Whoa, North Korea says it’s facing the worst drought in 100 years. That sounds bad.

Hmmm, not so fast there. Yes, it’s true that North Korea is facing a drought and that this is having a significant effect on food production and electricity supply. Here’s the official version of events, via the Korean Central News Agency:


But, as with most statements from North Korea, we have to take this with a grain of salt. After all, as British analyst Aidan Foster-Carter pointed out, North Korea claimed that last year's drought also was the worst in 100 years — and the crop turned out just fine — and it also said that 2001's drought was the worst in 1,000 years.


North Korea claimed that a flood it endured in 2001 was the worst in 1,000 years.

And some parts of the latest KCNA statement are verifiable "hyperbole," as esteemed North Korea agriculture expert Randall Ireson noted on the 38 North Web site:

The KCNA article claims that no rain has fallen in South and North Hwanghae provinces. That is hyperbole. Precipitation data show a total of 181 mm at Haeju and 102 mm at Sariwon since March. While substantially below the historical average (330 mm for Haeju, unavailable at Sariwon), it is hardly “no rain.”

So there's not going to be another famine then?

Almost certainly not. That's according to Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a leading authority on North Korea's devastating famine of the 1990s — referred to at home as "the arduous march."

Despite its policy of "self-reliance," North Korea has never been in a good position to feed its people (before the peninsula was divided after World War II, the north was the industrial heartland and the south was the bread basket.) The famine was the result of decades of incredible economic mismanagement by the communist regime and the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea's patron, compounded by severe droughts and floods.

It's not clear how many people died — some say half a million, others 3 million, while Noland and his colleague Stephan Haggard say as many as one million — but it is clear that it was a massive tragedy and counts as one of the worst famines of the 20th century. (Noland and Haggard literally wrote the book on the famine — it's called "Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform.")

"Let’s suppose that the rain doesn’t come, the harvest is poor, and food prices rise. Could North Korea experience a famine on the scale of the 1990s?" Noland asked on his blog, NK Witness, last week. "The answer is almost surely 'no.'"

Why? For one thing, the economy is simply more flexible now than it was during the famine period, with more trading and importing, meaning that supply is better. On the demand side, North Koreans learned during the famine not to expect anything from the state, so they would act for themselves much more quickly this time around, Noland writes. Compare that with the famine period, when aid workers described how city-dwellers starved to death in their apartments while waiting for food to be delivered through the public distribution system.

Noland adds:

And finally, for all its opacity, the outside world is much better informed about North Korea than it was 20 years ago. The international humanitarian response would be more rapid and forceful. South Korea, in particular, has an ongoing agreement with the WFP [World Food Program] which could facilitate a rapid ramping up of relief, an arrangement that did not exist in the 1990s.

Great, so we don't need to worry about North Korea then?

Au contraire. North Korea still suffers from a food crisis, and hunger and malnutrition are rife there, although they fall short of "famine" designation. The most recent survey by UNICEF found that 28 percent of North Korean children under 5 were chronically malnourished or stunted, while 7 percent were severely so.

Meanwhile, the World Bank's 2015 World Development Indicators report says that 15 percent of those under 5 are malnourished and/or underweight.

So hunger remains real and widespread in North Korea.

This is confusing. What do we know, then?

Part of the problem is that we have very little information about the food situation in North Korea these days. That's partly because international agencies such as the World Food Program have scaled back operations — not least because of a precipitous fall in donations from the outside world — and because North Korea did not ask the WFP and its sibling agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, to do its usual food security survey last year. That means we have only North Korean data to go on, and they're not a very reliable source (see above).

Liliana Balbi, an economist at the FAO, told me that although the agency's data are incomplete and it cannot know whether the drought is the worst in 100 years, the situation appears grim. It looks as if  North Korea's rice production will be down about 14 percent this year, she said. Wheat, barley and potato crops also are likely to be affected, she said.

Daily NK, a South Korea-based news service with sources inside the North, reports that produce prices have risen across the board as the drought takes its toll.

So what's the bottom line here?

The bottom line? Remember that most North Koreans don't look like this:


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during a visit to the Songdowon International Children's Camp in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on July 6, 2014. (KCNA via Reuters)

Most North Koreans look like this, from a photo that Drew Kelly posted on Instagram: