North Korean grain imports so far in 2015 give a mixed account of the reported drought in the DPRK, with a recent sharp increase in imports offset by lower overall shipments than were seen over the same period last year.
Chinese customs figures show that throughout the first three months of the year DPRK cereal imports remained at just under 300 tons per month.
April bucked the trend, with imports jumping sharply to over 6,000 tons, but dropped to less than a 1000 tons the following month.
Despite the late surge, the small shipments from January to March mean overall North Korea imported a thousand tons less cereals this year than during the first five months of 2014.
While it is unlikely the DPRK ever sees surpluses of food, improved harvests in recent years may be partly responsible for the 2015 drop.
“In the last few years, between 2012 and 2014, the harvest of grain has steadily increased, which would lead to lessening of the pressure to import grain in the DPRK,” Kim Young-hoon of the Korea Rural Economic Institute told NK News.
Money could also be a factor in North Korea’s late response to the looming problems caused by low levels of rain.
“(It could also be) DPRK does not have enough money so it would be hard to import more grain,” Kim added.
“The price of rice is stable in North Korea but there is always a shortage of grain products in the DPRK … The government does not have enough money to import all the cereals that they need,” Kwon Tae-jin at the GS & J Institute told NK News.
DPRK spending so far this year on cereals this year was roughly 40 percent lower than in 2014, at $3 million.
According to data made available by Daily NK, rice prices within the DPRK have remained relatively constant in North Korea in recent months. The one exception was a steep downturn in Hyesan, near the China – North Korea border, where prices plummeted in April, the same month the DPRK upped its imports.
“The price of rice is stable in North Korea but there is always a shortage of grain products in DPRK,” Kwon added.
A lack of funds might also explain why the DPRK yesterday asked long-standing ally Iran for food aid.
North Korea media increased its coverage of the country’s water shortage in June. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released 10 articles in June containing the word “drought,” as opposed to just one article in the month before.
Chinese customs figures usually come with more than one month lag time, so it is currently unclear if North Korea once again increased imports in June. Low levels of rainfall have so far continued into 2015, in what could spell trouble for the DPRK’s fragile agricultural sector.
“It is hard to tell now if the drought will affect North Korea, but if the imports do not pick up within these few months (June, July and August), then we can say that the drought did not have a huge impact on the harvest,” Kim said.
Most of North Korea’s other food imports also showed no clear upward trend, though meats and vegetables also showed increases around in April and May.
According to customs data May was also a bad month for North Korea’s fuel imports, with apparent drops in gasoline, diesel and heavy fuel oils.
In recent months the DPRK has benefited from low global oil prices, buying larger amounts of fuels when compared to previous years.
This trend stopped in May, with gasoline dropping from the highest monthly import seen in recent years to just 35 tonnes. Diesel imports showed a similar pattern, falling from over 2300 tons in April to just 145 last month.
If the figures are accurate, North Korea has also so far this year made no sizable import of jet fuel from China. The last time the DPRK made any large purchase of the fuel – which is commonly used in jets – was in March last year, with very small shipments of under 100 tonnes in the intervening months.
According to a report from the Nautilus institute for Security and Sustainability, North Korea’s working refinery in the country’s north-east is likely able to produce limited amounts of Kerosene. Other smaller facilities may also exist that are specifically tailored to producing military grade fuels.
“We estimated that the DPRK produced about 27,000 tons of jet fuel and kerosene (which are similar, but not quite the same) in 2010 from their refineries, so there is some internal produciton capacity,” David Von Hippel, senior researcher at the Nautilus Institute told NK News.
Recent NK News investigations have also found increased oil tanker traffic from Russia, indicating the DPRK could be sourcing a wider range of oil products from Russian terminals.
On the export side, North Korea continued sending larger amounts of coal to neighboring China. Lessening demand and falling prices have also affected the coal industry, with North Korea seeing lower returns for its primary export of anthracite in 2015.
In response the DPRK has appeared to increase its exports by over 20 percent to nearly 2 million tons in both April and May. According to the data, the increased exports earned North Korea more than $100 million in May.
Additional reporting by Ina Yoon
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Featured Image: North Korea - Check point by Roman Harak on 2010-09-07 02:42:52