North Korea’s Agricultural Policies: Embracing a Chinese Model for Increased Productivity?

(Source: Korean Central News Agency)

Last fall, articles published by North Korean state media outlets such as Rodong Sinmun revealed a familiar priority in North Korea: mobilizing people to work in the fields while urging officials to ensure that agricultural equipment is operating at full capacity. Food supply is a critical issue for any government, as it can be directly linked to regime stability.[1] North Korea’s famine in the 1990s, for example, led to mass defections, while more recent food shortages have led to rising levels of crime and increasing absenteeism in workplaces and schools.

The North Korean government has shown an increasing sense of urgency to improve the country’s agricultural production. However, the country’s agricultural sector has long been plagued by a history of short-sighted and often contradictory policies, minimal incentives for both farmers and officials, and a lack of trust in the system due to corruption.

If North Korea’s leaders are serious about economic development in the long term, addressing these agricultural problems and, consequently, food security issues will be critical to the success and sustainability of any kind of economic reforms. China’s experience in this regard can be instructive for Pyongyang. Beginning in the early 1980s, China pushed reforms that broke up collective farms and allowed farmers to work hard in their own fields. As a result, the country was able to gradually solve its food issues and increase productivity. While North Korea faces shortages of fertilizer and equipment more severe than China did, North Korean officials should look to the Chinese model’s emphasis on farmers’ ownership of land as part of efforts to improve the country’s food security.

Kim Jong Un’s Contradictory Agricultural Policies

Since gaining power in 2011, the Kim Jong Un government has persistently endeavored to transform the country’s agricultural sector. North Korea’s Farm Law, first enacted in December 2009, has been amended or supplemented no fewer than 10 times.[2] Amendments throughout the 2010s into 2020 were enacted to expand farm autonomy, differentiating and decentralizing farms, expanding privately cultivated land, and distributing portions of collective farmland to agencies and enterprises for cultivation. However, North Korea did not boldly implement these measures: their implementation operated to avoid potentially regime-destabilizing elements, including, for example, the expansion of the concept of private property.

Despite baby steps toward relinquishing some control, North Korean authorities implemented measures to tighten control over private agricultural activities after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. For example, a 2021 amendment to the Agricultural Law defined farms as “socialist agricultural enterprises” to emphasize the “collective” nature of farms. In addition, in 2022, amendments to the Agricultural Law emphasized the so-called duties of collective farms, including achieving expected crop yields and fulfilling mandatory grain purchase plans.

North Korea revised the Farm Law yet again in September 2023 as part of an attempt to alter the Individual Field Responsibility System to better encourage productivity among farmers. Although the August 2023 amendment made some steps towards expanding private farming, it simultaneously included plans to increase government management and control. This trend suggests that the collective farming system will likely remain the norm for most North Korean farms and that reforms to fully transition to private farming will only come at a glacial pace.

In tandem with moves to increase control over agricultural activities, the Kim government has tightened controls over food distribution and sales and “taken steps to further regulate markets, including measures to force market vendors to register their businesses.” This suggests North Korea’s government aims to centralize control of food production, distribution, and sales amid a broader drive to reexert control over the nation’s economy. However, North Korea’s history of cobbled-together policies aimed at reexerting control has failed to incentivize anyone in the system to be productive. Instead, the government’s drive for control has led to widespread corruption and lack of trust, which has hindered the effectiveness of the country’s agricultural policies.

Rampant Corruption Takes its Toll

North Korea’s chronic level of corruption would hamper even the most well-designed agricultural reforms’ and can be exemplified by the May 2022 enactment of the “Exaggeration Prevention Law” (허풍방지법, heopungbangjibeop). The law is intended to improve the government’s ability to obtain accurate information about farm activities and crop yields to stop farmers and farm managers from siphoning off grain for private sales in markets. It spells out punishments for infractions, including the suspension, reduction, or stripping of credentials, confiscations of assets, and criminal penalties such as unpaid labor and reeducation through labor.[3]

One of the most egregious forms of corruption practiced by officials involved in agriculture is taking more crops than originally agreed upon with farmers. In 2018, for example, farms in South Pyongan Province implemented a system of allocating fields to families as sub-work teams. Because farmers could keep whatever they harvested from the fields above their government-set quota, they worked harder than before. This was short-lived, however, because the authorities reneged on their original agreement to share the harvest.

In the end, collective farm workers who once believed that agricultural production would increase thanks to the Field Responsibility System stopped working hard after seeing government officials take almost everything during the fall harvest. As long as the authorities do not consistently follow their own policies, public morale is unlikely to improve. Ultimately, how serious North Korea is about rethinking its productivity strategies will depend on where it borrows ideas. In fact, some potential solutions may come from North Korea’s closest ally and neighbor, China.

Finding Potential Solutions in a Chinese Model

The Chinese model of agricultural reform offers one possible solution to North Korea’s food problems. Beginning in the late 1970s, China expanded autonomy throughout its economy, leading to the emergence of various cooperatives and private enterprises. Like North Korea, the country had operated a collective farming system and only overcame its food shortages in the mid-1980s after dismantling the people’s communes and introducing the household responsibility system. It also moved to combat corruption by enacting reforms aimed at weeding out incompetent workers in state-owned enterprises and organizations.

China’s agricultural reforms achieved stunning results. From 1975-1980, the increase in Chinese agricultural output was only 16.9 percent (3.2 percent annually); however, from 1980-1985, when China actively implemented its agrarian reform by replacing collective farming with farming by family units, agricultural output increased at a rate of 48.3 percent (8.2 percent annually).

In contrast, the Soviet Union’s attempt at agricultural reform offers some lessons to avoid. Beginning in the Khrushchev era, the Soviet government implemented many changes and policies, including merging or converting collective farms into state farms. However, the Soviet insistence on maintaining a centralized, command-and-control planned economy prevented the agricultural sector from escaping the long-term stagnation that plagued the country’s economy.

Currently, one of the key factors in North Korea’s poor agricultural performance is insufficient investment. In the Chinese case, individual farmers were given rights to use their land, which allowed farmers themselves to make investments ohn their land, including irrigation systems, with a view to increase productivity. The Soviet Union, however, failed to do this; only after the collapse of the Soviet Union were farmers freely able to invest in their own land.

Therefore, the North Korean government should actively promote Chinese-style agricultural reform by allowing farmers to make investments in their own land. Specifically, the success of North Korea’s agricultural sector will depend on the government establishing a system that empowers farmers to invest, adopt new technologies, explore new markets, and set their own prices.


Overall, three key issues stand in the way of effective agricultural reform in North Korea: 1) a history of myopic and often contradictory policymaking; 2) a lack of incentives for both farmers and officials; and 3) corruption and the resultant lack of trust in the system. Any North Korea observer will recognize that these factors are by no means unique to North Korea’s farming sector. They are likewise thoroughly interlinked. If North Korea is serious about increasing productivity, the country’s leaders need to take a hard look at China’s experience for potential solutions.

Currently, North Korean farmers work in a challenging environment without adequate supplies and with little to gain individually from their efforts, leading to a loss of motivation and incentives to siphon off crops to support their own livelihoods. A similar issue plagues the officials who oversee farm management. Without a livable salary from the government and immense pressure to meet unreasonable quotas, they are naturally driven to falsify records and siphon off some crops for themselves.

Laws like the “Exaggeration Prevention Law” will be ineffective in reversing these trends because the law only addresses the symptoms of the problem, not its roots. This kind of superficial and reactionary policymaking is endemic to North Korea, where issues are treated as if they were the product of ideological impurity rather than an unlivable reality and systemic deficiencies. No agrarian reform, no matter how well conceived, can be successfully implemented under these conditions. The move to revive the public distribution system by invoking a return to state-controlled food supplies suggests that Kim is aware that the government has little to offer the people in return for their hard work and loyalty. Now might be a good time for the North Korean government to look to China’s experience for solutions to improve the country’s agricultural productivity.

  1. [1]

    The author would like to thank the 38 North team for suggestions and edits on the original piece, along with Robert Lauler and Rose Adams for comments and translation assistance.

  2. [2]

    The Farm Law was adopted in 2009 to improve management of farms and production of food. The law has since been amended in November 2012, July 2013, December 2014, June 2015, February and July 2020, March and November 2021, December 2022 and September 2023.

  3. [3]

    The Compilation of North Korean Laws: vol. 1 (Seoul: National Intelligence Service, 2022).

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