Agriculture: accounts for about 22.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in North Korea, compared to 47.6 percent for industry and 29.9 percent for services. About 37 percent of the labor force in agriculture and 63 percent is in industry. North Korea needs about 5 million tons of grain and potatoes to feed its people. Between the early 1990s and the early 2010s, its annual harvest was 3.5-4.7 million tons. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Agriculture has long been the traditional source of employment and income but, under state control, secondary to industry in emphasis. The agricultural sector was collectivized by 1958. An estimated 30 percent of the land was in agricultural use in 2002, and agriculture produces approximately 30 percent of gross domestic product. Most agricultural land is on plains in the south and west and was subject to flooding in 1995 and 1996 and to drought in 1997 and 2000. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

On one-hand North Korea has an input-intensive style of agriculture, which relies on tractors, electrically-operated irrigation and petroleum-based fertilizers. In Soviet era, North Korea received heaps of fertilize at cheap prices from the USSR. On the other hand much of the work in the fields is still done by hand. In many places, instead of tractors and harvesting machines, many farmers use scythes and animals lashed to plows. Fuel shortages keep them from using the machines they have. [Source: Yannis Kontos, National Geographic, June 2008]

Agriculture Production in North Korea

Agricultural production has traditionally been centered around state-controlled, collectivized farms. North Korean has a temperate climate but drought in late spring is often followed by floods associated with the summer rainy season and typhoons. Despite the use of improved seed varieties, expansion of irrigation, the heavy use of fertilizers and a great emphasis put on agriculture, North Korea has been unable to become self-sufficient in food production. Bad weather, floods, droughts, poor harvests, combined with transportation, corruption, distribution and storage issues, have produced chronic food shortages. . [Source: Cities of the World , The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “About 16 million of North Korea's 25 million people rely on state-provided rations of cereals. Reflecting the lack of variety in the fields, the average North Korean diet is alarmingly low on fats, proteins, vegetables and fruits. Stunting from chronic malnutrition is estimated to be as high as 40 percent in some areas. But according to U.N. monitors,North Koreans have been getting larger rations of rice, potatoes and corn over the past two years. The production gap in the FAO-WFP report, meanwhile, is the smallest North Korea has seen in about two decades. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, July 15, 2014]

South Korea’s Unification Ministry has said that 4.8 million tons of food was produced in 2015 in North Korea, with a yearly demand for food measured at 5.5 million tons. Radio Fee Asia reported: “Though rationing targets can still be met, North Korea’s food distribution has essentially collapsed, with North Korean residents trading locally for what they need, RFA’s sources said. No significant changes in food prices were observed were observed this year in local markets, the sources added. [Source: Radio Free Asia, October 11, 2016]

Food production in North Korea rose from 2010 to 2014 but there was a severe drought in 2015. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that country’s total food production –– including cereals, soybeans and potatoes –– declined in 2015 to about 5.4 million tons, down 9 percent from to 5.9 million in 2014. Production of paddy rice, the country’s main staple, fell by 26 percent to 1.9 million tons, FAO said, mainly due to poor rains and low availability of water for irrigation. “We lost 500 kilograms of production per hectare,” or about 440 pounds per acre, a North Korean official told the Los Angeles Times. The FAO estimated North Korea would need to import 694,000 tons of grains in 2016 to cover the shortfall. the government was expected to import 300,000 tons, leaving an expected deficit of 394,000 tons, the biggest gap in four years. When asked how the harvest declines affected her, a North Korean guide told the Los Angeles Times that rice rations were reduced because of the drought. “We got more maize instead,” she said. [Source: Julie Makinen Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2016]

Agricultural Land in North Korea

Land use: agricultural land: 21.8 percent, divided into arable land (19.5 percent), permanent crops (1.9 percent) and permanent pasture (0.4 percent); forest: 46 percent; other: 32. 2 percent (2011 estimate). Irrigated land: 14,600 square kilometers (2012). Arable land is land cultivated for crops like wheat, maize, and rice that are replanted after each harvest. Permanent crops refers to land cultivated for crops like citrus and nuts that are not replanted after each harvest, and includes land under flowering shrubs, fruit trees, nut trees, and vines. According to U.S. Government estimates, only 22.4 percent of the land was arable, and only 1.6 percent was in permanent crops in the mid 2000s. Based on 2002 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates, 20.7 percent of the land, or 25,000 square kilometers, is arable. Of this arable land, about 8 percent is in permanent crops. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Library of Congress, July 2007]

North Korea has a cold harsh climate and a short growing system. The soil is also exhausted from overuse and both a lack of fertilizer and using too much fertilizer in the past. North Korea has traditionally had high rice yields because so much labor is devoted to rice farming. The West Sea Barrage, an eight-kilometer-long sea wall that helps to irrigate the west coast.

Climate, terrain, and soil conditions are not particularly favorable for farming. About 80 percent of North Korea’s land is mountainous. Only about 2.5 million hectares. Farming is concentrated in the flatlands of the four west coast provinces, where a longer growing season, level land, adequate rainfall, and good, irrigated soil permit the most intensive cultivation of crops. A narrow strip of similarly fertile land runs through the eastern seaboard Hamgyong provinces and Kangwn Province, but the interior provinces of Chagang and Yanggang are too mountainous, cold, and dry to allow much farming. The mountains, however, contain the bulk of North Korea's forest reserves while the foothills within and between the major agricultural regions provide lands for livestock grazing and fruit tree cultivation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The weather varies markedly according to elevation, and lack of precipitation, along with infertile soil, makes land at elevations higher than 400 meters unsuitable for purposes other than grazing. Precipitation is geographically and seasonally irregular, and in most parts of the country as much as half the annual rainfall occurs in the three summer months. This pattern favors the cultivation of paddy rice in warmer regions that are outfitted with irrigation and flood control networks. Where these conditions are lacking, however, farmers have to substitute other grains for the traditional favorite. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “Because of the mountainous and rocky terrain, less than 20 percent of Korean land is arable. Rice is the chief crop, with wet paddy fields constituting about half of the farmland. Paddies are found along the coasts, in reclaimed tidal areas, and in river valleys.Before the country was divided (1945), the colder and less fertile north depended heavily upon the south for food. Agricultural self-sufficiency became a major goal of the North Korean government, and mechanized methods were introduced there in and in the South. Both governments expanded irrigation facilities, constructed numerous dams, and initiated land reclamation projects; however, the North has suffered severe food shortages. Livestock previously played a minor role in Korean agriculture, especially in the North, where the steep and often barren hills are unsuitable for large-scale grazing, but since the end of the Korean War beef has become a significant component of the diet in the South. [Source: “Columbia Encyclopedia”, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Challenges and Failures of North Korean Agriculture

Jean H. Lee of Associated Press wrote: “North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who based his nation’s policy on the concept of “juche,” or self reliance, had made it his creed to ensure the people would eat “rice and meat soup.” But the loss of Soviet aid, followed by natural disasters and a famine that killed up to 1 million people, forced North Korea to stretch out its hand for help in the mid-1990s. [Source: Jean H. Lee, Associated Press, July 26, 2011]

“However, his nation has never had it easy when it comes to agriculture. Rugged mountains blanket much of North Korea, leaving less than a fifth of the land suitable for farming. Winters are long and harsh, weather conditions volatile. For decades, North Koreans have planted just one crop, such as the Napa cabbage used to make the ubiquitous spicy side dish called “kimchi.” They have also pumped pesticides into land that was already acidic, destroying the soil and cutting into the yield, foreign agronomists say. Across the countryside, huge swaths of forest have been cut down, leaving no protective cover. Every bit of land is tilled and farmed, even the scrabbly, rocky hillsides and the narrow strips of grass along the highway. With fuel scarce, most farmers rely on oxen. But foot-and-mouth disease has decimated cattle stocks over the past year, according to the WFP.

“North Korea, population 24 million with an annual per capita income of US$1,800, has the manpower but lacks the economic and natural resources to succeed at farming, said Kim Young-hoon from the Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul, South Korea. He said the North Koreans continue to pursue new ways to stimulate the agricultural sector but cannot fund their ambitious projects.

North Korean Agriculture and Foot Shortages in the Early 2010s

In 2011,Jean H. Lee of Associated Press wrote: “North Korea’s food shortage has reached a crisis point this year, aid workers say, largely because of shocks to the agricultural sector, including torrential rains and the coldest winter in 60 years. Six million North Koreans are living “on a knife edge” and will go hungry without immediate food aid, the World Food Program said. North Korean officials have made quiet pleas for help, citing rising global food prices, shortfalls in fertilizer and the winter freeze that killed their wheat harvest. In return, they agreed to strict monitoring conditions — a rare concession. Donations, however, have not been flooding the nation considered a political pariah for its nuclear defiance and alleged human-rights abuses. [Source: Jean H. Lee, Associated Press, July 26, 2011]

“Skeptics suspect officials are stockpiling food for gift baskets to be distributed during next year’s celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the late President Kim Il Sung’s birth. Others wonder whether the distribution of food can be monitored closely enough to ensure it gets to the hungry, not the military and power brokers in Pyongyang.As the political debate continues, aid workers say shelves are bare and stomachs empty outside Pyongyang. And the question of how to feed the North Korean people remains unanswered.

“In Pyongyang, food appears plentiful, with sidewalk vendors doing brisk business selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts, ice-cream bars and griddle-fried pancakes. Those with cash can splurge on hamburgers and pizza. But aid workers say the food shortage is very real in the poor provinces far from the comparatively prosperous capital city. “It’s now very common to see people with little wicker baskets or plastic bags collecting whatever is edible” — even roots, grasses and herbs, said Katharina Zellweger, the longtime Pyongyang-based North Korea country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. A whole generation of children is not getting the well-rounded diets needed to develop mentally and physically, she said. UNICEF estimates one-third of North Korean children suffer malnutrition and are showing signs of stunted growth. “In the residential child care centers, I did see more severely malnourished children than I’ve seen in a long time,” Zellweger said.

“For a decade, rival South Korea helped fill the gap, both with aid and trade. But President Lee Myung-bak stopped nearly all cooperation with the North last year after a torpedo attack on a warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors. As a result, North Korean exports to South Korea dropped from an average US$40 million a month during the first half of 2010 to an average US$1 million a month so far in 2011, according to the Korea Development Institute in Seoul. The steep loss of income comes at a time of rising global food prices.

“With rations dwindling, many North Koreans buy their own food through entrepreneurial means or barter, said Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of San Diego who studies the North Korean economy. Others grow what they can in communal gardens. The worst off are those living in the smaller cities in North Korea’s impoverished, remote northeast, who do not have the means or connections to supplement their diminishing rations, experts say.

“Even as the hunger worsens, the state appears determined to rally national pride at home. A performance at Kim Il Sung plaza attended by leader Kim and son Kim Jong Un last October depicted dancing ostriches and fish leaping out of a rollicking sea — homegrown resources the North Koreans hope will augment the country’s food supply.”

Crops in North Korea

The main agricultural products of North Korea are rice, corn, potatoes, wheat, soybeans, pulses, beef, pork, eggs, fruit and nuts. Barley, wheat, corn, soybeans, and grain sorghums are extensively cultivated, especially in the uplands; other crops include potatoes, pulses, cotton, tobacco, vegetables, fruits, and sweet potatoes. Cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised.

The principal crops, according to the size of the yield in 2002, are rice, potatoes, corn, cabbages, apples, soybeans, pulses, and sweet potatoes. Other vegetables, fruits, and berries also make up important parts of the annual crop. North Korea has always been faced with food shortages, but since the mid-1990s they have become more severe. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

The total cropland of about 2.2 million hectares is overwhelmingly planted with grains, of which rice accounted for 30.1 percent in 1989-90. Official data on cropland distribution and agricultural production are scanty, and there are discrepancies in the methods of calculating the weight of rice (husked or unhusked). North Korea claims to have produced 10 million tons of grains in 1984. The grain output in 1989 was estimated at 12.04 million tons by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. In 1989 the output of the two most important crops, rice and corn, was estimated at 6.4 million tons and 3 million tons, respectively. The output of potatoes was 2.05 million tons in 1989. Other important crops are wheat, barley, millet, sorghum, oats, and rye. Corn grows in most areas, except for parts of Yanggang and North Hamgyong provinces. Barley and wheat are cultivated mostly in both Hwanghae provinces and in South Pyongan Province. Rice is exported, but other grains, such as wheat, are imported. Pyongyang's goal is to increase the grain output to 15 million tons by 1993. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Major rice production centers are located in the provinces of North and South Hwanghae and in the provinces of North and South Pyongan. North Korea's climate precludes double-cropping of rice in most areas, and different methods had to be devised to increase productivity. 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.*

Fruits, vegetables, and livestock also are important, particularly around cities and in upland areas unsuited to grain cultivation. Fruit orchards are concentrated in both Hamgyong provinces, South Pyongan Province, and South Hwanghae Province. Soybeans, whose output was around 450,000 tons toward the end of the 1980s, are raised in many parts of the country, but primarily in South Pyongan Province.*

Farming in North Korea

Many farms still use primitive anchor-shape iron plows pulled by cows or oxen. To plant rice sometimes farmers use a strange contraption that looks like a cross between a bicycle and a harvester. Otherwise much of the work is done by hand. Vans and loudspeakers in the fields blast martial music to encourage farmer laborers to work harder . During the planting season and the harvest, urban dwellers, soldiers and school children are bused to agricultural areas to lend a hand. On small farms there are piles of mulch with signs naming the work groups that collected it. Some farms lie fallow because they have no fertilizer. A big problem in the past has been hungry people digging up seeds and seed potatoes and eating them and not allowing the seeds to sprout into crops.

Describing a farming area in northwest North Korea, Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “Down a bumpy dirt road farmers are working the fields by hand, or behind bony oxen. For more than four decades, farming in the North was characterized by heavy use of mechanization and technological innovations, swiftly followed by chronic fuel and equipment shortages and long-term damage caused by stopgap policies. That legacy has left its mark not only on the North Korean psyche, but on its countryside. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, July 15, 2014]

“Hillsides denuded of trees for terraced farming plots are common. These plots produce relatively little but increase the risk of damage from erosion or landslides. Cows are few, but goats are everywhere, a reminder of the famine years and Kim Jong Il's mass goat-breeding campaign of 1996. Goats, known as the poor man's cow, were bred because they are easier to care for. But they also can eat their way into hillside shrubs, which makes the landslide problem even worse. Soil fertility in many areas was trashed by decades of overuse of chemical fertilizers, up to the late 1980s. Yields still suffer.

“North Korea has struggled to obtain tractor fuel for more than two decades, and because the country is largely urbanized, there is not much of a rural labor force to pick up the slack. That's why it is common to see housewives, college students and workers brought in from the cities, along with military units, to make up for the lack of mechanization at crucial times. There are many less tangible problems: state-controlled distribution, top-down planning and a quota system that doesn't fully encourage innovation and individual effort. All these factors make North Korea's agricultural sector a very fragile ecosystem. Almost as soon as this season's rice was transplanted, the North's Korean Central News Agency reported that tens of thousands of hectares of farmland had already been damaged by drought. It quoted Sok Ji Dong, a deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture, as saying troops had been mobilized to mitigate the disaster.

“Even so, North Korea is by no means an agricultural lost cause. As the summer growing months approach, the North Korean countryside is bursting with the bright greens of young rice, corn, soybeans and cabbage. On hillier ground lie orchards for apples and pears. Whole villages are devoted to growing mushrooms — another "magic bullet" innovation from the 1990s. It seems every valley and flatland, each nook and cranny, has been turned into a plot for some sort of crop. Farmers who are old enough can even remember when the country is believed to have produced enough food to feed itself, in the mid- to late 1980s — though that required importing great amounts of fertilizer and fuel.

Farmers in North Korea

Some agricultural reforms in the early 2010s have provided to incentives for farmers to produce more. On paper at least, farmers are now supposed to be able to keep 30 percent of the rice they grow, while giving 70 percent to the state, and can keep 10 percent of the vegetables they grow as well, in addition to what’s planted in personal gardens around their homes. See Reforms under HISTORY OF AGRICULTURE IN NORTH KOREA [Source: Julie Makinen Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2016]

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “Policy revisions under Kim Jong Un have since 2012 given farmers more incentive to produce above the state quota and to take more of a personal stake in field outcomes. Though details are scant, farmers can sell excess produce for a profit and smaller, essentially family-sized, work units have been established to make the rewards more direct. Outside experts generally agree the changes are a step in the right direction — China and Vietnam had success with similar agricultural reforms. But they also quickly warn it remains unclear how widely and fully implemented the revisions have been. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, February 20, 2017]

Randall Ireson, a private consultant and former nongovernmental program director in the North, told Associated Press: “It’s always hard to know what the ag situation really is. There’s a tendency to concentrate on technical aspects of farming (in the North), but the farmers are pretty clever and know how to do things. The main constraint is limited resources and, at least until recently, little personal incentive to produce beyond the quota.”

Human Manure and Winter Farming in North Korea

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: “This winter, North Koreans have been told to achieve food self-sufficiency by their own efforts. As part of a government-ordered mass mobilization, they are making toibee, a fertilizer in which ash is mixed with their own excrement. Frozen human waste is being chipped out of public toilets in cities and towns across the country. Every factory, public enterprise and neighborhood unit has been ordered to produce two tons of toibee, according to Good Friends, a Buddhist charity with informants in North Korea. In the spring, it will be dried in the open air before being transported to state farms. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, March 6, 2009]

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “Plug your noses and ready your “Juche fertilizer.” It’s time to prep the frozen fields in North Korea. North Korea relies on its farmers to squeeze absolutely all they can out of every harvest. It’s a tall order in a country with 25 million mouths to feed that is mostly mountains, hamstrung by international trade sanctions and, beyond a handful of showcase cooperatives, hard-pressed to modernize its agricultural sector. Without doubt, life as a farmer in North Korea is harsh. But there are some signs of change in how North Korea is treating its fields and its farmers. In typically propagandist fashion, the North’s state media are already reporting that workers inspired by leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address are heroically churning out “117 percent” of their production quotas of what they call “Juche fertilizer.” A grain of salt is certainly in order. What exactly the patriotic-sounding Juche fertilizer is isn’t all that clear, though it’s likely a mix of largely organic components augmented with some chemicals.Because of the general lack of livestock, human feces are a key ingredient. Juche refers to the North’s longstanding but mostly aspirational policy of self-reliance. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, February 20, 2017]

The battle in the fields, however, has certainly begun. With the ground still frozen as the North waits out its notoriously cold winters, farmers, joined by workers and students mobilized from the cities, are in the process of transporting truckloads of pungent fertilizer to fields across the country for the planting season ahead. Kim Song Ryong, head technician at the Migok Cooperative Farm in Sariwon, south of Pyongyang, said it takes about 20 to 25 days to distribute the compost. In March, it will be spread over the fields in an even layer and then ploughed in below the surface. “Our respected supreme leader comrade Kim Jong Un instructed us that agriculture is the main approach to building a strong economy and country,” he said in an interview with AP Television News. “To get the best harvest with scientific farming, all our farmers and workers are out in the fields to improve the quality of the soil.”

Fertilizer Issues in North Korea

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “In the past, the country’s over-reliance on scientific magic bullets has had tragic results. Overuse of chemical fertilizers that began in the 1950s devastated the natural microbiotic soil environment and fueled a cycle in which its fields grew increasingly dependent on ever-more-artificial fertilization. In the 1990s, the fall of the Soviet Union and Pyongyang’s other communist benefactors disrupted the supply of that fertilizer — which, coupled with other factors, led to widespread famine. But Pyongyang appears to have learned some lessons since. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, February 20, 2017]

According to Randall Ireson, a private consultant and former nongovernmental program director in the North, farmers have shifted their emphasis since about 2000 to adding compost and organic fertilizers to rebuild the organic content in the soil and revivify microorganisms.“What I’ve seen and heard of is the use of effective rapid aerobic composting of plant residue and, where available, animal and human manure, with the composted material further augmented with some chemical fertilizer,” he said. “The addition of chemical fertilizer to the mix makes it “non-organic” by a strict definition, but the other aspects are generally sound and sustainable, if managed correctly.”

Ireson noted that the depressed economy, lack of foreign exchange and weak industrial sector combine to make the acquisition of foreign chemical fertilizer difficult. But he said the push in the North for composting, while poorly designed at first, has gradually improved so that farms have started to produce fertilizer using local, low-energy methods. Buying more would be the easy, if not environmentally or economically sustainable, way to boost farm production,” Ireson said. “Lacking that resource, the push has been to find local resources, which I think is quite appropriate.”

State Farms and Cooperatives in the 2010s

Jean H. Lee of Associated Press wrote: “ An estimated one-third of North Korea’s people live on some 3,000 farming cooperatives. The countryside is dotted with clusters of cottages that are complete little villages, with kindergartens, clinics and fluttering banners urging farmers to help build the economy. [Source: Jean H. Lee, Associated Press, July 26, 2011]

At one ambitiously large cooperative in the outskirts of Pyongyang, the Taedonggang fruit farm, cottages with bright-blue roofs house some 500 families, each home equipped with a TV set at Kim Jong Il’s orders, according to Kim miles Hye, a 20-year-old employee at the farm. Fledgling apple trees stretch as far as the eye can see — up to 12 miles (20 kilometers), according to state media.

“After farmers planted nearly 380,000 apple trees in 2009, the 1,500-acre (600-hectare) cooperative has since begun raising pigs and cultivating bees for honey, farmworker Kim said. The farm is aiming for a harvest of 30,000 tons of fruit next year, she said. Still, the state’s farming cooperatives don’t yield enough food to fulfill the late president’s promise of rice and meat soup on every table.

Model Farm Outside Pyongyang in 2016

On a visit to a model farm — a 1,200-worker-strong vegetable commune with modern homes equipped with solar power panels and solar water heaters. — outside Pyongyang, Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It looked like a farm: Cabbages were growing in neat rows in the dirt. Cucumber vines stretched to the ceiling in a spotless greenhouse, with an orange tractor parked out front. And it smelled, faintly, like a farm. But in North Korea, master of the Potemkin everything, what looks like a duck and quacks like a duck can sometimes turn out to be a chicken. Or maybe even a frog. Jangchon vegetable commune was stop No. 1 on” a “heavily controlled tour for dozens of foreign journalists....If the government propaganda workers are to be believed, Jangchon is a shining beacon of new, improved, more eco-friendly agricultural systems that will help this notoriously food-challenged country of 24 million into a new era of not only self-sufficiency but abundant harvests. “Other farms are trying to be like this,” said Jo Yong Pyo, the ruddy-faced 62-year-old chief engineer, guiding a few dozen overseas reporters around the facility in his galoshes. [Source: Julie Makinen Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2016]

“He and other administrators of the facility, which was remodeled into a “farm of the future” last year at the behest of leader Kim Jong Un, proudly pointed out its many features including solar power panels on workers’ homes, a community clinic, a nursery school, and hundreds of greenhouses for growing food year-round. There was even a hothouse devoted to cultivating snails. A giant mosaic of founding father Kim Il Sung, dressed in a gray suit and tie, gazing out blissfully amid a field of green cabbages, was the focal point of the complex’s main parking lot. “Our grand marshal Kim Jong Un visited here last June 29 and said it was as beautiful as a picture,” gushed a guide, Park Myong Shil. Kim also visited the farm in 2014, and propaganda signs on the newly built greenhouses call out to workers: “Let’s thoroughly accomplish the words spoken by dear leader Kim Jong Un on his visit of June 9, 2014!”

“But oddly, there seemed to be few farm workers on the job during the media tour, prompting one photographer to ask a guide: “Can you find me some farmers doing something that I can take a picture of?” Exactly who was tending to all these robust plots of chives, lettuce and cabbage was a mystery. As was how they managed to keep a supposedly working farm so clean as to seem almost sterile. While Jangchon may embody North Korea’s agricultural ambitions, the fields alongside the road to the model commune reflected a more humble reality: small clutches of workers with rudimentary tools, biking on dirt tracks to toil in messily plowed fields. There was not a tractor in sight, and just one ox to be spotted along the 20-minute drive.

“In addition to rice, Hwang Myong Sim, a government guide and interpreter, said her family of five typically receives eggs, soy sauce, oil, salt, bean paste, vegetables and sometimes potatoes as handouts from the state. The allotments come monthly and are based on household size, she said. Hong Son Suk, a former primary school teacher in her 50s, was asked to open her home at Jangchon to foreign reporters to show them how well off she was. A whitewashed one-story structure with a blue roof and a dog on the front stoop, it featured amenities including bamboo floors, two chest-style freezers, a washing machine, a stereo, a flat-screen TV and DVD player, telephone and an electric fan. As is required in all North Korean homes, portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were hung on the wall. “We are leading a happy life under the warm love of our leaders,” Hong said, government minders and interpreters watching over her interaction with the foreign reporters. Jo, asked by one journalist whether people blamed the government for food shortages, reacted with a blank look. “This is not even a question for us, we cannot understand this question,” he said. A guide quickly jumped in: “Our people don’t blame,” he said. either,” he said.

North Korean Soldiers Planting Crops Near the DMZ

Associated Press reported from Sasi-ri in 2013:“The North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone is a hive of activity — not of fighting, but of farming. Beyond the barbed wire, ruddy-faced North Korean soldiers put down their rifles and stood shoulder to shoulder with farmers as they turned their focus to another battle: the spring planting. As neighboring nations remain on guard for a missile launch or nuclear test that South Korean and U.S officials say could take place at any time, the focus north of the border is on planting rice, cabbage and soybeans. In hamlets all along the DMZ, soldiers were knee-deep in mud and water as they helped farmers with the spring planting. [Source: Associated Press, April 24, 2013]

“Inside the DMZ, hundreds of North Korean soldiers marched in a line with backpacks. On a hilltop above them in North Hwanghae province, Col. Kim Chang Jun said they were being dispatched to farms — but still prepared for war if need be. "From the outside, it looks peaceful: farmers are out in the fields, children are going to school," he said. "But behind the scenes, they are getting ready for war. They're working until midnight but come morning, if the call comes, they'll be ready to go to battle."

“For the moment, however, the labor of many North Korean soldiers is turned to the land. Spring is arriving slowly this year in North Korea, pushing back the crucial planting season by a month. Impoverished North Korea struggles to feed its 24 million people, with the U.N. estimating that two-thirds of the population cope with chronic food shortages. Farmers in Panmunjom-ri, the North Korean village inside the DMZ, were busy planting rice, cabbage, soybeans and radish in fields surrounded by barbed wire and anti-tank barriers. Elsewhere, faces flushed and still in their uniforms, men and women soldiers waded into muddy paddies and bent down with fistfuls of spinach to plant. Around them, red banners fluttered in the wind. One read, "At a breath," a phrase urging North Koreans to work hard. The other read, "Defend to the death."

Potatoes Rot in Flooded North Korean Fields

In the fall of 2016, massive flooding in North Korea has left potato fields in the country’s northern provinces under water, with crops left to rot as farmers wait under government orders to begin harvesting. Radio Free Asia reported: Heavy rains beginning in late July have washed out large areas of Yanggang and North Hamgyong provinces along the Tumen River bordering China, submerging farms and destroying bridges and roads, sources in the region told RFA’s Korean Service. “The area has still not recovered,” one source said in Yanggang province told RFA. “In addition, the land is too muddy for water to drain, making it impossible to pick potatoes,” the source said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, September 9, 2016]

“Model” potato farms in Taehongdan and Samjiyon counties suffered the heaviest damage, he said. Central government authorities have told farmers in Yanggang to begin autumn harvesting on September 10, and farmers “are in a rush” to start, but with heavy rains ending only on September 5, the fields are in no condition to allow the work to be done, he said. Farmers cultivating individual paddies outside the system of collective farms have already begun picking vegetables from their fields, though, the source said.

“In North Hamgyong province, also bordering China, Yeonsan and Musan counties — both known for producing potatoes — have also been ordered to begin their harvest on September 10, a source in the province told RFA. “However, farmers are concerned that the land will not dry up in time for the work to begin,” he said. “Potatoes will rot if they are picked while still wet,” the source said.

Individual farmers can briefly keep harvested potatoes in yards to allow moisture to evaporate before they are stored, but collective farms don’t have the facilities to dry potatoes like this on the scale they would require, he said. Storm-damaged roads and bridges are also unavailable now to transport harvested crops, the source said, adding that students and other residents who would normally help with the harvest have now been assigned other work. “They are all busy repairing damage from the floods," he said. “This will make it difficult to anticipate how many people will be available to help with the harvest."

“Harvests in North Korea are meanwhile expected to miss targets this season after authorities ordered a rush on construction projects ahead of celebrations marking the 70th anniversary in October of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, according to sources inside the country. Farmers were mobilized to join crews racing to complete a host of projects ahead of the October 10 events and were unable to fully harvest their crops, sources in North Hamgyong said. In order to avoid punishment, collective farms in the province reported the harvests complete, though they were still well short of their goal, one source said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, October 23, 2016]

North Korean Soldiers Loot Farmers Crops

In 2016, there were reports soldiers in a North Korean province bordering China raiding farms to seize crops and farmers selling portions of their harvests set aside for military use in order to pay the costs of fertilizers, sources say. Radio Free Asia reported: Emboldened by government policy giving the military preference in resource distribution, North Korean soldiers are now behaving less like the country’s protector and more like “a punitive force,” a source in North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service. “The people are suffering immeasurably under the regime’s Military First policy,” RFA’s source said. “The farmers are helpless against the looting.” [Source: Radio Free Asia, October 23, 2016]

“Soldiers now carry out frequent nighttime raids against farmers’ stores, taking as much as they can of harvested crops, he said, adding, “Some cooperative farm members standing guard have begged to be tied up in order to avoid being blamed later on for what has been lost.” “The military should be protecting the people, but instead are taking away their property,” he said. “Their raids to seize the farmers’ precious crops are like the raids of a punitive force suppressing a rebellion.”

“Meanwhile, in North Hamgyong’s Cheongjin city, the head of a cooperative farm’s management committee was dismissed from his post, and members of his staff jailed, after they sold 200 kilograms of corn intended for military use in order to pay the costs of earlier farming, another source said. “He used the crops he stole from the military provision in order to pay for the fertilizer and pesticides they had purchased in the spring, as well as for the meals for volunteers,” the source said. The committee head was then discharged from his post, and staff members sentenced to prison terms of 15 years, for their role in the theft, he said. “Farmers are now criticizing the authorities, and are angry at being forced to become criminals after slaving away in the fields, he said. Civilian animosity against North Korea’s military is now “extremely high both in the cities and rural towns because of a series of incidents involving soldiers,” the source said.

North Korean Farmers Sell Government Fertilizer to Cover Costs of Transporting It

In 2012, there were reports of farmers selling state-issued fertilizer. Radio Free Asia reported: “Cooperative farms in North Korea are selling government-provided fertilizers instead of using them, prompting authorities to launch an “emergency investigation” and threaten “harsh punishment” for offenders, sources say. Some sources said the farmers sold the fertilizer to cover the cost of transporting the material from government centers. A source from Yanggang province, along the country’s northern border, said the Chinese-made fertilizer had been selling at marketplaces around the region. “The fertilizer that has been provided to cooperative farms has already been selling at marketplaces, and despite efforts by security guards to control the situation the fertilizer continues to flow,” the source said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, June 18, 2012]

“Beginning June 5, authorities began providing urea-based fertilizer to cooperative farms in the province for the first time this year, in quantities of as much as 16 tons and as little as 11 tons for each farm, depending on lot size. But the source said that the farms had been forced to sell the fertilizer to cover the costs of borrowing vehicles and buying gasoline to transport it after receiving it from the government. The amount of fertilizer provided by the government fell far short of what was required — more than three tons of fertilizer per jongbo (about 2.5 acres), the source said.

The economic inspection office of the Yanggang provincial security department had launched an “emergency investigation” into the fertilizer sales after determining that “every single cooperative farm had sold some of the fertilizer,” according to the source. A second source in neighboring North Hamgyong province, also along the border with China, said authorities had threatened “harsh punishment” for those involved in the illicit sales.

“Recently, a notice from the central party about doling out harsh punishments to those who diverted the fertilizer and other farming materials outside of the cooperatives was announced at a People’s Units meeting,” the source said, referring to the Workers' Party of Korea, the powerful ruling party of North Korea led by Kim Jong Un. “As of June 11, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Chinese-made fertilizer is selling for 3,000 won,” he said. Based on the official exchange rate, 3,000 won should fetch US$22, but North Korean defectors say the amount earns only 60 U.S. cents on the real market.“Despite attempts by the relevant judicial agencies to control the situation, many people are still secretly selling the fertilizer. If you have money, you can buy as much of it as you like,” the source said.

Improving Agriculture in North Korea

Improvement to North Korean agriculture that have been suggested include letting land lie fallow so that soil can gain more nutrients, planting more legumes which helps enrich the soil, abandoning monoculture and raising more livestock, including goats and rabbits, which eat grass but produce fertilizing manure.

The government has allowed peasant to sell produce at prices they set themselves in farmers markets but Pyongyang says that this markets will be disbanded when "North Korea perfects Communism." Currently farmers are allowed to keep 30 percent of their harvests. See Reforms Under History of Agriculture in North Korea. South Korean agriculture experts have provided North Korea with modern seeds and set up research facilities in North Korea. High-yield, hardy “super corn” has been raised on 12 North Korea research stations.

Since self-sufficiency remains an important pillar of North Korean ideology, self-sufficiency in food production is deemed a worthy goal. Another aim of government policies — to reduce the "gap" between urban and rural living standards — requires continued investment in the agricultural sector. Finally, as in most countries, changes in the supply or prices of foodstuffs probably are the most conspicuous and sensitive economic concerns for the average citizen. The stability of the country depends on steady, if not rapid, increases in the availability of food items at reasonable prices. In the early 1990s, there also were reports of severe food shortages. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”:“North Korea needs large investments for the revival of its agriculture. Recent initiatives include aid from the United Nations Development Program for Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection, and the expansion of farmers' markets, which might stimulate growth by creating financial incentives for farmers. However, these measures still fall short of what is required. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

North Korean Farms Stay Alive with Chinese Investment

Some North Korean farms have sought Chinese investments to survive. Radio Free Asia reported: “Cooperative farms operating in North Korea’s northernmost provinces are facing increasing difficulties in obtaining fertilizers, seed, and equipment, with the most successful among them helped only by investments from China, sources say. Nearly 35 percent of the collective farms operating in the country’s North Hamgyong province have now entered cooperative arrangements with Chinese companies, a source in the province told RFA’s Korean Service. “Most of the North Korean farms have no funds to buy fertilizers, pesticides, or equipment,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Chinese firms first provide them with these things, and the farms pay them back with crops in the fall,” he said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, May 4, 2017]

“Many farms cultivate crops requested by their Chinese investors as a first priority, “but they also have to grow other crops in order to meet the production requirements set by the North Korean government,” the source said. “To do this, they use materials and equipment purchased with Chinese money,” he said. Crops of red beans are particularly desired by Chinese investors, since these can be sold at a profit in China, RFA’s source said. “Red beans can be sold at high prices in the fall, so the Chinese investors will probably make profits of about three times the amount of money they invested,” he said.

Collaboration between the North Korean Gwanmobong firm and the Chinese firm Tianxiazhiben has been especially productive, the source said, adding, “There are other Chinese agricultural centers and companies in Yenji, Shenyang, and Beijing investing in North Korean farms in similar ways.” Many farms in North Hamgyong’s Hoeryong city and Musan county are now actively seeking investments from China, a second source in the province said, also speaking on condition he not be named. “The key to success in a year’s farming is to secure investment from China,” the source said. “The Chinese company Tianxiazhiben not only provides seeds, fertilizer, and equipment for the farming, but also instant noodles for the farmers,” he said. “Farms that have already acquired investment from China are set to go.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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