Why Kim Jong-un “came back” at a fertilizer factory

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The choice of a fertilizer factory inspection as the place for Kim Jong-un to “return” after his three-week absence was no coincidence. On May 2nd, Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim had toured and cut the tape at the Sunchon Fertilizer Factory. To do this in the month of May especially is highly symbolic, and we should understand it as a signal that Kim and the state are very serious about alleviating North Korea’s perpetually difficult food situation.

Sure, in the budget report at the Supreme People’s Assembly in the middle of last month, the claim was repeated of a bumper harvest last year. This claim is extremely unlikely to be true, as the numbers show, but should not be read literally in any case. Indeed, given North Korea’s economic situation, the food situation is remarkably stable, although always difficult. But still, these two claims aren’t necessarily inherently contradictory. Kim can claim a bumper harvest while also working to stabilize the food situation over the long run. Fertilizer has long been an achilles’ heel for North Korean agriculture, and historically the country has been highly dependent on chemical fertilizer. One of the main catalysts for the famine in the 1990s was the Soviet Union and China cutting of oil subsidies. North Korea’s ability to produce such fertilizers, whose production process is very energy-intensive, subsequently collapsed. The Rodong article announcing Kim’s “return”, unsurprisingly, highlights the completion of the fertilizer factory as a victory for North Korea’s independence and self-reliance.

This focus on fertilizers is not unique in North Korean media. Just the other day, on May 5th, an article in Rodong lauded the factory construction as a crucial step for North Korea to remain independent and reject “reform and opening”. Another the same day covered a new organic fertilizer factory in Sinyang County. Articles about fertilizer factories – particularly organic ones – have been highly prolific, especially since around 2016. That focus also isn’t new. The extensive use of chemical fertilizer damaged North Korea’s soil badly, and Kim Jong-il once gave an entire speech wholly focused on the supremacy of organic fertilizers.

Just like the focus on fertilizers, it’s no coincidence that it happens in May. This month marks the beginning of the main planting season in North Korea. The food security situation is already concerning, not least with the country’s coronavirus prevention measures keeping crucial shipments of agricultural inputs such as seeds reportedly backed up and waiting to enter the country. China has previously provided crucial fertilizer aid to North Korea (in addition to grain shipments), and perhaps still does so. But with China highly concerned about keeping re-infections out, as well as watching out for its own stability first and foremost, it may be more reluctant than it otherwise would to provide aid to North Korea to make up for a difficult harvest, should it be necessary.

Moreover, a significant question mark remains around North Korea’s fertilizer production efforts. Oil is still a central input for fertilizer manufacturing, as well as for irrigation efforts. How does North Korea intend to operate and power factories such as the one Kim visited in the long run? Regardless of what factories it builds, resources scarcity will continue to be a significant stumbling block for now.*

 

*(For some reading related to this issue, see the recent debate between Hazel Smith and James Kelly at PacNet.)

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