In 2012, shortly after Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea in December 2011, North Korean introduced agriculture reforms which allowed farm workers to keep up to 30 percent of their farm’s or work unit’s grain produce to sell at market prices if they so choose. Authorities also divided up the traditional collective farms and allocated fields to smaller group units. Some foreign analysts said the moves were reminiscent of reform in China in the late 1970s. Others said the reforms looked good on paper but how they would be applied in practice was another story.

Andrei Lankov wrote in Radio Free Asia: “The land reform of 2012-13 can be described as the greatest success of Kim Jong Un’s regime. Starting in 2012-13, North Korea began to introduce the work team responsibility system. And while the new units are called teams, they actually consist of one or sometimes two households, so that in many cases these are essentially family-based units. Each team is given responsibility for a particular field, and its members work not for fixed rations but for a share of the harvest. Thus, predictably, they work with much more efficiency. [Source: Andrei Lankov, Radio Free Asia, October 21, 2016. Lankov is a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, a Russian historian and a North Korea expert]

“North Korean propagandists are reluctant to admit that this reform is very similar to China’s agrarian reform of the late 1970s. In China, the introduction of the policy meant that the country’s food problems were solved in a short period of time. This household-based and essentially private agriculture has enabled all Chinese to eat well for the first time in their country’s long history. In fact, this switch in China to a household-based system led to a dramatic increase in food production. Within 5-7 years, the grain harvest increased by some 30 percent.

“North Korea seems to be undergoing similar positive changes now. Of course, the recent flooding has made the food situation worse. But generally speaking, the daily diet of North Koreans, including the poor, is much better now than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago, and the country is approaching food self-sufficiency.

“The dramatic growth in markets is also important. Now, if floods or other natural disasters cause food shortages in some areas, traders in other parts of the country begin to move food there. Their sole purpose is to earn money in areas where prices are high. But this means that sufficient food is now likely to arrive in flood-stricken areas within weeks, while the state, when it was responsible for aid relief in the 1990s, acted with far less efficiency.

“Indeed, as the tragic experience of the famine in the 1990s showed, officials are not as fast as merchants when it comes to delivering food and basic necessities to starving people. Theoretically, of course, officials are supposed to be motivated by a sense of duty and love of the people and by other admirable qualities. But in practice they are slow and inefficient, unlike merchants who care about money and can move really quickly. This can be said to be the major strength of a market economy, where the selfish behavior of individuals often benefits everyone regardless of those individuals’ personal intentions.

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.

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.”

Agriculture Reforms in North Korean Under Kim Jong Un

In 2012, a few months after Kim Jong Un became its leader, North Korea leaked plans to allow farmers to keep more of their produce in an attempt to raise agricultural output, boost supplies, help cap rising food prices and ease malnutrition. The move to liberalize agriculture reversed a crackdown on private production that started in 2005. "Peasants will have incentive to grow more food. They can keep and sell in the market about 30-50 percent of their harvest depending on the region," a source told Reuters. [Source: Benjamin Kang Lim, Reuters, September 29, 2012 ++]

At the time most farm output was sold to the government at a state auction price that was not aligned with the market rate. Reuters reported: “The plans come as some websites run by North Korean defector groups have said the price of rice — a staple food — more than doubled at the end of August from the start of June. The surge in rice prices, cited by DailyNK, a North Korean defector website was driven by a fear of economic reforms that could in fact be punitive, like a 2009 currency revaluation that confiscated most peoples' savings. ++

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: As every North Korean schoolchild knows, leader Kim Jong Un has succeeded in establishing his country as a nuclear power, and even sent a satellite into orbit. Now, Kim is calling on farmers to win him another battle. In one of his first public statements, in 2012, he promised the nation it will "never have to tighten its belt again" — a reference to the years of famine and economic crisis in the 1990s. In the minds of North Korea's leaders, agricultural self-sufficiency is as much a key to the nation's survival as nuclear weapons are to keeping its foes at bay. Memories are still fresh of the devastating famine of the 1990s, known here as the "Arduous March." It was a perfect storm of bad weather, sparse resources and poor management that North Korea managed to ride out with massive international aid. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, July 15, 2014]

According to Reuters: “Experts in South Korea believe the North desperately needs fertilizer to boost yields in a country where soil has been degraded by erosion due to poor farming techniques. A recent visit to Beijing, North Korea's sole major economic and diplomatic ally, by Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang appeared to be aimed at economic reforms in North Korea. North Korea wants to attract Chinese investment to help it overcome tough sanctions imposed in retaliation for its nuclear tests. ++

The source said North Korea also planned to make its 1.2 million-strong military — one of the largest armed forces in the world — food self-reliant by modeling its production model on China's armed forces. "The food (shortage) problem will hopefully be resolved by learning from the Xinjiang Construction and Production Corps," the source said, referring to the sprawling quasi-military network of state farms and factories in northwestern China intended to secure stability in the restive region by developing the economy and helping control borderlands. The source said boosting the army's food self-reliance would not be a major change in North Korea's "military first" policy. "Hopefully, the military will become (food) self-reliant. It will be given land to grow its own rice and vegetables." ++

North Korean Farmers Planting Rice for Profits?

In May 2013, North Korean farmers confirmed that they had indeed begun carrying out new economic policies designed to boost productivity by waving financial rewards in front of them. Associated Press reported: “Farmers say they have begun working under the new policies, which are designed to boost production by giving managers and workers financial incentives. In the past, the North Korean state set workers’ salaries. Under new measures announced in April 2013, the managers of farms, factories and other enterprises have been given leeway to set salaries and offer raises to workers who help drive up production. “This is definitely significant,” said John Delury, an assistant professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. Providing material incentives and loosening central control over economic decision making are two key elements in the transition from a command economy to a market-based system, he said [Source: Associated Press, May 31, 2013]

“North Korea’s policy changes find an echo in China’s market reforms that have transformed it into a manufacturing powerhouse and the world’s second-largest economy while also lifting several hundred million out of grinding poverty. Beijing dismantled its centrally planned economy slowly. In the 1970s, it began allowing farmers to keep more of their harvests, giving them an incentive to grow more to sell on newly permitted free markets. Food production soared. In 2012 “we studied reasonable economic management methods in different fields of economic work, and introduced it to some units on a trial basis,” Ri Ki Song, an economist from North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences, told AP.

“Ri, however, dismissed characterizations of the changes as reform. What’s new, he said, is allowing managers to dole out goods and cash as incentives. In addition, after paying back investments provided by the state, managers can set their employees’ salaries and offer raises to those who help drive up production, he said. The main goal: to encourage “greater profits” and solve North Korea’s chronic food shortage, Ri said. He said North Koreans work hard, but the new incentives give them motivation to work even harder. “They are saying that higher salaries and shares will improve their life.”

“At the Tongbong farm in the eastern city of Hamhung, farmers are in the midst of a busy rice planting season after a long, cold winter. This year, things are being managed differently, said Kim Jong Jin, deputy chairman of the farm’s managing committee. He said the state provided the farm with the rice seedlings, which farmers are now transplanting to paddies by hand. Farmers are on smaller teams that have direct responsibility over their plots. After the rice is harvested, farmers must “repay” the state for the seeds. At Tongbong that means giving the state about 193 kilograms of rice as payback for every 140 kilograms of seedlings they received. But any surplus can be kept by the team to sell, barter or distribute — a change from past policies that required farmers to turn all harvests over to the state. “This encourages enthusiasm for production and we get more of what’s produced,” Kim said.

Model Farmers Under Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un

Reporting from Changpyong Ri, North Korea, Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote: “ Rim Ok Hua looks out over her patch of farm just across the Tumen River from China with a mixture of satisfaction and concern. Rows of young potato plants, lush and green against the deep brown of the wet soil, stretch into the distance almost as far as the eye can see.As North Korean farmers go, Rim is exceptionally lucky. Singled out for success by the late leader Kim Jong Il, the Changpyong Cooperative Farm where she works is mechanized, has 500 pigs to provide fertilizer and uses the best available seeds, originally brought in from Switzerland. Rim laughs when asked about the hardships of life in the fields. "It's easy," she says. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, July 15, 2014]

“Nestled in high country near the scenic Mount Paektu, which North Koreans revere as the home of their revolution, the Taehongdan district became a national priority development area for potatoes around 2002, when Kim Jong Il decided the country should produce more because they give greater yields than corn fields. He made sure the district had all the machines and support it needed.

“The Changpyong farm is one of its shining successes. "We don't need chemical fertilizer," boasted farmer Jo Kwang Il, another of the Changpyong cooperative's 500 workers. He added that the farm started growing soybeans years ago and is now producing more than ever. "We have pigs to produce tons of manure a year. They also provide meat, so that benefits our whole community," he said.

Agricultural Improvements Under Kim Jong Un

Eric Talmadge of Associated Press wrote:There are some signs of improvement. The combined overall crop production for 2012 and 2013 is expected to increase by 5 percent, to 5.98 million tons, according to a joint report compiled by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program. The report estimated the North would still need to import 340,000 tons of cereals. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, July 15, 2014]

“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.

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. "There are multiple contributing reasons why production in 2013 was better than the recent past years: good weather, farms continuing to learn how to farm more productively with limited chemicals — sustainable farming, more use of manure and better compost," said Randall Ireson, an agricultural consultant who coordinated the American Friends Service Committee agricultural development program in the North between 1998 and 2007.

“Ireson said all these trends have been noticeable since the early 2000s. He said efficiency could be further improved by continued shifts away from irrigation systems that require electrical pumps, by rotating and planting a wider variety of crops, particularly soybeans, and by using organic fertilizer rather than chemicals. "No magic technology is needed," he said. "Just good 'best farming practices.'"

“But for the whole agricultural sector to succeed, more systemic, and politically risky, changes may also be needed, such as relaxing central government command and bringing state-set prices for crops more in line with what farmers can get for surplus sold in farmers' markets. Right now produce can sell at the markets for 20 times more than what farmers get from the state. By alleviating the dual-pricing gap, farms and divisions within them known as sub-work units could afford to reinvest their profits in small walk-behind tractors, rice-transplanting machines, fuel or fertilizer.

“Experts are also watching to see if those sub-work units are given more control over particular areas within the larger collective. That could boost motivation, since, as Ireson says, responsibility and reward would be shared among a small group of friends or relatives, rather than the more general concept of "the cooperative" or "the state."”

Doubts About Agriculture Reforms Under Kim Jong Un

“Some people are excited, expecting there will be enough rice in North Korea,” one source told Radio Free Southeast Asia.“But some are skeptical, with a strong distrust in the government which has been conducting everything unsuccessfully.” Sources said that a key stumbling block to the farm reforms is the management structures of the collective farms which remain unchanged since the policy was implemented. The lack of change in the leadership system leaves farm workers “uncertain” how much of that 30 percent will go into their own pockets, they said. For example, it remains unclear whether farm managers will receive their share of harvests from the 70 percent allocated to the state or the up to 30 percent portion that goes to workers, they said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, March 23, 2013

“One source in China told Radio Free Asia: the system would make little difference to workers without a guarantee on the division of profits. “It seems like the North Korean government wants to boost the motivation to work, but there is not much difference between the previous system and the new system unless they guarantee the autonomy of workers,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein wrote in The Diplomat: North Korea had seen relatively good harvests this year. However, the increased harvests, according to people inside the country, were not caused by changes in the agricultural management system of state-operated collective farms. Rather, the North Koreans interviewed for the story claimed that private plot farmers had been better able to protect their crops from adverse weather impacts by using water pumps and other equipment. Even though trends like these probably have a limited impact, this shows that many circumstances other than state management matter. [Source: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, The Diplomat, December 19, 2015]

A few weeks later, Daily NK published another interview carrying a similar message. According to sources inside the country, harvests from collective farms have declined, while private plot production has gone up (emphasis added): The amount of food harvested this year from the collective farms has “once again fallen short of expectations,” he said, adding that the farmers who work on them have criticized the orders coming down from the authorities, saying that “if we do things the way they want us to, it’s not going to work.” Although the regime has forced people to mobilize, the source asserted that farm yields are not increasing. So, then, “the best thing to do would be to further divide the land up among individuals,” he posited. Our source wondered if individual farms were not more successful because each person tending them personally grew and watered their plants. Currently, farmers must follow directives regarding the amount of water they can use on collective farms. He warned that if the system is not completely overhauled, crop yields will fail to improve.

One should be careful not to draw too many general conclusions based on individual interviews, but this is a well known general problem in all planned economies. Even with the best intentions, the state can never be fully informed about conditions and resources on the ground in an entire society. This is one of the many reasons why economic central planning falters. We have seen this, too, with Kim Jong-un’s forestry policies. The state gives orders that have unintended consequences on the ground, because information is lacking. No central planning team can be fully informed about the reality prevailing throughout the system. The information problem becomes particularly dire in authoritarian dictatorships like North Korea, where people at the lower end of hierarchies often have strong incentives not to speak up about implementation problems when orders come from the top.

North Korean Farmers Denied Surplus Harvest Promised Them in the Reforms

In 2016, Radio Free Asia reported: “Despite increases in agricultural production, authorities in North Korea’s northern provinces are once again refusing to distribute promised surplus grain to area farmers, demanding also that potatoes harvested beyond state requirements be used to produce food starch, North Korean sources say. Under a policy intended to spur production, farmers are allowed in theory to keep 30 percent of their work unit’s production, with the government taking the rest. Farmers are also supposedly allowed to keep any surplus grain if they exceed their production targets. [Source: Radio Free Asia, October 11, 2016]

“Promised distributions have not been made in many localities in recent years, though, sources say. The potato crop this year in North Korea’s Yanggang province came on average to almost 30 tons per jungbo (an area covering about 10,000 square meters), one source in the province told RFA’s Korean Service.“This amount surpassed its production goal of 26 tons,” RFA’s source said. “But there were no additional benefits for the farmers.” Instead, authorities are ordering farmers to use surplus potatoes to make “potato starch,” the source said, adding, “To make 1 kilograms of starch, 10 kilograms of potatoes must be used.” “So the farmers are suffering great losses,” he said.

“North Korea’s Jagang province meanwhile saw an estimated 20 percent increase in harvested grain this year, amounting to an additional one million tons of food produced, a source in the province said. “Central authorities have ordered a daily distribution of 550 grams of food per person, regardless of the set goal,” the source said. “And though authorities promised to return surplus grain to the farmers once that goal was reached, they didn’t meet that promise this year.”

In 2015, year, grain production in North Hamgyong province surpassed state goals “by a wide margin,” a source in the northern province bordering China told RFA’s Korean Service. “But the government [still] didn’t keep its promise to return 30 percent of the grain that was produced, let alone the surplus yield,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. In North Hamgyong’s Hoeryong city, farm families have now been issued an allotment of unthreshed corn for the coming year of from 400 to 600 grams per day, “which is far less than their promised quota,” the source said. “Farmers have a lot of complaints at the moment,” he said. “But they didn’t trust the government’s promise from the beginning, so their overall reaction has been that there isn’t too much to be disappointed about.” [Source: Radio Free Asia, December 21, 2015]

Authorities’ failure to distribute promised shares may result not from central government policy but from decisions made at a local level, though, according to Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea. “My understanding is that it is local officials in some localities — not everywhere- — who are breaking their promises,” Lankov said. “Local officials are under pressure to make obligatory grain deliveries. Hence, cheating farmers is the best and safest way to make ends meet and avoid reprimands, or worse,” he said.

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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