Prospects for Food Self-Sufficiency in the DPRK: Interview with Tom Morrison

By | June 01, 2013 | No Comments

 Tom Morrison and his counterpart at the Ministry of Agriculture Kim Chol Hun stand in front of a monument commemorating realignment of major canals for irrigation. Together they worked on the first major canal realignment in 1998 to reduce the need for electric pumping and to use gravity, allowing Pyongyang to preserve electricity for other uses.  The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation helped design the project, whilst financial assistance was provided by the OPEC Fund | Source: Tom Morrison

Tom Morrison and his counterpart at the Ministry of Agriculture Kim Chol Hun stand in front of a monument commemorating realignment of major canals for irrigation. Together they worked on the first major canal realignment in 1998 to reduce the need for electric pumping and to use gravity, allowing Pyongyang to preserve electricity for other uses. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization helped design the project, whilst financial assistance was provided by the OPEC Fund | Source: Tom Morrison

The DPRK’s ability to undertake the broad approach to economic reform taken by China and Vietnam has been the subject of some debate. The Chinese government has been very keen to emphasize the relevance of its own experience, gradually liberalizing the economy beginning with the agricultural sector, and initially allowing foreign investment only into Special Economic Zones, thus permitting economic development under authoritarian leadership. Meanwhile, the North Korean government, wary of excessive dependence on a single relationship, has highlighted Vietnam’s broadly similar experience as a model.

But it has often been understood that the DPRK economy, having already undergone far greater industrialization (however dilapidated) and urbanization than had China and Vietnam at the start of their reforms, is structurally too different for these specific models to be applicable.

In particular, it has been understood that the DPRK has insufficient arable land to be food self-sufficient, let alone for agricultural reform to support economic take-off in the way that it did in those countries. In order to feed its population, it has therefore been argued, the DPRK ought to adopt a more Eastern European model of socialist transition, boosting its industrial export capacity through foreign direct investment.[1]

But in light of extensive international cooperation with the DPRK on agriculture in the new millennium, are the underlying assumptions about the potential of North Korea’s agricultural capacity still well founded? To explore this vital and most pertinent question I interviewed Tom Morrison, an agriculturist and agronomist with experience in over 40 countries who is of the opinion that the DPRK can indeed achieve food self-sufficiency.

Morrison has to date conducted 13 missions to the DPRK over the last 14 years, most recently in October 2012, working for such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and World Food Program, as well as the OPEC Fund and the European Commission. This is part one of a three-part interview. – Matthew Bates, Sino-NK Economics and Trade Analyst

Prospects for Food Self-Sufficiency in the DPRK: Interview with Tom Morrison

by Matthew Bates

Matthew Bates [MB]: Please could you explain how you believe that the DPRK can achieve food self-sufficiency? Is there not a shortage of arable land?

Tom Morrison [TM]: About 15 percent of the DPRK is arable land. This is often cited, falsely, as being comparatively low and even the prime cause of the DPRK’s food deficit, but lots of other countries achieve national food self-sufficiency with less. China and Burma also have 15 percent arable land and they are self-sufficient.  Australia is a big food exporter with 6 percent arable land. Indonesia has achieved food security with 11 percent arable.

Taking all the countries of the world, only 10.6 percent of land is arable, so the DPRK’s share is well above average.

When arable land per capita is taken into account, the DPRK also fares quite well at 0.11 hectares[2] per capita (ha/caput), the same as Italy, and well above China at 0.08 ha/caput, and Japan at 0.03 ha/caput. China famously feeds one-fifth of the world’s population with only one-fifteenth of the world’s arable land and in recent history has either exported food or imported relatively little.

So right at the beginning of this answer it is necessary to explain in this tedious detail that the DPRK has more than adequate arable land to achieve national food self-sufficiency.

If one accepts this, then the probable main cause of the DPRK’s food deficit is low crop yields. And they are indeed low: historically, regionally and globally. Average yields of paddy rice, the national staple, in 2011 were 3.9 t/ha compared to about 8 t/ha in the 1980s, but had averaged less than 3 t/ha in the late 90s.

When I explained to the Minister of Agriculture in 2002 that in my opinion yields of 15t/ha were achievable she laughed in disbelief but accepted the challenge that the funds of IFAD (the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development) should be used to send some farm managers on a study tour to northern Italy, which has similar rice-growing conditions to the DPRK. On their return they told her that 15t/ha was indeed being routinely achieved on leading farms, though the Italian national average was about 6t/ha. The national average yield in Australia is 10.8 t/ha. The world average yield was 4.3t/ha in 2010, but is not really comparable because it includes tropical as opposed to Japanese rice.

MB: What is the difference between what agriculturists refer to as “Japanese” rice (as grown in the DPRK) and “tropical” rice?

TM: Japanese rice is the temperate cousin of (more accurately a different sub-species from) tropical rice that is common in much of the rest of east Asia. It is longer growing, higher yielding (potentially by a factor of about three providing it is properly fertilised, unlike tropical rice it has a high response to manuring), and, again by contrast to tropical rice, has only moderate tolerance (as evidenced for example by tillering) to unfavourable conditions. It should not be compared, at least in yield, agronomic,[3] and (outside the DPRK context) international market price terms, to tropical rice.

These agronomic characteristics are mentioned here because, as will be seen, they have relevance to current farming conditions; and the farming conditions and shortage of basic inputs that the DPRK is now experiencing would not have the same impact on food security in a country growing tropical rice.  The DPRK now has lower yields than any other country that grows Japanese rice.[4]

Rice varieties available in the DPRK are generally good and up-to-date and are supported by the International Rice Research Institute.

Available varieties of the two other main staples, maize and potato, are also excellent. IFAD [the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development] and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) have assisted the DPRK to achieve more-or-less state-of-the-art potato breeding, and disease free seed potatoes are distributed annually to each county. Maize is 100 percent hybrid, something that many countries have yet to achieve. The DPRK is justly proud of its “seed revolution.”

Government has a determined philosophy of national self-sufficiency and food security. Agriculture still produces 21 percent of GDP and employs nearly 40 percent of the population. In terms of national priorities, agriculture and food security take second place only to the army and national defence. Huge resources are diverted into farming, especially urban workers who are bussed out to rural areas during labour peaks.

MB: How significant are the natural disasters to the DPRK’s food shortages?

TM: It is true that 80 percent of the annual rainfall occurs in July and August. It seems also true that extreme weather events such as winter cold, spring droughts, and the July/August deluges, are more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change.

But it is also true that the DPRK’s soils and catchments have been made more vulnerable by many years of mismanagement so that the effects of these extreme weather events are more severe. One obvious example of this is that potato seed stores on individual cooperative farms are either not deep enough or not sufficiently well designed to preserve potato seed until the spring.

“80 percent of annual rainfall occurs in July and August. Poor farming practices and deforestation of the hills means severe flooding leading to many deaths each year (these people aren’t dead, they’re just acting). If this is what happens to people, imagine the damage to crops and livestock… | Source: Tom Morrison

“80 percent of annual rainfall occurs in July and August. Poor farming practices and deforestation of the hills means severe flooding leading to many deaths each year (these people aren’t dead, they’re just acting). If this is what happens to people, imagine the damage to crops and livestock…” | Source: Tom Morrison

One less obvious example is that soils and catchments are so exhausted or denuded that they cannot absorb the July/August rains as they could in the past. This leads to erosion, raised river beds, and flooding of the rice paddies. In 2012 much of the rice was inundated for long enough for it to die through drowning. Proper soil and catchment management would have almost completely mitigated these natural disasters. 

This argument has already been won. The DPRK’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences, its Ministry of Agriculture and the international donor community agree that Conservation Agriculture (CA) should be government policy, and it now is. For brevity, this is not the place to elaborate what Conservation Agriculture is and the effect it has, but Google it and follow the FAO leads and you can find out that this is successful and the basis of the future of agriculture in the DPRK (as well as much of the rest of the world).

MB: So why is the DPRK in persistent chronic food deficit, even after the extraordinary (and impressive) efforts to achieve food self sufficiency in the year of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, 2012?

TM: First, many in the international donor community, including myself, would say it’s the system. Farm managers and cooperative farms are generally not poor. They have the won (local currency) to purchase everything they need. But they don’t have the dollars, euros, or more practically the Chinese yuan. Even if they did, only a few have the knowledge on how and where to spend them.

More and more cooperative farms are processing the grain they grow and this means they are allowed to sell the produce on the local market. (“Processing” in this context usually means making noodles from maize, or tofu or oil from soya. North Korean farm managers can then sell it to whoever they want and put the cash into the cooperative farm.)

Added to that, there are rumors that some cooperative farms will be allowed to sell primary produce on the open market. When formally asked about this during the 2012 Food Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP)’s Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM), the DPRK Ministry of Agriculture’s reply was that there would be no formal announcements about it—but they didn’t deny it.

Two good first steps would be for cooperative farms to accumulate won, and then to be allowed to convert some of those won into foreign exchange, but even if these steps happened tomorrow, it would take a few years to build the supply chains to deliver the required farm inputs.

It is a shortage of these farm inputs that is the main reason for low yields: a) farm mechanization, b) diesel fuel, c) fertilizer and lime, and d) agro-chemicals. These four are discussed individually below, roughly in order of importance. None is too difficult to remedy, but it is expensive to do so, as all other countries have also found.

a) Farm Mechanization

There is no national policy on farm mechanization, or at least none that has been revealed to the international donor community that has been asking for one since the early 2000s. The evidence supports the view that there is no coherent mechanization policy or strategy. Shortly after the DPRK was created there was early and heavy emphasis on high levels of farm mechanization. This was, and will continue to be sensible because of the short growing season and the need, at least in some areas and some situations, for double cropping (i.e. two crops in a short growing season meaning short turn-around time between crops, thus high mechanization).

But the tractor technology then and now is 1930s vintage, slow, inefficient and heavy on fuel consumption. Moreover, the maintenance philosophy of that tractor technology is in no way suited to modern tractors, and fuel supplies are insufficient in terms of quality for modern tractors.

Yet we see a few modern tractors (western or Chinese-western hybrids) working on farms, mainly the result of foreign aid projects. Without the spare parts and quality diesel fuel supply chains in place, the life of these tractors is low. The result is that an estimated 80 percent of land is cultivated by oxen. This has certain advantages, but they cannot deliver the capacity, speed and quality that are required.

…And even rice can drown.” | Source: Tom Morrison

“…And even rice can drown.” | Source: Tom Morrison

b) Diesel Fuel

Worldwide, 80 percent of diesel engine failures are caused by poor quality fuel. Nowhere is this more evident than in the DPRK. There is a western embargo on diesel fuel because of fears that diesel supports the military and navy, and its scarcity is evidenced by the large proportion of lorries, and occasionally tractors, in rural areas powered by wood gas. In spite of the embargo, some diesel fuel is obtained by the government and made available to farms, but generally only 50 percent or 60 percent, rarely 70 percent of requirements. This evidence I have gathered directly in interviews with farm managers almost every year since 2000. Moreover, as already mentioned, the quality is low in terms of sulphur content, and water and dust contamination.

c) Fertilizer and lime

The Republic of Korea used to provide fertilizer free of charge to the DPRK but that stopped in 2010. China provides some on commercial terms. Domestic production of nitrogen fertilizer is slowly increasing but depends on oil and electric power both of which are short. There are some local deposits of phosphate rich soil but not phosphate rock that is the usual basis for phosphate fertilizer. The whole fertilizer picture is quite complicated but the end result is that farms receive grossly inadequate amounts of fertilizer annually.

Moreover, until Conservation Agriculture is more widely adopted, the fertilizer that is supplied will not be sustainable. Nitrogen (N) and potassium (K) will be leached from soils that have lost their ability to store and hold them, and phosphate, which does not leach to the same extent, will be removed, along with nitrogen and potassium, as part of the current practice of whole crop removal at harvest. Most threshing is centralised at farm HQs, not in the field, because that’s where the electric power is, and not all the crop residues are composted and returned to the fields.

Lime has to be discussed together with fertilizer, and the current lime deficit is as serious as the fertilizer deficit itself. The reason is that soil acidity has been steadily increasing since the late 1990s, and this reduces the effect of fertilizer. To increase soil pH to a level where fertilizer can become effective means increasing the amount of diesel allocated to cooperative farms so lime can be hauled from the quarries, and so that coal can be hauled to burn it. Over the last decade most cooperative farms have received about 60 percent of overall diesel requirement, and even in 2012 when a huge logistical effort was made to deliver more diesel, few farms received more than 70 percent of requirement.

d) Agro-chemicals

The agri-environment is seriously out of balance (that is a whole subject on its own) and one of the ways this is manifested is increasing susceptibility to crop pests and diseases. In the long term this imbalance will be largely addressed through Conservation Agriculture, but in the short term there is an increasing need for agro-chemicals. Most of them have to be imported and there is a serious shortage.

Climate change could be included in this list, but is a bit more ephemeral. One of the least controversial aspects of climate change is that extreme weather events are more common: colder winters, wetter summers, more serious typhoons, more spring droughts. There is also recognition that government can do more about mitigating the effects of these extremes through adoption of Conservation Agriculture.  These weather extremes or “natural disasters” as they are called by government, are often accorded a disproportionate level of blame for the DPRK’s food insecurity. But it’s important to bear in mind that cereal production now would be little different had those disasters occurred or not.

Making noodles from maize on a cooperative farm. Processed foods like this can be sold on the free market by the cooperative. The problem is sporadic electricity supply. | Source: Tom Morrison

“Making noodles from maize on a cooperative farm. Processed foods like this can be sold on the free market by the cooperative. The problem is sporadic electricity supply.” | Source: Tom Morrison

MB: How close is the DPRK to food self-sufficiency at present?

TM: The situation now is that, in a year of relatively good weather like 2010, the country can produce about 4.4 million tons (Mt) of cereal equivalent, consumption is about 5.5 Mt, and it therefore needs about 1 Mt of imports, either commercially or as humanitarian aid. More specifically, the shortfall is made up by the World Food Programme (WFP), the European Commission’s regular development programme (the European Commission is also, after the US, the second largest donor to the WFP) and commercial imports.

In a year of comparatively bad weather like 2011, but in which extraordinary efforts were made by the government in terms of fertilizer (up by 55 percent year-on-year) and other inputs such as diesel to achieve national self sufficiency in the lead-up to 2012, the year of the Great Leader’s 100th birthday, required imports were still 0.74 Mt. The agronomist (i.e. me) on the 2011 Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM)[5] pointed out that if the weather had not been so severe, the DPRK might have achieved self-sufficiency for the first time since the mid-90s.

So, with luck and special effort, success is perhaps within reach. At least in the medium to long term, there is absolutely no doubt that national food self-sufficiency can be achieved, though we know also that many doubt it.

At a national average yield of 4t/ha, the DPRK is generally about 1 million tons short of self-sufficiency. At 5t/ha it would be self sufficient. At 8t/ha which has been achieved historically though unsustainably, it would have an abundance of cereal grain equivalent, and could export or diversify into more nutritious food. The technology and knowledge to deliver 8t/ha sustainably has been demonstrated and is now government policy. It’s just a matter of investment and adopting the right policies to deliver farm machinery, fertilizer, and agro-chemicals sustainably. A daunting task, and massive investment, but a clear one with clear results.

Taking the last 15 years as a whole, the national grain shortfall (milled rice equivalent) has consistently hovered around the 20 percent mark, or about 1 Mt out of about 5 Mt needed. The variation around this 1 Mt has not been large: in 2000/2001 needed imports were as much as 2 Mt and in 2011, as already mentioned, as little as 0.7 Mt.

MB: Why has the problem proved so difficult?

TM: To sum up, first, soil fertility and crop yields are still low; second, there is vulnerability to natural disasters caused by soil and environmental degradation (note that it is not the natural disasters themselves, but the DPRK’s vulnerability to them); and third, there is a perennial shortage of critical inputs like fertilizer, agro-chemicals, seeds, up-to-date farm machinery, and clean fuel. But taking more of an eagle’s eye view, the overall problem is structural. Put simply, if the State is responsible for everything, then the State and the way it works must be responsible.

Such physical factors, though severe, are perhaps easier to remedy compared to this fourth and most important factor, the weak incentives and rigid institutional mechanisms that still hold down food production on cooperative farms. Structural reforms are fundamentally needed to deliver sustainable food security, something that physical inputs on their own cannot deliver.

[1] The best exposition of this argument is found in Noland, Marcus,  Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas (USA: Institute for International Economics, 2007),  Chapter 7. Noland’s 23 January 2013 blog post on “The Vietnamese Model”still, if more tentatively, inclines towards the view that differences in economic structure restrict the potential of the Vietnamese model.

[2] A hectare is a metric unit of surface or land equivalent to 10,000 square meters or 2.471 acres. See:

[3] Agronomics is the branch of economics dealing with the distribution, management and productivity of land.

[4] Japan, Republic of Korea, North China, New South Wales (historically and probably still the holder of the world’s highest recorded yield for rice), Southern Europe (e.g. Italy and Spain), California, and South America below 30o latitude.

[5] Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission. Usually an annual autumn event conducted by the FAO and WFP.

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