Summary: The Rise and Demise of Industrial Agriculture in North Korea

Chong-Ae Yu. “The Rise and Demise of Industrial Agriculture in North Korea.” The Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Working Paper Series Paper No. 08-05, October 2005

Existing literature on North Korea’s food crisis in the 1990s captured important details on what standing factors devastated the country’s agriculture, but Yu’s working paper contributes greater historical depth to the research by pointing out long-term structural causes.

Her thesis maintains that North Korea’s food crisis stem from the unsustainability of modern industrial agriculture – something that the entire world pursued in the past two centuries with increased vigor following the Green Revolution. In particular, Yu argues that industrial and technological intervention increased the need for synthetic and petroleum-based inputs which produced “dangerous levels of physical and environmental externalities.”

On the surface this analysis does not appear to be too dissimilar from conventional explanations; however, Yu divides standing literature into three categories and highlights their flaws:   

1. General economic decline argument

Forwarded by Nicholas Eberstadt, Marcus Noland and others, this argument underscores the importance of the shift in international power relations prior to North Korea’s famine. The key argument is that the loss of Pyongyang’s patrons such as the Soviet Union and China led to the collapse of the agricultural sector because petroleum-based inputs necessary for high-yield production could not be easily sourced without subsidies and easy credit from communist superpowers. The key implication in this argument is that North Korea was not and cannot be free from the constraints of the global economy.

However, Yu notes that this argument presupposes that if the needed inputs were provided, a recovery would have been made despite degradation in soil fertility and other environmental factors

2. Organizational and institutional argument

Usually accompanying the general economic decline argument, the inherent deficiencies of the socialist collective farming system are emphasized when looking at North Korea. The argument that socialist (and Juche) farming method is politically motivated and not scientifically supported is also frequently countered by North Korean scholars who claim that Juche agriculture is based on scientific reasoning.

Yu’s objection to this argument rests on the fact that the entire industrial agricultural system is insolvent, regardless of the political or scientific motivation that led to the specific method. Indeed, if private ownership is the solution, as many followers of this argument suggest, Yu asks how this explains decades of success in North Korea prior to the famine. Between 1960 and 1980, the centralized agricultural system successfully increased cereal yield from slightly over 3 million tons to over 7 million tons, reaching the all time high of 8 million tons in 1984. Given this history, the method itself could not be the singular causal factor of the food crisis.

3. Environmental argument

Usually a secondary explanation, many have attributed natural disasters to North Korea’s food crisis in the 1990s. In particular, NGOs and the UN forwarded this narrative to justify humanitarian assistance starting in September 1995. Woo-Cumings (her paper summarized here) made an exceptionally powerful case for how natural disasters affected fragile economies – “famine in North Korea was part and parcel of a global ecological disaster, happening with greater frequency as the result of global warming.”

However, while natural disasters constituted a significant contributing variable, they do not explain why the agricultural sector was fragile in North Korea. Therefore, while providing a secondary explanation, the environmental argument cannot alone be a causal variable.  

Yu synthesizes of all these variables in her thesis, concluding that the nature of North Korea’s shift to modern industrial agriculture, as part of the world-wide modernization project, was inherently unsustainable.  

The origins of North Korea’s modernization project goes back to the immediate aftermath of the Korean War. In the 1940s, 80% of the population was involved in agriculture with 44.2% of the peasantry landless and only 4% of the farms larger than 5 hectares. The Provisional People’s Committee of North Korea, established in March 1946, saw a successful agrarian revolution as a means to winning control of the nation and emphasized reform. But it was in the post-war era that Pyongyang really began to focus on increasing rural productivity as the foundation for national security.

Between 1954 and 1958, alongside the Three Year Plan, the North Korean state began organizing farms into cooperatives. The labor shortage in the post-war era may have helped motivate the rural population into larger cooperative farms where scarce resources such as tools and draught animals were pooled in one location. However, this reorganization was still inadequate in producing high-yield agriculture.

Of the 12.3 million hectares available in North Korea, 75% is mountainous with only 16.4% (1.99 million hectares) arable.

The pivot came in February 1964 when the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) adopted “These on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country” which cited the backwardness of the population and existing material and cultural gap between the rural and urban centers as the fundamental obstacle hindering the establishment of a more perfect socialist society.

Three goals of the North Korean state were

  1. Technological, cultural, and ideological revolution in the countryside
  2. Working-class leadership of the peasantry, assistance of industry to agriculture, support of towns to rural areas
  3. Industrial methods of management of the peasantry and rural economy, further consolidation of ownership and management

Pursuant of these goals, the agricultural sector underwent a major transformation –  Consuming 20% of the state expenditure during the 7 Year Plan (1961-67), modernization of North Korea’s rural sector was going to be capital intensive with highly mechanized labor and heavy application of agro-chemicals.

Irrigation

Annual rainfall in North Korea is between 1000 and 1200 mm between May and September with half of the amount falling between July and August. Naturally, controlling for drought and flooding was a key concern for North Korea’s policymakers.

A massive country-wide project expanded irrigated land from 227,000 hectares in 1954 to 1.2 million hectares by 1988. By 1990 there were also 1700 reservoirs and 40,000 km of ramified irrigation network that supported 70% of country’s arable land. However, a significant portion of the land was on uplands and hillsides, dependent on electric and diesel fuel pumps – gravity-fed systems that would have been more appropriate for the terrain were neglected.

Mechanization

During the First 7 Year Plan, the number of tractors tripled and by 1992, 75,000 units were operating in North Korea. By the time North Korea reached self-sufficiency in food production in 1984, 77% of field-level agricultural labor was mechanized (14% covered by draught animals and 9% by 3.1 million people in the agricultural labor force). This also left rural labor highly dependent on continued supply of fuel and machine parts to repair these tractors.

Chemicalization

A year after the conclusion of the Korean War, North Korea claimed to have brought fertilizer production back to 259,800 metric tons. By 1984, this number grew to 4.7 million tons, meeting most of its domestic needs. At the same time, although isolated from the rest of the world’s Green Revolution, North Korea initiated its own genetic modification project, developing high-yield varieties of rice and maize.

Looking at per hectare application of fertilizer, North Korea’s high dependency on chemical fertilizers was evident from the beginning. In 1960, 160 kg of fertilizer was being used per hectare. By 1975, per hectare application of fertilizer grew to 1 metric ton and by mid 1980s, the figure stood at 2 metric tons.

But capital-intensive agriculture also meant being energy dependent and required a constant supply of inputs, in particular of petroleum-based products.

In addition to this key vulnerability, the fields were cropped without fallow and monoculture of rice and maize exacerbated soil acidification and rendered the crops susceptible to prolific plant diseases.

This weakness in the industrial agricultural system became apparent in the 1990s when North Korea’s terms of trade with the Soviet Union/Russian Federation and China collapsed.

As evident in Table 4 of the working paper:

Crude oil imports to North Korea (Unit: thousand metric tons)

Exporter

1989

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996(A)

China

1,140

1,160

1,100

1,100

830

1,050

1,020

1,000

Russia

500

410

Libya

 —

200

200

80

100

80

Iran

920

980

220

220

210

Total

2,650

2,450

1,890

1,520

910

1,360

1,100

1,000

Note: (A) Extrapolation of statistics for the first two quarters of 1996. More recent statistics suggest that the total was probably considerably lower.

Source: von Hippel, Savage and Hayes, p.38. This source is based on reports from a South Korean source, Korea Energy Economic Institute.

As a consequence, domestic production of fertilizer decreased from 568,000 tons in 1989 to 130,000 tons in 1996. Similarly, rail and freight capacity in 1996 was 40% of their 1990 levels while iron and steel production was reduced to 36% of their 1990 levels.

On top of this economic catastrophe, the bulk of irrigation infrastructure built in the 1970s, including nearly 32,000 pumps, had reached the end of their economic life by the 1990s. Not only were the pumps themselves corroding and breaking down, the fuel deficiency led to a shortage of electricity that hindered operation of these pumping stations.

Rice requires on average slightly less than 10,000 cubic meters/hectares/year of water while wheat and maize need 3060 and 1265 cubic meters/hectares/year respectively. In order to service this amount, UNDP estimates that around 1200 kWh/hectare/year is required for effective irrigation – which meant North Korea needs 1.2 billion kWHs of energy to just operate its irrigation systems. However, by the 1990s, North Korea had a deficiency of 300 million kWhs in irrigation and 350 million kWhs in other agricultural needs.

In addition to the loss of irrigation, due to the fuel shortage, 20,000 tractors were immobilized and fertilizer production collapsed. Small things, like plastic sheets to cover seed beds during cold weather, were also in short supply, leading to further loss of crop yield.

Yu contends that modern industrial agriculture inherently creates a deep interdependence between agriculture, industry, and energy – which while increasing yields, further incentivizes monocultivation and acidification of the soil through petroleum-based agro-chemical fertilizers. In the case of North Korea, “[indigenous] Green Revolution brought ‘ghost acres’ on which a glass house of greater food self-sufficiency was built.”  

The most important implication of this working paper for contemporary observers of North Korea’s food security may be what it says about Pyongyang’s current reform efforts. As Yu rightfully questions, can the free market truly rectify 50 years of environmental degradation to bring soil fertility back? Given environmental factors that contributed to the famine, is return to intensive agro-chemical application the right way forward?

These are sure to be issues that keep policymakers in North Korea up at night.  

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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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3 Responses to Summary: The Rise and Demise of Industrial Agriculture in North Korea

  1. Pingback: Good days ahead… or is it just an aberration? | DPRK Food Policy Blog

  2. Pingback: Premonitions of a Disaster | DPRK Food Policy Blog

  3. Pingback: The worrisome decline in food consumption in 2013 | Rice and Iron

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