North Korea has never been agriculturally self-sufficient. Agriculture is nevertheless a major contributor to the economy. In 2000, the sector accounted for 30 percent of GDP and employed 36 percent of the workforce. In 2000, it accounted for 22.5 percent of GDP and employed 37 percent of the workforce. 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, Reuters]

The task of increasing agricultural production beyond simple recovery from the Korean War was not easy. The country's sparse agricultural resources limit agricultural growth. Climate, terrain, and soil conditions are not particularly favorable for farming. The most far-reaching statement on agricultural policy is embodied in Kim Il Sung's 1964 "Theses on the Socialist Agrarian Question in Our Country," which underscores the government's concern for agricultural development. Kim emphasized technological and educational progress in the countryside as well as collective forms of ownership and management. As industrialization progressed, the share of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries in the total national output declined from 63.5 percent and 31.4 percent, respectively, in 1945 and 1946, to a low of 26.8 percent in 1990. Their share in the labor force also declined from 57.6 percent in 1960 to 34.4 percent in 1989. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Before Korea was divided in 1945, the colder and less fertile north depended heavily upon the south for food. According to the “Columbia Encyclopedia”: “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]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “North Korea's agriculture was collectivized in the 1950s and was fairly successful until the early 1990s. Modern techniques more than doubled the total harvest from 3.85 million tons in 1966 to 8.47 million tons in 1984. However, the sector's annual growth rate fell from 2.8 percent in 1991 to 1.5 percent in 1995. A misguided emphasis on rice and maize production led to over-cultivation and exhausted the soil. Ill-conceived terracing, a shortage of fertilizers, floods, and a drought contributed to a steep decline in yield during the 1990s, leading to widespread famine and deaths. Massive foreign aid halted the death rate and helped increase the land under cultivation in 1998 and 1999. Crop production rose to 4.62 million tons in 1999, but remained 1.1 million tons short of the minimum needed. The country survived on foreign assistance, which included 550,000 tons of rice from Japan in 2000. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Land Reform and Collectivization in North Korea

A land reform law enacted in 1946 confiscated the holdings of big landowners and distributed them to poor farmers and tenants. The consequences of this compulsory redistribution were as much social as economic. Many rich farmers fled to the United-States-occupied half of the peninsula south of the thirty-eighth parallel. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Rural collectivization, carried out in three stages between 1945 and 1958, had profound implications for a society consisting mainly of farmers living in small hamlets scattered throughout the countryside. The new class of individual landholders — whose holdings could not exceed five chngbo in lowland areas, or twenty chngbo in mountainous ones — had little time to enjoy their status as independent proprietors because the state quickly initiated a process of collectivization. In the initial stage, "permanent mutual aid teams" were formed in which landholders managed their own land as private property but pooled labor, draft animals, and agricultural tools. This stage was followed by the stage of "semisocialist cooperatives," in which land, still privately held, was pooled. The cooperative purchased animals and tools out of a common fund, and the distribution of the harvest depended on the amount of land and labor contributed. The third and final stage involved the establishment of "complete socialist cooperatives" in which all land was turned over to collective ownership and management. Cooperative members were paid solely on the basis of labor contributed.*

The 1959 edition of the North Korea Central Yearbook reported that approximately 80 percent of all farmers had joined socialist cooperatives by December 1956 and that by August 1958 all had joined. A land law passed in 1977 stipulated that all land held by cooperatives would be transferred gradually to state ownership or "ownership by the entire people."

The state encouraged the merging of cooperatives so that they would coincide with the ri, or ni (village). The number of cooperatives with between 101 and 200 households increased from 222 cooperatives in 1954 to 1,074 cooperatives in 1958. The number of cooperatives with between 201 and 300 households increased from twenty cooperatives in 1955 to 984 cooperatives in 1958.*

The merging process had important implications for kinship and family life: it broke down the isolation of the single hamlet by making the socialist cooperative the basic local unit and thus diluted p'a ties. The traditional kinship system and its strict rules of exogamy worked best in the isolation of hamlets. With the passing of the hamlets, the traditional kinship system and its strict rules of exogamy were seriously undermined.*

Rural Development in North Korea

Resource development in agriculture is a crucial means for increasing agricultural production, recognizing the unfavorable natural endowments — topography, climate, and soil. This development consists of what North Koreans call "nature-remaking" projects. These projects generally increase the quantity of arable land, and rural investment projects, which, in turn, increase the yield of the available land through increased capital and improved technology. "Nature-remaking" projects include irrigation, flood control, and land reclamation. Rural investment projects consist of mechanization, electrification, and "chemicalization" — that is, the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Despite priority allocation of state funds for heavy industry, North Korea has achieved considerable success in irrigation since the Korean War. Irrigation projects began with paddy fields and then continued to non-paddy fields. Irrigated land increased from 227,000 hectares in 1954 to 1.2 million hectares in 1988. North Korea claimed that paddy field irrigation was completed by 1970. In 1990 there were more than 1,700 reservoirs throughout the country, watering 1.4 million hectares of fields with a ramified irrigation network of 40,000 kilometers, which irrigated about 70 percent of the country's arable land. Water-jetting irrigation of non-paddy fields was introduced in the 1980s. In 1989 construction began on a 400- kilometer canal by diverting the flow of the Taedong River along its west coast.*

Rural electrification has progressed rapidly. The proportion of villages supplied with electricity increased from 47 percent in 1953 to 92 percent of all villages by the end of 1961. The process of extending electrical lines to the rural areas reportedly was completed in 1970. The annual supply of electricity to the rural areas reached 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours toward the end of the 1980s.*

Mechanization and Chemicalization of North Korean Agriculture

Mechanization is another agricultural target. By 1984 mechanization had reached the level of seven tractors per 100 hectares in the plains and six tractors per 100 hectares in the intermediate and mountainous areas. The fact that the same tractor ratios are quoted in official pronouncements of the early 1990s probably indicates that there is no further improvement in these ratios, and that the planned target of ten tractors per 100 hectares by the end of the Second Seven-Year Plan in 1984 still has not been met. Given the disappointing output record of tractors in recent years, it is doubtful that the target of ten to twelve tractors per 100 hectares will be fulfilled by the end of the Third Seven-Year Plan in 1993. Nonetheless, North Korea claimed that 95 percent of rice planting was mechanized and that there were 5.5 rice transplanting machines per 100 hectares of paddy fields in 1990. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Chemical fertilizers receive much government attention and investment because of their importance for agriculture. Most fertilizers are produced by the enormous fertilizer plant in H ngnam, which has an annual capacity of 1 million tons. According to official claims, the output of 4.7 million tons in 1984 compared with 3 million tons in 1976, had fulfilled the 1978-84 plan target. Judging from a foreign estimate of 3.5 million tons in 1990, however, production of chemical fertilizers has been deteriorating. The Sariwn Potassium Fertilizer Complex, which has an annual capacity of 3 million tons of potassium feldspar, began construction in 1988 and when completed is expected to raise the country's potassium fertilizer capacity to 500,000 tons, aluminum capacity to 420,000 tons, and cement capacity to 10 million tons per year. In his 1991 New Year's address, Kim Il Sung noted that the complex still was under construction. *

By 1977 the "chemicalization" process had increased the average fertilizer application to 1.3 tons per hectare and 1.2 tons per hectare, respectively, for paddy and non-paddy fields, and the 1984 target of two tons per hectare was claimed to have been achieved. The target of the Third Seven-Year Plan is to increase the rate to 2.5 tons. In a 1991 "advisory note" addressing the North Korean economy for the years 1992-96, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the only international agency resident in Pyongyang, warned that the practice of intensive chemicalization has led to land degradation — that is, declining soil fertility, falling organic matter content, erosion and soil acidification, and water pollution, with resulting environmental damage.*

Organization and Management of North Korean Agriculture in the 1950s

Efforts to increase agricultural production include a variety of experiments with land tenure, farm organization, and managerial techniques. Following a typical communist pattern, land initially was redistributed to tillers in a sweeping land reform in 1946 soon after the communists took over the country. By 1958 private farming, which ironically was given a boost by land reform, was completely collectivized. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The Land Reform Act of March 1946 had, in the remarkably short period of one month, abolished tenancy and confiscated and redistributed more than 1 million hectares of land. The government reallocated most of the land formerly owned by the Japanese colonists and all properties exceeding five hectares to individual farming households. The number of peasant holdings increased dramatically, but the average size of individual holdings dropped from 2.4 hectares to 1.4 hectares. It was difficult to determine the effect of such massive land distribution on production because the Korean War interrupted farming in the early 1950s. The reform, however, was quickly replaced by a drive for collectivization.*

During the 1954-58 transition period, farm holdings went through three progressively collective phases: "permanent mutualaid teams," "semisocialist cooperatives," and "complete socialist cooperatives." In the final stage, all land and farm implements are owned collectively by the members of each cooperative. The pace of collectivization quickened during 1956, and by the end of that year about 80 percent of all farmland was cooperatively owned. By the time this process was completed in August 1958, more than 13,300 cooperatives with an average of eighty households and 130 hectares of land dotted the countryside. Only two months later, however, the government increased the size of the average cooperative to 300 households managing 500 hectares of land through consolidation of all farms in each ri, or ni (village, the lowest administrative unit) into one. As a result, the number of cooperatives decreased but their average size increased. Judging from the timing of the consolidation of farms, this sudden decision to increase the size of the cooperatives appears to have been influenced by the introduction of communes in China. Newly consolidated farms established and operated such nonagricultural institutions as clinics, rest homes, day nurseries, schools, and community dining halls.*

Collectives and State Farms in North Korea

After the division North Korea reportedly became self sufficient agriculturally. Credit was given to its collective farms. At one model cooperative 650 families cultivated 3,000 acres of land (1,600 with rice, 500 with fruit and rest vegetables and other crops). The average family income ranged between US$1,750 and US$4,000. This model farm was reportedly shown 62 times by Kim Il Sung between 1960 and 1975. [Source: National Geographic]

Each cooperative farm elects a management committee to oversee all aspects of farm activity, including retail services and marketing, and the local party committee closely supervises its management. The party committee chairman usually is the vice chairman of the management committee. Within the management committee, an auditing unit wields the most power and controls the management of farm accounts, work points, cooperative shops, and credit facilities. Auditors report to the plenary session of the management committee as well as to county authorities.*

The basic unit of production and accounting on the cooperative farm is the work team, which is further divided into subteams. Most cooperatives have several agricultural work teams and at least one animal husbandry work team. In some cooperatives, work teams or subteams specialize in vegetable farming, sericulture, fruit cultivation, aquaculture, or other activities. Work is allocated to teams and subteams according to physical ability. Most able-bodied men and women are assigned to rice growing units, which require the most effort. Wages are distributed in both cash and kind.*

State farms are considered the more ideologically "advanced" agricultural organizations. Both the means of production and output are state owned, and farmers receive standardized wages on the basis of an eight-hour workday rather than shares of production. Managers of state farms, appointed by the state farm bureau of the national-level Agricultural Committee, run the farms as if they were industrial enterprises. State farms often are coterminous with a county and are model farms that experiment with new cropping methods or specialize in livestock or fruit production. Their larger scale allows for greater mechanization, and their output per worker is undoubtedly higher because their operations are more efficient than those of the rural cooperative farms. State farms attempt to integrate all county agricultural and industrial activities into one complementary and integrated management system. Utilizing about 10 percent of the country's total cropland, they contribute about 20 percent of total agricultural output. Kim Il Sung often stresses the need for transforming agriculture from cooperative ownership to "allpeople 's" or state ownership, but as of 1993 no action had been taken to change cooperative farms to state farms.*

Agriculture Administration in North Korea

Dissatisfied with low levels of agricultural production, the government developed a new administrative structure to perform for the rural cooperatives what the management of state farms is supposed to have accomplished. The county Cooperative Farm Management Committee, established in 1962, took over all the economic functions of the county people's committees. The new committee was to bring agricultural management closer to the ideal "industrial method," by "the strengthening of technical guidance of production and the planification and systematization of all management activities of the enterprise."

The composition of the management committee varies from county to county, but the staff usually consists of agronomists, technicians, directors of county agricultural agencies, and, where appropriate, forestry and fishery agents. The function of the committee is to set production targets for the cooperatives within its jurisdiction, allocate resources and materials necessary to achieve these goals, and monitor the payment of wage shares and the collection of receipts. County managers report to their counterparts at the provincial-level Rural Management Committee, who in turn direct all their reports to the General Bureau for Cooperative Farm Guidance at the national-level Agricultural Committee.*

In spite of lagging agricultural output, there have been no significant changes in the agricultural organization and management system in place since the early 1960s. Furthermore, as exemplified by Kim Il Sung's exhortation to strengthen the application of the Ch'ongsan-ni Method of farming, no fundamental changes in the agricultural incentive system have been introduced. The strategy for achieving greater agricultural production continues to emphasize "industrialization" of agriculture through increased irrigation, fertilizer use, and mechanization while maintaining the existing administrative, management, and incentive systems.

Poor Agricultural Practices and Disasters in North Korea

Exhausted land, lack of fuel to run tractors, and a lack fertilizer and pesticides have long been fixtures of North Korean agriculture. Years of using petroleum-based fertilizers have degraded much of the land. Hills were eroded and farms have been stripped of top soil because the government forced farmers to grow rice and corn in places that were not suitable for these crops.

Poor agricultural practices have degraded the soil to such a degree in some places that there is little organic material left. One aid worker told the Los Angeles Times, “They have in many respects sterilized their soils over the last 30 years by over application of fertilizers.” Ironically crops will not grow without fertilizer.

The objectives of the "nature-remaking program" launched in 1976 are to complete the irrigation of non-paddy lands, to reclaim 100,000 hectares of new land, to build 150,000 hectares to 200,000 hectares of terraced fields, to reclaim tidal land, and to conduct afforestation and water conservation projects. The reclamation of 6,200 hectares of tideland at Taedong Bay was part of the 1987-93 plan to reclaim a total of 300,000 hectares of tidal land. The largest land reclamation scheme, the West Sea Barrage, involved an eight-kilometer-long sea wall across the Taedong River, and was completed in June 1986. The multipurpose project, five years in construction at a reported cost of US$4 billion in 1990s dollars, consists of a main dam, three locks, and thirty-six sluices, and reportedly was the longest dam in the world as of 1992. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Kim Il Sung’s Failed Agricultural Policy

Agriculture has always been a difficult proposition in North Korea, with its relatively cold climate and mountainous terrain with little high-quality farmland. Kim Il Sung’s half baked idea or raising corn on terraced slopes ended in disaster. Forests were clear cut and the shallow-root crops were planted in fragile soil. Heavy rains washed away the plants and caused heavy erosion, which blocked streams and rivers with silt, in turn causing flooding which devastated good agriculture land in the valleys.

Brian Palmer wrote in Slate: “In defiance of nature, North Korea’s isolationist leaders decided in the 1950s that domestic farmers had to fulfill all the country’s food needs. They instituted intensive agricultural practices to maximize yield from their limited arable land, relying on heavy irrigation and copious pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. They scraped by for decades with only occasional famines, but the system totally collapsed in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union cut the supply of subsidized fossil fuels, from which many of the DPRK’s agricultural chemicals are derived. [Source: Brian Palmer, Slate]

“When crop yields declined, the government tried to plug the gap by increasing acreage. They stripped hillsides of all natural vegetation and tried terraced agriculture. It worked for a little while, but heavy seasonal rains eventually eroded the new farms and filled the nation's rivers, reservoirs, and irrigation canals with silt. Eventually, the land was no longer able to absorb the water from annual monsoons, and flooding became a chronic problem.

“Even though the program to expand arable land failed miserably, North Korean leaders thought their mistake was not going far enough. Kim Jong-il is said to have supported a plan to bulldoze the entire country, in an attempt to turn mountains into fertile plains. Kim figured that the plan would both increase agricultural production and further the national ideal of perfect uniformity among citizens. Since farmers would no longer have been able to say their families had been farming the area between two hills for generations, they would lose any sentimental attachment to the land. Fortunately, Kim never had the resources to implement the great flattening.”

In the early 1990s, before the full-fledged famine, there were persistent reports of severe food shortages as a result of several years of consecutive crop failures, coupled with distribution problems that had serious consequences for food rationing. An indirect admission of food shortages came in Kim Il Sung's 1992 New Year's address, in which he defined 1992 as the "year of put-greater-efforts-into- agriculture" in order to provide the population with sufficient food. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Origins of the North Korean Hunger Crises

Jordan Weissmann wrote in The Atlantic: A normal economy would deal with its inability to meet its demands for food “by importing food. But during the 1980s, the North Korean government embarked on a policy of radical self-sufficiency...Farmers were expected to overcome mother nature and grow enough crops to feed the entire population. To do it, they relied on heaps of chemical fertilizer. But that crutch was yanked away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. [Source: Jordan Weissmann, The Atlantic, December 20, 2011]

“The demise of the USSR threw North Korea's entire economy into chaos, and agriculture was among its most important casualties. Without imports of cheap fuel (self-sufficiency had its limits), the country's industrial base fractured, and production of fertilizer dwindled. Farm yields plummeted, and the government started a campaign urging citizens to consume less. Its cheery slogan: "Let's eat only two meals a day."

“It was against this background that the Kim Jong Il took power. The country was at a crossroads, says Marcus Noland, a leading expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. With the USSR gone, the prospects for a small, isolated, neo-Stalinist regime looked rather grim. The government could have opened up its economy, much like Vietnam did with great success. Instead, North Korea chose to stay frozen in time. "The mystery is why the North Koreans did not understand the historical magnitude of the change around them," Noland says.

Famine in North Korea in the mid 1990s

A largely preventable famine killed as many as 2 million to 3 million people, 10 to 15 percent of North Korea’s population, in the 1990s. By contrast 1 million died in Ethiopia in the mid 1980s and 1.5 million died in Somalia in the early 1990s. The actual number of people who died is a matter of some dispute because accurate information about North Korea is so hard to come by. It was at least in the hundreds of thousands . The North Korean government said about 250,000 people died. Most of the deaths were from malnutrition-related causes. Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking defector from the North and a man close to North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, estimated about a million people starved to death in 1996 alone.

The famine built up in the early 1990s, peaked in 1996 and 1997 and subsided somewhat after that after large amount of international food aid arrived. Similar famines on smaller scales reoccurred in the 2000s. The 1990s famine was blamed on floods and drought, which served as a trigger, but more it was a "food crisis” caused by an overall breakdown of the country's state-controlled and centrally planned system — a long and painfully slow descent that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the loss of invaluable subsidies, petroleum and a principal export market.

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “The famine of the late 1990s revealed the shortcomings of the North Korean economy. The world had known for some time that North Korea's economy lagged far behind South Korea's, but the news of the famine was alarming to the West. Following massive floods in 1995 and 1996, a dry summer accompanied by typhoon damage in 1997 devastated North Korean agriculture. In 1997, the per capita daily grain ration fell from 24.5 ounces (700 grams) to 3.5 ounces (100 grams). The ration distribution also became intermittent. Because of the increasing deaths by starvation and undernourishment, funerals were allowed only in small scale and in the evening, and were attended only by the immediate family. As poverty increased and the lack of food intensified, there were reports that crimes related to the situation were on the increase — from petty theft to organized gang robbery, often involving murder. North Korea began relying heavily on foreign aid from South Korea, Japan, the United States, and other Western nations” which contributed to “North Korea's slow recovery from a serious food shortage.” [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

See Separate Article FAMINE IN NORTH KOREA IN THE MID 1990s

Causes of the 1990s Famine in North Korea

Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post: The immediate trigger for the famine was flooding in 1995. But the centrally planned economy had been in free fall since 1990-91, when the Soviet Union collapsed and cut off subsidies. Without free fuel for its aging factories and without a guaranteed market for its often shoddy goods, North Korea came unglued.” Kim Jong Il himself said in 2004: "When the state was unable to supply food efficiently, people began to abandon their jobs and began searching for ways to acquire personal gains." [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, March 6, 2009]

Most experts believed there was much more involved than bad weather in the 1990s famine in North Korea. Political analyst Robert Manning wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "floods certainly triggered the country's food shortage, but four decades of agricultural mismanagement is the underlying cause. Any short-term aid will not alter the long-term outlook, an estimated shortfall of 1.8 million tons annually for the next several years. North Korea has been dependant on food imports since the mid 1980s. A slogan introduced in 1991 proclaimed, “Let’s eat only two meals a day!”

Even healthy harvests in North Korea produces only 5 million tons of food, 2.4 tons less than what the country needs to adequately feed its people. Marcus Noland, an expert from the Institute for International Economics told the Los Angeles Times: "Output was falling well before the floods occurred in 1995. North Korea had appealed to Japan and South Korea for aid before the floods occurred. So this is a systematic problem. This is not a problem caused by bad luck." An indirect cause was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cut off of trade.

Andrew Natsios, author of the book “The Great North Korean Famine” blamed the famine on four causes: 1) declining production due to poor agricultural management; 2) the sudden decline of subsidies from the Soviet Union and China beginning in the 1990s; 3) the elimination of food subsidies to the eastern coastal plain in 1994; and 4) the reduction of food rations to farmers. The reduction of rations and subsided encouraged farmers to divert food away from the public food distribution system and gave them no incentive to work hard growing food.

Agricultural Mismanagement During the Famine in the 1990s

Exhausted land, lack of fuel to run tractors, no fertilizer or pesticides have long been fixtures of North Korean agriculture. Years of using petroleum-based fertilizers have degraded much of the land. Hills were eroded and farms were stripped of top soil as the government forced farmers to grow rice and corn in places that were not suitable for these crops.

Poor agricultural practices have degraded the soil to such a degree that there is little organic material. One aid worker told the Los Angeles Times, “They have in many respects sterilized their soils over the last 3- years by over application of fertilizers.” Ironically crops will not grow without fertilizer.

Kim Il Sung’s half baked idea or raising corn on terraced slopes ended in disaster. Forests were clear cut and the shallow-root crops were planted in fragile soil. Heavy rains washed away the plants and caused heavy erosion, which blocked streams and rivers with silt, in turn causing flooding which devastated good agriculture land in the valleys.

Philip Gourevitch wrote in the Observer: “In his later years, Kim Il Sung built a medical institute in Pyongyang for the sole purpose of prolonging his life. There, surrounded by Western doctors and an army of nutritionists, masseurs, homeopaths and the like, he was fed a diet of foods grown just for him. Meanwhile, across the countryside, his unaccountable scheme for bolstering the food supply by growing corn on the terraced slopes of vertiginous valleys was ending in catastrophe, as heavy rains washed the efforts away, clogging streams and rivers with silt, which in turn triggered flooding that wiped out perfectly good crop lands. Industry was grinding to a halt, reduced to less than half its production capacity by lack of fuel and raw materials.” [Source: Philip Gourevitch, Observer Magazine, The Guardian, November 2, 2003]

Energy shortages have hurt agriculture which relies on tractors, electrically-operated irrigation and petroleum-based fertilizers. One North Korea expert told the Los Angeles Times, “There is direct causal links between the energy shortages and the food shortage. North Korea was not very well suited to growing food, and they developed an incredibly input-intensive style of agriculture.”

Private Gardens and Farming During the North Korean Famine in the 1990s

Plowing was done by hand because there was no fuel for tractors and many of the draft animal had been slaughtered for food. The only draft animals were cows because they weren't slaughtered as they produced milk. One aid worker said she visiting a commune whose population of geese went from 3,000 to 50. Many fields lay barren and unattended because farmers were took weak to plow and take care of them. In some places the army had to be called in to plant the rice crop.

In the fields where people were working school children helped out and everybody moved very slowly. A Korean resident of Japan told Newsweek that he saw "several men lying flat on a hillside, looking so skinny and weak. It was only 10 in the morning and they looked as though they didn't have any energy left." One aid worker, who toured North Korea in April 1997 told Newsweek that during a 100-mile tour of North Korea's breadbasket around Suhung he counted only 26 tractors, of which only 13 were working.

The only people who got more than their daily rations were people who grew their own food. In private garden people grew pumpkins, corn, wheat, apples and raising pigs chickens, and rabbits. After the famine started, the government increased yields by allowing farmers to keep 30 percent of their harvests. Among the North Koreans that got enough to eat were party members who could afford to buy food on the black market, fisherman who caught more than their quotas, widows who prostituted their bodies, and citizens with ethnic Korean relatives in China that could supply them with food gifts.

Mina Yoon wrote in NK News, “My mother planted cucumbers in the back yard. However, perhaps because of the drought, the cucumber vine hardly produced even a single skinny cucumber. It took a long time for the cucumber to grow to the size of a middle finger. Because of the weather, all sorts of crops could not grow well then. My mum forbade us from eating the cucumber because, she said, we all should share it. I was tempted to pick the cucumber and eat it more than a dozen times a day, but I was strong enough to resist to the urge. However, one day, I was surprised to see just part of the cucumber dangling on the vine, the rest of it bitten off. [Source: Mina Yoon for NK News, part of the North Korea network, The Guardian, June 13, 2014]

“In the spot where it had been bitten, some fresh juice had oozed out, meaning it had not been long since it was eaten. My mum was furious, and demanded from all three of us who had done it. Finally, my brother stepped out, hesitatingly. He confessed that he ate it. He said he really wanted to eat all of it but stopped himself after only one bite because he wanted to share it with his sisters when the cucumber grew big enough.

Agriculture and Food Supply Under Kim Jong Il

On the state of North Korean agriculture in 2009, Blaine Harden wrote in Washington Post: North Korea needs to produce about 5.5 million tons of rice and cereal grain to feed its 23.5 million people. Nearly every year, it falls short, usually by about a million tons. The country lacks arable land, denies incentives to farmers and cannot afford fuel or modern machinery. It has also lost access to the modern chemical fertilizers on which it had become unusually dependent and which organic fertilizers cannot realistically replace. To fill the shortfall, the Communist government has had no choice but to unlock its gates and let in the foreign technocrats who manage food donations. [Source: Blaine Harden, Washington Post, March 6, 2009]

“North Korea's million-ton food gap was filled in recent years by South Korea as part of a bid to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula. The Seoul government gave a half-million tons of food annually, along with enough fertilizer to grow another half-million tons. Unlike the U.N. World Food Program and other international donors, which have a policy of "no access, no food," South Korea did not monitor who ate the food it gave. But last year, South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, changed the rules. "We have decided to monitor and secure delivery of food using the World Food Program procedures as our benchmark," said Lee Jong-joo, the humanitarian assistance chief in Seoul. "Unfortunately, we have had no dialogue whatsoever on these new conditions with North Korea."

“North Korea, instead, got mad. It canceled military agreements and moved a long-range missile toward a launch center. Behind the anger is the food gap. Despite an unusually good harvest last fall, a U.N. food assessment in December found that more than a third of the population will need food aid this year. With South Korea on the sidelines, the United States stepped in. Last May, it pledged a half-million tons of food, 80 percent of which was to be distributed by the World Food Program.

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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