agricultural greenhouse
Farmers grow vegetables in a greenhouse in North Korea. / Image: Yonhap News Agency

Since assuming power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has traditionally given a New Year address every year. These New Year addresses generally followed the same order: last year’s achievements, objectives for the upcoming year, and specific business or project goals for each economic field. 

In an unusual break from this tradition, 2020 has not been accompanied by a New Year speech. Instead, North Korea substituted Kim’s New Year address with the Jan. 1 publication of a report outlining the results of the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), which was held from Dec. 28 to Dec. 31. 

Kim presented 2019’s agricultural achievements at the plenary session, highlighting the following key achievements: an unprecedented bumper harvest despite adverse climate conditions; the completion of the Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery; and the construction of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory. With regards to the call to “drastically increase the agricultural production” at the plenary meeting, the report made the following remarks: 

Calling the agricultural front the main battlefront of the frontal breakthrough campaign, Workers’ Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un stressed the need to adopt scientific farming methods and stimulate the bumper crop fever with greater vigor. He also underlined key points in the efforts to bring about a new change in each and every agricultural field including livestock and fruit farming: the need to strengthen agricultural science and technology and support for agricultural science research organizations; the need to promote the development of human talent in the agricultural sciences; the need to comprehensively complete the irrigation of farms (including produce, livestock, fruit, and silkworm farming), thereby furnishing an agricultural infrastructure free from poor harvests; the need to increase the mechanization of agricultural processes and manage the country’s farmland from a single point in a unified fashion.

In summation, the tasks laid out here are: the expansion of agricultural science research institutions; the nurturing of agricultural science talent; the completion of irrigation systems in agricultural management; increased usage of agricultural machinery; the unified management of farmland; and new changes in livestock and fruit farming. Although the report failed to lay out specifics, Rodong Sinmun articles published before and after the plenary session offer clues to the specific direction of North Korea’s agricultural policy. 

EXPANDING THE NUMBER OF AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE RESEARCH INSTITUTES

A Dec. 27 Rodong Sinmun article reported that “the Provincial Agricultural Science Research Institute and the Wonsan Namsae Research Branch were refurbished.” The article stated that “at the Provincial Agricultural Science Research Institute, there are equipment and facilities such as a corn research laboratory, soil analysis laboratory, and an exhibition building showing the achievements of science [for agricultural purposes].” It also reported that “at the Wonsan Namsae Research Branch, there is an administrative building housing various laboratories and seed storage facilities, along with a garage and agricultural machinery storage facilities.” 

The article emphasized that “agricultural science research institutions can solve the scientific and technical problems associated with the scientific systematization and optimization of agricultural production and lead the way in scientific agriculture.” This shows that North Korea had been striving to invest in agricultural science research institutions even before the plenary session.

In other words, North Korea is trying to increase agricultural production by developing agricultural science research institutions outfitted with technology and equipment that can enable the creation of new breeds of corn and other crops. North Korea has apparently laid down a solid foundation for its ultimate objective of increasing agricultural productivity. 

CONSIDERATIONS FOR IMPROVING AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION

In two articles published in late December entitled “The ideological justification for the five main elements of the agricultural advancement announced by the Party,” and “The basic demands of the Party’s ideology relating to the five main elements of agricultural advancement,” the Rodong Sinmun emphasized the need to “farm well and dramatically increase agricultural production.” It also outlined the following five policies: stringent implementation of the Party’s “seed revolution” directive; the irrigation, mechanization, and scientific systematization of farming; the active implementation of the movement to find new farmland; development of solutions to increase grain production in low yield areas; and the strengthening of Party guidance in agricultural matters. 

The fact that irrigation projects comprise the biggest part of the many initiatives to increase agricultural production is unsurprising. Although high-quality seed varieties and ample farming materials and equipment are essential to stable farming, collective farms are nonetheless facing economic difficulties that they must solve on their own.

Additionally, North Korea’s government classifies the country’s farmland into eight distinct agricultural districts, emphasizing the “Juche” (self-reliance) agriculture principle of planting and growing crops according to their unique characteristics as well as the specific conditions of the region. Yet, collective farm managers are still unable to freely choose the crops they produce. In order to properly incorporate farming techniques such as precision agriculture technology or scientific measurement and analysis, there needs to be a shift toward fourth industrial revolution-driven smart farms and machinery that women and the elderly can easily operate. 

In order to solve the food shortage crisis, North Korea is focusing its efforts on expanding farmland. Farming machinery is required to improve the efficiency of farmers, and water for agricultural use is needed to effectively grow crops. There is also an imperative to build agricultural infrastructure that can mitigate natural disasters such as floods or droughts. North Korean farmers would be better served, however, if the focus was more on increasing production volume per unit area rather than going through the trouble of reclaiming land for agricultural production. Increasing the production levels of existing land will have the double advantage of reducing environmental damage and increasing agricultural production. 

A tractor on a farm in North Korea
A tractor on a farm in North Korea. / Image: Todd Mecklem, Creative Commons, Flickr

North Korea should also consider the importance of projects that can restore farmland lost to floods. The country’s agricultural officials should also consider redeveloping tillable mountainous land and rice paddies to increase its agricultural productivity. Rodong Sinmun articles suggest that North Korea appears ready to start a new project that would involve the planting of “more than 1,000 heads of grain per farm worker on previously unfarmed land.” What the farmers would actually do with all of those new crops is unknown. 

In addition, North Korea needs to improve its agricultural infrastructure by redeveloping low-yield farmland. In areas with high groundwater levels but poor drainage, North Korea should pursue projects to terraform wetlands and improve drainage. The soil quality of the farmland must be enhanced through measures such as soil covering or soil dressing.

Economic reform measures announced after Kim Jong Un took power, such as the May 30 Measure or the amendments to the Farm Law in June 30, 2014, and in 2015, are aimed at improving agricultural production at collective farms. The measures appear aimed at instilling a sense of responsibility and work ethic among collective farm workers with a view to boost agricultural productivity. 

INCREASING THE USE OF AGRICULTURAL MACHINERY

The Dec. 30 issue of Rodong Sinmun ran an article titled, “Goals for :ast Year’s People’s Economic Plan Exceeded” that reported production units under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agricultural Machinery Management Bureau achieved outcomes that amounted to meeting “110%” of the production goals outlined in the annual “People’s Economic Plan.” 

Agricultural machinery is one noteworthy method of decreasing reliance on human labor and increasing efficiency on farms. On more than one occasion in the past, Kim Jong Un has given instructions to go about farm work in a way that relieves the burden on human laborers. Although it is hard to know the exact status of the supply of raw materials and electricity to agricultural machinery factories, or how many machines are actually being allocated to collective farms, the article indicates that North Korea is nonetheless domestically manufacturing agricultural machinery parts and distributing them to farms. 

TOWARD THE “UNIFIED MANAGEMENT” OF FARMLAND

Kim Jong Un called for the “unified management” of farm land in the recent plenary session.

North Korea has not released specifics about how it currently manages the country’s farmland. According to a defector surnamed Cho, various government agencies such as the Ministry of Agriculture are managing the country’s arable land. 

Normally, farmland is managed by each provincial farm management committee’s land department, but any farmland cultivated by the military or other security agencies are managed by special agencies. Companies that rent farmland manage the land themselves, while some farmland is reportedly managed by the Ministry of Land and Environment Conservation.

It is expected that North Korea will move to consolidate these diffuse land management agencies into one entity. The unified management of farmland would enhance agricultural productivity by promoting efficient farmland usage and may suggest that North Korea plans to levy land usage fees.

NEW CHANGES IN LIVESTOCK AND FRUIT FARMING

On Jan. 3, the Rodong Sinmun published an op-ed entitled, “In the year of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Party, let us achieve a frontal breakthrough with the large strides of the large revolutionary army.” The piece once again emphasizes the items mentioned above: the expansion of agricultural science research institutions; the nurturing of agricultural sciences talent; the completion of farmland irrigation; and the increased usage of agricultural machinery.

Taedong pigs
Pigs at North Korea’s Taedong Pig Farm. / Image: DPRK Today’s Pinterest Feed

In regards to livestock farming, the op-ed asserts that “meat and egg production must be expanded by modernizing and revitalizing livestock facilities as well as newly developing the husbandry of herbivores in private homes.” Concerning fruit farming, the op-ed says that “fruit breeds should be expanded, while varied and delicious fruits should be produced in great numbers so that North Koreans and their children are able to eat their fill of seasonal fruits.”

In last year’s New Year address, North Korea highlighted the necessity of collective and part-time livestock farming. The mention of the modernization and revitalization of livestock farming facilities at the year-end plenary session appears to reflect a consciousness of normal operations occurring at the Sepo Stockbreeding Zone. North Korea is currently promoting the husbandry of herbivores such as sheep, goats and especially rabbits. Facing animal feed shortages, North Korea has chosen to focus on raising herbivores that do not require feed.

By expressing his affection for ordinary North Koreans and their children, Kim Jong Un appears to be trying to put forth the image of a kind and caring leader. In future North-South Korea livestock farming collaboration projects, there will need to be cooperative development of livestock species such as chicken or pigs as well as preparatory measures against livestock diseases such as African Swine Fever, including joint prevention and quarantine initiatives.    

PREVENTING DAMAGE FROM NATURAL DISASTERS

Kim Jong Un’s call for more preparation for natural disasters and preventing environmental damage is also worth noting. The entire world is currently greatly interested in climate change due to abnormal weather occurrences such as floods, droughts, and rising temperatures. North Korea is no different.

Typhoon Lingling
North Korean farmers in South Hwanghae Province cleaning up damaged farm field after Typhoon Lingling. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Every year, North Korea sustains damage to property and human life due to natural disasters like floods or droughts, with agricultural production in particular being severely affected. North Korean leaders are surely aware of the urgent threat posed by natural disasters and appear to be moving to establish a natural disaster emergency management system.

For this to succeed, North Korea urgently requires agricultural infrastructure that can ensure stable farming. North Korea’s current agricultural infrastructure, such as reservoirs or irrigation canals, is antiquated and not fully functional. In joint agricultural development efforts, South Korea must share its environmentally-friendly construction methods as well as agricultural techniques with North Korea. It should also consider cooperative projects in other diverse areas such as the establishment of emergency response plans and manuals for state-level emergency management systems. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

This article has conducted an overview of the specific plans North Korea presented at the year-end plenary session to improve its agricultural productivity. North Korea can independently tackle the legal and institutional needs to accomplish this. However, the country will face obstacles in ensuring a steady supply of seeds and agricultural materials, along with difficulties in completing the time-consuming task of improving its agricultural infrastructure. 

Both inter-Korean and US-North Korean relations are currently on thin ice. Inter-Korean cooperation in agricultural development must not stop because it holds the key to improving North Korea’s agricultural productivity. What ways forward are there in this situation?

North Korea holds great interest in agricultural science and technology. The country needs to increase scholarly exchange and cooperation in the agricultural field with other countries as they can help meet North Korea’s needs and provide a conduit to share the latest data and information. The outside world must make any and all attempts to create these opportunities with North Korea as they are key to increasing mutual trust between the country and the international community.

*Translated by Violet Kim and edited by Laura Geigenberger

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