Wednesday, December 07, 2005

North Korea's food problem

North Korea struggles to feed itself due to a mixture of geography and economic policy. Photographs which depict a lush, rural environment are misleading. The country needs an average of 1m metric tons in food aid a year.

"North Korea is not an agrarian country," said Kathi Zelleweger, a frequent visitor to the country with aid organization Caritas. It is mostly rugged mountain terrain, and only about 18% is arable.

It is dependent on fertilizer and machinery to make that land productive, both of which are expensive.

Politics compounds topography. Agriculture in North Korea was collectivised in the 1950s, in line with its Stalinist philosophy of self-reliance.

This means farmers have a low incentive to work hard, said Paul French, a writer on North Korea.

"If their farm produces five times as much, they don't get five times as much food," he said. Instead, they concentrate on their own private plots, which they use to feed themselves and to produce food for the markets.

The problem with this system is that market reforms, instituted in 2002, have sent prices soaring at a higher rate than wages. "Who can afford this stuff in the markets?" asked Mr. French.

The answer: only the elite. Government officials, senior managers of state enterprises, security forces, and the leadership of the army are all unlikely to go hungry.

But a typical urban family can now only afford to buy 4kg of maize - the cheapest commodity - a month.

[Excerpted from article by Sarah Buckley, BBC News]

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