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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The WFP/FAO Food Security Assessment

by | December 2nd, 2013 | 07:00 am
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The World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization have released their post-harvest food security assessment; a summary can be found here, and the full report is here in .pdf.  The good news is that overall food production (in cereal equivalents) is estimated to increase by 5 percent from about 5.75 to 6 million metric tons, or about 5 million metric tons when milling is taken into account. Given estimated demand, this would leave an import requirement of about 340,000 MT. As only 300,000 MT of commercial imports are planned, this leaves an uncovered deficit but it is a little narrower than in recent years.

The bad news is that these marginal improvements do not translate into equivalent improvements at the household level. Moreover, contrary to recurrent wishful thinking, there is absolutely no evidence of agricultural reform on the horizon.

Among the small sample the team was allowed to survey— the DPRK granted access to only 77 households— 16 percent had acceptable food consumption, half had borderline and one-third poor food consumption. Households dependent on the Public Distribution System remain particularly vulnerable, as the system still remains unable to deliver the government target of 573 grams per day; the teams found stocks at warehouses to be razor thin.

The reasons for the problems facing the PDS do not have to do with aggregate supply alone. Supply chain constraints such as storage, transport and commodity tracking continue to bedevil the system. In an interesting new addition to this year’s report, the WFP/FAO team describes the incredibly complex and inefficient system of inter-and intra-provincial transfers. Food for the PDS is generally transferred from the surplus provinces in the southern and western parts of the country – North and South Hwanghae, and North and South Pyongan – to the deficit provinces in the north and along the eastern coast – Chagang, Ryanggang, North and South Hamgyong, and Kangwon (see the figure below). The majority of food between provinces is transferred via train. But because of the centralized nature of the rail infrastructure and the highly-political nature of food allocation, Pyongyang serves as the primary transport hub for shifting food from surplus areas to deficit areas. Transfers within provinces from county warehouses to the numerous public distribution centers (PDCs) depend on a weak secondary transport system relying on trucks. Lack of investment in transport infrastructure and absence of any incentives have predictable effects on the capacity of the state to deliver food, even were it more inclined to do so.

The other bad news has to do with the question of whether reform is in train or not. The WFP/FAO report pulls no punches: the answer is “no.”

  • In 2012, the joint mission was informed of bonuses paid during 2010 and 2011 for rice, corn, wheat and barley over and above stated prices. But this type of controlled price reform was not sustained or expanded, and prices of soybeans—a useful source of vegetable protein—remain artificially low, reducing supply.
  • The team found no evidence of grain marketing reform, despite recurrent hints that such efforts were being piloted.
  • The introduction of farmers’ markets—although limited to three times a month—provides improved access to non-staple foodstuffs. But the big gap is that cooperative farms can’t participate. Any surplus received from their annual grain allotment for home consumption must be sold to the State Food Procurement Agency, as are other non-staple products which are distributed through State Shops.
  • The DPRK and survey respondents remain cagey about sale of staple grains; these are not supposed to be sold in the farmers’ markets nor by the cooperatives and state farms. But informal, non-sanctioned markets must play a role in the distribution of staples, as the chart below suggests; if markets weren’t stepping into this breach—particularly in the lean season—we would not simply have malnutrition but outright famine. The fact that these markets are functioning, but covered up, suggests that they are not operating as efficiently as they might if the state embraced them more fully. That would require giving up control.