Growth Prospects: Tom Morrison on the Potential for Progress in the DPRK’s Agricultural Sector

By | June 16, 2013 | No Comments

Image: KCNA

North Korean agriculture as North Korea would like to see it: green. | Image: KCNA

Tom Morrison’s experience working with aid agencies on the ground in North Korea has taught him one very important lesson about how North Koreans view food security and the current food shortages: the “national food shortages are a source of collective national shame, and serve only to strengthen the DPRK’s resolve to eliminate it.” In part two of a three part series, Matthew Bates, Sino-NK’s Economics and Trade Analyst, continues his discussion with agronomist Tom Morrison on the prospects of food self-sufficiency  in North Korea (read part one). In this installment, Morrison discusses the effectiveness of previous aid and reform efforts (including market liberalization), achievements made thus far towards greater food security, and the prospects of further agricultural reforms. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Growth Prospects: Tom Morrison on the Potential for Progress in the DPRK’s Agricultural Sector: Prospects and Achievements

by Matthew Bates

Matthew Bates [MB]: What are the prospects for further and more decisive agricultural reform?

Tom Morrison [TM]: There have been some signs of government enthusiasm for possible future liberalization that might lead to real structural reforms that together have the potential to achieve food security sustainably. They include:

  • Some market liberalisation such as farmers markets to allow distribution of vigorous home garden production, mainly small livestock. The 2011 Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) was allowed for the first time to enter a farmers market and to conduct interviews.
  • Positive dialogue on the possibility of making sloping land management sustainable (as piloted with assistance from the European Commission and the Swiss). Up to early 2011 sloping land cultivation was “a temporary phenomenon” soon to be obliterated by trees.
  • Positive dialogue on greater management autonomy for the sub-work teams on cooperative farms, as piloted with assistance from the European Commission (EC) and evidenced by supplies of lower technology and small sized agricultural equipment, including walk-behind tractors, beginning under the 2005 and 2006 direct aid budgets.
  • Enthusiastic endorsement of rural micro-credit (as piloted with assistance from IFAD), though now more or less put in the freezer by DPRK government because it was seen as too successful and threatened to get out of hand. (Bangladesh, the home of micro-credit, has been through a similar experience).
  • Enthusiastic endorsement of Conservation Agriculture, as piloted with assistance from the Food and Agriculture Organization and expanded by the European Commission. This last is, in my view, the bedrock of recovery of DPRK’s agriculture.

MB: What has been achieved thus far?

TM: There have been some impressive achievements towards food security, usually achieved with huge civil mobilisation, including:

  • Massive realignment of main arterial irrigation canals to reduce the need for pumping. This was a task that a high level FAO Investment Centre mission in the late 1990s, in which I participated, initially held as practically impossible: from both engineering and economic standpoints. We had not factored in the determination of the North Koreans to succeed. None of us on the FAO team had been to the DPRK before. When our economist said in a meeting, towards the end of the mission, that it was not economically feasible, we were given a level look and the answer: “We do not have economics.” No answer to that! The project went ahead with OPEC funding.
  • Field consolidation to improve the efficiency of mechanization. Cynics said this had more to do with erasing old field boundaries of pre-1953 private farms. That may also be true. But there is no doubt that when the DPRK finally adopts modern mechanized agriculture this will substantially affect its efficiency.
  • Seed improvement (their “seed revolution”), including most recently potato seed (leading to their “potato revolution”).
  • Micro-credit for poor rural households, supported by IFAD, as a way of improving the quality of nutrition. Initially fiercely rejected by Ministry of Agriculture on ideological grounds, then later accepted as an unavoidable component in a loan package for mainly high horsepower 4wd tractors, it was perfectly executed by the Central Bank and over an eight year timespan exceeded all targeted outcomes. Inducements, such as high horsepower tractors, are a proven way of furthering acceptance of donor activities that are less palatable to the DPRK’s government. Although it is understandable that the European Commission is staying cool on this issue, at least temporarily.
  • Conservation Agriculture (CA), already mentioned, was initially treated with scepticism by the Ministry of Agriculture as being incompatible with the high yields needed for national food security. Now with EC assistance, technically led by FAO, they have adopted it as official policy and the Ministry of Agriculture is keen to expand its reach. This can, and almost certainly will be, the basis for future national food self sufficiency; but it requires, though only for the first two or three years, high investment in farm machinery, lime, fertiliser, and agro-chemicals. After that it’s more or less sustainable and needs lower inputs. Yet Conservation Agriculture produces higher yields.
  • Huckbosan compost is a high quality compost adjusted for pH and fortified with artificial fertiliser and micro-nutrients. It requires a lot of (usually urban) labor to the extent that, according to many farm managers, it may not be sustainable—but it works.
"The DPRK can be beautiful..." - Morrison | Image: Tom Morrison

“The DPRK can be beautiful…” – Morrison | Image: Tom Morrison

These achievements demonstrate that when the DPRK authorities are convinced of the value of change, they do generally succeed. They also demonstrate the DPRK’s steely resolve to achieve national food security. Outsiders who have seen the apathetic dependence culture built around food and development aid in some countries must not be mistaken here. The national food shortages are a source of collective national shame, and serve only to strengthen the DPRK’s resolve to eliminate it. Eventually, they will succeed, and step by step they are beginning to appreciate that aid donors have something to offer. 

MB: For agricultural reforms to support broader economic development through market mechanisms—in the manner of the Chinese and Vietnamese reforms—it would seem to require not just bare food self-sufficiency but some degree of abundance. What degree of abundance in excess of minimal requirements do you see as realistic and do you envision markets as the most desirable means of distribution?

TM: Abundant food grains are technically within reach, as demonstrated earlier, as well as the diversified diet that is critical for economic growth.

The rest of the world has found that markets are the most efficient means of distribution, and in the DPRK’s rural areas the farmers markets held every 10 days (on the 1st, 11th, and 21st of the month) are vibrant and no longer hidden from or denied to foreigners. But no doubt the government will want to continue with the Public Distribution System (PDS). As a social safety net this is as efficient as any in the world, in my opinion. Though it has failed in recent years, with western aid agencies crowing about its failure, this was only because it had nothing to distribute. The PDS’s organisation is moderately efficient, but its storage facilities are very poor indeed. Probably both the PDS and the market system will co-exist for the foreseeable future, as they have done for the last many years.

“…but most farming areas have become deforested and bare.” Conservation Agriculture aims to promote sustainability through minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations. “Plus, the importance of trees in the upper catchment, above the farming areas, has really hit home in recent years. All North Koreans are convinced of that.” | Image: Tom Morrison

“…but most farming areas have become deforested and bare.” Conservation Agriculture aims to promote sustainability through minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and crop rotations. “Plus, the importance of trees in the upper catchment, above the farming areas, has really hit home in recent years. All North Koreans are convinced of that.” | Image: Tom Morrison

MB: What has been your experience with the use of micro-finance for projects in the DPRK?

The micro-credit component of the Upland Food Security Project, designed by me and my team, and financed by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), was perfectly executed by the Central Bank, with huge benefits to individual poor rural families as monitored and evaluated by an independent Italian team. Middle and senior ranking civil servants were enthusiastic and channelled more  of the IFAD’s available funds into it, until it exceeded 20 percent of a $30 million loan. We always knew it was risky ideologically, but we were hopeful it would become conceptually accepted when we learned that a similar scheme had been established in 1954 by Kim Il-sung but had then lapsed due to lack of funds. It’s a very efficient way of relieving the misery of the very poor, but until the DPRK recognises that poverty exists there seems little future for it.

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) also tried to introduce micro-credit at about the same time as IFAD did, in 2001, but held out for the principle that the government should take the foreign exchange risk, which was refused; the project never got off the ground. SDC’s money was a grant; IFAD’s money was a loan.

Further Readings

Matthew Bates, “Prospects for Food Self-Sufficiency in the DPRK: Interview with Tom Morrison,” Sino-NK, June 1, 2013.

Christopher Green, “6.28 Back on the Docket?: Economic ‘Improvement’ Hints Return,” Sino-NK, May 13, 2013.

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