BETWEEN THE MARKETS AND THE STATE: North Korea’s fragile agriculture and food supply


In early 2019, the North Korean government sent out an “urgent call" for international food aid.1 The World Food Program (WFP) made a similar call in early May 2019, stating that at least 40 percent of the North Korean population was in urgent need of assistance.” Although these calls for food aid may have been exaggerated, as has often seemed to be the case in the past, independent sources did confirm that for many groups, the food situation appeared to be more dire in 2019 than in preceding years. ’ The North Korean government itself blamed both inclement weather and the effects of UN-mandated economic sanctions, spearheaded by the United States, for harvest shortfalls in 2018 and the looming food shortage. In its appeal it maintained that temperatures in the spring of 2018 in the country' had been the highest ever on record, and that erratic rainfall, drought and flash floods had exacerbated the problem.4 Regarding sanctions, the WFP concurred that these had made it more difficult for North Korea to import spare parts for agricultural machinery, fuel, and fertilizers.5

However, in many ways, these warnings of a food shortage in 2019 were emblematic of deeper, systemic issues. This was hardly the first time the government had warned of severe food shortages, it does so routinely, and its food situation has been chronically fragile since the 1990s. It is therefore difficult to accept at face value the explanation that specific weather conditions and sanctions were the main factors involved. Adverse weather conditions have been so routinely cited in the past as to become a regular phenomenon, and no other countries in the region — such as South Korea — regularly warn of harvest shortfalls or looming food shortages due to inclement weather or external economic conditions. Moreover, while sanctions have been having a considerable effect on the overall economy, specifically limiting sales and transfers of fuel and oil to the country,1 food shortages have been occurring regularly since long before the international community instituted the unprecedented sanctions regime against North Korea in 2017. The food shortage warnings of 2019, like those in the preceding years, highlight a crucial fact about North Korean food supply and agriculture: the system itself is largely the cause of the country’s problems.

North Korea experienced a devastating famine in the 1990s, sparked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China’s increasing unwillingness to supply crucial goods such as oil on friendship terms.' Food supply in the country has improved since the 1990s and early 2000s mainly through a combination of external aid inputs and domestic agricultural policy changes, with the increasing space for market mechanisms in the North Korean system the most crucial change, giving actors within the system stronger economic incentives in food production and independence in planning. However, it is still important to note the difference between “markets" and “market mechanisms.” From the early 2000s and onward, the North Korean government has allowed and even encouraged the expansion of physical markets for consumer goods, and most of these markets operate within the institutional framework of the official North Korean economy. The introduction of these markets constitutes perhaps the most fundamental stabilizing mechanism in the supply of consumer goods and food for the majority of the North Korean public.9 Market mechanisms, however, have also been introduced and granted increasing space in the economy as a whole, and this process has accelerated since 2011 under Kim Jong Un. Such mechanisms have granted more autonomy to fanners, individuals, managers, enterprises and other entities to plan production, take their own initiatives and freely dispose of at least a portion of their profits. The extent of these changes, however, remains unclear, but what remains clear is that fundamentally, the North Korean food supply system remains inhibited by poor systemic design, corruption, planning pressures and quotas, predatory' state practices such as arbitrary confiscations, a lack of protection for private property and, not the least, North Korea’s self-imposed economic isolation.

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