A recent FAO/World Food Programme food supply assessment mission to DPR Korea in October found that the country no longer has the potential to maintain strategic food stocks for emergencies, either through imports or production. The assessment report warns that "any future crop failure, in a country relying mainly on one harvest per year, can potentially have disastrous effects on a scale not yet seen."
The report cites DPR Korea's continuing economic decline as the major reason its agricultural sector cannot meet the country's minimum food needs. Because of a critical shortage of capital and foreign investment, DPR Korea has been unable to import fertilizers or fuel and spare parts for farm machinery. This has led to consistently low levels of agricultural production and increased post-harvest losses.
Due largely to international assistance in 1999, farmers had access to almost twice as much fertilizer as the previous year. This contributed to a 14 percent increase in rice production. Nevertheless, North Korea has only one-third of the fertilizer supplies it needs to obtain maximum yields and maintain soil fertility. In addition, the report estimates that 15 percent of the rice yield was lost due to persistent problems of transport and threshing, coupled with wet weather during harvest.
In addition, the maize harvest fell by 30 percent to 1.24 million tonnes in 1999, in part the result of below-normal rainfall in May and June. However, less land is being planted with maize, as farmers are being encouraged to shift to potatoes and other crops, such as wheat and barley. These crops allow for a double harvest each year, thereby reducing the country's reliance on a single harvest and making the best use of the traditionally lean period between the spring thaw and the summer planting of rice and maize.
The assessment report forecasts North Korea's total cereal production for 1999-2000 (with the potato crop expressed in a cereal equivalent) at just under 3.5 million tonnes - far short of the country's estimated requirement of over 4.7 million tonnes. North Korea can only afford to import 300 000 tonnes of food, so most of the nearly 1.3 million tonne shortfall will need to be covered by international food aid. Emergency food aid in the pipeline stands at 370 000 tonnes, which leaves an uncovered deficit of 623 000 tonnes.
Over the past four years "widespread starvation has only been averted by concerted national efforts and the unprecedented volume of humanitarian food assistance provided by the international community," according to the report. The UN system is appealing for continued international assistance in delivering food aid and reviving agricultural production in DPR Korea. The assessment mission anticipates that chronic food shortages will persist in the country and that severe malnutrition, particularly in children, will be made worse by diseases such as diarrhoea resulting from unsafe water and poor sanitation. The mission also noted that as the food situation has deteriorated, other serious diseases, including malaria and tuberculosis, have re-emerged. The result, says the report, is "a vicious circle of poor nutrition compounding poor health and vice versa."
15 November 1999