North Korea’s plans to modernize food production

The North Korean authorities continue to promote Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address in a bid to rally support for the young leader and his policies. As the first official announcement by the North Korean leadership in 2017, the speech contains an evaluation of progress made in 2016 and provides a glimpse of the direction that the young leader might take in regards to foreign policy this year.  
This analysis will focus on the statements made with regards to North Korea’s agriculture, livestock, and fisheries industries.

2016 Performance Evaluation 
In this year’s Address, Kim Jong Un provided some general remarks on last year’s performance. It appears that specific comments could not be made, possibly due to a lack of tangible achievements. Bad news has historically been omitted from specific reference. For example, while Typhoon Bolaven displaced 30,000 people in the summer of 2012 and destroyed about 12,000 hectares of farmland, the event was not mentioned in the 2013 New Year’s Address.
Until 2015, Kim Jong Un showed a preference for using the phrase, “improving the lives of the people,” a broad and somewhat abstract expression. From 2016, he began to use words like “construction” and “overcome” more frequently, possibly due to the failure of the 2014 May 30th Measures to produce major improvements. 
In 2016, North Korea produced a total of 4.81 million tons of grain, representing a 7% increase compared to 2015. At the first Joseon Agricultural Worker’s Alliance Conference hosted in 34 years, the superiority of North Korea’s “juche agriculture” was said to be responsible for this increase. However, when placed in proper context, the increase is not particularly significant as the country produced 4.8 million tons of grain in 2014. So 2016’s production level represents only a minor increase from that. The fact that the New Year’s Address made specific reference to the advances made in 2016 in agriculture, livestock, and fisheries may be an attempt rally support from domestic and international audiences in the face of strong international sanctions against the regime.

Agricultural Policy Targets 
After 2013, Kim Jong Un repeatedly stated that the country would focus on improving the people’s lives through increasing food production (agriculture, livestock, and fisheries). However, the 2017 message focused on “using scientific approaches to produce high-yield crops.” This is a reflection of the Party’s intent to replace generalized plans with specific goals. 
The idea of scientific agriculture in North Korea rests on seven foundational principles, including: 
1). The accomplishments of juche agriculture
2). Double-crop supply 
3). Seed revolution
4). Use of organic fertilizer
5). Land readjustment 
6). Improving repair capabilities
7). Enhancing mechanization
However, North Korea’s agricultural infrastructure and equipment has been deteriorating. Climate change and natural disasters have hit the country’s farms particularly hard. 
The Agricultural Sector
In 2014 and 2015, emphasis in the New Year’s Address was placed on agricultural facilities and equipment. To increase production, upgrades were made to 40,000 acres of cold weather fields. The Tideland Construction Alliance Company built a seawall in South Hwanghae Province and the adjacent farmland was expanded, a significant attempt to improve the country’s food production.  
After 2014, the New Year’s Address was used to highlight the importance of improving the agricultural sector by producing vegetables and mushrooms in greenhouses. According to a July 16, 2013 article by the Party-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun, Kim Jong Un ordered troops to construct a mushroom factory. Kim later visited the factory, which was completed in June 2013. Mushrooms were rationalized as a good choice, because they are high in protein, cheaper to produce than meat, and perceived to be a healthy addition to the people’s diet. The greenhouse approach presumably allows the authorities to continue mushroom production all year round. 
The Livestock Sector
The Kim Jong Un regime continues to ambitiously pursue projects including the Chongchon River Terraced Power Station in North Pyongan Province and an animal husbandry center in Saepo County, Kangwon Province. Construction of the animal husbandry center began in 2014 and was completed in 2016. The 2017 New Year’s Address noted that policies were laid out to ensure scientific methods can be used to improve animal husbandry and fruit/vegetable/mushroom production. 
In Kangwon Province, the authorities enacted a plan to combine food production with tourism by building tourist facilities at the Saepo County animal husbandry center and a fruit factory in Kosan Country. It appears likely that the authorities believe that agriculture and livestock breeding advances will become mutually beneficial.   
The authorities also plan to use the Saepo County animal husbandry center to improve grass production for use as livestock feed. They hope to develop a grass cultivar that can be harvested 4-6 times per year to maximize efficiency. They also plan to develop a species that can grow better in riverside areas and on hilly slopes. The Rodong Sinmun and North Korea’s KCNA television network have also touted the Saepo County center’s high production of lamb.  
In the 2015 New Year’s Address, agriculture, livestock, and marine products were emphasized, but a limit remains as to what can be accomplished through labor mobilization alone. Today, North Korea still struggles to generate “virtuous cycles of production” by linking agriculture with livestock in effective ways. 

The Fisheries Sector
In December 2013, Kim Jong Un again stressed the importance of improving seafood production. In 2014, he inspected the 534th Troop’s refrigerated seafood storage facility. 
In the 2017 New Year’s Address, the fisheries industry received more mentions than most other food production sectors. In particular, Kim pledged to build a comprehensive and modern fisheries production base on the east coast. In 2015, Kim provided on the spot guidance at the May 9th Catfish Factory, the Pyongyang Catfish Factory, and the Sanchon Catfish Factory. In the Address he announced the need to improve and expand farming practices at aquafarms. 
It is believed that the North Korean authorities picked catfish due to their rapid reproduction rate and high protein content. The regime is predicting that the fisheries sector will be instrumental in the response to food shortage problems, explaining the significant resources directed towards its development.   
Kim Jong Un is talking more confidently about food production than he did in years past. However, chronic food shortages remain . 
North Korea has been unable to draw the foreign investment and capital that it had expected for its agricultural programs. The international community can improve the humanitarian situation by providing agricultural support, however, the country also needs help in achieving self-sufficiency. 
For this reason, agricultural cooperation should be considered. Since 1995, North Korea has tried a number of times to reform its agricultural sector, but these efforts have fallen short due to limited funding. 
To improve the situation, North Korea will need to reform and open at the same time as the outside world contributes assistance. From a realistic perspective, however, this seems unlikely. North Korea understands that opening and reforms present a threat to the status quo and the international community is now aware of the risks in investing in the North. 
Accordingly, there is a need for South Korea to begin preparations to establish small and medium sized collaborative agricultural projects with the North that teach its farmers modern practices and provide them with technology and capital. With this type of foundation, it will be possible for the North to increase food production and productivity, and improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans. 
Although the North-South relationship will likely continue to degrade in 2017, the South should nonetheless endeavor to develop a strategy for agricultural cooperation and support. 
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK