“In order to improve the lives of the people, Kim Il-sung visited the farmers and told them to grow more rice.” Exhausted and weathered from several weeks of propaganda training in the DPRK, I found myself unconsciously slipping into a state of complacence with the tour guide’s narration. North Korea’s Three Revolutions Exhibition follows suit with many of the other foreigner-friendly sights around Pyongyang. Kim Il-sung’s greatest fans, staunchly nationalistic and frustratingly vague, enthusiastically narrate the tours. I withheld the urge to inquire further about the mental capacity of Korean farmers, who were apparently unable to make the connection between national hunger and crop yield.
It goes without saying that North Korea’s agricultural sector is underdeveloped. The country itself has fallen victim to a combination of bad luck and poor agricultural policies on numerous occasions at the expense of millions of lives. The challenges that arise as a result of poor policy not only include a shortage of food staples, but also extend to public health and pollution concerns. Low crop yields have less to do with the reasoning ability of farmers and are more often tied to a wide variety of causes such as unforgiving weather conditions, or material and electrical shortages. Public health and environmental concerns can be attributed to a mixture of shortsighted policy and logistical circumstance. At the same time, we should not too easily scoff at the efforts the regime has made to cope with the challenges facing its citizens.
Within the Hall of the Agriculture in the Three Revolutions Exhibition, a dearth of logical conclusions notwithstanding, the visitor is privy to the general idea of how agriculture should be done in the North: industrialized. One of the most fundamental mantras of the Juche idea is that man is the master of his own environment, a reference to both the political and the natural world. In 1946, 54% of cultivated land was confiscated from private ownership in the Land Reform Act, and in 1958 Kim Il-sung ordered the establishment of collective farming. Agriculture in the 1960s was synonymous with industrialization; Kim Il-sung’s advisors pushed for increased mechanization, irrigation and fertilizer use in order to increase crop yields in a landscape that is otherwise less than ideal for farming.
Throughout the early years of the DPRK, a strong economy helped reinforce the idea that the North Korean dedication to mastering nature was bearing fruit. Yet with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, which had come to be North Korea’s greatest benefactor, things in the DPRK took a turn for the worst and the North has walked the fine line between subsistence and starvation ever since. We do not need to revisit the tragic famine of the mid-nineties that left hundreds of thousands, if not millions, dead. More recently in 2011, as a testament to the ongoing struggle to make ends meet, daily rations from the Public Distribution Service were reduced to 200g/ person, a third of the daily energy requirement. That same year, the WFP and FAO concluded that an additional 739,000 tonnes of cereals would be required to meet the demands of the population.
As is the case with numerous other centrally planned economies, much of the academic criticism has targeted the upper-echelons of management for being detached and unrealistic in their ability to create effective agricultural policies. In the mid-90s, in an attempt to create quick-fix strategies to overcome impending famine, the government demanded that collective farms submit greater percentages of their crops to the Public Distribution Service. The government’s shifting of the burden onto collective farmers has encouraged the (illegal) private cultivation of land away from the prying eyes of officials. This in turn has led to less time spent tending collective farm crops and the deforestation of hillsides, which has increased erosion, runoff and flooding. Forestland soils in particular are often nutrient depleted and require sizable inputs before being converted to productive agricultural land. In addition to unsanctioned land use, a North Korea version of Kruschev’s “virgin land scheme” actively encouraged many collective farms to expand their production area into forestland or hillsides, resulting in similar environmental consequences.
Self-perpetuating problems of the Public Distribution System aside, North Korean agriculture is limited by economic shortcomings. The ability to meet the minimum requirements for subsistence is closely tied to the availability of diesel, electricity and fertilizer. That is, if the state cannot afford to import combustibles or keep its mills and machinery running, grain and tractors sit idle along with Kim Il-sung’s vision for mechanization. The North is “capable of producing 2.6 million tonnes of fertilizer a year, but obsolete facilities and energy shortages have reduced output to about 600,000 tonnes, 40% of the annual requirements.”  To meet these requirements, South Korea and China have assisted with the provision of chemical fertilizer over the years, but given the unruly nature of North Korea’s politics, that too is often in short supply.
Ironically, the lack of fertilizer creates several problems outside the realm of mere shortages in quantity. Night soil (excrement, usually human) is often used as a substitute for chemical fertilizers, but the North’s lack of adequate wastewater treatment facilities and heavy rainy seasons mean that without proper treatment, pathogens can potentially be transmitted back into water systems and agricultural products. The consequences of untreated water and food can be gastrointestinal diseases that, particularly among children under the age of five, all too often lead to severe dehydration and death.
When North Korean collective farmers do have access to fertilizers, they are obliged to take what fertilizer they can get, and although the crops of North Korea aren’t known for their diversity, they do require different amounts of potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen, the primary components in chemical fertilizers. Plant uptake, that is, the amount of each element extracted from the soil, can vary from one species to the next. If, for example, corn, a nitrogen-hungry plant that doesn’t require vast quantities of phosphorous or potassium, is repeatedly fed a fertilizer with fixed amounts of the primary chemicals, the soil will accumulate excessive amounts of phosphorous and potassium, which in some cases can actually lead to stunted plant growth. Additionally, as elements of fertilizer accumulate in the soil, they are more likely to enter ground or drainage water. Excessive leaching of chemical fertilizer into the soil can result in health problems for human consumers as well as environmental problems such as eutroficaton of river water and red tides in coastal areas.
In response to the challenges facing the nation, the late Dear Leader was quick to offer his input. Thankfully, the recommendations of his father had managed to develop over the years. Kim Jong-il’s enthusiasm for potatoes and soybeans instead of rice was an impressive rejection of traditional food sources for crops that were more suited to the North Korean environment. Soybeans in particular have proven to be a vital source of protein for North Korean citizens. Additionally, and perhaps most shrewd of all, soybeans are nitrogen-fixing plants. That is, in the absence of sufficient chemical fertilizer, soybeans help boost the nitrogen levels in the soil (up to 40lbs/acre). While soybeans alone may only be able to produce 25% of the nitrogen required for a healthy acre of corn, the substitute is well received.
In July of 2000 the WPK Central Committee and WPK Central Military Commission jointly published new slogans related to agriculture: “Let us increase seed innovation, increase the area for double cropping, and make more fertilizer to significantly increase grain production.” Again, the primary focus was on quantity, rather than sustainability. While seed innovation and double cropping have helped the agricultural sector offset some of the more damaging decisions along the way, the soil is already strained and the central government is hard pressed to deliver either sustainable techniques or the necessary inputs.
The shortsighted agricultural policies of North Korea are the panicked byproduct of circumstance, but nevertheless create a number of challenges that have led to diminishing returns of crop yields, threatened public health and put additional pressure on the local environment. Further international assistance and closer cooperation between North Korean farmers and agricultural experts would help mitigate the human costs associated with the self-perpetuating hand-to-mouth modus operandi that has plagued the North for far too long.
Photo by yeowatzup
Kim Woon-Keun, “The Agricultural Situation of North Korea,” Korean Rural Economic Institute (1998): 1.
Kisan Gunjal, Tom Morrison, Micaheal Sheinkman, Samir Wanmali, Cheng Fang, Marina Kalisky and Andrea Berardo. Mission Highlights in “Special Report: FAO/ WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” (2011): 4
Meredith Woo-Cummings, “The Political Ecology of Famine: North Korean Catastrophe and Its Lessons.” Asian Development Research Papers 31 (2002): 28
Yonhap News Agency, North Korea Handbook (Seoul: East Gate Books, 2003): 254.
 K. Dougherty, I. Mendelssohn and F. Monteferrante. “Effect of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium Additions on Plant Biomass and Soil Nutrient Content of a Swale Barrier Strand Community in Louisiana,” Annals of Botany 66:3 (1990): 265-271
Yonhap News Agency, North Korea Handbook (Seoul: East Gate Books, 2003): 273.
Randall Ireson’s “Developing the DPRK Through Agriculture” gives an excellent set of technical recommendations on agricultural policies that could help improve the situation at hand.