A Drought (And Doubts) In North Korea

Rain is coming to Korea. The drought that cracked the rice paddies in North Korea during the month of June is easing, along with rising precipitation levels and even typhoon warnings. In early July, the North Korean state media advised the nation to prepare against the downpour during the monsoon season. Just a month earlier, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) had reported on a severe underpour, with a characteristically dramatic show of words, “the worst drought in 100 years.”

Did the North Even experience a drought?

It’s always safer to take every news about, and especially from, North Korea with a grain of salt. Although news concerning the world’s most isolated regime is intriguing, it often comes from anonymous sources, often unverifiable and not necessarily reliable.

Reuters first reported the news of the drought in North Korea through an interview with a U.N. official, followed by KCNA’s admission on June 16 that the supposedly worst drought in a century was “causing great damage to its agricultural field.” Satellite images also confirmed that bodies of water in North Korea were drying up.

Nobody denies that there is a serious drought in North Korea — South Korea was hit at the same time — but plenty question the regime’s rhetoric. Some think that North Korea is trying to get more aid by exaggerating the situation. Others point out that the North seems to have the “worst natural disasters in decades,” every couple of years.

Why the drought in North Korea matters

South Korea was also suffering from drought — president Park Geun-hye demonstrated leadership by moisturizing the fields with a fire hose — but the main reason the international community didn’t focus on the southern drought was because a humanitarian crisis seemed more likely in the North, where it was even more likely that information would not be shared transparently with outsiders.

North Korea’s extreme characterization of the recent drought evoked memories about another extreme point of suffering in recent history: The mass starvation that began in the mid-1990s, sparked by natural disasters, massively exacerbated by the incompetence of the central government to provide the expected rations to its citizens, and which eventually killed an estimated, albeit unverified, number of more than one million people.

Could the drought in June 2015 bring another Arduous March, as the North Korean state euphemistically labels the period of mass starvation in the nineties?

Not likely. North Korea in 2015 is very different from North Korea in the nineties. People are tougher and more resourceful; they no longer rely solely on the government for their daily necessities, and turn to the informal marketplaces, or jangmadang, to supplement their diet. The international community is much more aware and informed about North Korea in 2015, which means help will hopefully reach the people more quickly in case of a tragedy.

That doesn’t mean the drought wasn’t severe, or that malnutrition isn’t a problem. UNICEF warns that intensified malnutrition can put the lives of North Korean children at risk, a country that already falls below the UN standards of required daily nutrients per person. A UN official warns that the state’s food rations to its citizens has dropped by 25% in July — although it’s questionable how many citizens actually rely on the state’s barely functioning public distribution system (PDS) for survival.

At the onset of the monsoon season on the Korean peninsula, news about the North Korean drought is subsiding like the drought itself. In mid-July, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification officially stated that the drought appears to have eased. On July 21, KCNA predicted nationwide monsoon showers to begin this weekend.

The drought may be over soon, but the effects of the drought may last much longer, especially if the rain showers flood the fields and exacerbate malnutrition. A lull on the newsfront doesn’t necessarily mean the issue is over — far from it. As always with North Korea, the least the outside world can do is stay on guard and look for clear information in the clouds.