For official use only




6 December 1996


An FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, from 19 October to 2 November to review the outcome of the 1996 cereal harvest and estimate national import and food aid requirements for the marketing year ending October 1997. The evaluation is based on discussions with Government Ministries and Departments, UN and bilateral agencies based in the country and on field visits to important agricultural areas, including north and south Hwangae, Kangwon, south Pyongan and Pyongyang.

In late July this year the country was affected by floods for the second year in succession, though the severity was not comparable to the devastation caused by floods in 1995. Nonetheless, it is estimated that 1996 floods did result in a notable reduction in this year’s harvest. Two successive years of floods have undoubtedly set back agriculture and have significantly compounded underlying food production problems in the country. Notwithstanding this year’s floods, however, the overall trend shows clear decline, suggesting that the country would have carried a substantial food deficit in 1997 irrespective of flood damage.

Economic problems have manifest themselves in falling productivity and output in the agriculture sector, as domestic production of fertilizers and imports of essential chemical and other inputs, like fuel and spare parts, have fallen appreciably in recent years. In addition to these, food production is constrained by geography, land availability and climate. These limitations have resulted in rice and maize, the main cereals, being cropped continuously, leaving soils severely depleted and unable to sustain high doses of chemical fertilizers, even if available, to maintain productivity. As a result yields have declined. Overall, therefore, the balance in agriculture can easily be upset by natural calamities, such as floods in the last two years, ecological damage and declining fertility.

Prevailing input and land constraints also mean that the country can simply not produce enough food grains to meet demand and has growing dependence on imports. The country’s capacity to import food commercially, however, is highly constrained by the lack of foreign exchange, large international debts and virtually no access to credit, which together mean that it has had to resort to desperate measures such as the use of barter trade to counter food supply problems over the last year. The terms of trade against such transactions mean that it is costly in resource terms, whilst its unpredictability and lack of sustainability mean that it does not offer a long term solution to a problem that is likely to become worse in the future unless appropriate remedial measures are taken urgently.

Total grain production for 1996, is estimated at some 4.3 million tons of cereals (including milled rice). However, the Mission estimates that a substantial proportion (some 50 percent) of the maize harvest was consumed, as fresh cobs, in August/September due to the severity of food shortages, whilst losses from this year’s floods reduced output by a further 300 000 tons. Allowing for these deductions, therefore, the net output of milled rice and maize available for 1996/97 (November/October) is estimated at around 2.84 million tons. Against this, some 3.8 million tons would be required for food alone and 5.4 million tons for total grain utilization, leaving an overall import requirement of over 2.36 million tons. Even if it is assumed that the country could import 500 000 tons of this through barter trade and as concessional imports, as it did last year, it would still be left with a substantial deficit of 1.83 million tons.

The Mission’s assessment shows that Korea DPR will enter 1997 with a substantially larger food deficit than in 1996 which could further aggravate the already weak nutritional status of the population. At the forecast level, domestic food supplies from this year's harvest will be sufficient to cover needs for about 7 months, leaving requirements for the remaining 5 months to be covered by imports. The country, therefore, approaches 1997 in a far worse position than 1996 and will again depend heavily on large scale international assistance to help it meet minimum food requirements. The most critical time for food supply will be during the lean period from July to September next year. Only if adequate food assistance is mobilized before the onset of this period, will further hardship to the population be averted. Given the institutional importance and effectiveness of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Korea DPR, it is appropriate that the PDS be used as the principal channel for food assistance.

In view of the increasing severity of the food problem, the situation needs to be kept under constant surveillance. The Government may wish to consider establishing a food information and early warning unit with international assistance.


The development of Korea DPR in the 1950s and 1960s was notable for its high degree and fast rate of industrialization and growth of agriculture. However, rapid economic growth and industrialization peaked around 1970 and has, since then, been followed by over two decades of slowdown, stagnation and eventual decline. Moreover, as earlier development was heavily dependent on economic assistance and special trade agreements with the former U.S.S.R , China and other centrally planned economies, the cessation of these in the 1990s, due to the collapse of the former U.S.S.R and increased economic liberalization in China and other economies in transition, has compounded the country’s economic problems.

Industries, which are centred on coal, cement, steel and machine tools, remain 'heavy', technologically outmoded, obsolete and in need of machine replacement. There has been little modernization and diversification in the sector, such as expansion into light industries and electronics, which has meant that the country has failed to keep pace with competition from other emerging economies in Asia. As a result Korea DPR has been unable to benefit from the region's economic boom, whilst, at the same time, its products remain uncompetitive, restricting access to key markets. The economy, as a whole, has also suffered greatly from chronic shortages of energy as supplies from former trading partners, at subsidized rates, have been significantly reduced. As a result of these shortages, the operational capacity of most industries has fallen dramatically, with some estimates indicating that a number of industries presently function at between 20 and 30 percent of capacity, whilst others have ceased operations entirely.

Trade, hitherto mostly with the former U.S.S.R and China on barter terms, continues to decrease in an increasingly global, cash economy, whilst substantial unpaid debts severely limit the amount of credit the country has access to. Overall, in the period 1990 to 1996, therefore, it is estimated that the economy contracted significantly, whilst exports fell dramatically and the trade deficit grew substantially. These factors together mean that today the country has very little foreign exchange to make purchases from international markets and has had to resort to bartering, where possible, raw materials like cement , timber, mineral ores, fish and rice straw for food and other essential imports. The economic and ecological sustainability of such trade, however, is questionable beyond the short term. The indications are, therefore, that in the absence of substantial investment and recovery in the economy in the medium to long term, the country faces recurrent food supply difficulties as its ability to maintain domestic production, through imports of essential inputs, and its capacity to import food commercially remain highly constrained.

/ In view of scant economic information available on Korea DPR, the contents of this section are based on a variety of sources including the Far Eastern Economic Review, the 1996 Europa Publication on the Far East and Australia, Economist Intelligence Unit reports and on discussions in country with representatives of various delegations.


Economic problems have clearly manifest themselves in falling productivity and output in the agriculture sector, as soil fertility has been depleted and domestic production of fertilizers and imports of essential raw materials and other inputs, like fuel and spare parts, have fallen appreciably in recent years. In addition to these, food production is constrained by geography, land availability and climate. Only some 20 percent or 2 million hectares of total land area offers scope for arable production, whilst climatically crops can only be grown in a relatively short period from May to October. Of arable area only 1.4 million hectares are irrigated, with much of the system needing varying degrees of rehabilitation.

Most of the arable land is predominantly planted with two main cereals, rice mostly in the south where the climate is a little more conducive, and maize mainly in the north. Vegetables, roots and tubers, beans, spices and other annual crops, grown in the frost free period, are normally relegated to small parcels of land (field parameters, road boundaries etc.) in order to maximize area and output of main cereals. However, continuous cropping of rice and maize and the absence of rotation and fallow systems together with high fertilizer applications in the past, have led to declining soil fertility, further constraining productivity. Moreover, attempts at expanding cultivable area into marginal lands and hill terraces have resulted in erosion and ecological problems. It is likely that the problems of deforestation and consequent erosion of hill sides are as a result of measures aimed at area expansion. These, in turn are likely to have resulted in an increase in silt deposits in riverbeds, exacerbating problems of flooding in 1995 and 1996.

During the past few years, small scale experiments have been conducted using spring barley or wheat/buckwheat, to introduce double cropping in an attempt to increase food and feed output. Under this system, planting begins in mid-March, or as soon as soil thaw occurs, and harvesting in mid to late May. This allows the subsequent transplanting of the main rice and maize crops by mid June. Results, so far are encouraging and the Government plans to extend double cropped areas in 1997 , subject to seed availability. Efforts are also underway to introduce high yielding low fertilizer use varieties, expanding the usage of microbial fertilizers to reduce dependence on chemical fertilizers and covering arable land with rich deposits from river basins to replenish top soil.

Notwithstanding all these measures, the balance in agriculture can easily be upset by natural calamities, such as floods in the last two years, ecological damage and declining fertility, which have reduced food production. At present, input and land constraints mean that the country can simply not produce enough food grains to meet demand and has growing dependence on imports.


4.1 The 1996 Floods

High intensity rainfall, averaging over 800mm, and floods in late July this year, caused widespread damage to agriculture and property, further exacerbating domestic food supply problems in the country. The rainfall and resultant damage occurred most extensively in North and South Hwanghae Provinces, Kangwon Province and Kaesong Municipality, which together produce some 60 percent of the country’s food grain, principally rice. The areas affected, therefore, were of considerable agricultural importance. As crops were at a critical stage of grain development, the main damage resulted from prolonged submergence, during which plants were under water for periods of up to 5 days or more. However, although an interim assessment by FAO/WFP, shortly after the floods in August, provisionally estimated losses at around 373 000 tons of grain, including milled rice, the latest mission has revised the estimate to take into account an overall crop recovery rate of 20 percent . Final losses as a result of the floods, therefore, are now put at 300 000 tons of grain.

4.2 Crop Assessment Methodology

In assessing crop production the following methods were adopted

a) Review of data on:

  • agricultural production and land classification for each Province.
  • Area of land under rice and maize, estimated yields and production for 1996.
  • Rainfall, temperature and relative humidity patterns.
  • Classification of rice and maize planted area into good, moderate and poor lands.
  • b) Selective field sampling in areas representing each land classification.

    c) On-the-spot evaluation in randomly selected fields to estimate yields, based on:

  • Quantification of the average number of plants (stubs) per square metre by land classification.
  • Precision weighing of randomly selected, threshed grains from harvested sample fields, corresponding to grains in the number of plants per square metre.
  • Deduction of surplus weight due to excess moisture content, over 14 percent.
  • Deductions for undesirable foreign matter in selected samples, such as dirt, straw, etc.
  • Precision counting of unfilled and/or immature grains in randomly selected grain samples.
  • Yields and area under production, were calculated on the basis of discussions with co-operative farms, the Agricultural Commission, the Agricultural Academy, UN and bilateral Agencies, verified and adjusted by the methods above. Aggregate output was calculated on the basis of yields by land class and the total quantity of land in each class.

    4.3 Area Sown and Harvested

    Due to limited arable land, the area under rice and maize has remained more or less constant during the last decade. In 1996, official records suggest 580 000 hectares of rice and 625 000 hectares of maize were planted. The area of rice is similar to 1995 though marginally lower than 1994. However, the area planted to maize was some 28 000 hectares or 4 percent lower than 1995. (Table 1). This suggests that the Government may have concentrated on reclaiming rice rather than maize land after the 1995 floods, during which vast areas were covered by sand, silt and debris deposits.

    Table 1 - Korea DPR: Rice and Maize Area by Province in 1995 and 1996 (hectares)

    Province Rice Maize

    1995 1996 1995 1996
    South Hwangae 148 700 147 600 96 400 95 300
    North Hwangae 47 900 48 328 88 700 87 900
    South Pyongan 96 600 95 450 75 100 74 900
    North Pyongan 98 300 98 140 101 000 100 200
    Kangwon 36 200 32 150 49 200 48 800
    Others 152 100 158 390 242 700 218 100
    Total 579 800 580 058 653 100 625 200

    No land classification maps were available, though the Government provided a breakdown based on three categories:

    a) Good (flat and/or levelled land with irrigation on good soils)

    b) Moderate (flat or undulated land with or without irrigation with good to moderate soils)

    c) Poor (sloped/hilly land, unsatisfactory soils, practically no irrigation (except for paddy)

    The land classification by Provinces is shown in table 2.

    Table 2 - Korea DPR: Percentage of Arable Area by Land Class by Province

    Province Good Moderate


    Maize (%) Rice (%) Maize (%) Rice (%) Maize (%) Rice (%)
    South-Hwangae 27.4 40.0 35.7 33.0 36.4 26.4
    North Hwangae 18.6 22.0 28.9 32.4 52.5 45.0
    South Pyongan 37.3 29.6 31.0 27.7 31.0 42.7
    North Pyongan 28.6 28.0 27.2 31.2 44.2 40.8
    Kangwon 39.0 34.0 24.7 34.2 36.7 22.4
    Others 34.6 36.7 28.9 31.8 36.5 31.8
    Weighted Average 32.6 32.8 28.6 33.0 38.8 34.2

    Based on information from various sources, discussions and field inspections, the Mission estimates average yields by land classification as follows;

  • good lands: 5.5 tons/hectare for maize and 6.0 tons/hectare for rice, within a possible range of 7.0 tons/hectare to 3.0 tons/hectare,
  • moderate lands: 4.0 tons/hectare for maize and 4.7 tons/hectare for rice, within a possible range of 6.0 tons/hectare to 2.0 tons/hectare, and
  • poor lands: 2.0 tons/hectare for maize and 3.0 tons/hectare for rice, within a possible range of 4.0 tons/hectare to 1.0 ton/hectare.
  • Based on the above methodology, the aggregate production of paddy and maize in 1996 is shown in table 3.

    Table 3 - Korea DPR: Aggregate Production of Rice and Maize by Land Classification

    Rice (Paddy)


    Land Type Area (‘000 ha) Production (‘000 tons) Area (‘000 ha) Production (‘000 tons)
    Good 188 1 128 204 1 121
    Moderate 195 916 179 715
    Poor 197 591 243 485
    Total 580 2 635 1/ 626 2 321 2/

    1/ Milled equivalent 1 976 250 tons, unadjusted for flood losses.
    2/ Unadjusted for pre-harvest fresh cob consumption.

    Based on land classification and corresponding estimates of yield, gross grain production for 1996, would have amounted to some 4.96 million tons. Converting paddy to rice, this level of production translates into approximately 4.30 million tons of cereals (including milled rice). However, the Mission estimates that of this, some 50 percent of the maize harvest was consumed prematurely, during August and September this year, as a result of serious food supply problems, whilst a further 300 000 tons were lost during this year’s floods. Allowing for these deductions, the net, available, output of cereals in 1996 is estimated at 2.84 million tons

    4.4 Farm Management and Yields

    The area sown each year is determined by prevailing climatic conditions and the limited availability of arable land. Production of rice and maize is undertaken almost exclusively on state and cooperative farms, of which there are presently 1 000 and 3 000, respectively. The average size of cooperative farms is 500 hectares, although the largest (10 000 hectares) covers an entire county. Some state farms may produce limited amounts of food crops, though usually specialize in the production of livestock, poultry, seeds and fruit. There is no private production of staples, other than negligible quantities of maize, produced on small, permissible, household plots of 10m2. These plots may also produce vegetables, spices and tubers which are also planted on borders and embankments and other public lands.

    In the 1980s, up to 1989, crop yields in Korea DPR were comparatively high, reflecting intensive use of chemicals, mechanization, irrigation, the use of hybrid and high yielding varieties and crop husbandry. During this time average yields in rice and maize, were in the order of 6 to 7 tons and 5 to 6 tons respectively. In the period 1989 to 1993, however, economic contraction and trade disruption began to affect the sector and yields and production declined noticeably. This underlying decline in agriculture continued into 1994, 1995 and 1996, though was further compounded by serious climatic setbacks. In 1995 especially, serious floods not only destroyed standing crops extensively, but also damaged irrigation structures and agricultural support industries. This in turn reduced domestic availability of inputs such as fertilizers and fuel for machinery. As a result yields and production fell further.

    The average national yield in 1996 is estimated at 4.5 tons/hectare for rice and 3.8 tons/hectare for maize, within a range of 6.0 tons/hectare over good flat levelled soils with access to irrigation, to 2.0 tons/hectare on poor soils on sloped areas with no irrigation. There was a lack of chemical pesticides but fortunately there were no significant outbreaks of pests and diseases, although there were localized incidents of stem and corn borer in maize, and rice water weevil in rice. This indicates that increasing attention will need to be paid, in future years, to the development of resistant varieties as well as the production of pesticides, to be used within the framework, now strongly supported by the Government, of an integrated pest management approach.

    With regards to farming practices, intensive crop husbandry is practised throughout the country through manual labour given the lack of machinery and fuel. Nursery sowing, transplanting, weeding and harvesting losses are very low as a result of strict care and discipline during crop operations. Plant densities are comparatively high at between 420 000-480 000 plants (clumps)/hectare in rice and 70 000-80 000 plants/hectare in maize.

    Seed rates, for both maize and rice are also relatively high, due to high plant densities. At present the average seed rate for rice and maize is 125 kg/hectare and 45 kg/hectare respectively, which is comparable to most other countries in east Asia, except Japan where rates are considerably lower and range from 40-50 kg/hectare for rice and 20-30 kg/hectare for maize.

    Once crops are harvested, they are left to dry for periods up to 10 days in the field, after which they are transported to the county threshing centres, for threshing and further drying to reduce moisture content to 14 percent. Subsequently, grains are either temporarily stored, or immediately released to other units, co-operative stores for cooperative use or to government stores for public distribution.

    Although the floods this year were serious and submerged crops for extensive periods, the mission notes a recovery rate of 20 percent in areas which remained submerged for a duration of less than 48 hours, whilst in areas of more than 3 days submergence, the recovery rate ranged from zero to 10 percent.

    4.5 Factors Affecting Production in 1996

    4.5.1 Climatic factors

    Korea DPR, is constrained by a number of climatic factors which limit the country to only one, relatively short, cropping season per year. In normal years, the number of frost free days is the main determinant which limits production. The average number of frost free days, by province are: Pyongyang - 170; North Pyongan - 173; Kangwon - 196; North Hwangae - 170; North Hamgyong - 180.

    As a result of floods in 1995, which not only affected crops, but also damaged industries producing agricultural inputs, domestic supplies of fertilizers, pesticides and farm machinery parts for the 1996 cropping season were reduced considerably.

    4.5.2 Input use

    Economic problems and the lack of critical foreign exchange also meant that imports of these essential inputs remained highly constrained. As a result of these factors, fertilizer application rates of the most commonly used fertilizers, Urea (46.6%N) and Ammonium sulphate (22-23%N)), were in many cases reduced by more than one-third, with a consequent decline in yields.

    4.5.3 Pests

    In paddy, the rice water weevil is potentially the most serious pest affecting production. Nevertheless in 1996 the incidence of infestation was not very serious and the few outbreaks that occurred were promptly controlled by the application of Trebon. In the case of maize, the stem borer and corn borer are the most significant pests, though again, infestation was not widespread in 1996.

    Clearly, the main climatic setback to cereal production in 1996 was torrential rains and floods in July-August, which mainly affected important rice and maize producing areas in the country.

    4.6 Other foodcrops

    Approximately 100 000 hectares of land is devoted to vegetables, which, on average, are cropped almost 2.8 times per year, giving a yearly total area of 280 000 hectares. The main vegetables grown are Korean cabbage, radish and turnips. Planting is mainly undertaken in spring and autumn, with a limited area in summer. In 1996, in view of food shortages, the area of vegetables grown in summer was increased. Moreover, following the floods in July, vegetable planting was extended into cereal areas that had been destroyed. Overall yield from vegetable production is estimated at 27 tons/hectare, which translates into approximately 7.5 million tons per annum.

    Potatoes are cultivated in hilly areas, principally in northern regions of the country. In 1996 some 36 500 hectares were planted at an average yield of 7.7 tons/hectare. The total output of potatoes in 1996, therefore, amounted to 283 360 tons. In addition sweet potatoes are planted, in orchards during May to be harvested in August/September. Although no data were available on area planted and the amount produced, yields are estimated at between 10-20 tons/hectare. In addition it is estimated that approximately 40 000 hectares of soybean are planted each year on boundaries around paddy fields in 2-4 rows.

    Some 200 000 hectares of land are devoted to fruit production, mainly apples, pears and plums. Of this only 180 000 hectares actually produce fruit, while the rest are under young trees. The average yield is conservatively estimated at 10 tons/hectare, giving a total availability of 1.8 million tons.

    4.7 Livestock

    Large ruminants are basically used for draft purposes on farm . Pigs, goats, sheep and poultry are normally used for meat. However, in view of severe grains shortages in 1995 and 1996, the Mission estimates that more than half the fattening herds was culled to reduce demand for feed grains. For the present number of animals, the Mission estimates that some 600 000 tons of grains will be required for feed in the 1996/97 marketing year, compared to a requirement of 1.4 million tons in normal years.


    5.1 Cereal supply/demand, 1995/96

    As a result of severely reduced agricultural production in 1995, food availability in 1996 was reduced considerably, especially during the lean season from July to September in which average cereal rations dropped to 200 grams per person per day, less than one-half of the desirable level. During this time food supplies crucially depended on imports, which came principally through bilateral programme food assistance, commercial imports involving barter of raw commodities and international food aid through the UN and various humanitarian organizations.

    Food imports in 1995/96 are estimated to have amounted to some 900 000 tons, of which 400 000 tons came as emergency and programme food assistance and 500 000 tons as commercial, mainly barter, imports via national and provincial channels. In addition to these imports, during the lean period various measures had to be adopted to supplement grain rations through the PDS. These included the distribution of potatoes and fresh maize, which would otherwise have formed part of this year’s harvest. As a result of this consumption, the Mission estimates that some 50 percent of the maize harvest and the bulk of the potato crop had already have been consumed prior to the beginning of the 1996/97 marketing year.

    Based on estimates of the quantity of cereals distributed through the public distribution system in 1995/96, including production, commercial imports and food assistance, and the quantity, dry grain equivalent, of the 1996 maize and potato harvest consumed in advance, the mission estimates actual cereal use in 1995/96 at 3.44 million tons. This approximates to an average of 427 grams, or roughly 1 537 kcal/caput/day, compared to a minimum requirement of 458 grams or 1 637 kcal/caput/day. In practice, however, consumption during the year was polarized into periods of relatively high rations in the winter months following the 1995 harvest, and extremely low rations of 200 grams in the summer of 1996, once domestic supplies had been exhausted and further imports were not forthcoming. Moreover, while the country attempted, as far as possible, to provide the population with minimum dietary needs, it did so by virtually exhausting all available stocks and exploiting a number of coping mechanisms including "borrowing" a substantial part of the 1996 harvest of maize and potatoes for consumption in 1995/96, thus reducing availability in 1996/97. In doing so, therefore, the country has in effect mearly deferred part of the food problem from this year to the next.

    5.2 Cereal supply/demand, 1996/97

    In deriving the cereal balance for 1996/97, the following assumptions were used:

  • a mid-year population of 22.74 million people in 1997.
  • a minimum consumption requirement of 100 kg/caput of rice and 67 kg/caput of maize per annum to meet 75 percent of daily calorie intake. The rest is assumed to come mainly from rations of other food commodities.
  • 50 percent of this year’s harvest of maize and the bulk of the harvest of potatoes have already been consumed in the period of acute food shortage in August/September, and will therefore not be available in the new marketing year 1996/97 (November/October).
  • Assuming that the area planted in 1997 is similar to 1996, the amount of seed required would be 75 000 tons of paddy and 28 000 tons of maize, based on respective seed rates of 125kg/hectare and 45kg/hectare.
  • Post harvest and storage losses equivalent to 242 000 tons or 6 percent of production.
  • As a result of a substantial decline in livestock numbers, grain requirement for feed in 1996/97 is estimated at 600 000 tons, less than half the normal requirement. Grain requirement for other uses (industrial uses and for noodle manufacture mainly for consumption by tourists) is assumed to have fallen by a greater margin and would be approximately 30 percent of normal years, or around 300 000 tons.
  • As a result of the severity of food problems, extremely low carry over stocks (estimated at two weeks supply) were available at the beginning of the current marketing year in November. This contention is supported by the fact that during October cereal rations were being distributed, through the PDS, almost directly from the field. Overall since the beginning of 1990, when the country reportedly had some 4 million tons of food grain in stock, reserves have been virtually exhausted. However, as a minimum security measure, it is assumed that the country needs to have at least one month’s cereal supply in reserve.
  • In 1996/97 the country can make commercial purchases through national and provincial barter of some 500 000 tons, similar to 1996. Although there have been a number of reports that suggest that China will provide Korea DPR, with 500 000 tons of grain per year for the next five years, in concessional and grant terms, the Mission had no independent verification of this. As such these ‘potential’ imports have not been included.
  • The cereal balance is shown in table 4.

    Table 4 - Korea DPR: Cereal balance sheet for 1996/97 (‘000 tons)

    Total Availability 2 995
    - Production 2 8371
    - Opening stocks 158
    Total Utilization 5 359
    - Food use 3 798
    - Feed use 600
    - Other uses (seed, losses and industrial use) 645
    - Closing stocks 316
    Import requirement 2 364
    - Commercial Imports 500
    - Pledged food assistance2 30
    - Uncovered import requirement 1 834

    1/ Net of flood losses and advance consumption of maize
    2/ Carryover food aid from the 2nd UN Consolidated Interagency Appeal

    5.3 Nutrition

    Although a comprehensive assessment is not available, it is evident that the general reduction in cereal supplies in 1996, especially over the lean period, to 200 grams or around 700 calories per day or lower, did expose the entire population to the risk of serious malnutrition. However, two factors prevented acute nutritional and health problems, namely an effective Public Distribution System (PDS) which assured even distribution of available food throughout the entire population and various coping mechanisms.

    Irrespective of these there were noticeable repercussions. While young children were protected, through feeding programmes in nurseries and kindergartens, the general standard of health amongst the adult population, especially the old in rural areas, shows clear signs of nutritional deficiency and low weight. In addition, although data on trends in morbidity and mortality were not available, there has been an increase in the absence of children from nurseries and adults from work.

    Predicting the standard of nutrition in future is obviously difficult. However, Korea DPR will enter 1997 with a substantially larger food deficit than in 1996, which suggests that the situation will be all the more critical as the population has already been weakened by low food intake for extensive periods. In addition, coping mechanisms, which were acceptable as short-term measures, will become increasingly strained and unsustainable. The situation in 1997 is, therefore, likely to be considerably worse than this year.

    5.4 Coping Mechanisms.

    Severely reduced cereal rations over a prolonged period would have resulted in worse problems had the population not been able to resort to important coping mechanisms. However, precise information on these mechanisms is limited. From a national perspective, little is known about foreign remittances from ethnic Koreans in Japan and other countries, whilst at household level the importance of income and savings, availability and productivity of private plots, purchasing power and the ability to purchase from private markets is not clear. Moreover, conditions vary between regions with regard to local food production and potential for trade or barter with other regions or with China. Some institutions and factories have their own farms and the theoretical possibility of importing limited quantities of food for the workforce. Conditions have not, therefore, been entirely uniform. What has been certain are extensive Government efforts to mobilize the population to consume non staple and ‘alternative’ foods, such as fruits, roots and tubers, mushrooms, leaves and grasses. Some estimates suggest that in 1995/96 almost 30 percent of caloric intake during the critical, lean supply, period, came from such sources.

    The second most important form of coping appears to have been a redistribution of food within households, giving highest priority to children and least to the elderly. Other measures, again not statistically well documented, include extensive culling of livestock, which should have, temporarily at least, raised the supply of meat; the consumption of private savings in food or cash; planting of cereals or vegetables on marginal or even inappropriate lands (steep slopes, embankments of roads, school grounds, public parks); a certain liberalization or at least tolerance of private markets and the trade or barter of industrial, fishing, mining and other raw material, including even rice straw, with China and Japan.

    Although these measures have been instrumental in countering food supply problems over the last year, their continuing potential to do so in future years is dubious and there is clearly a need for longer term solutions. Certainly, private savings and household stocks of food are likely to be much lower this year, the availability of meat greatly reduced as a consequence of lower stocks, agricultural production from marginal lands will inevitably decrease as will the capacity of regions to barter raw materials for food.

    5.5 The Public Distribution System

    Previous FAO/WFP assessments have indicated that Korea DPR faced a large cereal deficit and severe food supply problems in 1996. Perhaps the most important reason that there was no wide scale famine during the year, was an effective Public Distribution System, which ensured food, albeit at much reduced levels, to the entire population. In Korea DPR the effects of food shortages have been uniformly spread over the population and the PDS, has proven itself to be a highly effective channel for food assistance. The main characteristics of the system are briefly;

    All households are registered at either an agricultural cooperative, village or town by, inter alia, family status and composition: newly born, infants, nursery/school age children, adults by work grade, heavy/light, or pensioners. Each person is registered at a cooperative or the nearest PDS centre by category of entitlement based on age and type of work. All key commodities, foremost rice and maize, but also meat, fish or vegetables, are channeled through these centres and distributed to the non-agricultural population, usually twice a month, according to a ration scale that is determined centrally in keeping with overall availability at a given time. The annual ration for cooperative members is allocated at harvest. Special provisions are made for infants and small children in nurseries, for whom households do not receive entitlements in kind but in the form of coupons which are used by nurseries to collect food from the PDS.

    Earlier reservations that the system would break down if food availability became too low did not materialize and the system remained operational even when standard rations were successively reduced to 200 grams per day from 700. The system was also invaluable in distributing unconventional food commodities such as blended food for children, potatoes or green maize during critical food shortage months. Priorities were applied strictly and in particular rations for children were not lowered throughout the period. Traditionally high rations for heavy work, however, were reduced until a common ration of 200 grams per person was uniformly applied at the peak of the crisis. With the beginning of the harvest in October rations were raised appreciably to 450-500 grams/per day. Higher rations appear to be a short term remedial measure to allow some recovery in nutritional intake, though it is highly unlikely that the level can be maintained in the coming months, given the seriousness of the food deficit in the country.

    5.6 Future food assistance

    Despite a significant reduction in cereal uses for feed and industrial use, the food deficit in 1996/97 will be higher than last year, as a result of advance consumption of maize and potato harvests in August/September and flood damage in July. In addition the ability of people to cope will be reduced, whilst economic problems mean that the country’s capacity to import food commercially remains highly constrained, meaning that it will have to resort to bartering raw materials where possible.

    Although present rations of approximately 450 grams of cereals per day offer a brief respite, the level will certainly have to be reduced in the coming months. The most critical period will again be between July and September, though in 1997 the situation is likely to be much worse given prolonged nutritional decline and a reduction in the ability of people to cope. Moreover, the predictability and sustainability of barter trade for food, which offered some relief in 1996, is questionable. Overall, therefore, the country approaches 1997 in a much worse position and will again depend heavily on large-scale international assistance.

    The provision and nature of assistance, of course, depends entirely on the donor community. Traditionally, the alternatives would be considered in terms of programme aid versus targeted humanitarian relief. However, in the case of Korea DPR this distinction makes little sense. The Government channels all food aid from bilateral programme aid to multilateral emergency aid through the PDS.

    This does not mean that food aid cannot be targeted, only that it needs to be channeled through the PDS. One important target group in the 1996 programme, for example, were small children who could be reached with blended food via the PDS/nurseries channel. This channel may become even more important if and when conditions become more difficult in 1997. Other target groups, which could be reached through a similar "PDS-Dialogue" with the Government, could include pregnant or nursing mothers, hospital patients, or the old.

    Another approach, and one highly appropriate to Korea DPR, is food-for-work. The PDS has traditionally provided for specific higher rations (900 instead of 700 grams) for heavy labour, but these were discontinued during the summer of 1996 and have so far not been restored. Nor is it certain, given the need to stretch the 1996 harvest as long as possible, that they will be restored. International food aid could be used very effectively to provide the additional quantity of food that would be needed to restore heavy work rations and in this way encourage the implementation and completion of a large number of urgent public works, related to the clearing of land and repair of infrastructure affected by the floods. Food-for-work programmes of this type would of course not be quite the same as they are in other countries where entire family rations are used to provide temporary employment and food security to selected groups of particularly poor people who would, otherwise, have little access to food. In Korea DPR, poor families would have such access and only the additional entitlement of certain family members would be covered by food aid (i.e. perhaps only 400 grams for two members doing heavy work instead of, say, 2000 grams which would be the PDS ration for a family of four). Donor contributions for food-for-work would thus fund a far higher volume of work, i.e. ten times as much, than in more conventional food-for-work projects.

    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 J. Schulthes
    Chief, GIEWS FAO Regional Director, OAP, WFP
    Telex 610181 FAO I Telex: 626675 WFP I
    Fax: 0039-6-5225-4495 Fax: 0039-6-5228-2863
    E-Mail: INTERNET: [email protected]

    Rome, 10 December 1996

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