This article has been updated to include comments from the FAO
A joint food security assessment from UN agencies working in North Korea published on Friday concluded that 10.1 million in the DPRK were food insecure, with aberrant weather affecting harvest yields in the DPRK last year.
The assessment was conducted by the UN’s World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), who sent a team to North Korea from 29 March to 12 April 2019.
“Overall, it is estimated that 10.1 million people (40 percent of the population) are food insecure and in urgent need of food assistance,” the report reads.
“Prolonged dry spells, abnormally high temperatures and floods, coupled with limited supplies of agricultural inputs, had a severe impact on yields of the 2018 main crops harvested last September/October.”
The joint report also noted a decrease in rations distributed by the North Korean government’s Public Distribution System (PDS) from 380 grams per day to 300, adding that portion size could fall further in upcoming, leaner months.
Conclusions offered in the report were uniformly negative, which noted poor food variety, low consumption levels, low yields, harvest losses, while predictions for upcoming yields also indicated further declines in food production.
North Korea is also not making up for production shortfalls with increased imports, the assessment noted, leading to a large projected shortfall this year.
“Cereal import requirements in the 2018/19 marketing year (November/October) are estimated at 1.59 million mt,” the report reads.
“With commercial imports officially planned at 200,000 mt and food assistance (already received or pledged) set at about 21,200 mt, the uncovered deficit for the full marketing year is estimated at an elevated level of about 1.36 million mt.”
According to trade statistics with neighboring China provided by the ITC trade map, North Korean imports of rice and other cereals like maize have both fallen since earlier in the decade, with maize and corn imports almost flatlining last year.
Russia and Switzerland regularly provide food aid to North Korea, though the quantities are not enough to make for the 1.36 million tonne shortfall forecast by the WFP and FAO.
But the report also details the methodology used, highlighting the role of Pyongyang’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in the putting together representative households for the UN assessment team to survey.
In total, the CBS selected 179 households from different areas in North Korea, who were also grouped into other categories like “distribution of PDS-dependent households vs. cooperative farming households.”
Yet in the limitations section of the report, the group concluded that the “sampling methodology was applied by CBS to ensure representation of relevant population groups.”
“This means that findings are indicative of the situation, however, do not provide statistically representative findings at national or sub-national level.”
Speaking to NK News, Mario Zappacosta a Senior Economist at the FAO said the assessment was not intended to generate representative data.
“Due to time constraints, the purpose of this rapid Food Security Assessment Mission was not to gather statistically-representative data and the section on methodology and limitations is quite clear,” Zappacosta said.
“Across the globe, not just in DPRK, this type of assessment is a sort of audit exercise, cross-checking different sources of information, including satellite imagery, documents and reports as well as semi-structures interviews with key-informants. The selection of the visited household was done aiming at having a balance between rural and urban areas, between PDS dependent and coop farming households.”
The report noted how UN sanctions on fuel on machinery likely had a negative impact on North Korea’s agricultural sector, making already difficult conditions more challenging.
Currently, UN restrictions limit the quantities of refined petroleum products member states can export to the DPRK, while trade in machinery, electronics, and industrial equipment is prohibited in either direction unless a sanctions exemption is first granted.
“The unintended negative impact sanctions can have on agricultural production, through both direct and indirect impacts, cannot be ignored,” the assessment reads
“The most obvious are restrictions on the importation of certain items that are necessary for agricultural production, in particular fuel, fertilizers (nitrogen and phosphate), machinery and spare parts for equipment.”
However, UN resolutions do not include restrictions on fertilizers, and a recent report from NK Pro noted how Chinese fertilizer exports to North Korea rose sharply in 2018.
The numbers, collated by the ITC trade map, show North Korea spent USD$84 million on Chinese fertilizer last year, more than double the USD$34 million it spent on the same category of products in 2017.
In response, the FAO told NK News that the inclusion of fertilizers was a mistake, which had been since been remedied.
“We immediately removed the reference to fertilizers and uploaded the new version of the report,” Zappacosta said.
The joint assessment concluded the situation in North Korea could worsen and that action is required to prevent further deterioration in the DPRK’s food security.
“A humanitarian intervention is therefore urgently required to mitigate the food production shortfall,” the report reads.
“The 2019 production season has already begun and in addition to the immediate humanitarian actions, there is an urgent need to ensure that food security needs are met for the winter of 2019-2020 through to the main harvest in the autumn of 2020.”
The assessment recommended diversifying food distribution, expanding coverage of nutrition programs, improving monitoring systems to ensure food distribution and providing numerous, currently lacking agricultural materials.
In the longer term, the FAO and WFP report also recommended providing machinery and equipment and improving the North’s inadequate food storage capabilities.