North Korea requires assistance to improve agricultural infrastructure

Farmers on the Chilgol Vegetable Farm in Mangyongdae District, Pyongyang. Image: Yonhap News Agency

The expected harvest from the Paeksong Farm in Pyongsog, a major barley producing region, is only expected to reach half of the state-set agricultural yields. Although the state-set yields are always higher than the actual harvest, the state still takes away its set amount as the compulsory recipient of 30% of whatever is harvested. Paeksong Farm is not the only farm in the region in dire straits: 13 other local farms are in difficulties as well.

The People’s Committee and farmers business committee members decided on the expected crop yields for a second time in late October, but the harvests did not even meet the first expected harvest yields that were decided upon. Agricultural officials were criticized in early September for having reported harvest estimates that were too low, which led the local Party apparatus, People’s Committee and even the prosecutor’s office to readjust the yield estimates. The readjustment, however, only led to an even lower yield estimate than the first.

The process of deciding on expected harvest amounts is a regular policy process in North Korea’s farming communities during the fall harvest season. There has been, however, some changes that are worth mentioning. In the 1970s and 1980s, agricultural officials inflated their expected harvest amounts in an attempt to gain praise from the central government. In the 1990s, however, the entire situation on the ground changed.

In accordance with the state’s plans to purchase the harvest (whose estimates had been inflated) most of the harvest was used for the military, so farmers took the grain seeds that remained for themselves. Moreover, there was a halt in the supply of manure, pesticides, spare parts for farm equipment, plastic film and other supplies required for agriculture, so the farmers had to sell their harvested rice in the markets to pay for farming materials. This created a situation where the authorities tried to create as low estimates of the harvest yields as possible so that the central government would not take as much.

This year, the authorities expected that the harvest would be lower than in the past years and predicted as a result that grain prices would increase, so they are now trying to obtain as much of the fall harvest for use during the winter as possible. Some farmers are even trying to obtain potatoes through private business as they continue their own harvesting in the fields.

Kim Il Sung said during a Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) general plenary in 1976 that “We can become rich if we produce 10 million tons of grains. Honestly speaking, even 5 million tons of grains would be more than enough for us to live. If we produce 10 million tons of grains then the entire population can eat their fill and we can save a lot of food.” However, during the Kim Jong Il era, the amount of grain harvested fell to 2 million tons before recovering gradually. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated last year that North Korea’s total grain production was 5.15 million tons. It thus appears that Kim Jong Un’s move to reduce the size of farm work units (pojon tamdangjae) has had some effect.

North Korea has a total agricultural area of 1.91 million jongbo (approx 18.9 million square meters). So what is the most fundamental issue the country is facing? The issues are the poor state of the agricultural infrastructure and the inflexibility of the existing agricultural management methods.

North Korean agriculture is based on the socialist collective management system. Ownership is possessed by the collective, but there is no autonomy permitted amongst the farmers because agricultural management runs through collective farm business committees. In other words, agriculture in North Korea is managed through unilateral orders and control in accordance with state plans.

The implementation of the “vegetable garden responsibility system” has created some change in this management structure, but this new policy has not led to a shift towards a management structure where the autonomy of the farmers has been properly guaranteed. The policy has led to some changes in the production structure, but the agriculture system is still led and controlled by the state through collective farms. Farmers are treated as little less than robotic units of labor.

North Korea’s agricultural infrastructure is in a poor state of affairs and needs to be reformed. The poor state of infrastructure has made farms vulnerable to natural disasters and inefficiencies. The state authorities need to work on creating an infrastructure that allows proper cultivation of farmland, steady access to water for farm use, and efforts to address erosion.

A comprehensive agricultural policy for economic development must be implemented. North Korea, however, doesn’t have the technology or money to do this itself. It will need support from the international community and South Korea. North Korea’s regions need to implement a comprehensive development support project that links together agriculture and livestock, reforestation, health with nutrition, residence with public welfare, and energy and infrastructure.

This plan would allow the regions to manage the storage, manufacture, distribution and sale of agricultural products while encouraging them to make decisions on production goals dependent on market demand. In tandem, a highly-efficient agricultural production “base” would be constructed on the basis of a “ringed circulatory production system” that takes advantage of the complex management of agriculture, livestock and forests and other natural resources. The provision of the technology, materials and food required to meet success in the early stages, along with the implementation of an autonomous management responsibility system later on would guarantee the stable production of food.

Inter-Korean cooperation and exchanges in the areas of agriculture and livestock would allow North Korea to become the site of an experiment to intensify economic growth on the Korean Peninsula, and would play a comprehensive role in developing local economies. It would also be important to implement a program in each region, rather than on a national scale, to invigorate the development of agriculture, livestock, forests and fishing.

Short-term humanitarian needs in North Korea must be met by South Korea at all times, but the strengthening of North Korea’s ability to develop its farmland is the most fundamental way to improve the country’s economic situation. It would also be the best long-term strategy to eradicate North Korea’s poor food situation and ensure quality of life. Fundamentally resolving North Korea’s “right-to-life” issues in its farming regions is the most important way to improve human rights in the country.

*The author is originally from North Korea.

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