Sick Oxen May Rattle Kim Jong Il Regime as Food Shortages Worsen

North Korea’s dependence on animals to plow fields and haul harvests adds greater urgency to containing an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease before planting begins in the country, already dependent on food handouts.

“Oxen are so important in North Korea’s agricultural industry that the government owns them all,” said Kwon Tae Jin, a vice president of the Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul who specializes in North Korea’s agriculture industry. “During the rice planting season you can see more oxen than tractors in the country.”

More than 10,000 draught oxen, as well as cattle and pigs have been infected with the disease, with thousands of them already dead, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported yesterday. For North Korea, the outbreak comes as leader Kim Jong Il struggles to ease shortages after floods and as the United Nations and the U.S. maintain diplomatic and economic sanctions.

“It takes only a small cut in food supply to trigger a huge shock to North Koreans, who are already barely surviving in normal times,” said Cho Bong Hyun, a research fellow at the IBK Research Institute in Seoul. “North Koreans are already fed up with Kim Jong Il’s regime. Society is at a point where you can’t rule out large-scale riots.”

The outbreak may disrupt farming in a nation where an estimated 2 million people died from famine in the mid-1990s. The disease may also mar plans to mark Kim’s 69th birthday next week and deliver on a pledge to put meat on every table.

Kim has promised to build a “thriving nation” by 2012, when he turns 70. The year would also mark the 100th birthday of his late father and the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

FAO Team

The Food and Agricultural Organization is discussing with the North Korean government how it can help and will send an expert team to the country to evaluate the situation if needed, the agency’s regional office for Asia said today in an e-mailed response to inquiries by Bloomberg News.

North Korea faces a food deficit of 542,000 tons in the year ending October 2011, the World Food Program said on Nov. 17 after officials visited North Korea in September.

“A small shock in the future could trigger a severe negative impact and will be difficult to contain,” Joyce Luma, chief of the WFP’s Food Security Analysis Unit and co-leader of the mission to North Korea, said in the November statement.

The WFP’s program to feed 1.7 million North Koreans, mainly women and children, is only 20 percent funded, Marcus Prior, a Bangkok-based spokesman for the agency said today in an e-mailed response. The agency is reassessing the situation after the North asked for assistance last month, according to the e-mail.

Oxen Risk

North Korea’s use of oxen to transport crops and plow the land also increases the risk of spreading the virus if it isn’t contained by May, when planting begins, said Kwon.

Failure to halt the outbreak “will disrupt farming with fewer animals to put to work,” Kwon said. North Korea had 577,000 cattle and 2.2 million pigs last year, he said, citing FAO data. Dead animals have been buried and markets have stopped selling meat from those infected, KCNA said yesterday.

North Korea last appealed for international help in dealing with foot-and-mouth disease in 2007, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae Sung told reporters today in Seoul. South Korea, which helped North Korea during the 2007 outbreak, hasn’t received any request for help from Kim’s regime, he said.

The outbreak comes as global food prices are at a record high, according to a UN index. Protests fueled by rising costs of living and unemployment have roiled governments in North Africa and the Middle East, toppling the regime in Tunisia and threatening the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Shrinking Economy

North Korean rice prices have jumped more than 30-fold since the end of 2009, signaling food shortages in the country, according to data collected by Daily NK, a Seoul-based group with informants inside North Korea. Daily NK’s information cannot be independently verified.

North Korea’s economy shrank 0.9 percent in 2009 when UN sanctions were toughened following the regime’s second nuclear test in May that year, curbing trade and international aid, according to the latest data from the Bank of Korea in Seoul.

President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung Bak have followed a policy of shunning contact with North Korea until the nation falls in line with commitments made to end its nuclear weapons program and ceases provocative acts.

Aid from both countries that peaked at almost $400 million in 2007 fell close to zero last year. Kim’s regime unveiled a uranium plant that could be used to make fuel for nuclear weapons last year and was blamed for two attacks that killed 50 South Koreans, the sinking of a warship and the first shelling of South Korean territory since the 1950-53 war.

Talks Fail

Military talks between South Korea and North Korea collapsed this week after two days of discussions, dimming the prospects of a thaw in relations.

Kim relies on aid mainly from China to help prop up his regime. While China wants to avoid a regime collapse that would risk a flood of refugees across its border, the government is facing its own difficulties in securing food supplies.

China has set aside almost $2 billion to boost grain production and help counter a drought that is affecting the country’s main wheat-growing region.

The United Nations on Jan. 27 said the outbreak of foot- and-mouth in Asia is “unlike anything that we’ve seen for at least half a century.”

South Korea has culled and buried a total of 3.27 million animals, mostly pigs and cattle, since an outbreak of the disease was first reported in November, which is equivalent to about 25 percent of the nation’s total herds, according to a statement e-mailed from the Agriculture Ministry today.

To contact the reporters on this story: Bomi Lim in Seoul at blim30@bloomberg.net; Sungwoo Park in Seoul at spark47@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg in Hong Kong at phirschberg@bloomberg.net; James Poole at jpoole4@bloomberg.net

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