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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

S.W. Nam: Food Shortages in North Korea

The agricultural sector in North Korea has never been able to supply enough food to satisfy the domestic market. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kim Il-sung set a goal of producing 10 million tons of grain a year, but it is unlikely that more than 8 million tons were produced. Grain production fell to 4 to 5 million tons in the 1990s, and after severe floods destroyed much of the crops and land in 1995, production fell to 2 to 3 million tons. North Korea will suffer from a lack of food for the foreseeable future unless urgent countermeasures are taken. Famine across the country has been widespread. According to a joint report by the FAO and WFP, insufficient domestic production combined with the inadequate diet of much of the population meant that some 6.5 million vulnerable North Koreans would require assistance in 2004.

To deal with this chronic food shortage, it is recommended that in addition to providing urgently needed food aid, the international community entered into dialogue with the North Korean government to set up a framework for economic, financial and other assistance needed to promote sustainable food production. There is a limit to what other countries can do to meet domestic requirements, so North Korea needs to improve its production system. “Donor fatigue” has been a problem since 1999, as the food shortages have continued.

Solving the food problem has always been high on the government's agenda. The cool climate and hilly terrain of North Korea are not well suited to growing rice, which is the food staple throughout the Korean Peninsula. North Korea has made desperate efforts to increase production. Land reform was undertaken immediately after the Korean War, followed by collectivization in the 1950s. Collective farming has been a major contributor North Korea's agricultural difficulties, as in other socialist countries. Furthermore, North Korea’s productivity of rice per hectare is 2.5 tons, the lowest in the world.  

It is necessary to increase both cultivated acreage and yields to achieve faster growth of grain production. Average grain yields are far below those in the developed countries because of insufficient fertilizer, machinery and seeds and inappropriate agricultural policies.

The total area of North Korea is 12,054,000 hectares, with 75 percent hilly and mountainous. Available land for agriculture is just 17 percent. The arable land per person in 2000 was 0.085 hectare, much smaller than in any other socialist country. North Korea’s frantic efforts are not likely to increase arable land substantially,  because the cultivated area is already close to the total arable land. Also, economic difficulties prevent the regime from implementing the new projects. This suggests that most gains in production must come from increased yields.

Chemical fertilizers receive much government attention. North Korea produced 300,000 tons in 1970, 460,000 tons in 1975 and 850,000 tons in 1990. The increased use of chemical fertilizers has been one of the main reasons for the steady rise in yields. Vice director Choe Hyun-Su of the Agricultural Commission disclosed in 1997 that “we have spent 600,000 tons of nitrogenous fertilizers this year; 300 to 400 kg per hectare in granary farmland of North and South Hwanghae provinces, and 200 to 250 kg per hectare in fields of the mountainous areas. This is a radical decrease in comparison to figures in 1980s in which about 600-800 kg of chemical fertilizers were spread per hectare.”

North Korea began enforcing mechanization in agriculture in 1960. The number of tractors increased from 9,000 in 1960 to 75,000 in 1997. The number of tractors per 1,000 hectare rapidly increased from 11 in 1970 to 37 in 1997. However, many tractors are engaged in road transport while animals plow the fields. This indicates that transportation is a more serious bottleneck than the mechanization of production. The percentage of machinery in operation has sharply declined since 1994 due to the shortage of spare parts and accessories, petroleum and gas. Farm machinery has become obsolete due to the lack of fuel and attachments.         

The potential for a “green revolution” is great. Short-stock, disease-resistant, high-yielding seed varieties have been developed to raise yields. In fact, the country has climatic limitations on the production of rice; these include short frost-free periods and extremely cold weather. Thus, they have invented specific seeds pertinent to climate and altitude since 1960s. One method is to use cold-bed seeding, a process that enables farmers to begin rice growing before the regular season by planting seedlings in protected dry beds.

North Korea’s system disseminates modern techniques from the top down rather than the other way around. The system is modeled after the Soviet Union. North Korean agricultural management, based on the “principle of growing proper crops in proper soil and at a proper time,” is focused on “juche agriculture (self-reliance).” The juche method of farming is defined as a scientific farming designed to best suit the biological characteristic of North Korean climate under its collective farming system.

In 1952, the Agricultural Science Institute was established. The Science Academy carries out joint research with other fields such as science and technology. Research projects were initiated and the research system was strengthened, but some parts have not been verified by experiments and do not totally reflect feedback from production. Furthermore, North Korean laboratories are poorly equipped, and there is lack of communication with other developed countries whose research should be helpful.

The loss of ownership following the 1946 land reform and 1958 collectivization weakened traditional family-based motivations to work hard, since the income of an individual no longer depended on the individual’s work but on the performance of a group. The collective farming system could not provide strong motivation to work hard, since the farms guaranteed only a minimum level of living. Therefore, the farmers are interested in raising the yields from their small private farmland (1,150 square feet) formally allowed by the government. These private lots supplement the insufficient production of collective farm.

The government has tried to provide incentives to individuals to enhance their productivity through organizing smaller work squads. But the system has not paid off because of excessive output assignments and few incentives given to the squads. To make the work squad system more effective, in 1996 North Korea began to reduce the numbers of people on a squad, realign their assignments, and allow them to keep or dispose of excess production, according to an article in Choson Sinbo, the organ of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, on October 24 of that year.

But these are temporary measures, and their results were not noticeable because the patch-up compromises retain the limitations of the collective farming system. North Korea also recognizes the weakness of the collective farm policy. There is concern that the growing and spontaneous “privatization” movement will pressure the regime to make reforms, irrespective of its will. It is clear that the short cut to normalization of North Korea's agriculture is to reform the collective farms and promote family farming.

North Korea’s collective farms

In 1954, Kim Il-Sung declared, "Collectivization would serve to improve agricultural productivity remarkably and ultimately enhance people's living standards." Assuming that private land ownership would lead to a widening gap between rich and poor farmers, nurture capitalist thought, and thus retard the proletariat people's democratic revolution, North Korea resolutely pursued collectivization of the farming lands in an effort to benefit from the scale of agricultural economy. When the collectivization was completed in 1960, North Korea's entire farmland was divided into 3,736 collective farms amounting to 1,789,000 jongbo (about 17 billion square meters). Two decades later, farmland  decreased by about 20 percent. As of the end of 2000, there were about 3,000 collective farms in North Korea.

The average number of households per farm is 297.4, while the average area of farms is 466.7 jongbo (151,444 sq. yards). Thus, the average area per household is 1.6 jongbo. As of 1998, 6 million people belonged to collective farms, and each collective farm had 350 to 400 households on average. The family members supported by one collective farm were 1,900 to 2,000 people, while the average number of workers per farm was 700 to 900 people. In total, the collective farms accounted for 90.5 percent of North Korea's agricultural production.

The management of collective farms is based on the joint ownership of farmland and production tools. The management covers mainly agricultural production, auxiliary food distribution and other positions of social activity. The main sector of the collective farm is agricultural production. Under national sponsorship, the management committees operate the collective farms using common reserve funds and socio-cultural funds. Collective farms provide people with the necessary requirements for agricultural production such as fertilizer, pesticide and tractors, and the farms are engaged in centrally planned economic activities. As a consequence, farmers cannot decide independently on their agricultural production plans.

Every July, the Labor Party and Council of State design the agricultural production plan for the next year and pass it down to provinces, cities and counties, who in turn pass it down to the collective farms established for each village. Then, each collective farm convenes workers' team meetings, where farmers swear to achieve the goals set in the plan, and set out on a campaign. Such a campaign is called an Output Increase Plan. The goal of agricultural production usually exceeds the real average production at each collective farm.

Due to the acute shortage of food caused by socialist economic problems, the quantities of food planned by the Labor Party and National Planning Committee for national distribution always far exceed the quantities actually produced. Such a large targets frustrate the farmers' will to increase their production, while weakening the advantages of collective farming, or joint production and joint distribution. Nevertheless, the authorities encourage the farmers to make greater efforts.  

Kim Il-sung emphasized that labor be organized in a reasonable way, that every measure be explored to enhance labor productivity, and that workers be rewarded on the basis of their labor quality and quantity. However, the high target that exceeds production capacity of each collective farm impedes the operation of the scientific distribution system.

Agricultural cooperation between North and South Korea

There are constraints against agricultural cooperation between North and South Korea, even though North Korea would benefit from contact with South Korea. Agriculture is not the sector in which the regime strongly wants to cooperate with the South Korean government for their mutual advantage in the area of manpower and technology. However, the regime has taken pride in its farming technology, juche farming and the production system of collective farm. The only concern of Pyongyang is to maximize the quantity of grain, fertilizer, machinery and seeds from Seoul every year.

The regime puts no special emphasis on agriculture, since it does not produce as lucrative results as information technology, tourism and industry. Agricultural cooperation requires a lot of time, since so many South Korean experts have to frequently visit the rice fields and collective farms during the planting and harvest season for the cooperation project.

North Korean authorities do not want to risk opening up the country. If cooperation hinders the maintenance of a closed socialist system, the regime definitely rejects it even though it provides a lot of benefit to the nation. South Korea also has limits on continuing the less productive and very costly North Korean project. Thus, the annual support of rice is meaningful just on the humanitarian level, not for the recovery of grain production productivity.

The final goal of cooperation is to increase the productivity of the collective farm. The ideal agricultural cooperation is based on a win-win strategy for mutual benefit. South and North Korean governments must plan ”an agricultural policy for unification” which considers the whole Korean Peninsula. In the long run, a unified Korea has to produce all the foodstuffs that can feed the 47 million Koreans without imports.

Contract farming would be a joint venture with the land and labor of North and the technology and capital of South. The products of the project would be evenly distributed between the North and South according to the ratio of inputs. South Korea annually imports lots of grains such as wheat, bean, sesame, maize and red beans from China and the U.S.A. Seoul can meet its needs by using contract farming to substitute for imported grains. Regarding the methods and style of farming in North Korea, it is better for the South Korean partner not to become directly involved in the decision making process of North, as long they receive the quantity specified in the contract. Detailed intervention and too active participation of South Korean partners in the actual farming leads to trouble and disputes with their counterpart from the North, since there are serious differences in farming and economic system between North and South. What does matter is obtaining the agreed quantity in the contract.

Second, it is important for South Korea to make joint projects with international organizations such as the WFP and International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD); this will help stabilize the project. North Korea has a tendency to accept an opinion and requirement of those organization, rather than South Korea. Also, Pyongyang makes an effort to carry out agreements with those organizations, while there have been frequent breaches of official promises to South Korea for political reasons to avoid opening their system.

Joint projects with international organizations help the South Korean government experience the real practice of farming and the agricultural policy in North. The regime introduced for the first time IFAD's loan in the amount of $31 million for farmers in 1997. Some of the funds would also be distributed to farmers who raise livestock through collective farms. The farmers would repay the fund by benefits that they earn through breeding the livestock under their responsibility, not collective farms.

Third, it is desirable for the South to give agricultural inputs such fertilizer, machinery and seeds  to the North. North Korea produced 300,000 tons of chemical fertilizers in 1947 by using the raw materials and hydraulic power in the Hungnam fertilizer factory constructed in the Japanese colonial era. It is estimated that North Korea has a production capacity of 3,510,000 tons. The recent economic difficulty led to a production decline. Pyongyang always requests fertilizer from Seoul during ministerial-level meetings. It is not bad for South Korea to accept these requests to upgrade agricultural production. South Korean fertilizer companies have difficulty selling their huge production because of the spread of organic farming. North Korea could not produce the necessary pesticide and had to import it from Japan.

Fourth, it is meaningful that South Korea takes part in the production of potatoes. North Korea stresses the potato as the second most important food plant, with maize ranked third. They have suffered from the potato virus that frequently developed in the seeds. The South can support the North with virus-free seeds and technology.

North Korea has showed much attention in the silkworm industry since Kim Jong-il spoke about the development of the sericulture industry during a visit to Jagang Province in 1999. South Korea should cooperate in sericulture, since the country annually imports a lot from China. It can be profitable to match high-technology and good quality seeds from the South with good manpower and the longtime basis of the silk industry of the North.

It is important for North Korea to cooperate with South Korea in the mid and long run. Such cooperation will be helpful to both countries because the agriculture of Pyongyang and Seoul both contribute value. For example, North Korea specializes in growing maize and feed grain while South Korea mainly produces rice. The countries will benefit from agricultural trade and exchange of research and extension.   


On July 1, 2002, North Korea partially introduced a market economy mechanism named “7.1 Economic Management Reform.” Since then, radical changes have taken place in North Korea's economic system, even though it is still far from the style of the Chinese reform in 1978. The core of North Korea's economic reform introduces an incentive system, strengthens responsible management, and implements a family-owned farming system. In addition, the reforms include increasing wages and consumer prices, partially eliminating the national rationing system, raising foreign exchange reserves, and establishing a commercial bank. It is an uncommon practice to raise wages and prices of goods in socialist countries, because the government has the full responsibility for providing the basic necessities for the people. Pyongyang's recent changes suggest that the government acknowledges the insufficient supply of goods. North Korea is trying to resolve the insufficiency by increasing production of incentives and family-owned farmland.

The change in agriculture is very significant in the road to economic reform. Agricultural production is the underpinning of the fortunes of the national economy as a whole and improvements in popular living standards. Success in reforming agriculture is also essential for success in reforms as a whole. This was evident in the agrarian politics in the post-Mao era of China.  North Korea has begun a trial program in a northern province which allots land to individual farmers to cultivate independently. The program enlarged the arable land size of family farming to increase agricultural production. This is the first time that land has been leased to individuals since the government introduced collective farming in 1953.

The measure may lead to a complete reform of the farming system or even to private ownership of land. Another important step is to raise the price of grains to encourage the farmer to work hard. Thus, they have a reason to work hard even in the collective farm. This seems comparable to the China's contract farming, which boosted production drastically after its introduction in 1978. I have no doubt that North Korea's decision to expand family-owned farms is similar to plans China put into place in 1978. Grain production in China increased 23.8 percent during the period between 1979 and 1984. The surge of agricultural production stimulated light industrial production. It is interesting to analyze how similar the economic reform of North Korea is to the early reform of China, since it can forecast the future of North Korean agriculture.

The collective farm system is a legacy of the past, and because of its ineffectiveness no country in the world retains it except for DPRK. Since agricultural reform is largely opposed to the foundation of the socialist system, the change will be dependent on Kim Jong-il’s political decision. However, since the impoverished North Korean collective farm system needs external assistance more than three months each year, it is obvious that the system needs to be reformed; the leader should take responsibility to resolve the food problem. The North Korean leader ought not to avoid the sighs of the farmers facing food shortage until they can produce potatoes next year.

In conclusion, the escape from hunger and shortage of grains will depend on the success of the reform of collective farms. It is important that the regime accept the 1978 agricultural reforms of China that gave up the traditional collective farms. The reform in rural areas will be not only a great success for agriculture but also an essential precondition for economic reform in general. Individual motivation, which was suppressed in the collective system, will be stimulated to increase agricultural and rural sideline production. But Kim Jong-il may be ironically afraid that the positive phenomenon will be unhelpful to him keeping his post in the long term.   

[Source: Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace Assembly 2004, July 2004, Seoul, Korea]

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