How serious is North Korea's drought warning?

By Jastinder Khera
BBC News

  • Published

North Korea says it is facing its worst drought in a century, with its main rice-growing provinces badly affected. What effect will this have on an already impoverished population?

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North Korea's leadership has become more open in discussing natural disasters, experts say

Isn't it unusual for the North Koreans to admit something like this?

It is true that in times past North Korea would insist that "nothing bad can happen in a country led with the wisdom of the Great Leader" and that asking for foreign aid was "beneath their dignity," Korea analyst Andrei Lankov tells the BBC.

But over the last ten years or so the North Koreans have become more open in admitting problems caused by natural phenomena, Mr Lankov says. "They have learnt in the past few years that they have to admit they have a problem if they want aid," he adds.

And experts say that even admissions of failure of government policy are not unheard of, although again systemic problems are never acknowledged and the current leadership is never to blame.

However, official sources will still under-report the effects of any such problems on the population, Mr Lankov adds. "There is still the old idea that we take the lives of our citizens so seriously, nothing bad can happen to individuals".

The warning may be the leadership's way of indicating that some food aid will be necessary in a few months' time.

Image source, Getty Images
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Even in the years after the famine, malnutrition has remained widespread in North Korea

Could the country see another famine on the scale of the 1990s?

Experts agree that changes in North Korea's economy over the past 20 years make a repeat of that disastrous famine much less likely.

Agriculture is still controlled by the state but reforms have been quietly introduced to allow farmers to keep more of their produce, leading to an increase in production.

In addition, the North has tried to diversify its agricultural output away from rice to a range of staple foods, according to Robert Winstanley-Chesters of the Beyond the Korean War Project at Cambridge University.

However, Mr Lankov adds that for a country "always on the brink of a serious food crisis, this [drought] is not good news".

The World Food Programme's Deputy Regional Director for Asia, John Aylieff, warns that North Korea's agriculture is still heavily dependent on rainfall and that any effect on the main harvest over the next few months "could cause a spike in malnutrition, especially among children".

A third of children in North Korea are already malnourished, with a similar number anaemic, according to the WFP. In addition, the "lean season" between April and September increases stress on food supply even in normal years.

Image source, Getty Images
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Some 40 out of every 1,000 North Koreans are enlisted in the armed forces

How does military spending impact on the situation?

North Korea maintains one of the world's largest standing armies and has for years followed a "military first" policy in government spending.

The common conception is that aid is reserved for a tiny elite, but Mr Lankov says a key factor in aid distribution is keeping the military machine working.

Aid is distributed first and foremost to those "in politically sensitive occupations," he says, such as the police and those in military production. Those in major cities are also a priority so as to avoid riots, he adds.

It should also be remembered that because the army is involved in so many areas of North Korean life, some military spending will be on agricultural projects run by the army such as land reclamation for farms, says Mr Winstanley-Chesters.

And while the North's nuclear programme may have led to international sanctions and an increased wariness on the part of foreign donors, it has also forced the international community to take the situation there more seriously and has given the North Korean leadership more leverage when it comes to aid, says Mr Lankov.

No foreign donor would accept the level of control that North Korea has over aid distribution if it didn't have nuclear weapons, he says.