For official use only

SPECIAL ALERT NO.267
DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF KOREA

(Circulated only for countries where foodcrops or supply situation conditions give rise to concern)


OVERVIEW

A recent on-the-spot review by FAO and WFP, has found that since the joint Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission in December 1995, the food supply situation has deteriorated more seriously than had been anticipated. The mission had identified a substantial food deficit, most of which has remained uncovered so far. The Government has not been able to import food commercially, due to economic difficulties, and the level of food assistance provided to date has only covered a very small part of the deficit. The situation is likely to become considerably worse in the lean months between May and September, as most of last year's harvest has been consumed, stocks are critically low, significant commercial imports are unlikely and there is virtually no further food assistance in the pipeline.

Together these factors have led to widespread shortages in large parts of the country and brought the Public Distribution System (PDS) under considerable strain. In recognition of mounting difficulties, the Government has had to implement various measures to reduce overall consumption, including a reduction in food rations and the use of cereals in feed and industrial use. There is an urgent need to mobilise food imports, in the absence of which the consequences are likely to be devastating for large segments of the population, especially those that are already vulnerable.

Preliminary findings of a food and nutritional assessment in March/April this year by WFP indicated that to date young children attending nurseries and kindergartens have been protected from food shortages. However, without adequate food assistance, the present nutritional situation of the population can only be expected to decline. Private, small plot cultivation will enable some communities to compensate partly for reductions in government food allocation and ensure minimum dietary intake. However, those living in mountainous areas or urban centres have limited or no access to such land and may, therefore, face more serious shortages. The micronutrient status of the population is also a cause for some concern, although this cannot be confirmed with data on prevalence rates. Vitamin D, the B group and C are thought to be the most inadequate.

Early prospects for the 1996 grain crops, now being planted, are unfavourable. Preparations for planting have been delayed by about 2-3 weeks due to cold weather and inadequate fuel supplies. The delay in planting alone could result in up to 10 percent reduction in yields this year. The agriculture sector also continues to face serious problems of input supply, principally fertiliser, the manufacture or import of which has been severely constrained by a shortage of foreign exchange. This, as in the past several years, will reinforce a persistent downward trend in food production in the country. In addition a substantial part, some 40 000 hectares, of the area affected by the floods last year still remains under sand and debris, effectively ruling out cultivation in these areas in 1996. Food supply difficulties could, therefore, continue well into 1997.


FOOD SUPPLY SITUATION

The Public Distribution System (PDS) is the mechanism under which the state aims to supply the majority of the population with basic consumption needs, including rice/maize, cooking oil, cabbage, meat, fish and eggs. Food items are rationed and sold to the public at highly subsidised rates. Cereal rations for collective farm workers are distributed on-farm annually, immediately following the harvest.

Presently, out of the total population of some 22 million, it is estimated that about 13.5 million or 62 percent of the population are eligible to receive subsidised food rations through the PDS throughout the year. In addition, some 3 million workers and dependants on state farms are entitled to subsidised rations for 6 months. This leaves a population of roughly 5 million on collective farms, who receive no subsidised rations whatsoever and have to depend on a quota from the harvest for their annual need. However, as a result of the 1995 floods and food shortages, collective farmers were only allocated some 100 kgs, for the period up to the next harvest in October 1996, compared to an average of 200 kgs in normal years. The allocation therefore was halved and translates to a daily per caput availability of 250 grams of food grain, well below consumption needs. In view of the food shortages, substantial reductions in PDS rations were introduced in April.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the entire public distribution system is coming under considerable strain, due to a combination of factors, including declining food production, the disruption of trade, a progressive drawdown of national cereal stocks and cessation in early 1995 of grain imports from China, estimated at between 700 000 to 1 million tons annually in the period 1992 to 1995. As this quantum of imports represented a substantial proportion of cereal requirement in Korea DPR, cessation has had devastating effects on grain supply. Indeed even before the floods in July/August last year, Korea DPR approached several countries for assistance and received some 450 000 tons of rice through bilateral channels partly as grant and partly on concessional terms, to meet requirements for 1994/95.

The serious problems of the PDS were further exacerbated by the 1995 floods, which resulted in substantial losses to standing crops and stored food.

Although, no specific data on stock holding and off-take through the PDS is available, the Government estimates that present levels for the period April to October can only provide some 25 percent of normal requirements. It also indicated that off-take from the PDS had been lowered from 240 000 tons/month to 170 000 tons.

Farm families on collective farms, made homeless after the floods in North Pyongan, North Hwanghae and Chagang provinces, have been the main recipients of food aid. To date some 33 000 tons have been delivered, including 28 529 tons of rice, 2 269 tons of CSB, 1 756 tons of wheat flour and 270 tons of miscellaneous food items, mainly maize meal and soybean.

For the 1995/96 marketing year (November/October), the total cereal import requirement was calculated at 1.91 million tons, by the FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission in December last year. At that time it was envisaged that the Government would be in a position to import some 700 000 tons commercially. However, apart from concessional imports amounting to 200 000 tons from Japan, 40 000 tons from Syria, 8 000 tons from Switzerland and an expected 5 000 tons from Pakistan, it has been unable to secure further imports. This is in spite of negotiations with several countries notably Thailand, China, India, Poland, Romania, Canada and the USA.

Under the circumstances, widespread shortages have occurred and there are reports of emerging and growing informal cross boarder trade with China, in which various products, such as lumber, scrap metal and shellfish are being bartered for wheat flour. For the remainder of 1995/96 marketing year, therefore, it is assumed that although the country can only make very limited imports of food commercially, some will flow-in as cross border (barter) imports. The combined amount of these imports is estimated at 150 000 tons of grain. Further, as a process of adjustment the Government has also begun reducing the number of livestock, which are intensively fed on grain, to enable cereals to be diverted for food use. It is estimated that feed use has decreased by 25 percent and the use of cereals for other purposes by a further 10 percent. No adjustment has been made to overall food use as the reduced rations FAO/WFP reported last year are already felt to be the minimum required. Based on these assumptions, the FAO/WFP estimate of 1995 production and the quantity of emergency and programme food aid received so far, leaves an overall shortfall of some 1.04 million tons. (See below)

1995/96 Cereal Balance Sheet ('000 tons)

Total Availability 4 077
     1995 Production 4 077
     Stock Draw-down -
Total Utilisation 5 548
     Food Use 1/ 3 688
     Feed Use 1 050
     Other Use 810
1996 Import Requirement 1 471
     Commercial Imports 2/ 150
     Emergency and Programme Food Aid Received and pledged 3/ 284
     Uncovered import Requirement 1 037
of which:
      . Emergency food aid 34
      . Project food aid 25
      . Programme food aid 978

1/ On minimum required rations
2/ Commercial imports includes cross border trade
3/ Does not include CSB.


As there are no further pledges in the pipeline from May onwards, the food supply situation is becoming increasingly desperate. The Government has already reduced food rations to 300 grams a day, whilst in some areas rations as low as 250 grams/day have been noted. Consumption norms, therefore, have dropped progressively from an average of 600 grams per caput/day last year.

Worsening food shortages and the inability of the PDS to provide a regular supply of basic staples, have led to the development of a number of alternative coping mechanisms. These include, the consumption of wild food, petty trading of basic commodities and food around most towns, the cultivation of small private plots and rearing of poultry, support from relatives from abroad and the use of nominal savings for supplementary food purchases at ‘peasants markets’, which now operate at certain times during the month.

In view of the deteriorating food supply situation, the Government is clearly anticipating significant problems in the near future and requested the United Nations, in early April, to launch a new international appeal for mainly food assistance.

Emergency Food Aid Needs

It is estimated that, until the next harvest in October 1996, 33 750 tons of cereals (maize, maizemal, wheat and rice) is required in emergency food aid for 500 000 flood victims and/or other most vulnerable people. In addition some 11 800 tons of fortified cereal mix is needed for distribution, through kindergartens and nurseries, of 150 grams/day per caput to 25 percent of 2.1 million children under five in the most vulnerable areas, as compensation for the reduction in the PDS special ration.

For rehabilitation of the agricultural sector, especially the removal of sand and debris from flood affected areas and repair of river dykes, 25 000 tons of project food aid is required to provide 2 kilos per manday for 12.5 million mandays.

Programme Food Aid

Although, the FAO/WFP food supply assessment mission identified a substantial food deficit last year, at the time it was envisaged that the Government would be in a position to make commercial imports of 700 000 tons and obtain sufficient quantities of food assistance to help bridge the deficit. However, these imports have not materialised and a large part of the food deficit has remained uncovered. The food supply situation will, therefore, be critical in the lean months between May and September, as most of last year's harvest has been consumed, stocks are critically low, there is very little likelihood of significant commercial imports and there is virtually no further food assistance in the pipeline. The country, therefore, urgently needs programme food aid or balance of payments support for commercial imports of 978 000 tons of cereals, if the Government is to maintain minimum ration levels, until the next harvest in October.


OUTLOOK FOR 1996/97

Even under normal circumstances the domestic production of food in Korea DPR is heavily constrained by a shortage of cultivable land. Since 1990 the problems of domestic supply have been further compounded by declining productivity due both to natural soil depletion and the inability of the country to manufacture or import sufficient quantities of fertiliser to maintain productivity, due to severe economic problems and the consequent shortage of foreign exchange. Declining productivity and the crippling effects of the floods last year, which not only destroyed standing crops but also the irrigation network and property, exacerbated an already difficult food supply situation. The floods also left an estimated 90 000 hectares of paddy land under large deposits of sand and debris. Due to extreme shortages of imported fuel for operating excavation machinery, the Government presently estimates that only 50 000 hectares can be partially reclaimed to allow some cultivation in 1996. FAO field visits in April confirmed that large areas still remained under debris and sand, estimated at 30 - 40 centimetres in depth. In addition production will be significantly constrained by the lack of fuel for irrigation purposes and agricultural machinery. The Government presently estimates that 50 000 tons of diesel are needed for agricultural operations, including rehabilitation and operation of the irrigation system. As a result of the fuel shortage, there is clear evidence that farming is reverting back to the use of animal draught power.

Unless there is a marked improvement in the supply of fertiliser and fuel in the coming months, the Government’s most optimistic production scenario is an aggregate output of 5 to 5.5 million tons of food grains. This would be in line with trends outlined in the FAO/WFP assessment made last year. Under the worst case scenario output will be similar to 1995 production of some 4 million tons. There is clearly a need to review the situation near harvest. It is, therefore, recommended that an FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission visit Korea DPR from Mid October, to assess food supply prospects for 1996/97.

Annual domestic requirement is substantially higher than what the country can produce, even under the most optimistic scenario, and would still need to be supplemented by grain imports in good years. Needless to say in poor years the dependence on supplementary imports would be much higher. All indications are that in 1996/97 the country will carry foreword a structural food deficit of over 2 million tons even under the Government’s most optimistic scenario. It is envisaged, therefore, that cereal food availability can only be met if there is a further sharp reduction in the use for feed and other uses, which of course has significant repercussions for the country’s livestock sector and future meat availability in the diet.

In view of dwindling crop prospects the Government has initiated a number of measures to enhance domestic production and access to food, apart from removing sand and debris from affected arable land. These include:


CONCLUSION

Unfavourable weather conditions in 1994 and 1995 seriously aggravated an already strained food supply situation in Korea DPR, which had steadily been tightening for years. In December 1995 the FAO/WFP mission strongly advocated international emergency and programme food assistance, as it predicted numerous problems in 1996, especially during the lean period preceding harvest, when individual and national stocks in the PDS would be near depletion. Not only has such assistance not materialised to the extent needed, but also Government has so far been unable to secure commercial imports. Together this has meant that the institutional food supply system is perilously close to collapse and individual stocks are extremely low for those outside the PDS. Worse still the pipeline for emergency food assistance, which to date has been supplementing the diet of the worst affected population from last year’s floods, is dry and from May these people will endure severe cutbacks in food availability. There are already signs of some nutritional deficiency in various segments of the population, which could become chronic in the next few months, unless some assistance is provided.

Although there is clear and urgent need to provide both emergency and programme food assistance now, it is fully recognised that these measures would only help solve immediate problems and not inherent long term ones. In the medium to longer term, over the next few years, the country is in considerable danger of recurrent food supply difficulties, given its limited potential to expand domestic food production either extensively or intensively, declining soil fertility that cannot sustain high doses of fertiliser even if they were available and a shrinking economy that effectively rules out sufficient imports of food to meet the deficit. It is clear that in the past food supply depended heavily on the general state of the economy and its capacity to finance imports. As this is no longer the case, it is evident that the country urgently needs to address these issues and implement some radical solutions, if it is to avert serious problems in the future.


(THE FAX VERSION OF THIS REPORT WAS ISSUED ON 13 MAY 1996)

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO and WFP Secretariats with information from official and unofficial sources and is for official use only. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact the undersigned for further information if required.

Abdur Rashid B. Szynalski
Chief, GIEWS FAO Director, OP, WFP
Telex 610181 FAO I Telex: 626675 WFP I
Fax: 0039-6-5225-4495 Fax: 0039-6-5228-2837
E-Mail (INTERNET): GIEWS1@FAO.ORG)

Rome, 16 May 1996

TOC Return to Menu