Summary: Kuark’s North Korea’s Agricultural Development during the Post-War Period

Summary of Yoon T. Kuark. “North Korea’s Agricultural Development during the Post-War Period.” The China Quarterly, No. 14 (Apr. – Jun., 1963), pp. 82-93.

The 1963 paper by Kuark presents an interesting and valuable survey of the North Korean state’s attempts to increase agricultural output in the first decade after the Korean War.

Until the Second World War, around 70% of the population on the Korean Peninsula was engaged in agriculture. With rice taking up 60% of all crop cultivation, the country boasted the status of being the world’s 4th largest rice producer in the 1940s. However, much of the rice production was concentrated in the southern portion of the peninsula with the north providing mostly industry derived inputs such as chemical fertilizers and electricity. The division of labor made the economic division of the peninsula in 1948 all the more traumatic for North Korea’s food needs. To make things worse, the country’s agricultural assets were obliterated by the war and by 1953, the country’s crop yield stood at a terrifying nadir.

Thus, the goal of the North Korean state was clear:

  • swift reconstruction and rehabilitation of industry and agriculture;
  • socialization of agriculture by means of collectivization

By August 1958, co-operativization was reported to be complete and the state announced that it could be self-sufficient by 1959. However, Kuark maintains that the North Korean government’s assessment is untenable; furthermore, rationing, evident food troubles, and lack of food grain exports all point to a country still struggling to build up its agricultural capacity.

This is clearly not due to the lack of effort on the part of the North Korean state to invest in modernizing its rural economy.

During the 1954-56 3 year plan, the total state investment stoods at 7400 million Won (in old Wons – reforms in February 1959 reset the currency, exchanging 100 old Won for 1 new Won). Of this amount, 4200 million Won went to irrigation and dyke projects, adding 123000 chongbo of irrigated land (1 chongbo=2.45 acres) and protecting 16000 chongbo. From this project, 61000 chongbo of rice cultivation was added. By 1957, 77% of rice paddies in the country were irrigated compared to 39% in 1954.

The grain harvest in 1956 stood at 2.87 million tons. This increase in yields appeared to parallel heavy application of chemical fertilizers and mechanization –

In 1953, 30,000 tons of fertilizer was used. That number increased to 310,000 tons by 1959, making it 172 kg of fertilizer used for every chongbo of arable land. A similar increase in mechanization was also evident

machine service centers

tractors (15 horsepower)

land tilled (in chongbo)

1953

15

500

95000

1957

50

2092

854000

1959

84

8050

On top of tractors, the state supplied 7000 generators, motors, and transformers to farmers in 1959.

What set the North Korean agricultural system apart from other communist rural economies was its work team system in their cooperatives. This “efficient division of labor” divided farmers into work teams, with anywhere between a dozen to 100 people in a group. Three sets of groups existed:

  • Specialized – workers tending to one crop or one livestock
  • Mixed – workers with mixed specialization, taking care of multiple core crops or livestock
  • All purpose – workers working in multiple sections of agriculture

This division of labor had the potential to be very efficient, but it was difficult to initiate because the state could not form optimally sized teams and effectively distribute the tools needed. These inefficiencies were recognized as an issue by Kim Il-sung himself in 1959.

An incentive system also existed in the cooperatives. Each working team had its own accounting system, setting its own performance standards that informed farmers about material rewards that they could expect from the Party. Up to 40% of the overproduced grain could be given back to a farmer, in kind or in cash; conversely, there was also a penalty for falling below the quota of 10-20% of the deficit production.

The result was as follows:

Average Chongbo output (in tons)

1946

1949

1953

1954

1955

1956

1957

rice

2.71

3.03

2.84

2.27

2.73

2.82

2.92

corn

0.9

1.33

0.93

1.30

1.08

1.25

1.49

vegetables

8.67

17.5

9.71

11.61

12.92

14.63

16.32

potato

4.24

5.92

4.39

6.74

6.36

7.32

7.11

Total value of grain output of North Korea

Total area sown (1000 chongbo)

index

Total grain output (1000 tons)

index

annual growth

1953

2295

100

2327

100

1954

2337

102

2230

96

-4.2%

1955

2325

97

2340

101

4.9%

1956

2413

105

2873

123

22.8%

1957

2555

113

3201

138

11.4%

1958

NA

NA

3700

159

15.6%

Given the exponential increases in inputs, the output per chongbo and aggregate yields between 1953 and 1957 were not all that impressive.

Despite the less-than-revolutionary progress in agriculture, the state initiated the Chollima Movement in September 1958 with a focus on expanding heavy industries. This further drew labor and investment away from the rural economy. This was not to say there were no innovations in agriculture during this time period. Mao’s Great Leap Forward was most notable in rice cultivation techniques – but at the same time, North Korea was becoming increasingly cautious about directly adopting Chinese agricultural methods. Things like communal dwelling and “make every man a soldier” movements were not replicated because of the labor shortage in the countryside. And by 1959, Pyongyang restored the rights to kitchen plots, livestock like chickens and ducks, and other small entitlements to individual farmers.

Eventually, with the Rural Theses in 1964, North Korea returned to the Leninist line of concentrating on electrification and mechanization with an additional focus on irrigation.

Seeing the need to concentrate on increasing agricultural output, the state set aside heavy industrialization during the first four years of its Seven Year Plan (1961-67). By 1962, the state invested 15700 tractors and 622000 tons of fertilizer to produce 5 million tons of food.

Written in 1963, Kuark’s paper reveals interesting statistics and data on North Korea’s progress in expanding agricultural output. It reveals that while there was constant growth in agricultural output, there were significant inefficiencies. This paper also shows how much the North Koreans had focused on mechanization and fertilizer application prior to the adoption of the 1964 Rural Theses – These are core points that go to further bolster the DPRK Food Policy blog’s position that North Korea’s agricultural problems are not agronomical but political.

Overall, this paper is an extremely valuable snapshot of a country reeling from an economic catastrophe, looking to radically increase their wellbeing – a situation that modern observers would find all too familiar.

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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
This entry was posted in literature Review and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Summary: Kuark’s North Korea’s Agricultural Development during the Post-War Period

  1. Really interesting and detailed, if a little depressing to read about!

    • Yong Kwon says:

      Yes, quite depressing. Unfortunately this is really the calm before the storm if you consider what follows in the 1990s

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