Developing the DPRK through agriculture

38 North
Randall Ireson


Despite continuing food shortages in the DPRK, the 2012 New Year’s Joint Editorial and other statements related to the succession of Kim Jong Un suggest there will be no new approaches to revitalizing North Korean agriculture. The editorial labeled the food problem “a burning issue in building a thriving country,” but allocated fewer than 150 words (of 5500) to that issue, only exhorting the masses to increase yields, implement crop rotations, and increase production of farm machinery and farm inputs.

Yet agriculture could lead a revival of the DPRK economy if appropriate policy changes were implemented. The technical means of improving farm production in the DPRK have been known for years. And if farms could use income earned from increased production to purchase improved machinery and other supplies needed for modern agriculture, a virtuous circle of investment in the farms plus support to small industry could lead to the modernization of both sectors. Government investment combined with some international assistance could stimulate sustainable increases in productivity and better incomes for workers on the farms and in related industries.

A few recent projects point the way to a sustainable and highly productive agricultural sector. But without changes in the institutions and infrastructure that support agriculture, there is no hope for any substantial improvement in food security. The leadership succession offers an opportunity to continue and augment some necessary changes begun under Kim Jong Il, though not if consolidation of the new leadership is founded on a reflexive insistence on ideological orthodoxy.

Fifteen years of international aid programs to the agriculture sector have brought a very good understanding of the difficulties faced by DPRK farms as well as the means to overcome them. There are no technical obstacles to greatly increased farm productivity. Nothing exceptional is required-only the widespread application of commonplace good farming practices. A few examples will suffice:

*applying lime to the fields to offset acid soils would increase yields by 20-40%;
*rotating cereal crops (especially maize and wheat) with legumes such as soy or green manure crops would increase yields by around 10%;
*using better seeding equipment would increase yields by around 10% because of better germination and appropriate spacing between each plant;
*using the methods of SRI (system of rice intensification) in paddy fields can increase rice yields by over 20% with no other inputs; and
*conservation agriculture (low tillage farming) would reduce soil erosion, save fuel, and improve soil quality.

These practices are neither difficult nor complex, and many farms in the DPRK already know of and are beginning to adopt these methods. Yet most of these practices are still isolated exceptions because despite their clear benefit, farms lack the support infrastructure and economic resources to implement them fully. The DPRK has largely completed its demographic transition from a rural to an urban society, thus surplus rural labor is not available to offset the loss of industrial support to agriculture. Farms need machinery and fuel as well as the other inputs of modern farming. Use of lime depends on fuel to haul the crushed limestone from quarries. Lack of tractor power makes land preparation slow and difficult, thus impeding the use of off-season green manures or of double cropping. Farms mostly do not have modern seeders for maize, soybean, or wheat. Seed placement by hand is neither uniform nor at a regular depth, causing crowded plants and uneven germination. Use of SRI is impeded by the lack of inexpensive plastic trays that ease handling of the very young rice seedlings…



Comments are closed.

An affiliate of 38 North