PYONGYANG/ROME - Despite its best harvest in ten years, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) will post another substantial food deficit in 2005 and require external aid to support more than a quarter of its 23.7 million people, two United Nations agencies said today.
A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) projected domestic cereals availability in the 2004/05 marketing year (November-October) at 4.24 million tonnes, including milled rice and potatoes a 2.4 per cent increase on 2003/04.
However, it warns that insufficient production, a deficient diet, lower incomes and rising prices mean that 6.4 million vulnerable North Koreans most of them children, women and the elderly will need food assistance totaling 500,000 tonnes next year.
Good weather improves 2003 harvest
The 2004 rice paddy harvest was estimated at 2.37 million tonnes, up from 2.24 million tonnes in 2003, thanks primarily to favourable weather, a low incidence of crop pests and diseases, and improved irrigation in the country's cereal belt. Maize output was unchanged at 1.73 million tonnes.
Forecasting total cereal needs for 2004/05 at 5.13 million tonnes, the UN agencies projected an import requirement of almost 900,000 tonnes. Given anticipated concessional and commercial imports of 400,000 tonnes, the residual gap will be about 500,000 tonnes.
Most of the 16 million people receiving subsidized cereals from the government-run Public Distribution System (PDS) averaging 300 grams per person per day half a survival ration cannot make ends meet. They turn to more expensive private markets yet "they are still not able to cover their basic energy requirements," FAO and WFP said.
Despite good harvest, food external food aid needed
The report, which followed a joint assessment mission by the Rome-based food agencies in September and October, says, "the continuing national shortage is still a problem" so "external food aid is in part seen within the context of overall domestic availability."
It also noted that, increasingly, "the most critical problem for poor households is their lack of access to basic and nutritious food because of declining purchasing power." As a result, assistance to the food-insecure population "should now be determined more by their household food gap than the national food gap in cereal production."
"A balanced diet is out of reach for all but a few PDS-dependent households," the report says. "The situation remains particularly precarious for children in kindergartens, nurseries, orphanages and primary schools, pregnant and nursing women, and elderly people."
Price of food on new private markets up dramatically
While the prices of state-subsidized rice and maize rationed through the PDS have remained low and stable (at 44 and 24 won a kilo, respectively), prices in private markets have risen dramatically since the introduction of economic reforms in mid-2002.
Last month, rice cost as much as 600 won a kilo in such markets almost 30 per cent of a typical monthly wage compared to the 2003 average of 120 won; maize was 320 won a kilo, up from last year's peak of 110 won. In September, one Euro bought 1600 won on the parallel market.
"The ability of low-income families to obtain food from the market is severely restricted due to their deteriorating purchasing power affected by under- or unemployment and sharp rises in food prices in the market," according to the report.
An unintended consequence of reform has been the problem of higher food prices, which has been compounded by widespread and steep cuts in already meagre wage earnings as ailing enterprises in predominantly industrial DPRK shed labour.
Food rations meet just half a person's minimum needs
The typical wage earner's family now spends one-third of its monthly income on PDS rations that meet only half its minimum caloric needs. Another one-third is spent on non-food essentials rent, heating and clothing. The remainder is insufficient to purchase enough food in private markets to meet the rest of the family's very basic needs.
Much of the population, consuming very little protein, fat or micronutrients, suffers from critical dietary deficiencies. Fresh vegetables and fruit are either scarce or very expensive outside of the July-September period.
Traditional coping mechanisms such as animal husbandry, the cultivation of household gardens and hillside plots, the gathering of wild foods and transfers from relatives in the countryside, afford some relief to hard-pressed urban residents. Small-scale income-generating activities, notably petty trade and services, allowed under an easing of restrictions on private and semi-private enterprise are other sources of much needed income.
Better farm machinery and improved soil fertility needed
To deal with the chronic, structural food deficit, the FAO/WFP report recommended that the international community enter into a dialogue with the DPRK government toward the eventual mobilization of the economic, financial, and other resources needed to promote sustainable production and overall food security.
The report also proposed examination of investment projects on soil fertility and better farm machinery to allow further expansion of the country's double-cropped area.
WFP has provided the DPRK with almost four million tonnes of food assistance, valued at $1.3 billion, since 1995.
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency: in 2003 we gave food aid to a record 104 million people in 81 countries, including 56 million hungry children.
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Click here to access the FAO/WFP Crop And Food Supply Assessment Mission to the Democratic People's Republic Of Korea
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