A severe drought could bring North Korea to the brink of famine this summer, according to experts who keep close tabs on the Hermit Kingdom.
"If they get a lot of rain over the next two months, then they've dodged a bullet," Marcus Noland, executive vice president and director of studies at the Peterson Institute of International Economics and the co-author of Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, told VICE News. "If they don't get good rain, then this could be a mess."
Noland's comments came after Curtis Melvin of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University told Radio Free Asia that satellite imagery showed alarmingly low reservoirs and dry lakebeds throughout the country's agricultural region. Even the lake next to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's vacation house appeared lower than usual.
Melvin reviewed images dating from November 2012 to March 2014, so it is possible that rainfall has helped refill those water bodies since then — but it's not likely. A severe drought struck North Korea last year, and this past winter was also dry, leading to wildfires in recent months. Much of the precipitation North Korea sees in a given year comes during the wet season in June and July.
Without significant rainfall soon, North Korean farmers might not be able to grow enough food to feed the country's nearly 25 million people. The financial excesses of the country's elite are well documented, and Pyongyang lacks sufficient foreign currency reserves to make up for the shortfall. And while international aid has helped address the country's food shortages in the past, its distribution to the North Korean people depends on the country's paranoid government.
"They are moving into a zone of heightened vulnerability," Noland said.
A report on the situation from United Press International cited South Korean media saying that North Korean officials had called for a "national mobilization" in response to the drought.
But Melvin suggested in an email to VICE News that North Korea is ill-prepared to contend with an extended drought. He noted that, in addition to food shortages, low water levels could also lead to blackouts because of the country's dependence on hydroelectric dams.
"North Korea is a poor, repressive country with a dated infrastructure and opaque political culture," Melvin said. "It would probably be very difficult for them to adapt to a severe climactic shock."
Of course, it's impossible to provide a clear picture of what's happening in North Korea because of the regime's ironclad grip on information. But the country has a tragic, well-documented history with famine.
In the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and ended its subsidies to the communist country, North Korea ran out of the fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides necessary to grow enough crops to feed its people. A deadly famine ensued and between 600,000 and 2.5 million people perished.
Few experts believe famine on that scale would hit North Korea again. News outlets have been unsuccessfully predicting another famine for the past few years, as Kookmin University Korean studies professor Andrei Lankov recently noted in a piece for Al Jazeera, but harvests lately have been good, and black markets sanctioned by corrupt bureaucrats are now booming in the country and distributing food more efficiently than the overweening state.
Still, in the twisted world of North Korea, Kim arguably has little incentive to work too hard to keep his people fed.
"There's a line of thought that says, 'As long as he keeps the army in good shape and the city of Pyongyang in shape, the rest of the country can go to hell,' " said Noland. "If you're starving, the only thing you're interested in is getting food in your belly. There are no revolts during famines."
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