SPEAKING FREELY Food markets still vital in North Korea
By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
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North Korean harvests are increasing for the third year in a row, and for the first time since 1994, food production has reached above 5 million tonnes for two consecutive years. If the government sticks to its planned food imports, the gap between existing supply and what North Korea requires is estimated at only 40,000 tonnes - an amount that could be covered for only around US$8 million, according to world market prices.
Yet, despite claims of the greatest official cereal production achieved this side of the millennium, private markets and other
non-state channels for food are still growing in importance to the North Korean public.
Ever since the breakdown of the unofficial economy, the North Korean economy has been characterized by a tug-of-war between private markets and the official system. The state has never fully abandoned its ambition to take the public distribution system (henceforth "PDS") back to its pre-crisis-levels and use it to replace the markets that grew out of the famine of the 1990s.
But not even record-level harvests seem to be able to make it happen. The markets are still going strong, at least according to the latest crop and food security assessment by the UN's two main organs for global food security - the World Food Program and Food and Agricultural Organization.
As with all figures on North Korea, there are strong reasons to doubt that the WFP/FAO assessments are perfectly correct. Even though the conditions for their work have been improving steadily over the past few years, basic issues still remain. For example, households are not selected in a statistically secure manner, and the WFP/FAO underscores that the results should be seen as "indicative only".
Despite the regular caveat of uncertainty when it comes to North Korean data, the newly released assessment carries several interesting results. One of them is the crucial and growing importance of the markets. Here, the report is very clear: neither the growing harvests nor additional resources from an increase in exports to China have been able to increase food supply enough to replace the markets.
For example, households reported that their food situation after the so called "lean season" of food scarcity over the summer months improved much earlier than supply by the PDS was able to pick up - a clear indication of the importance of market forces.
According to the assessment team, most people in urban areas (where more people are dependent on the PDS) live within 2 kilometers of a marketplace. This, and observations about frequent visits to the marketplaces among households, indicates that " [...] market activity may be much more common in the DPRK than generally assumed".
The mission reports that signs of the much-publicized economic reforms rumored to be taking place in the wake of Kim Jong-un's ascendance to power were nowhere to be seen. The overall assessment is quite bluntly and clearly stated that there is a dire need for market reforms in order to achieve even basic food security. This is hardly a controversial statement in itself, but for coming from a source that by necessity needs to stay apolitical, the blunt denunciation of North Korea's economic system is noteworthy.
The general impression of the assessment is that while North Korea's food situation is getting better, it is nowhere stable or acceptable levels. The country merely continues to muddle through, much has it has over the decade and half that has passed since the end of the famine.
Despite the increased harvests, the markets remain a core part of the economy. In its report, the WFP/FAO states that they have left a formal request with the North Korean government to let them carry out a closer analysis of the functioning of the markets.
These assessment teams do, with all its obstacles and hindrances, have a level of access to North Korea granted to few others. Perhaps the next report will give us something as unusual as a structured study of the North Korean market system.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is an MA candidate at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, and a freelance writer focused on North Korea.