Drought In North Korea Brings Back Fears Of Widespread Famine

In this May 25, 2012 photo, a North Korean farmer sifts soil through his fingers in a dry corn field at a the Tokhae cooperative farm on the outskirts of Nampho, North Korea. CREDIT: AP/ KIM KWANG HYON
In this May 25, 2012 photo, a North Korean farmer sifts soil through his fingers in a dry corn field at a the Tokhae cooperative farm on the outskirts of Nampho, North Korea. CREDIT: AP/ KIM KWANG HYON

North Korea is an isolated, repressive and opaque dictatorship with little information exchange with the outside world. However, as the impoverished country dangles precariously on the edge of a return to famine, some news reports of the severity of the current drought are sifting across the border.

On Monday, Reuters reported that North Korea’s state media said the prolonged drought has catalyzed the country to deploy some of its million-person army to protect crops. The drought is the worst in over a decade, with some areas experiencing the lowest rainfall levels in over 50 years. As a result, the country is experiencing the worst spring drought in more than three decades. State media also said that higher-than-average temperatures are exacerbating crop damage.

Linda Lewis, of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-led NGO, confirmed the media reports to Reuters by email. “They expressed concern about ‘serious drought’ conditions and the impact this was having on spring ploughing and paddy field preparation,” Lewis said.

The drought is getting even more attention as leader Kim Jong-un announced this year that increasing agricultural production is a main target and state media called overcoming the drought “not simply a practical issue but an important task to fulfill the party’s lofty intentions.”

With around two-thirds of North Korea’s population facing chronic food shortages, according to the United Nations, and about half living in chronic poverty, international aid plays a major role in sustaining the population. With limited agricultural areas throughout the mountainous country, this plight is taking a stronger hold as even crops in the traditional breadbasket area with good irrigation systems are suffering, according to state media reports.

Kim Jong-un is concerned enough about the weather than he has been chastising weather reporters for their lack of accuracy. According to CNN, he stressed the need for better forecasts to protect people’s lives and property from “abnormal climatic phenomenon” (sic).

While Kim Jong-un may not be translating climate change exactly, the dictatorship he oversees is uncharacteristically cooperative when it comes to addressing climate change on the international level and North Korea has a solid record of compliance with its obligations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The obvious question then is why the North Korean government would show such commitment to the international climate change regime, given its belligerent reputation in the strategic realm,” writes Benjamin Habib, a lecturer in international relations at Latrobe University in Australia. Habib focuses on the security-economy-climate nexus in North Korea.

In an essay for The Conversation, Habib says that North Korea is looking to the UNFCCC to help cope with its endemic food, water and energy problems — problems made worse by climate change.

“Like many poor countries, North Korea is least able to cope with climate change impacts,” write Habib. “These weaknesses include food insecurity, energy shortages, economic fragility and a rigid political system. So North Korea is using the UNFCCC as a vehicle for projects designed to increase agricultural output and build the resilience of the agricultural system to disasters.”

Not only is North Korea amenable to help from the UNFCCC to deal with agricultural impacts of climate change, but it is also looking for help in upgrading energy infrastructure and creating new energy sources.

“Renewable energy may be the most appropriate vehicle for increasing generation capacity because unlike large centralized fossil-fuels, renewables can be scaled locally which reduces their up-front cost,” writes Habib.

As an example, small-scale wind energy systems are being installed across parts of North Korea as part of a UNDP initiative for rural development. By not relying on the fossil fuel grid, these areas are less dependent on the regime for electricity.

The North Korean regime dangled on the edge of total disaster when three years of flooding and drought led to a crippling famine in the mid-1990s. With climate change extending the impact of extreme weather events beyond historical norms, a repeat scenario of even graver proportions than that of the 1990s is easily imaginable. According to research by Habib, regular flooding is becoming more common in North Korea and the monsoon season more unpredictable. This can ruin large amounts of cropland.

The unpredictable regime under Kim Jong-un is dipping the country further into a dilapidated state of poverty, and according to at least one defector, leading to an increase in prostitution, drug abuse, and human trafficking — often driven by the desperation of not having enough to eat. In the meantime, the government continues to push an ill-begotten facade of superiority by building things like a shiny new water park to distract from the struggles of everyday life.