In addition to the unpredictability of weather, therefore, other constraints to production this year will be lack of water in reservoirs, serious lack of fertilizers, shortage of mechanization and energy and, possibly, an increase in the incidence of pests and diseases due to the mild winter. Taking these in turn the Mission observed the following;

2.1 Irrigation reserves

Irrigation in Korea DPR is almost exclusively from surface water and although a large proportion of arable land has been equipped for irrigation, only around 50 percent is irrigated due to operational problems. To a large extent, irrigated areas require pumping from rivers. Although the reservoirs visited have been able to provide sufficient water for land preparation and transplanting, present levels are extremely low, in some cases less than one third of the total capacity. Although pumping from rivers can be used to supplement reserves, given power and energy shortages there will be greater dependence, this year on rainfall in catchment areas. If the rainy season is normal it is probable that these reservoirs should be replenished to a considerable extent, thereby assuring sufficient water for the latter part of the season. However, if rainfall were below normal as in 1997, insufficient water supplies from these reservoirs would significantly reduce potential yields.

2.2 Mechanization and energy

In the past farm operations were highly mechanized, with an estimated 75 000 tractors in use. In addition cooperatives have a wide range of mechanized equipment including transplanters, threshers, trucks and pumping equipment. Most of the equipment, however, is in poor repair. For 1998, based on Mission observations and discussion with farmers and provincial officials it estimated that only around 20 percent of tractors were operational, due to fuel and spare part shortages. Consequently, there is now much greater dependence on labour and it was observed that large numbers of the non-agricultural population, including school children, had been mobilized to assist with land preparation, planting and weeding activities. Although such mobilization is commendable and shows the determination of the people of Korea DPR to achieve recovery in agriculture this year, the lack of mechanization will, nonetheless, result in noticeable delays in planting.

The severe shortage of power to agriculture, especially for pump irrigation was also noted as another impediment to completion of timely planting. In general, the target for completion of planting operations is the end of May- first week of June, though increasingly, for the reasons above, this may not occur till the third week or end of June. In addition, harvesting and threshing operations will also be affected by the lack of mechanization and energy, which will reduce productivity.

2.3 Fertilizers

 Undisplayed Graphic

Due to economic difficulties, the manufacture, import and use of chemical fertilizers has declined markedly in recent years (Fig 2). The country presently has three manufacturing plants at Namhung in the southwest and Hungnam and Aoji in the east/north east. At full capacity 400 000 tonnes of nitrogen nutrient could be produced, ensuring self-sufficiency. However the industry is constrained by plant obsolescence and poor maintenance, which mean that substantial investment in refurbishment is vital to bring factories to efficient capacity. In addition, production is constrained by shortages of raw materials, principally petroleum. For the 1998 agricultural season, the total amount of fertilizer available up to the end of June is officially estimated at around 240 000 tonnes. This includes some 78 000 tonnes of domestic production ( 57 000 tonnes of urea and 21 000 tonnes of super phosphate) and 162 000 tonnes of imports and assistance ( 93 100 tonnes of urea and 69 000 tonnes of super phosphate).

It is estimated that available fertilizer in 1998 would only allow an application (basal and first tillering) of around 200 Kg/ha roughly one third of that recommended to attain optimum yields. Even assuming an optimistic weather scenario and no further climatic disruptions, therefore, cereal productivity would, at best, be significantly below potential and any recovery in production would still be far short of needs. As part of the UNDP supported Roundtable on Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection initiative, donor assistance for US $93 million has been requested for modernization and operation of two fertilizer plants, to enhance domestic production of fertilizers.

2.4 Pest and diseases

The 1997 - 1998 winter was characterized by higher than normal temperatures (fig 3), which may increase the incidence of pests and diseases as, cysts, eggs and spores, were not destroyed by typically low winter temperatures. Consequently, crop production this year may be subject to higher infestations of pests and diseases than normal, especially given shortages of pesticides in the country.
Undisplayed Graphic
Source: Fertilizer Plants and Agriculture Commission

2.5 Double Cropping Programme

In view of the limited scope for expanding food output extensively, since 1996 a joint programme by UN agencies and the Government was introduced to develop double cropping of barley, in an attempt to augment domestic food production. The objective of the programme is to make optimal use of the period between early March, when winter thaw occurs, and May/June when planting of summer paddy and maize need to be completed. In addition to double cropping spring/winter barley with rice and maize, there is also potential of enhancing production through intercropping cereals with vegetables, soybeans, roots and forage crops, which needs further investigation.

For the 1998 programme, field assessments indicate that double crop production will increase substantially over last year, with an estimated 70 000 hectares planted against 38 000 hectares in 1997. Given climatic and energy limitations, however, a major constraint in the crop programme is timeliness of planting and harvesting of barley, as delays in these operations can have a serious impact on rice transplanting. This year, due to the late arrival of some of the barley seed under assistance programmes the crop was sown late and was being harvested prematurely for feed use in some areas so not to jeopardize paddy planting. Where a delayed barley crop will be harvested, paddy transplanting will not be feasible, given limited time , and farmers will need to resort to an alternative crop of vegetables.

Irrespective of these problems, the double cropping programme constitutes an important element of the government’s strategy for agricultural recovery and needs continued international support. Based on farm interviews, winter barley and wheat seem to be preferred to spring varieties, whilst local varieties were observed to be fairing better than imported ones. This should be taken into consideration because, even though local varieties are not as high yielding, they are, nevertheless, an excellent source of germplasm, have low input requirement and early maturing characteristics. A breeding programme to incorporate high yield characteristics should be started as soon as possible. Of the non-indigenous barley varieties the "Robusta" variety (American) was observed as being the best, while "Red Sun -3" (China) showed symptoms of mildew, rust and open smut. Again, under Roundtable Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection initiative, donor assistance for a further US$99 million has been requested to extend the double cropping programme to 200 000 hectares by the year 2000. The Mission fully supports this initiative as part of an overall strategy for sustained recovery and development in agriculture.


The FAO/WFP Mission in October 1997, identified a substantial food deficit and warned the international community of grim food prospects for Korea DPR in 1998 It also stressed that large scale imports, including substantial international assistance, would be required to meet minimum food needs. So far this year, through national and provincial channels, the country has been able to import some grain commercially through various barter transactions. However, the amount of imports has been inadequate to ensure food supplies, even at severely reduced levels, to the majority of the population.

At the time of last year’s harvest when food supplies were relatively abundant, food rations in the PDS were maintained around 400 grams per person/day during varying periods in November and December. The Government reports that food rations were then reduced to 300 grams per person/day in January, 200 grams per person/day in February and 100 grams per person/day in March. This compares with reduced rations of 150 grams per person/day in March 1997. Distribution through the PDS reportedly was discontinued in many areas in mid March. It is estimated that currently the PDS centres have negligible contingency stocks and are making no distributions apart from some limited quantities of food aid for specific target groups. Total monthly government distribution to the PDS by province is indicated fig 4 and table 1.

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Note: Monthly Average for November and December.

Table 1. Monthly Government Distribution to PDS Centres by Province and City. (Tonnes)

Province/city  November/ December 97  January 98  February 98  March 98
Pyongyang  55 500  20 800  13 800  2 700
S Pyongan  30 000  11 200  7 500  1 500
N Pyongan  20 300  7 600  5 100  1 000
Chagang  18 700  7 000  4 600  900
S Hwanghae  20 600  7 700  5 100  1 000
N Hwanghae  18 300  5 500  3 700  700
Kangwon  11 300  4 200  2 800  500
S Hamgyon  27 200  10 200  6 800  1 300
N Hamgyon  26 200  10 000  6 700  1 300
Ryanggang  10 500  3 900  2 600  500
Kaesong  4 100  1 500  1 000  200
Nampo  9 100  3 400  2 300  400
Total  251 300  93 000  62 000  12 000

The situation appears to be less desperate for some six million farm workers and their families, who receive their annual grain allocation in one installment immediately after the harvest. In 1997 it is estimated that they received 130 to 160 kg of cereals per person, corresponding to 350 to 440 grams per person per day for the whole year. This level of ration is still below minimum consumption requirements of 457 grams/day to meet 75 percent of daily calorie intake of 2130 kcal/day and certainly insufficient for people engaged in heavy agricultural work. Moreover as an important part of the coping strategy for urban dwellers has been contributions from agricultural areas, it is conceivable that part of the annual ration of farm households has been used to supplement supplies of relations in towns and cities.

Farm families also have the opportunity of growing food on individual plots and to collect wild plants, mushrooms, etc to augment diet in mountainous areas. The maximum size of plots is 100 sqm2 in rural and areas 30 sqm2 per family, where possible, in urban areas. Even amongst the rural population, however, there are differences to such access with agricultural areas in the west and southwest having limited access to spare land and to wild vegetation. Farm workers in these areas therefore, have only limited potential for supplementing the annual allocation of grain and also much less opportunity to import food commodities through barter given the distance from the Chinese border and the lack of saleable assets, such as timber.

Available information demonstrates that the country’s food supply situation remains precarious. This is also confirmed by Individual households and international aid workers interviewed by the Mission. The next two months are of particular concern, before the maize crop can be harvested prematurely (green) for consumption. Although this practice has become a necessity in recent years, a considerable proportion of potential production is lost due to premature harvesting and inevitably, advance consumption reduces availability for the following period. In effect such consumption, therefore, delays the crisis, though is resorted to due to acute shortages of food during the leanest supply months. Important mechanisms for coping with food shortages include;

Over the last twelve months there have been some positive developments, which were observed, especially in visits to nurseries and kindergartens. Here quite clearly the health of children, aged six months to six years, has improved considerably since 1997. Attendance rates have improved, a larger proportion of children appear to be in good health and less lethargic. The supervisors reported no malnutrition, nor were any malnourished children seen by the Mission in these institutions. Given that the overall food situation still remains precarious, the Mission concludes that the comparatively healthy status of children can only be attributed to successful targeting of (international) food assistance. However, to ascertain more accurately the level of improvement in nutrition, findings from a scientific nutritional survey would be extremely important. A plan for such an exercise, with the participation of national authorities, UN agencies and the EC has been prepared and a survey is envisaged shortly. Population groups now regarded as particularly vulnerable to food shortages, include children of school age, the elderly and expecting / nursing mothers.

The FAO/WFP Mission in October estimated the total import requirement for 1997/98 at 1.95 million tons of cereals. The Government reports that a total of some 180,000 tons of cereals (grain equivalent) had been imported commercially by end May, of which 100 000 tonnes were estimated through national imports and 80 000 tonnes through provincial/county level barter transactions. In view of the pace of imports so far, and persisting economic and credit difficulties, overall commercial imports for 1997/98 have been revised down from 700 000 tons, estimated by the last Mission, to 500 000 tonnes currently. The Government is also trying to control barter trade involving timber (a key tradable commodity) due to environmental problems and the possibility of increased erosion, siltation and flooding in future.

Bilateral assistance pledges to date include 100 000 tons from China, of which 40 000 tons have already arrived and 86 000 tons from the EU. Other food aid shipments, mostly through WFP, totaling 352,000 tons, have also arrived. In addition there are confirmed shipments for a total of 276 000 tons, mostly due to arrive in the period from June to early September. Total food aid deliveries and pledges, since November 1997, amount to 814 000 tons.

3.1 Updated Cereal supply/demand balance: 1997/98

In accordance with currently available information, the national cereal balance for 1997/98 has been updated based on the following;

The updated cereal balance for 1997/98 is shown in Table 2

Table 2. Korea DPR: Cereal balance sheet for 1997/98 (Nov/Oct) (‘000 tons)

(Based on a mid-year population of 23.2 million in the 1997/1998 marketing year)
Total Availability  2 838
Production  2 838
Stock draw-down  0
Total Utilization  4 674
Food use  3 874
Feed use  300
Other uses, seed and losses  500
Import requirement  1 836
Commercial imports  500
Pledged and delivered food assistance  814
Uncovered import requirement 1/.  522

1/ The volume of uncovered imports depends heavily on the pace of remaining commercial imports and pledged food assistance (400 000 tonnes) over the next two months. If these do not materialize, as assumed, or are delayed the deficit would be larger and consequent food shortages much more problematic.



Apart from food assistance to vulnerable groups which, as indicated above, is essential in the short term, additional food for work programmes should also be considered to support agricultural rehabilitation. This can be considerable under the Agricultural Recovery Environmental Protection programme, particularly for reforestation.

Other areas which offer potential for improving food security in Korea DPR include:

In addition to these, however, given agricultural limitations, longer-term food security in Korea DPR will depend heavily on the general economic performance and efforts to increase output sustainably in agriculture. To this end, 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. In the absence of such interventions, prospects for future food supply in Korea DPR remain extremely fragile even without emergencies.

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO and WFP Secretariats with information from official and unofficial sources. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact the undersigned for further information if required. 
Abdur Rashid 
Chief, GIEWS, FAO 
Telex 610181 FAO I 
Fax: 0039-6-5705-4495 
Ms. J. Cheng-Hopkins 
Regional Director, OAC, WFP 
Telex: 626675 WFP 1 
Fax: 0039-6-6513-2863 
E-Mail: Judy.Cheng-Hopkins@WFP.ORG
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