Think of “food” and “North Korea” and chances are you will be reminded of the near-yearly news items speaking of hunger, starvation, and malnutrition in the country. However, times might be changing, at least if you believe Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Seoul University. In this Al Jazeera piece, he argues that the “myth of starvation” is over due to the moderate economic growth in the country driven by semi-legal private enterprises starting to bloom. Yet, the situation of the current food system is still dire and stuck between the bizarre and the fascinating in this neo-Stalinist state. Inspired by Lankov’s article, here are 10 facts about food (shortages) in North Korea you might not know:
1. According to Lankov, “this year, North Korea enjoyed an exceptionally good harvest, which for the first time in more than two decades will be sufficient to feed the country’s entire population. Indeed, according to the recent documents of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations), North Korea’s harvest totaled 5.03 million tonnes of grain this year, if converted to the cereal equivalent. To put things in perspective, in the famine years of the late 1990s, the average annual harvest was estimated (by the same FAO) to be below the 3 million tonne level.“
2. However, the WFP and FAO estimate that despite the 3-year improvements in food production, there are still shortages particularly for protein-rich foods, and child malnutrition remains widespread, said the Wall Street Journal in November of last year. 84% of the population’s households were estimated to have borderline or poor food consumption.
3. One of the main reasons for the ongoing problems is a combination of outdated farming practices and a lack of access to agricultural inputs such as fertilizers due to international trade sanctions. This account of a North Korean farmer-turned-emigrant is fascinating (though sad) in describing farming conditions reminiscent of the early 20th century: “As North Koreans do not have good equipment or much fertilizer, we got used to doing most of the work by hand rather than with the help of machinery. In spring when weeds bagan to sprout it would be time to plough the fields and this could be done by ox or with tractors. But in North Korea, in addition to fuel being too expensive, there aren’t many tractors for the farmers to use, so most of the ploughing is done by oxen. As you can probably guess, the oxen were therefore very valuable animals, and we needed to keep them healthy for the entire year’s farming work. While oxen could help plough the fields, they were useless at dealing with weeds. So when new weeds appeared in the fields again, they had to be removed by hand because the chemicals we had were not sufficient. Between spring and autumn, we did back breaking work, weeding the field about four times with a hoe. Not wanting to waste even the weeds, we also used a sickle to cut them down to make compost with them. This compost helped make the soil better, so every summer or autumn we made compost after doing the weeding.” It also serves as a good reminder that the mechanization of agriculture has, indeed, had a massively beneficial impact on farmers’ lives, despite the calls to go back towards a more natural way of farming…
4. However, this is an interesting dichotomy, since the lack of access to chemical fertilizer makes the country a weirdly ideal testing ground for semi-organic production methods – as this interpretation of the 2013 UN assessment report says, “given declining access to chemical fertilizer but an overall increase in food production, one can speculate that the use of compost and other organic fertilizer has expanded. The DPRK has emphasized this practice since at least the late 1990s, and beginning six or seven years ago, efforts were coordinated to develop composting systems that used crop residue as well as animal wastes much more effectively than previously, with corresponding improvements to crop yields.“
5. Similarly, in an ironic twist, the predominance of locally grown food and vegetables is by necessity the case in North Korea, mirroring the prevalence of kitchen gardens in the Soviet Union. According to observations by international aid workers, household gardens provide the majority of the fruit and vegetable consumption of the country, and are the basis of farmers’ markets as well.
6. Lastly, in a reverse hipster/sustainable universe (/sarcasm/), the government decided in August last year to abandon the production of grain-fed animals because they consume too many resources, and instead switch over to grass-fed livestock such as goats and rabbits. Thus, plans to convert pig- into goat-farms and poultry- into rabbit-farms were already under implementation. However, similar plans in the past had failed when “in 2010, several international charities raised money to send giant rabbits to North Korea to breed as a cheap source of protein, but the animals vanished amid speculation that they had been quickly seized and eaten by officials.“
7. This being one of the last planned economy structures on the planet, it also allows continued insights on the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of market economies. In particular, the pricing mechanisms seem outlandish for somebody that has grown up in a market-based system: “the official prices farms receive for their grain crops are still set by the state at levels on the order of 2 percent of the market price, thus removing any economic motivation to increase the supply of grains to the state.” I would agree with that sentiment. Also, it showcases the logistical challenges of a public distribution system with rigid goals and quotas rather than the decentralized market mechanism. Inadequate storage, transportation and commodity tracking facilities prevented the system from reaching its goal of providing the official government target of 573 grams of cereal equivalent per person; the average provision hovered around 400 grams per day, which is hardly sufficient.
8. There are incremental changes, though: This Huff Po article details how the government introduced rice planting bonuses in 2013, suggesting that “Pyongyang is taking cues from Beijing on how to incorporate free market ideas within its rigid socialist system.” In practice, farmers get rice seedlings from the state, and are required to return around 193 kilograms of rice as payback for every 140 kilograms of seedlings they received. “But any surplus can be kept by the team to sell, barter or distribute – a change from past policies that required farmers to turn all harvests over to the state.” Baby steps, baby steps.
9. A follow-up to that report however cautioned that the government may have changed its policies again in October, when after a good harvest the government failed to provide a clear distribution plan. The year before, farmers had originally been promised to be able to keep 30% of their harvested crop; in the end, 90% of it was confiscated for military purposes. Other symptoms of a kleptocratic government: households will soon have to register their livestock with the military so that it can use the leather for soldiers’ boots and belts, despite the fact that one could get better prices for these hides on the black market (the equivalent of U.S. $9 vs. $0.02 per kilogram from the government) and the reality that normally, animals such as pigs, sheep and goats are not skinned because the meat keeps longer that way, but North Koreans will now be forced to do so, meaning that households will most likely have less meat this way. Wait until you hear the reason for this sudden request, however: “The military prefers the items to be made out of leather because it trains soldiers to boil the material and eat it if they are facing starvation in emergency conditions, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In recent years, the North Korean authorities have provided the military with shoes and belts made of artificial leather, and the military has been very discontented with these artificial items which cannot be used as food in case of emergency,” the source said.” 🙁
10. Final bizarre factoid: Satellite images uncover a huge ostrich farm near Pyongyang, which was apparently launched during the famine of the 1990s. A commentator was quoted as saying that “North Korea bought into propaganda that you could make money out of ostriches. I never saw anything in the way of ostrich meat when I was there. The government never boasted about it and so I suspect it hasn’t done that well.“