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North Korea's potato gambit
By Jamie Miyazaki

TOKYO - The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for North Korea has warned that the World Food Program is at risk of running out of food in October - traditionally a lean period for food in the country.

Like much of North Korea's economy, the agricultural sector had been in slow decline since the 1980s following three decades of ill-advised policies that blindly pursued agricultural juche (self-reliance). The result was overuse of fertilizers, unsuitable crop choices, deforestation of hillsides and collectivized farms. But it was the floods of the mid-1990s that pushed northern agriculture over the edge, with food self-sufficiency hitting a nadir - about 60% what it had been in 1996.

Since then, North Korea, with the help of foreign non-governmental organizations, has made efforts at reforming its agricultural sector to increase harvests and stimulate the agro economy. Following three years of good harvests, food self-sufficiency is now estimated to hover at about 70%, with aid agencies attempting to make up the shortfall.

Experts credit the rise in food self-sufficiency to a number of factors: the loosening of collectivized agricultural policies, tentative liberalization of the agricultural economy, a switch to organic farming policies and promotion of crops more suited to North Korea's environment, and three years of favorable weather. However, as torrential rains in August demonstrated, the country's shaky agricultural sector remains hostage to the vagaries of the elements.

Baptism by fire or flooding
The government has loosened controls on cooperative farms that make up the bulk of the country's farms. Farmer teams have been streamlined from the more unwieldy teams of up to 25 workers to seven to 10-man teams. These "sub-work teams" can sell excess crops in markets.

Kathi Zelwegger of Caritas, a Catholic non-governmental organization (NGO) operating in North Korea, told Asia Times Online, "Farms are quite eager to plant a greater variety of cash crops." On a recent trip to the country, one farm manager told her that cooperative farms were "becoming money-centered" with more responsibilities being delegated to sub-work teams.

The shift to a more market-oriented attitude is attributable to economic reforms in 2002, which liberalized prices of basic goods to reflect more accurately their true value. This baptism by fire in market economics coupled with smaller, more independent farm sub-work teams has resulted in farmers becoming more motivated to increase production. As one North Korean farm manager explained, "It is easier, but the responsibilities are higher."

But to enhance productivity, cooperative farms in the North need further reforms. A UN environment program report last month cited problems of environmental degradation in North Korea. Excessive use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and over-planting of crops has taken a heavy toll on soil fertility. Economic decline, lack of fuel and raw materials have crippled what is left of the North Korean fertilizer industry and the country is now heavily reliant on fertilizer aid, especially from South Korea.

Ironically, this may be a blessing in disguise. Fertilizer shortages have triggered an increase in organic farming methods, a more judicious use of fertilizers when available and also spurred crop diversification.

The potato revolution
During Kim Il-sung's rule, rice and maize (corn) were promoted as the dietary staples for North Koreans, with the state going even as far as proclaiming "rice is communism". In North Korea's mountainous terrain, neither choice was astute. Maize was promoted as the main highland area crop. But this ignored wide differences in soil and weather in the northern mountainous areas and the necessity of fertile soils to ensure good harvests, contributing to excessive use of fertilizers. Nor, unfortunately, is rice particularly suited to the North's climate - only 30% of the available arable land is suitable for paddy fields. Indeed, the planting of rice on hillsides has actually exacerbated flooding.

But since 1999, North Korea, under Kim Jong-il's orders, has begun a program of crop diversification and launched a "potato revolution" promoting the humble spud as the new food of choice for its citizens. By planting potatoes with other vegetables or as a second winter crop in maize fields (double-cropping), North Korea hopes to attain its cherished goal of food self-sufficiency.

Reminiscent of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's sudden infatuation with maize after a visit to the corn fields of Iowa in the US in 1959, Kim's emphasis on potatoes for increased food security is a significant policy change. Unlike Khrushchev's maize gambit, potato production is actually a wise choice for malnourished North Koreans. Potatoes are far better suited to North Korea's climate, more nutritious than either rice or maize and require a third less fertilizer than maize.

NGOs and Christian aid groups such as World Vision and the Mennonite Central Committee Canada have been helping North Korean scientists and farmers develop high-starch, virus-resistant strains suitable for the environment and hydroponic farming techniques. World Vision estimates that new strains of potatoes that it is developing may be able to quadruple production to 40 tonnes per hectare. North Korea intends to harvest 8 million tonnes of potatoes by 2006, enough, theoretically, to solve its food shortages.

An unrealistic goal?
But some experts warn that North Korea's quest to solve its food shortfall and attain agricultural juche is naive. Dr Kenneth Quinones, a former US State Department official who dealt frequently with the North Korean regime, thinks the agricultural reforms have run their course. He believes further increases in agricultural self-sufficiency are likely to be small.

Even if North Korea improves its agricultural production efficiency, it is unlikely to eradicate food shortages. Agricultural self-sufficiency was a myth during the 1980s, according to South Korean experts and is even less likely today. Neither does diversification mean potatoes have been chosen as the major upland crop. Maize is still the major field crop, along with rice. And while potatoes require less fertilizer than maize, they still require a considerable amount of the stuff - more than North Korea can produce. Without more fuel, fertilizer and equipment, even the potato revolution is unlikely to fulfill its potential.

While the North Korean leadership has expressed contrition over the famine and attributed food shortages to natural disasters, these pseudo mea culpas do not mask the reality that the food crisis has persisted because of structural flaws in the North Korean economy and the nuclear crisis. As aid workers point out, the limited reforms, while being a boon to farmers, have created a whole new class of the needy - industrial workers - whose wages can't keep up with inflation. There have been rumors over the release of 10,000 won bills in order to keep pace with inflation.

North Korea will have to wait some time before it features in the Michelin Guide to fine cuisine. As one ethnic North Korean-Japanese car dealer who had visited North Korea recently told this writer, "The kimchi sucked." Perhaps it's time to order potato dauphinois .

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Sep 14, 2004

N Korean industrial park gamble on brotherhood (Sep 9, '04)

N Korean economic reforms a nonstarter (Sep 1, '04)

S Korea's perilous historical revisionism
(Aug 3, '04)


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