Lower risk of severe famine in N. Korea

Private farm plots provide a buffer against drought now unlike in 1990s

SEOUL - Despite a severe drought this year, North Korea's fledgling markets and private farm plots should provide a buffer against a famine of the sort that devastated the totalitarian nation in the 1990s.

The 1994-1998 famine killed hundreds of thousands of people, but experts say the emergence of grassroots markets and an unofficial economy since then mean most North Koreans can grow and trade food independently of the state, decreasing the risk of widespread starvation.

The isolated country has been hit by what it describes as its worst drought in a century. While that may be an exaggeration, the United Nations has warned of a potentially sharp rise in malnutrition.

"Agriculture is much less state-run and much more private than it used to be and the farmers who work for themselves work better and with greater efficiency," said professor at Kookmin University in Seoul Andrei Lankov. "North Korea is highly unlikely to experience another famine even remotely similar to what happened in the late nineties."

North Korean farms are collectives in which the state takes control of crops and distribution. There was previously little incentive for farmers to produce more.

But as a result of the 1990s famine, the state has been tolerant of farmers maintaining small, privately run plots on state farms and in their backyards. There, they grow grains and vegetables, often more efficiently than on the sprawling state collectives, which they can consume or even sell.

That means that while the country still retains a "military-first" system where food and electricity are prioritised for the powerful armed forces, the civilian population is not likely to suffer as much.

One NGO worker, citing a knowledgeable North Korean agricultural scientist, estimated that farmers there spend an average of 30 per cent of their time cultivating their own plots.

North Koreans who have been mobilised to work extra hours to combat this year's drought have also redoubled efforts to farm private plots, according to the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website with market sources inside North Korea.

"Today's North Korean economy is essentially disguised capitalism - low-level trade hiding in the shadows or private businesses wearing masks of state-socialism," said Mr Sokeel Park of LiNK, an NGO which supports North Korean defectors.

The North's KCNA news agency said last week that paddies around the country, including the main rice farming regions of Hwanghae and Phyongan provinces, were drying up for lack of rain.

Production in the country's main growing region is expected to be cut in half, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said recently.

Weak rainfall this year in North Korea comes on top of last year's lacklustre rains. Parts of South Korea are also suffering this year from some of the lowest rainfall since records began.

Pyongyang has a track record of overstating the significance of natural events on its food situation, as doing so plays down the impact of its outdated and state-controlled agricultural methods while getting the attention of donors. There are no readily available figures of crop output or food reserves in the isolated country. Food smuggled from neighbouring China will likely help close gaps in supply and Beijing has said it is willing to offer aid to North Korea.

Poorer or isolated areas of North Korea are still vulnerable to less state supply of food, however, where drought could contribute to or exacerbate pre-existing cases of chronic malnutrition.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Lower risk of severe famine in N. Korea'. Subscribe