Should We Be Worried About North Korea’s Drought?

Perhaps. But we shouldn't take Pyongyang's word for it.


North Korea is experiencing a major drought. The first news about grave water shortages appeared earlier this year; in late May, the United Nations warned that the country might face a “huge food deficit.” By mid-June, the North Korean drought had become an international news story. And on June 16, the Korean Central News Agency, the North Korean official wire service, finally chimed in, calling it “the worst drought in 100 years.”

When people talk today about problems in North Korean agriculture, the grim events of the late 1990s loom. Back then, over half a million people starved to death as society broke down following the passing of the country’s longtime leader Kim Il Sung — the worst famine East Asia had seen in decades. So, unsurprisingly, international media tends to worry about a major famine.

It is too early to estimate the scale of the problem. North Korea is one of the world’s most opaque countries: Foreign journalists see only what their handlers allow them to see and hear from the locals only what the authorities order the locals to tell. Problems can be greatly exaggerated, or hidden — whichever better serves the current demands of Pyongyang.

Nonetheless, there is no need to be alarmist. Indeed, as every North Korean watcher with a sufficiently long memory will tell you, official stories of drought and other natural disasters have been a common feature in North Korean propaganda for decades. For example, KCNA reported floods in 2006, 2007, and 2012, and drought in 2012 and 2014. And this, in turn, led to Western news media reporting on the subject. For example, “Korean Drought Worst in a Century for North and South Korea” and “North Korea Suffering Serious Drought” are two AP headlines from mid-2012; in 2007, the Guardian headlined a story titled “Flooding Devastates North Korea.” And in spring 2014, there was the Reuters headline, “North Korea Faces Worst Drought in Over a Decade.”

Why does Pyongyang do it? And are these calamitous events actually happening?

In the depths of the famine in the late 1990s, North Korean media managers learned that if Pyongyang is going to ask for foreign food assistance, it must first admit it has serious problems with food production. Back then, that move was a dramatic break with the past. In previous decades, the North Koreans, in their encounters with foreigners, were required to paint a picture of nearly perfect paradise, where nothing could possibly go wrong. Those times have passed: The 1990s famine taught the North Koreans that they could not beg for foreign aid while also boasting about unprecedented economic successes. That’s not to say the North Korean media is remotely transparent about these events. They tend to remain silent on the human casualties or imply that nobody was killed. The truth of what actually happened with the natural disasters — like so much in North Korea — is often impossible to know.

Which returns us to the present. Pyongyang’s recent decision to report the drought implies that it probably at least considered a request for foreign aid. Indeed, the visitors’ reports make one suspect that this time the scale of the problems is great. European aid experts who recently visited the country described to me the sight of soldiers and elementary school children mobilized to water vegetable gardens with buckets and frequent blackouts, even in buildings which previously had a reliable electricity supply.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that we should ready ourselves for a rerun of the 1996-1999 famine. Things are different nowadays. First, North Korean agriculture has steadily recovered over the last decade, especially under Kim Jong Un, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Despite the spring 2014 drought, the 2013 and 2014 harvests were the best in decades: In those two years — and for the first time since the late 1980s — North Korea came very close to food self-sufficiency. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the country annually produced roughly 5.3 million metric tons of cereal in 2013 and 2014. During the famine, annual harvest was below 3 million metric tons.

What caused that success? North Korea’s move toward its own version of the Household Responsibility System, a farming system China introduced in the late 1970s at the early stages of its economic reforms, deserves some of that credit. Starting in roughly 2013, Pyongyang allowed farmers to register their family as a production unit — thereby keeping up proper ideological appearances of “socialist agriculture” — and allowed them to toil the same area every year, with 30 percent of the harvest as a reward. North Korean farmers ceased to be serfs working for fixed rations and became sharecroppers, whose well-being depends on the productivity of their labor. The change produced wonderful results, and North Korean agricultural recovery sped up significantly.

That new system worked well during the 2014 drought and will likely continue to be successful during the 2015 drought, which appears more severe. The 2015 harvest will likely drop — but it is unlikely to approach the level of the disastrous 1990s.

Nonetheless, even a small decline of the harvest is dangerous, since 5.2 million tons is, essentially, a subsistence level for North Korea’s roughly 25 million people. If the harvest drops, it means starvation, albeit on a relatively limited scale.

However, Pyongyang knows how to handle such issues. Gone are the times when officials were afraid to admit any problems out of fear that such admission would make them vulnerable domestically to accusations of treason. North Koreans now know how to ask for aid, and the recent KCNA reports about the drought were the first step in the right direction. China, whose relations with North Korea have recently been tense, has already expressed its willingness to help. Other countries are likely to follow, perhaps through the United Nations, which has been trying to fundraise $137 million for North Korean aid in 2015 — as of early June, it remains roughly $62 million short. If necessary, government minders could escort foreign visitors to the famine-stricken areas — like they did in 2012 and 2013 — and show them starving children and dead dry fields.

There might be some hopes in the United States that a looming famine will make Pyongyang more ready to negotiate on the nuclear issue. This is an illusion. First, for the reasons described above, a famine is unlikely. Second, even a famine may have little, if any, impact on North Korean decision-makers. Through the truly massive famine of the 1990s, they did not slow down their nuclear project and continued to spend money on it — roughly estimated at $3 billion over the last few decades.

Now, when the nuclear program is much less burdensome and when the country’s food problems are much less severe, they have even less reason to negotiate. The North Korean elite believe that nuclear weapons guarantee their survival, and they are not going to surrender the nukes in order to improve the life of farmers in remote villages — famine or otherwise.

AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Andrei Lankov is a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and the author of several books on North Korea.