7 June 2000

As DPR Korea enters its sixth year of serious food shortages, there are glimmers of hope that a relaxation of sanctions and the peace talks will reduce the country's isolation and, hence, its future susceptibility to food emergencies.

Notwithstanding the devastation of recurring natural disasters since 1995, a major factor leading to chronic food supply problems in DPR Korea is severe economic contraction, particularly since the break-up of its economic alliance with the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries. Hitherto such relations were essential to maintaining intensive agricultural systems, which were imperative given serious land and climatic limitations that still restrict what and how much can be produced. The country has extremely limited arable land, in relation to population and needs, and, effectively, only one main cropping season per year from May to October. Any natural disasters during these months, as in 1995 to 1997, seriously undermine food production.

Economic problems have also been compounded by economic sanctions placed on DPR Korea, which have further restricted its capacity to forge new economic ties with an expanding global market in the 1990s. Recent moves aimed at relaxing sanctions, therefore, will invariably have a positive impact. Although statistical information on DPR Korea is difficult to attain, available data indicate that both national income and trade plunged in the 1990s.

Severe economic decline, in turn, has led to chronic foreign exchange constraints for purchasing food, agricultural inputs and raw materials for the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Essentially, therefore, DPR Korea for several years has not been able to produce enough food to feed its people or to import the difference to meet the deficit. The only recourse open for ensuring at least minimum food security in the last five years, has been massive international food assistance, which has been essential to countering the incidence of severe malnutrition and mortality, especially amongst vulnerable groups like the elderly and children.

During these difficult years, the Government and the people of DPR Korea have also made tremendous efforts to cope with the hardships stemming from food shortages. From a national perspective these efforts include, prioritising agriculture and food production in national planning, mass mobilisation of people to address agricultural needs, greater scope for planting individual household plots, greater autonomy to provinces to import food, through barter, from China, foreign remittances from ethnic Koreans abroad and campaigns to promote consumption of non-traditional foods, such as potatoes. The double cropping programme, undertaken with FAO's assistance, has also enabled an additional crop of wheat and barley to be produced, in the months immediately preceding the main planting season of rice and maize. This, together with potatoes, has helped reduce somewhat the burden of food shortages during the critical lean period from June to September.

Notwithstanding such measures, at present there is little doubt that DPR Korea's crucial food aid safety net cannot be removed without dire consequences. The latest (1999/2000) food emergency operation (EMOP) of US$202 million, jointly approved by the Director-General of FAO and the Executive Director of WFP, aims to save lives and improve the health of vulnerable groups particularly children. In keeping with previous EMOPs, the international response has been generous, with over 80 percent of food requirements already met. However, as the country enters the difficult lean season, with the main harvest several months away, continued international support, for the remaining part of the operation, will be imperative, despite competing demands from other disaster and famine stricken countries. International assistance is also needed for rehabilitation of agriculture through the UN Agricultural Rehabilitation Environmental Protection Programme, (AREP) which continues to be constrained by the lack of resources.

Although humanitarian assistance will continue to be vital in the short term, in the longer term, economic recovery and a stronger trading position in the world, will be essential to improving food security, both by improving the country's capacity to increase food production and to cover any shortfalls through commercial imports. In this regard, there have recently been signs for cautious optimism, which suggest an improvement in the foreseeable future. These include the partial relaxation of sanctions and an improvement in diplomatic relations with several countries. Much will also depend on the scheduled peace talks between DPR Korea and the Republic of Korea in mid-June, which could significantly improve the overall environment for investment, economic recovery and, hence, food security in the country. An FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission is scheduled to visit DPR Korea in late June to assess the current food supply situation and early prospects for grain production this year.

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO Secretariat with information from official and unofficial sources. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact Mr. Abdur Rashid, Chief, ESCG, FAO, (Fax: 0039-06-5705-4495, E-Mail (INTERNET): [email protected] ) for further information if required.

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