By James Pearson
SEOUL (Reuters) - Despite a severe drought this year, North Korea's fledgling markets and private farm plots should provide a buffer against a famine of the sort that devastated the totalitarian nation in the 1990s.
The 1994-1998 famine killed hundreds of thousands of people, but experts say the emergence of grassroots markets and an unofficial economy since then mean most North Koreans can grow and trade food independently of the state, decreasing the risk of widespread starvation.
The isolated country has been hit by what it describes as its worst drought in a century. While that may be an exaggeration, the United Nations has warned of a potentially sharp rise in malnutrition.
"Agriculture is much less state-run and much more private than it used to be, and the farmers who work for themselves work better and with greater efficiency," said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
"North Korea is highly unlikely to experience another famine even remotely similar to what happened in the late nineties".
North Korean farms are collectives in which the state takes control of crops and distribution. There was previously little incentive for farmers to produce more.
But as a result of the 1990s famine, the state has been tolerant of farmers maintaining small, privately-run plots on state farms and in their backyards. There, they grow grains and vegetables, often more efficiently than on the sprawling state collectives, which they can consume or even sell.
That means that while the country still retains a "military-first" system where food and electricity is prioritized for the powerful armed forces, the civilian population is not likely to suffer as much.
One NGO worker, citing a knowledgeable North Korean agricultural scientist, estimated that farmers there spend an average of 30 percent of their time cultivating their own plots.
It is not uncommon to see rows of corn or other crops growing in the gardens of rural homes. On some collective farms, a small portion of fields is often cordoned into a grid system of plots privately cultivated and managed by families.
North Koreans who have been mobilized to work extra hours to combat this year's drought have also redoubled efforts to farm private plots, according to the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website with market sources inside North Korea.
"Today's North Korean economy is essentially disguised capitalism - low-level trade hiding in the shadows or private businesses wearing masks of state-socialism," said Sokeel Park of LiNK, an NGO which supports North Korean defectors.
CUT BY HALF
The North's KCNA news agency said last week that paddies around the country, including the main rice farming regions of Hwanghae and Phyongan provinces, were drying up for lack of rain.
On Monday, KCNA said North Korea had seen some rain, but it expects drought conditions to linger.
Production in the country's main growing region is expected to be cut in half, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said recently.
Weak rainfall this year in North Korea comes on top of last year's lackluster rains. Parts of South Korea are also suffering this year from some of the lowest rainfall since records began.
Pyongyang has a track record of overstating the significance of natural events on its food situation, as doing so plays down the impact of its outdated and state-controlled agricultural methods while getting the attention of donors.
There are no readily available figures of crop output or food reserves in the isolated country. Food smuggled from neighboring China will likely help close gaps in supply, and Beijing has said it is willing to offer aid to North Korea.
International aid for North Korea has decreased in recent years, in part because of its curbs on humanitarian workers and reluctance to allow monitoring of food distribution. The country is also under U.N. sanctions for pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
In February, Pyongyang expelled the local director of Welthungerhilfe, one of the few foreign aid groups to operate in the country.
While the risks of mass starvation are much reduced, shocks to state food supply caused by drought will cause market prices to rise.
The cost of potatoes, an alternative staple to rice in times of short supply, roughly tripled over the past year at a market in the city of Hyesan, according to the Daily NK website.
But even foreign food aid on which North Korea has long relied is often distributed in unofficial markets, meaning food prices may quickly return to normal.
Poorer or isolated areas of North Korea are still vulnerable to less state supply of food, however, where drought could contribute to or exacerbate pre-existing cases of chronic malnutrition.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)