3 June 1997


Devastating floods in both 1995 and 1996 dealt a serious blow to the country’s agriculture further constraining its ability to feed its population. The devastation came on top of several years of economic slowdown, which had already led to falling agricultural productivity and declining food production in Korea DPR. Given the limited commercial import capacity of the country, this has resulted in reduced food consumption, most dramatically in the last two years, with serious impact on the health of the population. Moreover, although widespread starvation has been largely avoided through the Public (Food) Distribution system (PDS), which has at least provided the barest minimum for survival, the system is now on the verge of collapse with no alternative mechanism available to provide food. In addition, various coping mechanisms, which were helpful in supplementing food intake over short periods, are now becoming increasingly strained and non-viable in ensuring minimum dietary needs. A grave food security situation is, therefore, developing in all parts of the country.

In view of the rapidly deteriorating food situation, an FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission was fielded to Korea DPR from 17 to 24 May. The main objectives of the mission were to assess the prevailing food supply situation and review early prospects for 1997 food grain production. This mission followed an earlier FAO/WFP assessment last November and based its evaluation on discussions with Government Ministries and Departments, UN, bilateral agencies and NGOs in the country and on field visits to randomly selected areas. These include locations in the counties of Kumchon, Pyongsan and Sunchon in South Hwanghae and South Pyongan provinces, in agriculturally important south/west parts of the country, and Tongsin and Songwon counties in the northern province of Chagang.

Although the country has been able to import some 333 000 tons of grain commercially through various barter transactions, the amount and pace of imports have been grossly inadequate to ensure regular food supplies, even at severely reduced levels, to the majority of the population. Moreover, the level of food assistance pledged or delivered, through bilateral, UN and NGO sources, will only cover a small part of needs. The country, therefore, still has a cereal deficit of around 1.2 million tons for the 1996/97 marketing year ending in October, in spite of substantial reductions in the use of grain for animal feed and industrial uses.

Since early this year, food rations through the Public Distribution System have been maintained at between 100 and 200 grams per person per day, compared to a minimum requirement of about 450 grams. Current stocks with the PDS are reported to be negligible and are expected, by the Government, to be exhausted between the end of May and late June. Without substantial imports, therefore, the failure of the PDS to supply food seems inevitable in a matter of weeks.

Stocks with farm households, which are not covered by the PDS, are also near depletion with some families having exhausted reserves by last March, contrary to earlier expectations that supplies would last to the on-set of the lean season in June/July. Consequently families are having to subsist on alternative ‘foods’, such as grasses and roots. Moreover, the consumption of meat and dairy products is negligible, as most livestock have been culled due to feed shortages over the last two years.

As a result of the rapid deterioration in the food supply situation, the occurrence of dietary deficiencies and disease have increased and in some observed cases the state of malnutrition has become chronic and life threatening. The emergence of commonly recognised pre-famine indicators suggest that starvation will ensue in segments of the population before the next harvest, unless remedial action is taken urgently. A few households visited by the mission reported deaths due to starvation, whilst a number of children and adults observed had symptoms of wasting and odema due to protein deficiency and possibly Kwashiorkor.

The mission advocates urgent international food assistance if a large scale human catastrophe is to be avoided. However, although such assistance is vital in the short run, there is also urgent need for the country to address the food problem in the medium to long term and consider implementing appropriate and sustainable agricultural and economic strategies.

Early prospects for 1997 crops are favourable, reflecting early winter thaw in March and good rains since the beginning of May. Food production in 1997, will, nonetheless, continue to be seriously constrained by the lack of essential agricultural inputs. Even under an optimistic scenario, therefore, the production of maize and rice is provisionally forecast at about four million tons, which will be substantially below requirements for the next marketing year.

2. Early Prospects for 1997 Crop Production

Early winter thaw in March and good rains since the beginning of May favoured early prospects for 1997 crops appreciably, benefiting the germination and establishment of maize and supplementing soil moisture and irrigation supplies for paddy. Maize planting was completed by mid May and paddy transplanting is expected to be completed by early June, some 15 days in advance of normal sowing periods.

In spite of a mass Government programme to replenish top soils last winter and increase the supply of organic fertilizers, food production this year will continue to be seriously constrained by the lack of essential inputs such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and spare parts and fuel for machinery. In addition, the worsening nutritional status of the population will effectively reduce the productivity and intensity of labour input on which agricultural production depends heavily, especially given the decline in mechanisation. Old and obsolete machines will also be an additional factor in limiting production.

Although it is obviously difficult to predict the outcome of this year’s harvest with any degree of certainty at this stage, a tentative projection based on prevailing input conditions indicate that rice and maize will be planted on approximately 600 000 and 700 000 hectares respectively whilst yields will range between 2.5 to 5.5 tons per hectare in paddy and 1.5 to 5.0 tons per hectare in maize on poor to good soils. Overall, production of rice and maize in 1997, therefore, is, provisionally forecast at about 4 million tons, (well below requirements) providing favourable weather conditions continue and that part of the crop is not consumed prematurely as last year, due to extreme food shortages.

In addition to economic problems which have reduced essential inputs into agriculture, food production is also 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 climate restrictions mean that important crops can only be grown in a relatively short period from May to October. Most of the arable land is planted with two main cereals, rice mostly in the south where the climate is a little more conducive, and maize mainly in the north. In order to maximize output of main cereals, continuous cropping using high plant densities has been practiced, which has led to soil degradation. Moreover, attempts at expanding cultivated area into marginal lands and hill terraces have resulted in serious erosion and ecological problems, which are likely in the future to accentuate the devastation caused by heavy rainfall and floods. In addition, although the Government has considered reclamation of tidal areas to expand arable land, investment costs are high and little progress has been made.

In view of the limited scope for expanding food output extensively, a joint UN/Government programme was introduced to develop double cropping of barley, in an attempt to augment domestic food production. The objective of the system was 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. To implement the programme this year the Government received approximately 6 600 tons of barley seed and 1 850 tons of fertilizers through various UN agencies, NGOs and bilateral donors. Evaluation of the programme indicates that although it is feasible to grow barley intercopped with maize and vegetables in upland areas, cultivation is impractical in lowland paddy areas due to inappropriate soils, poor drainage and inadequate time for maturation before the need to transplant paddy. Under the current programme some 37 000 hectares of barely were planted with an expected average yield of one ton per hectare, within a range of 0.5 to 1.5 tons per hectare depending on locality. This year, therefore, gross output of some 37 000 tons is expected, of which some 7 000 tons will be for seed and waste, leaving a balance of 30 000 tons for food consumption. Although this will only cover a small fraction of food needs nationally, the programme offers considerable scope for further development.

For future development of double cropping and other programmes to improve productivity and output in agriculture, donor support will be needed in the medium to long term. Other programmes under consideration, which would benefit from such support include the development of winter cropping systems, agroforestry and reforestation and research. It is also recommended that the Government consider a sectoral review of agriculture to evaluate and prioritise development policies and programmes.

3. Food Supply Situation.

The FAO/WFP mission in November identified a substantial food deficit and warned the international community that Korea DPR approached 1997 in a far worse position than 1996. Consequently, it stressed that large scale imports, including substantial international assistance, would be required to meet minimum food needs. So far, through national and provincial channels, the country has been able to import some 330 000 tons of grain commercially through various barter transactions. However, the amount and pace of imports have been grossly inadequate to ensure regular food supplies, even at severely reduced levels, to the majority of the population. In addition, only a small part of requirements will be covered by food assistance provided bilaterally and through WFP and NGOs.

Since early this year, food rations through the Public Distribution System have been maintained at between 100 and 200 grams per person per day, compared to a minimum requirement of 450 grams. Current stocks with the PDS, which covers the needs of 78 percent of the population, are reported to be near depletion and are expected to be exhausted by late June. In the absence of substantial imports, therefore, the failure of the PDS to supply food seems inevitable in a matter of weeks. The Government estimates that the PDS at various provincial levels either ceased or will cease operation at the following dates;

Province/city Estimated date of cessation
of PDS food distribution
Pyongyang 5 June 97
Kaesong 25 May 97
South Pyongan 24 May 97
North Pyongan 15 May 97
South Hwanghae 25 May 97
North Hwanghae 20 May 97
Chagang 10 June 97
Ryanggang 20 June 97
South Hamgyong 5 June 97
North Hamgyong 15 June 97

The situation is also desperate for some five million collective farm workers and their families, who are not covered by PDS rations. Farm stocks are also near depletion as the majority of households are estimated to have received 40 percent or less of normal cereal allocation at the last harvest. Moreover, contrary to earlier expectations that cereal allocations would help sustain farm families up to June/July, the beginning of the lean season, observations indicate that some households had already depleted stocks by as early as March. As a result, some families were observed by the mission to be subsisting on an assortment of alternative ‘foods’, such grasses and roots. Additionally, the consumption of meat and dairy products is negligible since the majority of livestock have been culled due to the lack of feed over the last two years.

The incidence of dietary deficiencies and disease have increased due to the substantial decline in food supply. The mission observed that in some cases malnutrition had become chronic and life threatening, whilst in some households visited starvation related deaths were reported. In addition a number of children and some adults were observed with serious symptoms of malnutrition, such as wasting and odema, as result of protein deficiency and possibly Kwashiorkor. The incidence of chronic malnutrition in children, was also reported by UNICEF. The emergence of commonly recognised pre- famine indicators suggests that starvation will emerge before the next harvest in various segments of the population, unless urgent action is taken.

Severe food problems and the institutional and household inability to deal with supply constraints has also resulted in the de facto establishment of ‘private’ food markets outside the public distribution system. These markets are now reported to exist in a number of areas where purchases of staples and other commodities can be made, albeit at phenomenally high prices which are beyond the reach of the majority of the population. There is also official sanction for individual households to keep poultry and livestock and to cultivate hill slopes and parcels of land in urban areas to supplement diet. The increase in cultivation on hill slopes and near river banks, however, gives cause for concern as these will undoubtedly increase erosion problems, siltation in river beds and ultimately increase the future probability of floods, even with fairly moderate rainfall.

The incidence of malnutrition appears to differ between provinces and groups within the same geographical location. For example areas visited by the mission in the north appear to be slightly better off nutritionally, than those in the south. This may be partly attributed to the fact that northern provinces have more resources, such as timber, and access to China to barter for food. Although theoretically such food imports should be equitably distributed throughout the country, severe transport difficulties and the lack of energy and fuel are likely to have constrained such movement, especially to the south. As a result food availability in southern areas is considered to have fallen more appreciably. In addition, in northern areas individual working groups on collective farms have been allowed to cultivate virgin lands on hill sides to supplement food intake, such land not being so readily available in southern areas. Moreover, the ability of the population to cope with food shortages in the north is enhanced through better accessibility to supplementary foods and fruits from hill areas. Notwithstanding these differences, however, the food situation continues to remain critical in all parts of the country.

The FAO/WFP mission last November estimated the overall import requirement of Korea DPR for 1996/97 at 2.36 million tons of cereals. It is estimated that a total of some 383 000 tons (grain equivalent) had been imported by mid May, of which approximately 53 000 tons came as food aid, 64 000 tons as national level imports and 251 000 tons and 15 000 tons as provincial and county level imports respectively. Most of the commercial cereal imports were made through barter transactions involving the exchange of mineral ores, scrap metal and timber with China. Although, the Government had anticipated imports of up to one million tons commercially during the 1996/97 marketing year, by mid May it had been successful in importing only 330 000 tons. It is estimated, moreover, that the country can only import a further 100 000 tons commercially before the end of the marketing year. In addition there is a bilateral pledge of 70 000 tons from China and an estimated 200 000 tons in food assistance in the pipeline. Therefore, food imports, including pledges, in 1996/97 are, so far, estimated at around 753 000 tons, with an additional 30 000 tons of barley available through the double cropping programme.

In deriving the revised cereal balance for 1996/97, therefore, the following assumptions were made;

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

Total Availability 3 032
- Production 2 8741
- Opening stocks 158
Total Utilization 4 966
- Food use 3 798
- Feed use 400
- Other uses (seed, losses and industrial use) 452
- Closing stocks 316
Import requirement 1 934
- Commercial Imports 430
- Food assistance (pledged & delivered) 323
- Uncovered import requirement 1 181

1/ Net of flood losses and advance consumption of maize in 1996 and including additional barley output from the double cropping programme.

This leaves the country with a deficit of some 1.2 million tons of cereals, yet to be covered until the next harvest.

The critical food situation in Korea DPR, requires continuous, close monitoring of crop prospects and the outlook for food supply. The Government may, therefore, consider establishing an early warning system with international assistance.

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
Telex 610181 FAO I
Fax: 0039-6-5225-4495
E-Mail: INTERNET: [email protected]
Ms J Cheng-Hopkins
Regional Director, OAP, WFP
Telex: 626675 WFP I
Fax: 0039-6-5228-2863

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