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North Korea

Has Chinese machinery helped North Korea to achieve surprise crop growth despite worst drought in decades?

Most food production areas in the hermit state achieved normal plant growth by mid-August even though it saw record low rainfall , Chinese scientists say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 9:07pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 September, 2017, 11:25pm

North Korea appears to have emerged almost unscathed from its worst drought in nearly two decades in a sign of massively improved agricultural capability, according to Chinese scientists.

Except for a few isolated regions, most food production areas in North Korea achieved “normal” plant growth by mid-August, CropWatch reported.

CropWatch is a global crop monitoring system run by the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Its findings – used by the Chinese government for decision making in domestic and international affairs since 1998 – are based on a computer analysis of data from satellites and ground stations, according to the project’s website.

A CropWatch map on agricultural production in China and its neighbouring countries showed that nearly all farms in North Korea were green. That meant that plants are growing as well as they did on average in the last five years.

That conclusion comes as a surprise since rainfall in key crop production areas in North Korea from April to June dropped to the lowest level since 2001, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations reported in July.

The 2001 drought caused a famine in the following year that forced hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to abandon work and school and go “up into the mountains in search of edible grasses,” according to the United Nations.

Heading into the October and November harvest season this year, the UN organisation had expected North Korea’s drought to have a “severe impact” on its major cereal producing areas.

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Those areas include the provinces of South and North Pyongan, South and North Hwanghae and Nampo city, which provide nearly two thirds of the country’s domestic food supply.

The findings released at the end of August also showed some parts of North Pyongan had suffered lower-than-average growth, but other regions stood largely unaffected.

“If the drought had an impact, it would have left a mark on the map,” said Meng Jihua, researcher at the Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth and a former CropWatch team member.

Li Qiangzi, a researcher with the same institute and a senior CropWatch developer, said Cropwatch’s estimates generally prove reliable. The latest results suggest Pyongyang’s endeavour of more than a decade to improve the hermit state’s agriculture might be paying off, he said.

Wang Yang, a researcher at the Northeast Institute of Geography and Agroecology with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Jilin, a province bordering North Korea, said the drought’s impact could have been alleviated through human intervention.

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“Basic requirements include some pumps to lift water from river or reservoirs; pipes and dykes to channel the water to fields; and a massive mobilisation of labour or military forces,” he said.

“Similar anti-drought campaigns had been carried out in China regularly in the 1980s. Now North Korea should have the capability to do it. We have seen North Korean farmers pumping water along Yalu,” the border river between the two countries, Wang said. “They may also get help from our agricultural machines.”

A national campaign involving heavy machinery and a massive mobilisation of labour kicked off around 2005 under the supervision of Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-un, to transform the nation’s hills to flatlands, Li said.

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“North Korea has a terrain with many mountains. Many farms were built on hill slopes. After rain the water ran off along the slopes and left the fields,” Li said. “They were particularly vulnerable to drought.”

The landscape-changing campaign significantly increased farms’ ability to maintain moisture and mitigate the negative impact of droughts, said Li, who has closely monitored agricultural activity in North Korea.

When the South China Morning Post reached out to the FAO Representation office in Taedonggang District in Pyongyang, a staff member who answered the phone said no information could be provided immediately in response to SCMP’s inquiries.

An international sales manager of Wuzheng Group, one of China’s largest agricultural hardware makers in Shandong, said the company had shipped a large amount of machinery to North Korea for many years.

“We supplied a full range of products including diesel pumps, seed drills, water-saving sprinklers, tractors, combined harvesters, and trucks designed and built for the transport of agricultural products,” she said in a phone interview, but declined to be named due to the potential political sensitivity of the subject.

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These items were to be used to help North Korea boost its agricultural productivity, the saleswoman said.

“But all the business has stopped since last year. We were instructed by the government not to sell anything [to North Korea], not even a screw,” she said.

“I hope they take good care of the machines; otherwise they will have difficulty to find spare parts,” she added.

The improved agricultural production came amid other positive signs in the North Korean economy such as food kiosks and coffee shops appearing on Pyongyang streets. According to South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s economic growth last year hit a 17-year high despite sanctions imposed by various countries and international bodies over its nuclear weapons programme.

But scientists said the country would still be reliant on foreign aid.

A “normal” agricultural output this year does not mean North Korea would be able to feed its people with its own barns, Li said.

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“Even in a good year their home supply tends to fall short of the demand with a gap about 300,000 tonnes [of food],” he said.

Li said agriculture in North Korea is not only challenged by the country’s small and uneven terrain but also by an unfavourable climate. A drought often occurs in springtime when plants desperately need water, and flooding regularly occurs in autumn amid the harvest season.

“If the food aids and imports from the world outside are cut off, it will lead to a famine,” he said.