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Food supply difficulties in North Korea are likely to be heightened after serious floods swept the country's agricultural heartlands in late July, putting further pressure on the government's rationing system already below minimum standards.
The storm damage to crop production and food supply was recently assessed by an on-the-spot FAO/WFP team. It provisionally estimated that this year's total cereal loss in the south, which produces 60 percent of the country's food grains, stands at about 373 000 tonnes (milled rice equivalent).
"The full extent of losses and the implications for food supply next year," says an FAO/WFP Special Alert, "will depend significantly on possible crop recovery in affected areas and weather conditions between now and harvest in October."
Inevitably, the flooding will "accentuate the seriousness of existing food supply problems", adds the report. Supply difficulties largely triggered by earlier floods in 1995 have meant that rationing through the government's Public Distribution System (PDS), on which the majority of the population now depend, has been revised down significantly.
Today the PDS cereal ration is approximately 6 kg per month or 200 grams per day for a large number of people. "Rations are now considerably below historic levels and for many people well below minimum quantities required," says the report.
But as the supply channel is currently almost entirely dependent on imports, it is likely that even this reduced off-take has not been consistently maintained; rations are only provided, irregularly, when imports arrive. And reports indicate that occasionally cereal allocations have been restricted to once instead of twice a month.
Meanwhile, the government has authorized all provinces to barter products for food directly with neighbouring countries, especially China. Among the items on the bartering list are shellfish, scrap metal, marble and timber, the logging of which is believed to have added to deforestation and soil erosion.
Provinces have also been allowed to dip into locally held financial reserves for food purchases. And areas of the country that have been successful in importing food in this way are excluded from PDS central allocation for the duration imported quantities are expected to last.
The government is seriously constrained in making commercial food imports for cash, but has been successful in securing supplies by bartering steel, cement and gold. It has also intensified attempts to secure food supplies through bilateral grant aid or on the basis of deferred payment.
Despite these efforts, the quantity of cereal imports and food aid provided or pledged so far -- 848 300 tonnes -- amounts to barely half the total of 1 471 000 tonnes required for 1995/96 as identified in the FAO/WFP report of May this year. This leaves an overall deficit of 622 700 tonnes, which must be met to maintain minimum ration levels.