North Korea’s worst ever drought will test new policies

Things seem to be more serious than the typical doomsday projections in North Korea this time.

File photo of an official of Daedonggang Fruit Farm posing on the outskirts of Pyongyang
An official of Daedonggang Fruit Farm poses wearing a lapel badge featuring North Korea founder Kim Il-sung [AP]

In recent weeks the world media published a number of reports about the developing drought in North Korea.

Normally, it makes sense not to pay much attention to the panicking and alarmist reports from North Korea – the droughts, floods, and crop failures are predicted every year there – but in recent years, things have been steadily improving for North Korean agriculture.

However, this time around, things seem to be more serious than the typical doomsday projections. People who visited the North Korean countryside recently describe a country which is growing increasingly desperate. Rains are not coming, and crops are in dire shape. 

Drought in North Korea raises food shortage fears

Even the North Korean official wire agency, KNA, admitted that things have gone wrong, and claimed that the country is suffering from the “worst drought in 100 years”, bringing back memories of a disastrous famine which killed over half-million people, some 2-3 percent of the country’s total population, in the late 1990s.

That being said, there is good reason to believe that with some luck, and a bit of international assistance, the disaster will be averted this time. After all, North Korean agriculture today is more resilient than it was 20 years ago.

When the Great Famine hit the country in the 1990s, North Korea was a state in which Stalinist collective agriculture took its purest form ever. All land belonged to the state-managed cooperative farms, where farmers worked for fixed rations, the size of which was not dependent upon the quality or quantity of work done by each individual. Even small kitchen plots were not normally allowed in those days. The result was disastrous.

But the people adjusted. Facing starvation, the farmers began to cultivate semi-legal private plots in the mountains, seriously supplementing their income. The government resisted this change for a while, but in 2013, Kim Jong-un, the new leader of the country, quietly admitted the obvious and initiated reforms.

Essentially, the new policy helped farmers evolve from slaves to sharecroppers: Under the new system, farming families work together and are allowed to keep 30 percent of their harvest. Additionally, they work on the same family-operated fields, and hence, have a vested interest in keeping the fields fertile and thriving.

The improved system produced great results: In 2013, for the first time in nearly three decades, the North Korean harvest was enough to feed the country’s entire population.

Minor obstacle

And the next year, in 2014, a minor drought proved to be only a minor obstacle. Farmers, who under the new system work for themselves, put in even more effort and, contrary to the gloomy predictions, the 2014 harvest was even better than that of the previous year.

This drought is a tough test for Kim Jong-un’s new policies, and one can only hope that the North Korean agricultural system will rise to the challenge.


This time things might be more difficult. The drought is, indeed, more serious than any in the recent past. But the situation is not the same as it once was, and its impacts may be far less profound. Under the new system, North Korean farmers have reason to work harder to do what they can to save what they see as their fields, so production will inevitably go down, but not disastrously.

Of course, it helps that the North Korean authorities have long learned how to handle and, if necessary, manipulate international public opinion.

Back in the 1990s, in the days before the Great Famine, the North Korean media was not allowed to mention any problems. The country had to be portrayed as a literal paradise – as a place where nothing bad, including natural disasters, could possibly happen.

Those days are long gone. From the late 1990s, North Korean diplomats and the government-run media are not as conservative when it comes to openly admitting their country’s problems, specifically if those problems require foreign humanitarian assistance and can be blamed on a natural disaster, rather than on political mistakes.

Scale of the problems

The North Korean newspapers now readily report floods and droughts, and the visiting delegations from the international aid agencies are likely to be welcomed with open arms and provided with all necessary information.

If anything, the North Korean hosts may even exaggerate the scale of the problems they face: They understand that the international “aid market” is rather competitive, so a higher volume of complaints, and a few dramatic touches, can only improve their take.

China was first to suggest aid, and in the current political climate it is likely that South Korea, technically still at war with the North, will become another major sponsor (as was the case some 10-15 years ago when the aid from North Korea’s archrival helped to end its disastrous famine). Aid from Russia and assorted international aid agencies can also be counted on if things get really tough.

Aid may very well be necessary, and hopefully will be provided. This drought is a tough test for Kim’s new policies, and one can only hope that the North Korean agricultural system will rise to the challenge.

Andrei Lankov is professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul. He is the author of “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.