by Leo Byrne
Oct. 8 2014 (TSR) – North Korean food exports to China have increased by more than 35 percent compared to the same period last year, and are at their highest levels in at least four years, according to Chinese customs data.
The upswing comes despite reports earlier this year that the DPRK had experienced a severe drought, which could have affected the quantities of food doled out by the North Korean Public Distribution System (PDS).
Although it’s risky to conclude too much from Chinese trade data, experts believe that the effects of the drought were not enough to offset recent North Korean bumper harvests and changes in DPRK agricultural policy.
North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul speculated that “the reason (for the increase) is higher productivity of farmers’ households, who are now allowed to keep part of the harvest for themselves, (and) hence have much more incentive to work hard.”
Lankov also added that some generally reliable sources inside North Korea said this year’s harvest will be relatively good, even considering the spring drought.
In contrast, Voice of America reported last week that August food rations in the DPRK dropped to the lowest figure since 2011, with August rations dropping from 573 to 250 grams per person per day.
But the overall figures for 2014 show that more than 60,000 tons of food or food products were exported to China, which is the DPRK’s largest import and export partner by a significant margin. The shipments even included a small rice export in July.
The data means that, in the first eight months of the year, North Korea exported more food than it received in food aid in the whole of 2011, according to a recent World Food Program (WFP) report.
The trade figures dovetail with reports from inside North Korea that the cost of rice has remained relatively constant in 2014, with none of the upward trends usually associated with tight supply.
Although the jump in exports so far this year has been relatively large, the DPRK has traditionally maintained some food product exports to its northern neighbor.
“As strange as it sounds, DPRK has always exported agricultural products … Most of those agricultural exports were seafood, shiitake mushrooms to Japan and rice bartered with bigger quantities of lower-quality Chinese rice,” a UN insider who wished to remain anonymous told NK News.
In particular, seafood exports make up a large part of North Korea’s food product shipments to China and have since at least 2011 (no data is available prior to that point).
This heavy reliance on seafood in North Korea’s export composition is another reason why North Korean trade figures have defied this year’s drought.
While North Koreans only catch about one-10th of the seafood that South Korea does, they are still not slouches when it comes to netting fish. According to 2005 fisheries data, North Korean fishermen caught more than 260,000 tons of seafood, more than that of Portugal, Sweden or Poland.
Although stable between 2011 and 2013, exports of squid and cuttlefish to China increased to 40,000 tons this year.
The relatively large-scale movement of high-protein seafood products outside the DPRK is curious given that the North Korean diet is often said be lacking in variety.
In September, the Wall Street Journal reported that UN World Food Program head Dierk Stegen was concerned that the North Korean focus on improving rice crops had meant that the DPRK didn’t produce enough protein.
However, it’s possible that some of the DPRK’s food products might be earmarked for export to bring in some extra foreign currency.
“Seafood sells well on Asian markets … I think that the pattern since the famine is one of using international aid to feed the population and their upscale agricultural exports to garner foreign currency,” the UN insider told NK News.
Time will tell if the North Koreans will be able to maintain this pattern. Since 2009, aid from the U.S., South Korea and Japan has been thin on the ground, leaving only that of Beijing and the WFP.
Donor fatigue and lack of funding, however, may also remove one further strut from this support network.
Ongoing humanitarian crises in Syria and Africa have chipped away at interest in North Korean donations, which are currently well short of the WFP’s $50 million target. Speaking to the WSJ, Stegen added that the WFP’s operations might soon have to be tapered or shut down entirely. Losing another food aid stream will likely put further pressure on the North’s still fledgling agricultural sector.