Game-Changing Agricultural Policies for North Korea?

While there has been periodic speculation since Kim Jong Un took power about his appetite for reform, a recent development may foretell substantial changes for North Korea’s agricultural sector. On February 6-7, 2014, North Korea held its first national conference of farm sub-work team leaders in Pyongyang.[1] The conference was reported by KCNA six times, including the full text of Kim Jong Un’s instructions to the group in three languages and the publication of commemorative photographs of thousands of attendees with the Supreme Leader.[2] Kim’s personal attention and the presence of other high ranking officials[3] strongly indicates that the policies previewed at the meeting represent the direction of agricultural development for at least the immediate future. Implementation remains uncertain, but Kim’s letter suggests game-changing modifications to farm policy.

Building on the Legacy

Kim’s letter begins by invoking the “Theses on the Socialist Rural Question in Our Country,” which was penned by Kim Il Sung some 50 years ago, and defined how to develop agriculture in the North. The conference attendees, many likely visiting Pyongyang for the first time, were taken to pay their respects at important revolutionary shrines such as the statues on Mansu Hill, Kim Il Sung’s birthplace at Mangyongdae, and the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery. Continuity of leadership and ideology were the clear messages.

Invoking the past, the letter asserts that the same “perfect answers”[4] given by Kim Il Sung’s “immortal classic” will continue to guide policy. His theses posited the development of modern agriculture by relying on four rural technical revolutions: mechanization, irrigation, electrification and intensive use of agricultural chemicals. Not unique to the DPRK, this approach was the foundation of rapid growth of agricultural production through the early 1980s, but also planted the seeds for the eventual collapse of the DPRK farming sector. Dependence on the intensive and inefficient use of energy resources left farms extremely vulnerable to the loss of fuel and fertilizer that occurred in the early 1990s, precipitating a general economic collapse.

In the letter, Kim Jong Un extols successes in the development of rural areas, reaffirming the need for increased mechanization, intensive use of agrochemicals and modern efficient irrigation. He calls for the countryside to promote the ideological, technological and cultural revolutions, with ideology taking the fore “so as to arm all the agricultural working people with Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism…” Furthermore, the accompanying cultural revolution will turn rural villages “into a civilized and beautiful socialist (paradise).” Moreover, agriculture is named “a major thrust of our effort in building an economic giant,” and the Juche farming method created by Kim Il Sung and led by Kim Jong Il remains the perfect way to resolve the rural social question. For good measure, Kim blames the imperialists for food shortages and calls for a patriotic effort to overcome attempts to “undermine the faith in socialism.”

So far, nothing new here, but in fact, Kim is probably writing to establish his politico-historical bonifides and to implicitly assert that the rest of the message is firmly anchored in Juche ideology. We all know that the slogans painted on the barn wall do not change. Moreover, Kim is engaging in the standard shifting of responsibility away from any inherent faults in Juche farming. But he also asserts that a strong and successful military and political ideological foundation is protecting the North, a claim that can be used to justify changed farming policies that might otherwise seem contrary or dangerous to the system.[5]

Some Policies Will Continue

Kim’s letter addresses at least some of the policy details. Much will remain the same. For example:

  • Productivity will continue to rely on improved mechanization, efficient irrigation, better electricity supply and the wide use of agrochemicals. Nothing wrong with this, so long as it is more economically and environmentally sustainable than in the past.
  • Grain production remains a key focus, even at the cost of reduced area to other crops. Unfortunately this approach emphasizes short-term calorie production rather than developing a diversified and more resilient farming system.
  • The quota system will remain (but it appears there may be changes in how it is applied). One key question is how quotas will be applied at the sub-work team level, and whether they will be too rigid to allow for local innovation.
  • Multiple cropping (growing two or more crops on the same field in one year) remains firmly ensconced, especially grain-to-grain rotations, despite its unsustainable demands on the soil. This has been an emergency strategy for coping with food shortages but should not be widely used without an entirely revised approach to managing soil fertility.
  • Farms are still instructed to apply 20 to 30 tons of manure per hectare with no practical consideration of where this much manure can be obtained, or how it can be transported.
  • Farms are still exhorted to do more with less (“launch a vigorous drive for doing farming by [their] own efforts”), and at the same time, the state should step up support for the countryside, and “party guidance to the agriculture sector should be strengthened.”

But Change is in the Wind

Kim’s letter also calls for changes, both subtle and potentially significant.

A renewed call to implement a revolution in seeds is accompanied for the first time with a clear statement that high yield is not the only criterion for selecting good seed: a short growing period, efficient uptake of available fertilizer and pest resistance are now also listed as considerations. These criteria have actually been used by some DPRK plant breeders for several years, but are now given Kim’s public stamp of approval. This should lead to seed varieties that are more suited to the environmental conditions and less dependent on super high fertilizer applications.

With regard to Juche farming, long described as planting the right crop in the right field at the right time, Kim says that every land parcel is different, and that the crop grown as well as the timing of farming tasks (planting, harvest, etc.) must be in accordance with the conditions of that particular parcel and the weather of that year, rather than dictated in general by rigid county or province plans. This change by itself could give farmers much needed flexibility to adapt their cropping strategy to changing local conditions.

Organic farming is extolled as the future of productive agriculture, and farmers who erroneously believe they cannot do their job without chemical fertilizer are criticized. In the North, “organic farming” means increased use of organic methods, but not necessarily 100 percent organic production. In that context, Kim strongly calls for more balanced fertilizer application, specifically including phosphate, potash and micro-nutrients. This has long been recommended by the international aid community to little effect either at the farm level or in the supply chain, but now stands a chance of being implemented if appropriate fertilizers can be produced or procured.

Integrating animal husbandry and crop farming is also recommended, in order to have enough manure to apply to the fields, though there is no discussion of how that can be practically managed or how enough livestock feed will be produced locally.

Agroforestry and the protection of sloping lands is strongly recommended (a good thing), but is linked to increased grain production, a contradictory idea as annual grain crops should not be grown on hillsides because of erosion. Another contradiction is seen in the call to increase production of vegetables and fruit, while in the same breath farmers are told to “reduce the area of cultivation of non-cereal crops…”

Decentralizing Management and Compensation

Technical concerns about North Korean farming, however, have in the past been far outweighed by institutional obstacles. Farmers have been paid only a small fraction of the open market value for any surplus grain production and, lacking both convertible currency and access to a market for agricultural supplies, have been unable to make investments in improved productivity even when they did produce a surplus or profit. Kim’s letter at least partly acknowledges this situation. He criticizes the distribution of inputs and assignment of targets to work units without taking into consideration the characteristics of their fields, and calls on farmers to “remove the tendency to insist on old experience and make light of science and technology.”

Kim goes on to hint at some significant changes. First, sub-work team leaders now appear to be empowered for practical farm management, both by virtue of this large-scale meeting as well as five specific tasks named by Kim. They are exhorted to “become active defenders, propagators and implementers of our Party’s agricultural policies and Juche farming method.” They should be better versed than anyone in Juche policies, be masters of their sub-work teams and work harder than anyone else. They should be knowledgeable in modern scientific agriculture and bold in introducing new methods. They should be “dutiful caretakers of public property of their farms.” And finally they should become the elder brothers and sisters of their team members, looking after them as their own kin (which they likely are).

Kim then appears to begin to unveil a policy that if actually implemented, could be a game-changer. He argues that the superior sub-work team system created by President Kim Il Sung and implemented by Kim Jong Il, “encourages farmers to take part in production and management as befitting masters with the feeling of attachment to the collective economy.” (The Korean 주인 translated as “masters” can also mean “owners,” but here seems to refer to control and mastery rather than property rights.[6]) Kim Jong Un adds that a “field responsibility system” has been created within the sub-work team management system “so as to inspire farmers with enthusiasm for production.” No further details are given, but the term 포전, referring to a specific field or plot, suggests that families may be given long-term responsibility for production on designated plots of land. It appears that Kim is trying to motivate the grass-roots with economic as well as ideological incentives.

Kim continues with a statement that requires quoting as a whole:

What is important in operating the sub-work team management system is to strictly abide by the socialist principle of distribution. Equalitarianism in distribution [평균주의, literally “mean average-ism”] has nothing to do with the socialist principle of distribution and has a harmful effect of diminishing farmers’ enthusiasm for production. Sub-work teams should assess the daily work-points of their members accurately and in good time according to the quantity and quality of the work they have done. And they should, as required by the socialist principle of distribution, share out their grain yields to their members mainly in kind according to their work-points after counting out the amounts set by the state. The state should define reasonable amounts of grains for compulsory delivery on the basis of accurate calculation of the country’s demand for grains, interests of farmers and their demands for living, thereby ensuring that they make redoubled efforts with confidence. (Emphasis added.)

Does this mean that farmers will receive food and cash in accordance with their production? Will the state’s share be moderated enough to provide an incentive for farmers to work harder? At this point we do not know and history has taught us to be cautious. But this policy statement comes unambiguously from the top and appears to legitimate economic incentives to individuals to increase effort and production. Every cooperative farm is called upon to identify model sub-work teams which others should strive to out-do. Local competition seems to be encouraged. Farmers and team leaders are directed to be “masters” of their farms, with a sense of management control and independent action, and therefore of enthusiasm.

Dodging the R-word

But before we skip giddily down the path crying “reform,” other important questions need to be answered. Will farms actually receive the resources they need? In the KCNA article on February 7, which reports the closing of this conference, the ministers of the metallurgical and chemical industries committed to producing the steel and agrochemicals needed. But serious issues of industrial capacity have to be addressed before that can happen as well as how much grain the state will require from the farms and what sub-work teams will be allowed to do with any surplus production. Will they be allowed to legally sell it, and if so, at what prices? Will they be allowed to seek resources (i.e. equipment, seed, fertilizer, etc.) on the market? Under the field responsibility system, will a team have enough confidence that it will farm the same parcel(s) of land for many years that it will be willing to make the long-term investment in improving the soil in those fields?

Despite all these concerns, the government appears serious about changing key policies for the farm sector. Some of the changes listed above have reportedly been implemented in select areas of the country over the last two years. Have they had the desired effect, and is there now a commitment to move forward more widely? The number of grass-roots leaders involved, the presence of important political leaders, and the timing of the conference (far enough before spring planting that sub-work teams can actually implement the new system this year) all suggest a commitment to change. That may not be enough, however. The changes (which are bound to be disruptive and unevenly implemented in the short-term) will have to be given enough time to have an effect on the rural economy, rather than being second-guessed and pulled back after only one season. But for now, it is time to be hopeful that some of the structural obstacles to agricultural modernization will be removed.


[1] Sub-work teams are the smallest management groups in the DPRK farming system, and after recent changes are comprised of less than 20 workers. Team leaders are thus the bottom, field level rung of the management system.

[2] Included are eight photos of more than 1000 attendees in each, seen standing in bleachers behind the seated leadership. See http://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/kim-jong-un-attends-photo-op-with-agricultural-subteam-conference-participants/.

[3] Officials listed as attending included Premier Pak Pong Ju, Ro Tu Chol (Vice Premier and Chair of State Planning Commission), Ri Mu Yong (Vice Premier and Minister of Chemical Industry), Jang Jong Nam (Minister of Defense), Kim Ki Nam (Korean Workers’ Party [KWP] Secretary and Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department), Kim Pyong Hae (KWP Secretary and Director of the Cadres’ Affairs Department), Kwak Pom Gi (KWP Secretary and Director of the Finance and Planning Department), Jo Yon Jun (Senior Deputy Director of the KWP Organization Guidance Department), Ri Jae Il (Senior Deputy Director of the KWP Propaganda and Agitation Department), Ri Chol Man (Vice Premier and Minister of Agriculture), Choe Thae Bok (Secretary of the KWP and Chair of the Supreme People’s Assembly) and the chief secretaries of KWP Provincial Committees.

[4] This and all other quotes are from the English translation of the letter published by KCNA on Feb 7, 2014.

[5] Robert Carlin, personal communication, February 11, 2014.

[6] I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dong-kyu Lim and Sun-young Ahn in clarifying the Korean text.

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