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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 216 (June 28, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

Severe Drought in North Korea to Worsen Food Shortages

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- A severe dry spell in North Korea is expected to exacerbate chronic food shortages in the poverty-stricken nation, where the U.N.'s food agency says 3 million people are in urgent need of food aid.
North Korea's official media continues to issue reports on the "worst drought in a century" in its western central areas, saying over the weekend that drought damage in a province just southeast of Pyongyang is serious enough to cause food shortages among its residents.

   Citing official data, the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said nearly 20,000 hectares of farmland have dried up in North Hwanghae Province as of June 23, and crops are withering away in the province.

   It noted that in particular, Hwangju County, a major granary of the province, has been severely affected by the long drought.

   Hwangbo Son-nyo, an elderly resident of Koyon-ri, was quoted as telling KCNA she had never witnessed such dry weather in the area in 70 years.

   In the English-language report, Ri Sun-pom, chairman of the County Rural Economy Committee, said, "It is hard to expect harvest in more than 2,000 hectares of corn-fields across the county though seeds were sowed thrice." Ri also said that reservoirs are drying up, creating irrigation problems for farmers.

   The KCNA went on to report that most reservoirs in the county have gone dry, and some paddies remain unsown because of a lack of water, saying, "This situation hinders the smooth supply of food to the residents."

   Earlier this month, the KCNA said North Korea's western coastal area has been seriously affected by the drought that started in late April, citing the lowest precipitation in a century.

   In a dispatch from Pyongyang earlier this month, the agency said only 1 to 5 millimeters of rainfall has been reported in some parts of Pyongyang City, South Phyongan Province and North and South Hwanghae provinces since April, the lowest for Pyongyang City in 105 years.

   The protracted drought is heightening worries about North Korea's ability to feed its people. Two-thirds of North Korea's 24 million people faced chronic food shortages, the United Nations said earlier this month while asking donors for $198 million in humanitarian aid for the country.

   Even in South Phyongan and North and South Hwanghae provinces, which are traditionally North Korea's "breadbaskets," thousands of hectares of crops are withering away despite good irrigation systems, local officials said.

   The long dry spell is attributable to the protrusion of high pressure from the East Sea and Okhotsk Sea staying in the air above the central part of Korea, preventing low pressure from passing through the central part, according to North Korean meteorological agency.

   The amount of cereal crops harvested in the June-July season is forecast to sharply drop due to the unusually long drought, said Kwon Tae-jin, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul, in a report.

   "Because of severe drought, North Korea is expected to run into a big problem in harvesting corn this year," Kwon said, adding it could prompt the price of other crops to rise.

   Harvesting of other crops such as wheat, barley and potatoes is also expected to "significantly fall," Kwon said.

   According to a report by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which was posted on its Web site on June 18, drought has affected some 17 percent of North Korea's total farmland.

   "Any drop in production is likely to add to the shortfall of food supplies and worsen food insecurity in the country," FAO said in the report.

   The FAO report concluded, "Three million vulnerable people, mainly living in the five most food-insecure provinces of Ryanggang, Jagang, North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong and Kangwon, are in urgent need of international food assistance, due to an inadequate food production."

   Such assessments were at odds with the stance of the South Korean government.

   Commenting on North Korea's food shortages on June 19, Seoul's Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said, "Our general assessment is that (the North's food situation) is not so serious as to fall into a level of crisis."

   Cho made the remark when asked whether South Korea will consider resuming state food aid to the North if the drought worsens further.

   As the worst drought continued, the North is staging a brisk anti-drought campaign across the country to tap water resources and use them effectively.

   State media including Rodong Sinmun, organ of the ruling Workers' Party, have encouraged the farmers to overcome the severe drought at the time of rice transplanting season.

   The news media also stressed that all the agricultural workers and volunteers should proceed with their farming necessary for self-reliant methods to contribute to the socialist land and a good harvest in the autumn.

   In its recent report, the KCNA also said that the Cabinet and Agricultural Ministry and other related agencies have established emergency measures to minimize the damage from the drought.

   Under the situation, the country's Premier Choe Yong-rim made field survey of farms and saltern recently. In an unusual admission of a food problem and protracted dry spell, Premier Choe urged farmers to do their part in alleviating the food shortage, according to the KCNA.

   The premier said that farms have been successful in their immediate farming by making full arrangements for finishing the on-going rice-transplantation and other farm work qualitatively in the right time with ardent desire to reap a rich harvest.

   "The farms have taken measures for speeding up the rice-transplantation and overcoming the drought despite unfavorable weather as required by the Juche-oriented farming methods," he said.

   The premier highlighted the importance of solving the food shortage and building a thriving nation, and called on all officials and other agricultural workers to play their role as those responsible for the nation's agricultural production.

   He also stressed the need to meet technological requirements for harrowing and winding up the rice-transplanting in right season. Then the premier visited the construction site of Hwangnam Youth Saltern in the South Hwanghae Province nearing its completion.

   Experts say the North's decision to reveal the drought issue has two purposes ― drumming up public participation in its nationwide agricultural campaign and attracting support from the international community.

   According to an AP report from Pyongyang, North Korea dispatched soldiers to pour buckets of water on parched fields.

   A group of female soldiers with yellow towels tied around their heads fanned out across a farm in Kohyon-ri, Hwangju county, North Hwanghae province, with buckets to help water the fields. An ox pulled a cart loaded with a barrel of water while fire engines and oil tankers were mobilized to help transport water.

   The North Korean villages of Kohyon-ri and Ryongchon-ri were among several areas that journalists from The Associated Press visited in recent days.

   Pak Tok-gwan, management board chairman of the Ryongchon Cooperative Farm in North Korea, said late last week that the farm could lose half its corn without early rain, according to the AP.

   Mountainous North Korea, where less than 20 percent of the land is arable, has relied on outside food aid to help make up for a chronic shortages since natural disasters and outmoded agricultural practices led to a famine in the 1990s.

   North Korean farmers still face shortages of fuel, tractors, quality seeds and fertilizer, the U.N. said in a report earlier this month. Many irrigation systems rely on electrically powered pumping stations in a country with unstable power supplies, the report noted.

   Meanwhile, a conservative local newspaper in Seoul claimed recently that thousands of people are starving to death in North Korea's South Hwanghae Province, even though it is the country's rice bowl.

   Chosun Ilbo quoted a North Korean defector as saying that villages in remote mountains can resort to slash-and-burn farming to survive, but in lowland areas where there are only cooperative farms, 30 to 40 people in each village starve to death every year.

   Defector Choi Myong-chol (not his real name) used to handle crop harvests in Haeju, South Hwanghae Province. "The reason is that their entire harvest is confiscated," he told the activist website NK Reform.

   The Tokyo Shimbun in Japan reported in April that 20,000 North Koreans starved to death in South Hwanghae Province after Kim Jong-il's death. "The reality there is that farmers have no choice but to hide rice during the harvest to survive," Choi said. This has happened every year. "This year, authorities appear to have taken extra measures to seek out rice the farmers had hidden," he added.

   Choi said the reason for the starvation is the unrealistic crop output goals set by the regime every spring. Cooperative farms in South Hwanghae Province are ordered to produce six tons of rice per 10,000 square meters of which the farmers are promised two tons. But the actual amount that is harvested is only two to four tons, which leaves nothing for the farmers.

   Harvested rice is distributed first to elite security and intelligence forces and then to ordinary soldiers. Farmers steal rice even under close watch because they would starve otherwise, according to Cho. They apparently steal between 1.5 to 2 tons per 10,000 square meters of farmland, or about half of the crop. The regime is aware of the practice and sniffs out and confiscates around 30 percent of the stolen rice, leaving some 5,000-7,000 people to starve to death every year in the region.