North Korea Faces Drought Following Months of Low Rainfall


The Rundown

Dry weather conditions are severely damaging North Korea’s crop production, prompting food insecurity among large portions of the population, according to an FAO special alert. Rainfall from April to June was significantly below long-term averages, which harmed 2016-2017 early season harvests and interrupted planting of main season crops. Although rainfall has occurred since early July, it came too late for normal sowing of main season crops, typically harvested in September-October. Millions of North Koreans rely on nationally-produced staples such as rice, maize, potatoes, and soybeans. Severe shortages in these crops could mean widespread malnutrition or starvation for North Korea’s citizens.

“Immediate interventions are needed to support affected farmers and prevent undesirable coping strategies for the most vulnerable…So far, seasonal rainfall in main cereal producing areas have been below the level of 2001, when cereal production dropped to the unprecedented level of only two million tonnes, causing a sharp deterioration in food security conditions of a large part of the population.” –Vincent Martin, FAO Representative in China and DPR Korea, in reference to the drought unfolding in North Korea, the country’s worst since 2001. The FAO is urging the international community to provide food aid and agricultural assistance in order to avert disaster.

By The Numbers

18 million Number of North Koreans dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS) for food. This government-run system was established in 1946 and rations food to citizens based on national production estimates and limited food imports. A failed planting season signals heightened food insecurity for those who rely on the PDS.

310,000 Estimated tons of early season crop production in North Korea, according to an FAO forecast. This number is down 30 percent from last year’s production.

50,000 Estimated hectares of cropland that are severely affected by the drought. Although this amounts to only 5 percent of North Korea’s planted land, the percentage is expected to increase if rains do not improve in the next couple weeks.

40 Percent below normal levels of North Korea’s water irrigation supplies in 2016. Low rainfall and high temperatures from late 2016 until June 2017 indicate that the country’s irrigation supply may be even lower this year.

Science, Studies, And Reports

Much of the information about the current drought was based on satellite imagery and analysis provided by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). Satellite imagery identified negative anomalies in precipitation and vegetation from April through June in North Korea’s main cereal-producing areas of South and North Pyongan, South and North Hwanghae and Nampo City. These provinces typically yield two-thirds of the country’s main season crop. Figures and in-depth analysis of the satellite imagery are available in the FAO’s Special Alert bulletin.

On The Radar

Although rainfall levels have increased throughout July, North Korea still faces irreversible damage to their 2017 main season crops. According to the FAO, increased food imports are needed throughout the next three months to ensure adequate food supply for North Korea’s citizens. Food aid played an important role in saving lives during the 2001 drought. However, bilateral food aid to the country has fallen in recent years, and harsh sanctions may make commercial importation of food difficult.

North Korea has not reported any damage from the drought, and no official numbers related to failed crop production have been released by the North Korean government.

Resources and Further Reading

FAO/GIEWS Special Alert No. 340: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (20 July 2017) (FAO)
DPR Korea’s food production hit by the worst drought since 2001 (Relief Web)
U.N. Agency Reports Worst Drought in 16 Years in North Korea (The New York Times)
North Korea drought: Children at risk in ‘worst crisis since 2001’ (BBC)
North Korea’s food production hit by worst drought since 2001 (EU Science Hub)