A North Korean source from Wonsan in Gangwon Province who recently travelled north through central regions of North Korea by train has described a difficult scene in many areas due to ongoing drought conditions.
The man, who recently arrived in Hyesan on the Sino-North Korean border, had travelled north from Pyonggang in Gangwon Province, staying overnight in Kowon County in South Hamkyung Province and later also Kilju in North Hamkyung Province to transfer trains.
“I was under the impression that southern areas [Hwanghae and Gangwon provinces] were the ones in a serious state, but actually people all over the place are starving,” he explained. “Even the potatoes have been affected by the drought. The situation is getting pretty bad.”
Potatoes produced on private plots and marginal farmland by private citizens and military units are always a key foodstuff in helping people in rural areas of North Korea get over the so-called ‘Barley Hump’ that occurs before the rice and corn is harvested in July and August. This was true in South Korea too, right up until the 1970s.
However, this year many of the potatoes have withered in the dry conditions. Thus, July is expected to be the turning point in the 2012 food crisis. If the drought continues, corn and rice harvests will be severely affected, and urban areas will start to hurt as well if no aid is forthcoming and market prices rise.
The source went on, “The continued drought in Gangwon Province has ruined the potatoes completely. Already they are predicting that there will be ‘nothing to harvest from corn farms’, escalating fears of food shortages.”
Gangwon Province is “not particularly different to the rumored state of South Hwanghae Province, where they say people are dying of starvation on a daily basis. Soldiers are collapsing one after the other because of hunger,” he added.
Looking back, the source asserted that things are similar in rural areas everywhere. “The station squares were filled with beggars and hungry people who could do nothing but lie around,” he recalled. “The situation reminded me of the March of Tribulation.”
“On the train I could talk to residents from other regions too, and they told me that many are dying from starvation nationwide because it is so hard. South Hwanghae, Gangwon, North Pyongan, Hamkyung and Yangkang provinces are all suffering from the drought; the new potatoes haven’t grown right so they are as small as birds’ eggs, and overall yields are half of previous years.”
However, there are conflicting opinions emerging elsewhere. For example, the Korea Rural Economic Institute believes things are not yet as bad as the traveler described. One researcher with the institute asserted in a recent report, ‘North Korea’s Drought Status and Food Supply Outlook’, “Looking only at the drought to date, the wheat harvest is likely to decline by 20% and potatoes by 10%. This is now unavoidable.”
However, the researcher agreed that corn was a notable cause for concern, noting, “In particular, that corn which was transplanted in April and is to be harvested early is likely to suffer severe damage.” A 30% decline in yield is likely, the report said, explaining that corn suffers disproportionately in dry conditions compared to other crops like potatoes.