After worst harvest in ten years, 10 million people in North Korea face imminent food shortages

UN report finds worryingly low food consumption, limited dietary diversity and families being forced to cut meals or eat less

3 May 2019, Pyongyang/Rome - A United Nations food security assessment in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (also known as North Korea) has found that following the worst harvest in 10 years, due to dry spells, heatwaves and flooding, about 10.1 million people suffer from severe food shortages, meaning they do not have enough food until the next harvest.

The aggregate 2018/19 food crop production is estimated at 4.9 million metric tons, which is the lowest since the 2008/09 season. In addition to unfavourable climatic conditions, limited supplies of agricultural inputs, such as fuel, fertilizer and spare parts have had significant adverse impact.

The assessment, which is based on UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Programme missions to the country last month and in November 2018, concluded that the reduced harvest, coupled with increased post-harvest losses, has led to an uncovered food deficit of 1.36 million metric tons after considering the commercial import capacity of the country.

The report found worryingly low food consumption levels, limited dietary diversity and families being forced to cut meals or eat less.

In particular, it expresses serious concern about lack of dietary diversity which is vital to good nutrition. The situation is particularly worrisome for young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women, who are the most vulnerable to malnutrition.

The assessment found that the government's Public Distribution System, on which a large portion of the population relies, has been forced to cut rations to the lowest ever level for this time of the year. There are concerns that in the absence of substantial external assistance, rations may be further cut during the critical months of June-October, at the peak of the lean season.

"Many families survive on a monotonous diet of rice and kimchi most of the year, eating very little protein," said Nicolas Bidault, co-lead of the mission and WFP Senior Regional Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM) Adviser. "This is worrying because many communities are already extremely vulnerable and any further cuts to already minimal food rations, could push them deep into a hunger crisis," he added.

"We are concerned about this year's wheat, barley and potato crops, which play an important role in meeting household food needs during the upcoming lean season, despite accounting for only about 10 percent of total production," said Mario Zappacosta, FAO's Senior Economist and co-lead of the mission. "Our assessment shows that reduced rains and lack of snow cover during winter, which left crops exposed to freezing temperatures, cut production by about 20 percent," he added.

The assessment's recommendations include scaling up food assistance to meet immediate needs, and prioritising areas where food needs are greatest and where climate impacts are the most severe. It also recommends an expansion of nutrition programmes and disaster risk reduction measures to enable at-risk communities to better cope with future shocks.

The assessment also recommends a series of measures to bolster agricultural production including importing fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, water pumps, greenhouses, and vegetable seed, as well as upgrading grain drying equipment, threshing machines and storage facilities in order to reduce post-harvest losses.

WFP's work in North Korea focuses on providing nutrition assistance to some 770 500 malnourished women and children across nine provinces. They are given nutritious cereals and biscuits fortified with micronutrients, fats and proteins crucial for healthy growth, and the assistance is channelled through nurseries, hospitals and child institutions.

"Our programme of specially-designed fortified foods has filled an important nutritional gap among young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women at a crucial period of their lives," said Praveen Agrawal, WFP's Country Director in North Korea. "We must ensure that these nutrition gains are not reversed. Supporting this vulnerable group must be our top priority," he added.

FAO's work in North Korea provides support to more than 500 000 cooperative farmers, through the supply of vital production inputs for agriculture production. More importantly, it introduces techniques and technologies such as conservation agriculture, sustainable Rice Intensification and climate-resilient agriculture practices such agro-forestry, agroecology and crop-livestock integration to improve the livelihood of farmers and build their resilience against climate change.

‘Through its assistance, FAO supports nutrition-sensitive food production approaches and promotes food diversification to address the current food and nutrition security situation,'' said Vincent Martin, FAO Representative in China and North Korea.

The FAO/WFP Rapid Food Security Assessment Mission visited counties across the country in April 2019 to assess the food security situation there, in addition to other counties visited by WFP in November 2018. Teams were granted access to a variety of locations including cooperative farms, rural and urban households, nurseries, public distribution centres, and were able to speak to households, farmers, government officials, and humanitarian partners.

Photo: ©WFP/James Belgrave
Dry conditions in Unpa County, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.