Farming Boost to North Korea’s Economy

North Korea’s economy grew, albeit slightly, last year for the first time in three years, as agricultural production jumped thanks to favorable weather and increased use of fertilizer, South Korea’s central bank said on Sunday.

Farmer picking weeds
Mark Adams | America 24-7 | Getty Images
Farmer picking weeds

Real gross domestic product in the impoverished country increased 0.8 per cent in 2011 as the agricultural sector expanded by 5.3 per cent while construction jumped 3.9 per cent on the back of Pyongyang’s homebuilding projects, according to the Bank of Korea.

However, North Korea remains one of the world’s poorest and most closed states, dependent on foreign aid to feed its 24m people. Due to economic mismanagement and frequent natural disasters, North Korea still suffers from chronic food shortages affecting two-thirds of the population, according to the UN.

The nominal size of the North Korean economy was estimated at Won32.4tn ($244bn) last year, or less than 3 per cent of its southern counterpart’s, while its per-capita income stood at only Won1.3m, or less than $1,200, compared with South Korea’s Won24.9m.

Pyongyang does not issue any economic data but the BoK estimates, based on data gathered by related South Korean institutions, provide a glimpse of the isolated economy.

The BoK data showed North Korea’s external trade, excluding inter-Korean transactions, surged 51 per cent last year to a 22-year high of $6.3bn on the back of greater Chinese demand for its natural resources.

Inter-Korean trade fell 10.4 per cent to just $1.7bn last year, with most of it deriving from South Korea’s small investment enclave in the North Korean city of Kaesong. Trade with South Korea has slowed since Lee Myung-bak, South Korean president, adopted hardline policies against its northern neighbor. That has made Pyongyang’s dependence on China deeper in recent years as North Korea faces more international sanctions over its nuclear program.

Concerns over North Korea’s food situation are increasing, with experts saying North Korea’s food shortages have become more acute due to dwindling international aid and severe drought earlier this year. The US has shelved its plan to provide massive food aid to North Korea after the country launched a rocket in April. The UN has called for $198m in donations for North Korea this year as millions of children suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

Last month, Mr Lee urged North Korea to replicate Myanmar’s political and economic reforms, saying the country’s recent leadership change provides the communist state with a “good opportunity” to follow Myanmar’s example.

Separately, AP reported, citing state TV footage, that Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh appeared for the first time in North Korea at a concert staged for the new leader Kim Jong-eun. Mr Kim, who took power after his father Kim Jong-il died in December, has a “grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year”, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said.