Song Jung – reporting for the FT from Seoul, quoting Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, notes that more than 30% of rice paddies across the country were “parching up” as the worst drought in 100 years is causing great damage. Reservoir levels are low and rivers and streams are drying up. Reuters confirms this and fears that crop output could fall significantly if the drought continues until next month.
However, far more positive news is arriving about North Korea from several sources. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul and other analysts point out, that food security is not as precarious as in previous droughts. After the president alluded to the inefficiency of large collective farms, North Koreans are being allowed to run small family farms, keeping some surplus crops, and markets have sprung up nationwide. They are terracing the steep hills and improving farming practices.
Another professor in Seoul estimates that one-third of North Korea’s people now live on some 3,000 farming co-operatives. The countryside is dotted with complete little villages, with kindergartens and clinics.
At one large co-operative in the outskirts of Pyongyang, the Taedonggang fruit farm, cottages with bright blue roofs house some 500 families. Fledgling apple trees stretch as far as the eye can see — up to 20 kilometres, according to state media. After farmers planted nearly 380,000 apple trees in 2009, the 1,500-acre co-operative began raising pigs and cultivating bees for honey. As the summer growing months approach, the North Korean countryside is green with young rice, corn, soybeans and cabbage. On hillier ground lie orchards for apples and pears and whole villages are devoted to growing mushrooms.
In his blog, North Korean Economy Watch, Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, republishes a Radio Free Asia account which notes that in 2014, authorities in North Korea launched a campaign of nationwide greening, with the primary goal of planting trees to replenish soil nutrients and prevent erosion in the country, which has been ravaged by decades of environmental degradation, though still 44.95% was covered by forest in 2012, according to the World Bank.
The central government has increased the size of each province’s forest management department, granting them control of tree nurseries and seedling production. The campaign follows a small pilot project started in 2002 to plant fruit and nut trees and medicinal bushes on the sloping hillsides, alongside people’s crops. “We get the tree cover back, and, second, also, we provide the needs of the local people for food,” says Xu Jianchu, a senior scientist at the World Agroforestry Center, a global research institution.
David Ellison from the Institute for World Economics said that by understanding the relationship between trees and rainfall, we may, one day, be able to plant trees that will bring rain to regions that need it most: “As the climate changes, severe droughts are likely to become more common, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunities to influence the hydrologic cycle in a beneficial way using trees”.
In the minds of North Korea’s leaders, agricultural self-sufficiency is now seen as the key to the nation’s survival – a lesson many other countries should learn.