Understanding the humanitarian situation inside North Korea is challenging for several reasons.
Aid agencies are present, including some on a resident basis, but their access is restricted and donor funding for programs is insufficient. Government data is inconsistent and lacks transparency.
Humanitarian workers have been in the DPRK since the mid-1990s, when they responded to appeals for famine aid. The famine has ended, but food security has been a constant challenge.
Humanitarian agencies have remained in the country, working in areas including food and agriculture, nutrition, health, disaster risk reduction, and water and sanitation.
The global humanitarian sector as a whole has struggled to turn early warning data into preventative action. However, a number of early warning systems are in place to pool information on potential crises.
This article looks at one such resource, the Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS), for insight into how the DPRK’s humanitarian needs are understood in the global early warning context.
GIEWS monitors food security through indicators such as supply and demand across the world.
Part of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), GIEWS also works with governments to collect evidence to shape policy and to enhance capacity for the management of food security information.
GIEWS Special Alerts are ‘short reports that describe an alarmingfood security situation that is developing in countries or sub-regions’ (emphasis from source).
Only three reports have been issued in 2019 (Zimbabwe, East Africa, and Somalia), highlighting the severity of the situations included in the Special Alerts.
The 2017 report focuses on dry conditions threatening the 2017 main season crop production. According to the DPRK GIEWS Country Brief, last updated in May 2019, 2017 main season crop production did end up below the 2013-2017 average of 5.178 million tonnes.
However, 2018 figures used by the FAO are indicated to have dropped even further, to 4.546 million tonnes. Additionally, the 2017 early season harvest is shown to have been above average at 404,000 tonnes, but this figure tumbled to 307,000 tonnes in 2018.
Thus while the DPRK has not reappeared in the Special Alerts since 2017, this is not necessarily indicative of improved crop production.
Across all three 2019 reports, the DPRK is joined by Yemen as one of two Asian countries with “unfavorable 2019 production prospects.” Yemen is listed as having ‘conflict,’ while the DPRK is instead classified by ‘dry weather conditions.’
The DPRK and Yemen are also coupled as being the two Asian countries with “widespread lack of access.”
The DPRK is one of eight Asian countries on the list, with the most recent release in September 2019 blaming inadequate rainfall and irrigation ability from April to July for a below-average forecasted main season crop.
Similarly, the DPRK Country Brief names weather conditions, lack of inputs, irrigation water shortages, and energy shortages as reasons for low outputs, but does not explain the background to why agricultural inputs and energy are in short supply.
The language used these days across GIEWS resources is markedly different from earlier reports.
The May 1996 Special Alert called for the DPRK to “address [the general state of the economy and capacity to finance imports] and implement some radical solutions, if it is to avert serious problems in the future.”
In June 1997, Special Alert No. 275 read, “However, although [international food] assistance is vital in the short run, there is also urgent need for the country to address the food problem in the medium to long term and consider implementing appropriate and sustainable agricultural and economic strategies.”
Aid agencies are present… but their access is restricted and donor funding for programs is insufficient
Humanitarian agencies are facing a slew of challenges in responding to needs in the DPRK – in addition to the access and data constraints mentioned above, aid agencies are also struggling with the sanctions regime and with underfunding of programs.
Sanctions are requiring humanitarians to go through bureaucratic and sometimes lengthy exemptions processes, and secondary sanctions have made banking difficult.
Donor support for the DPRK is insufficient to cover needs stated by the humanitarian community. Of the U.S. $120.3 million requested in 2019 by the Humanitarian Country Team, comprised of UN and some non-governmental agencies, 73.4% remains unfunded.
GIEWS resources help situate the DPRK in larger food security trends.
The DPRK’s inclusion in quarterly reports and lists of countries requiring external food aid shows the concerns over food security for North Koreans, but also situates the DPRK in a global context of high levels of need and insufficient donor support.
The two countries to have their own 2019 GIEWS Special Alerts, Zimbabwe and Somalia, have 2019 appeals coming short by 48.6% (US$ 227.6 million) and 28.2% (US$ 303.9 million) respectively.
Yemen’s appeal is 30.3% unfunded, leaving a US$ 1.27 billion gap between actual funding and requirements.
The GIEWS resources also show North Korean food insecurity filtered through a largely environmental lens.
There is some indirect reference to politics, economics, and bureaucracy (ie in naming the DPRK as having limited access and citing input shortages as issues in agricultural production), but the focus in recent years is more on drought and other weather patterns.
However, while adequate funding would help address humanitarian needs, a long-term answer to the DPRK’s food insecurity harkens back to the “radical solutions” mentioned in the GIEWS report nearly 24 years ago.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: NK News
Understanding the humanitarian situation inside North Korea is challenging for several reasons.Aid agencies are present, including some on a resident basis, but their access is restricted and donor funding for programs is insufficient. Government data is inconsistent and lacks transparency.Humanitarian workers have been in the DPRK since the mid-1990s, when they responded to appeals for
Nazanin Zadeh-Cummings is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at Deakin University's Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. Her research interests include the DPRK, humanitarian aid, disaster management and civil society.