How does farming & agriculture in North Korea work?
Only about 17% of North Korea’s rugged mountainous terrain is suitable for agriculture. Cultivation is mainly centered around the western flat provinces surrounding the capital city of Pyongyang (literal translation – “flat-land”). The central and highlands of the country are too cold, dry and mountainous for farming. A massive 23% of the local population are employed in agriculture in North Korea, thus making it a central industry for the regime.
In the DPRK, agriculture forms the basis of national existence. Self reliance is key to the North Korean ideology, therefore the major goal is to feed its people on its own without foreign assistance.
How is Agriculture managed in North Korea and has it achieved this goal? let’s take a closer look.
As is common in former communist or socialist states, North Korean farms are almost entirely made up of state & co-operative ownership. This means that farms are owned by the state or collectively among hundreds.
The North Korean farming year can be divided into four “battle” phases. These battles are nationwide campaigns aimed at mobilizing people to work on state projects. The four annual agriculture campaigns are the “rice trans-planting battle,” the “weeding battle” the “rice harvesting battle”, and in the winter, the “fertilizer battle.”
The busiest time of year is May & June – the rice planting season. Every year hundreds of thousands – including office workers in the cities are mobilized into the countryside to assist the farmers in planting rice.
Collective farms make up 90% of agriculture in North Korea. Traditionally farmers working at these farms received a year’s supply of food as their share after harvesting. These days though, changes are taking place.
Farmers are now allowed to keep 30% of the produce they grow, while giving 70% back to the state. The move was announced in 2012 by the new leader Kim Jong Un. It was widely seen as an attempt to incentivize farmers to produce more so they could sell the excess at market for a profit.
The Arduous March
From 1994 – 1998 North Korea suffered from a disastrous famine or “Arduous March” as it was officially labelled by the government.
This was due to a number of factors including the fall of the Soviet Union and its aid, as well as a series of extreme flooding and economic mismanagement. During the time, all North Koreans received their food rations from the state under the Public Distribution System (PDS).
While the system is still in use today, the catastrophic failure of the 1990s has led to North Koreans looking elsewhere for extra income so they can move away from reliance on the public system.
For many this means selling items including food at local markets. While technically illegal, the government has increasingly turned a blind eye to these activities.
Today food security has become more stable compared to the 1990s. In 2017 the grain yield was estimated to be about 4.7 million tonnes and slightly less in 2018. Around 5.3 million tonnes are required to feed the domestic population meaning that North Korea still requires some outside aid.
Visiting a North Korean Farm
We visit a farm on many of our North Korea tours. There are a couple open to outside visitors – popular ones are the Tongbong farm outside Hamhung, the Jangchon vegetable farm outside Pyongyang (North Korean promo video below!) and the Chongsan co-operative farm outside Nampo. We tour the land, see the machinery, visit the local kindergarten and even a farmers house.
Check them out for yourself by travelling to North Korea with Rocky Road Travel!
When Shane is not endlessly writing award winning content for Rocky Road, he's usually kayaking to and from the beer garden along Berlin's River Spree.