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Industrial Agriculture: Lessons from North Korea

Logo of the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea

Logo of the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea. By CityBreakingDown - This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file:, Public Domain, Link.

Zhun Xu is an associate professor at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

For years, when the Western mainstream media mentioned the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (commonly known as North Korea), it would often present two kinds of stories: one about its threat to the United States and U.S. allies, and the other about its poverty and hunger. Beyond that, the United States always deliberately portrays the North Korean leadership as “irrational.”1

Regarding the threat argument, Marxists and the anti-imperialist left often point out that North Korea has long been in a defensive mode, and it is the United States that has been threatening and suffocating North Korea since the division of the Korean peninsula.2 On the poverty and hunger issue, however, the left seems to have not produced much in-depth discussion. Across the political spectrum, scholars in general have less knowledge of North Korea’s social and economic conditions than those of other former socialist bloc countries. It is telling that Jon Halliday in the New Left Review and Joseph Nye in the Korea Times used the same title, “North Korean Enigma,” for two different essays.3

Indeed, with neoliberalism dominating the political imagination in the post-Cold War era, many commentators worldwide took for granted that North Korea would either collapse or follow China and others in starting its own reform and opening. This limitation in knowledge is not just a problem in the West. Even in China, a country that supposedly has a close relationship with North Korea since the early revolutionary period, the public and intellectuals do not always have a better understanding of North Korea than people do elsewhere in the world. Some on the left still praise its socialized housing and health care, while the right wing likes to suggest that North Korea represents a smaller version of Maoist China that has not started its reform of embracing the global market—yet.

It is certainly true that North Korea is now a poor country, especially compared to its close neighbors such as South Korea and Japan. However, such observations lack crucial context. The North Korean economy was doing reasonably well until the demise of the Soviet Union, which greatly undermined the economies of the entire Soviet trading bloc. According to the University of Groningen’s Maddison Project, the North Korean real GDP per capita had reached $2,315 (measured in 2011 U.S. dollars) in 1980.4 This was much higher than the income levels in both India and China, as well as those of many developing economies in the world. North Korea also offered free health care, education, and welfare, together with good quality, heavily subsidized housing, heating, and transport. As documented by Gavan McCormack, around 1980, North Korea had twenty-three doctors per ten thousand people, while Japan had about twelve and South Korea had fewer than six.5 As another measure of social orientation, 27 percent of the North Korean population were students at some stage, a higher proportion than Japan and South Korea.6 Moreover, North Korea achieved these in a war-torn land, despite the U.S. blockade and tense geopolitical conditions.

It is important to note that, although the North Korean economy and society suffered greatly in the 1990s and the economy still has not recovered, North Korea has been able to improve the general standard of living since the time of the “Arduous March” in the 1990s. North Korea’s life expectancy reached around 70 years in 1990 and dropped to 64 years by 1998, but it has since risen, reaching 73 years in 2020. This is higher than the levels in countries such as India and the Philippines.7

Even so, North Korea always seems to be struggling to feed its population; the mass food shortages and starvation of the 1990s were not too long ago. Amid the pandemic, there were reports suggesting the potential for another significant food shortage in the country.8 The previous food shortage had been severe enough to force the North Korean government to reach out to South Korea and the United States for help. For a country that has self-reliance as a core political ideology, the inability to build its own food production presents a real issue.

Mainstream writers often attribute the food shortage and starvation in the 1990s to socialism or nonmarket institutions. For example, the former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, published a book called The Great North Korean Famine.9 In it, he argues that virtually every aspect of the North Korean food system was problematic, including the so-called perverse incentives in collective agriculture and the rigid, Soviet-style public food distribution system, among others. Natsios highlights the collapse of the public food distribution system during the great food shortage as a major cause of starvation, and suggests the rise of private market and family-based farming as the correct way out. The blame leveled at the socialized egalitarian distribution system is not really accurate. As Natsios himself acknowledges, when the public food distribution system worked well, it could deliver the basic necessities to the population at heavily subsidized rates.10 The North Korean food distribution system only went into full crisis in the 1990s, and, clearly, there must be other causes at the root.

It is worth noting that among the former socialist bloc countries, North Korea was the only one that experienced dramatic food shortage and starvation following the demise of the Soviet Union. Even so, among countries with severe food shortages, North Korea has a relatively high income.11 In other words, North Korea presents a unique case for understanding food shortages in the contemporary world. Revisiting the North Korean food problem is thus relevant for socialist struggles and the quest to feed the world in general.

Pre-1990 North Korean Economy and Agriculture

Despite the suffering under a half-century of Japanese colonization, the subsequent civil war, and then an imperialist blockade, North Korea managed to rebuild its national economy based on the Soviet model. Although it received generous support from other socialist countries such as the Soviet Union and China from the beginning, North Korean leadership highlighted a core idea of juche, that is, independent thinking and self-reliance. In their book Socialist Korea, an important early study of North Korea published in 1976 by Monthly Review Press, Ellen Brun and Jacques Hersh suggest that this attitude of self-determination and self-reliance is in stark contrast to a strong tradition of the elites on the Korean peninsula, that is, the tradition of saddae, or literally “working for the powerful.”12 The controversial idea of juche could arise from the determination to keep independence in the complex politics both inside and outside the socialist bloc, but it was likely also a recognition of the actual often hostile conditions in which the country had to strive.

During the Japanese colonial period, most colonial industries located in both the northern and southern parts of the peninsula were made to produce rice and textiles.13 The partition of the nation left North Korea with a relatively fortunate starting point, with some heavy industry and mining (although not fully developed). It also had a weak base of light industry and industrial agriculture.14 By the time of partition, railways and communication systems were also fairly developed in North Korea.

By economic measures, North Korea had an impressive first three decades or so. Its GDP per capita grew at 4.5 percent annually between 1950 and 1980, or about twice the respective growth rate of the United States and only a little lower than that of the much-celebrated South Korea.15 Thirty years after the civil war, North Korea had achieved a high level of urbanization and industrialization. Even though many socialist countries saw high industrialization, North Korea stood out; by 1987, more than half of the North Korean labor force was in industry. This share was the highest among the socialist countries.16 After the 1970s, much like the Soviet Union, North Korea entered a period of slow growth. Between 1980 and 1985, North Korea’s GDP per capita only grew 2 percent annually, and started to decline at around the same rate for the rest of the decade.17 Nevertheless, initial North Korean economic achievements were real. Even in a critical evaluation, Halliday reckoned that “no one who has been in the DPRK [North Korea] can fail to be impressed by the economic achievements, making every allowance for selected tours and Potemkin villages.”18 In a recent report, leading South Korean expert Seogki Lee recognized that in North Korea, the socialist system functioned well at the outset and the country had a fairly high level of industrialization by the 1970s.19

North Korean agriculture was also successful, at least for a while. The pattern of Korean macroeconomic growth mirrored the changes in its agricultural production. Between 1961 and 1980, its cereal output increased by 4.8 percent annually, but throughout the 1980s, the annual growth rate was merely 0.8 percent.20 The stagnation in food output, however, was entirely different from the later story of food shortage and hunger. In fact, during this period, the North Korean food supply was still in a relatively sound position. The country only needed modest cereal imports, and it was even able to export cereals in 1985.21

It is worth mentioning that North Korea does not have very favorable natural conditions for agricultural production. Roughly 80 percent of the country is mountainous, and only about 14 percent of North Korea’s territory is arable land.22 The summer growing season is also short. Although rice is a major part of the Korean diet, North Korea has less rice cultivation than South Korea or Japan due to such constraints.23

The North Korean government sought to overcome such natural challenges by increasing chemical use in agricultural production. Around the world, there has been a trend of increasing chemical use in agriculture for much of the twentieth century. The Green Revolution further reinforced this trend. Socialist states pioneered some of the important early efforts in building environmentally sustainable societies in the twentieth century.24 In many instances, however, socialist leaders and activists also perceived the future of agriculture as a highly industrialized sector based on mechanization and chemical use. In this regard, North Korea was not an exception—though arguably, North Korea was under the most pressure in terms of feeding its people. Meanwhile, food self-sufficiency was a natural part of the juche framework, which likely added to the urgency of North Korean leadership in promoting agricultural production. North Korea thus had a thorough industrialization of agriculture.

In his thesis on North Korean rural development in 1965, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung highlighted the importance of the technical revolution in the countryside, putting it before the other basic tasks. Kim summarized his visions of socialist agriculture as follows:

Irrigation, mechanization, electrification, and the use of chemicals are the four fundamental components of the technical revolution in the countryside. A steady rise of crop yields in farming is impossible if irrigation and chemicalization are neglected to the benefit of mechanization and electrification. If, on the contrary, only irrigation and chemicalization are accentuated and mechanization and electrification are neglected, labour efficiency cannot be raised, nor can the heavy work done by the peasants be lightened.25

All of the major components of industrial agriculture were pieced together in just a short time. Irrigation and rural electrification projects were completed by the mid-1970s, labor-intensive jobs such as plowing were fully mechanized by 1975, and the number of farm tractors increased eight times between 1963 and 1976.26 These were no small achievements for any economy. The increase in fertilizer production was equally stunning. Although the Korean War destroyed the entire fertilizer industry that was established during Japanese colonialization, North Korea was able to rebuild it quickly after the war. By the 1970s, North Korea possessed some of the largest fertilizer factories on the east coast of the Asian mainland.27 A CIA report in 1978 acknowledged the fast growth in North Korean grain output, as well as its “quite heavily mechanized” agriculture, with its high fertilizer application and extensive irrigation projects.28

Interestingly, with the then-emerging environmental consciousness in the 1970s, Brun and Hersh mentioned that many foreigners would ask about the pollution from these chemical projects. They discussed the question with chemical engineers, teachers, professors, and others. The responses varied, but the authors were positive that North Korea would surely realize the seriousness of the pollution problem as it was increasingly recognized worldwide.29 However, the very model of industrial agriculture based on chemical inputs and fossil fuels seemed unquestioned.

The deep belief in industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution persisted. In a speech to the Central People’s Committee of North Korea in 1990, Kim reiterated his theses raised in 1965. He recalled that the old dream of the Korean people was to live on rice and meat soup, and the Party would realize this long desire. In the speech, Kim also shared his vision of socialist agriculture based on a somewhat mystified image of large capitalist farms: “According to information available to me many years ago, there were tens of thousands of farms in a developed capitalist country, and most of them were large farms with 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 or 10,000 hectares of cultivated land, and their levels of irrigation, electrification, mechanization, and chemical application were very high.”30 The way, then, to develop socialist agriculture was to speed up the technological revolution. Kim argued that since electrification had been basically completed, the remaining tasks were irrigation and mechanization, and “to ensure a liberal application of fertilizer to paddy and nonpaddy crops,” since the yields “increase in proportion to the amount of fertilizer applied.”31

Chart 1 presents the fertilizer application in a group of countries from 1961 to 1990, and the level of fertilizer use per unit of land in North Korea grew particularly fast in the 1960s and ’70s. Even in the early years, the intensity of fertilizer application in North Korea was already much higher than that in China and India. Starting in the 1970s, The intensity of North Korean fertilizer use increased steadily, surpassing U.S. levels. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, North Korea on average applied much more fertilizer than China, India, and the United States, although still less than Japan and much less than South Korea. In other words, regardless of political orientation, the entire Korean peninsula enthusiastically embraced those aspects of the Green Revolution based on industrial petroleum and chemical-based agriculture.

Chart 1. Fertilizer Intensity in Select Countries: 1961–1990

Xu Chart 1 - North Korea's foreign trade 1950-1988

Notes and Sources: Fertilizer intensity is measured in kilograms of land fertilizer consumption per hectare of arable land. Based on World Development Indicators,

Even if one overlooks its devastating ecological implications, this industrial agriculture poses a contradiction to North Korea’s juche idea. On the surface, the seemingly successful effort in “modernizing” agriculture indeed enabled North Korea to achieve high crop yields and food self-sufficiency for decades. The problem is that its industrial agriculture, including advanced mechanization and intensive chemical use, was driven by the widespread and increasing use of petroleum. While North Korea has coal and hydropower resources, it does not have petroleum, and needed to obtain a steady flow of petroleum and other fuels from abroad to sustain the efforts to build industrial agriculture. In other words, the drive for self-reliance via the Green Revolution inherently led to more dependence on foreign markets, which then naturally gave rise to more emphasis on international trade and foreign exchanges. For North Korea, this mainly involved geopolitical economic relations with the Soviet Union and China, which were about to change abruptly on the eve of the turbulent 1990s.

Trade, Debt, and the Great Hardship of the 1990s

The 1990s saw unprecedented challenges for North Korea. Between 1990 and 1998, the North Korean GDP per capita dropped by almost half, reaching the lowest level since the early 1970s.32 As late as 1993, North Korea still produced about 9.1 million tons of cereals, a record that was never achieved before and has not been achieved since.33 However, the previously working agricultural model quickly ceased to function and the country had a huge problem feeding itself. Following 1993, North Korea’s food production collapsed and its cereal output decreased by more than 70 percent in just two years.34 This food crisis lasted several years, causing malnutrition and starvation nationwide. North Korea did not start to restore part of its food output steadily until the beginning of the current century. Despite its efforts, North Korea still has not recovered from this shock, as its cereal output in the last two decades has only managed to achieve about half of the peak level in 1993.

What happened to North Korea’s agriculture and the economy in general? In many former socialist countries, the elites imposed shock therapy reforms that destroyed the socialist economic system, and economic and social crises immediately followed. However, this was not the case in North Korea. The leadership started to experiment with some market reforms early on, but did not follow the shock therapy route. Nevertheless, the dramatic changes in the socialist bloc profoundly shrank the international political and economic space that North Korea had relied on for decades.

To illustrate this point, we can examine the patterns of North Korean foreign trade before the crisis. During the Korean War years and the rest of the 1950s, North Korea traded almost exclusively with the Soviet Union and China, among other socialist countries, although it chose not to be part of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Starting in the 1960s, North Korea diversified its trading partners and by 1970, 30 percent of its exports and 13.7 percent of its imports were exchanged with non-socialist bloc countries.35 Chart 2 presents the value of total exports and imports of North Korea from 1950 to 1988. Both exports and imports grew rapidly, but overall, North Korea consistently had trade deficits. One possible mechanism for the chronic deficits was North Korea’s reciprocal bilateral trade arrangements with other socialist countries.36 When North Korea presented an increase in its exports, other socialist countries would provide higher reciprocal commitments. However, North Korea often failed to send the agreed quantity of goods to the trading partners, thus increasing trade deficits and debts over time.

Chart 2. North Korea’s Foreign Trade: 1950–1988

Xu Chart 2 - Fertilizer intensity in select countries 1961-1990

Notes and Sources: Both exports and imports are measured in thousands of U.S. dollars. Data are based on Soo-Young Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea, 1946–1988,” PhD dissertation, Northeastern University, Boston, 1991, 312–13.

As it started from humble origins, North Korea was not naturally in an advantageous position in international trade when selling raw materials or buying machines and equipment. Nonetheless, North Korea enjoyed preferential treatment when trading with the Soviet Union and China, and, during the 1950s and ’60s, the trade deficits were mostly mild. Such deficits became much worse, however, when North Korea started to engage extensively with the Western economies in the 1970s, as Chart 2 shows.

At least part of the increasing trade deficits was due to North Korea’s import substitution industrialization and the resulting demand for advanced equipment from the West. Among capitalist countries, Japan played a major role in initiating trade with North Korea. Some Western countries followed suit, and, in a matter of just several years, North Korea accumulated about U.S. $1 billion in debts with the West. These debts were just enough to pay for its trade deficits with the West. Since, unlike those with the socialist countries, the loans were short-term ones, North Korea started to default on its debts.37 This obviously had some long-term impact; mainstream commentators claim that North Korea “had thoroughly burned its bridges” to the international financial market.38 This track record, among other political factors, effectively shut off North Korea’s access to Western credit.

Although the issues of deficits and debts are worrying, they are common issues for developing countries. What made North Korea particularly vulnerable was that the country became increasingly reliant on such trade to sustain the basic functioning of the domestic society and economy. In the 1950s, North Korea mostly exported minerals and imported machinery and equipment. This pattern quickly shifted as the country experienced rapid industrialization in subsequent decades. By the 1970s, almost half of North Korea’s exports were manufactured goods, while the number one import became mineral fuels (mostly crude oil).39 Also during the 1970s, technical support from the Soviet Union and China enabled North Korea to complete multiple petrochemical and oil refinery plants at Unggi and Pongwha.40 Imports of crude oil sharply rose afterward. In the 1980s, more than 20 percent of North Korea’s imports from the Soviet Union were petroleum and petroleum products, with about 80 percent of those being crude oil.41

As China expanded its oil output, a pipeline was built between the two countries in 1976. China then gradually replaced the Soviet Union as the main oil supplier for North Korea. For example, North Korea imported 2 million tons of oil from China in 1980, and 1.5 million tons from the Soviet Union and the Middle Eastern states altogether. In fact, more than 80 percent of North Korea’s imports from China in the early 1980s were mineral fuels. Although the ratio later declined, it was still more than 60 percent as late as 1987.42

In other words, North Korea was building its high industrial agriculture based on oil imports. With the chronic trade deficits and foreign debt, this strategy increasingly relied on external support from the socialist bloc. This worked while the world socialist movement was advancing. In spite of oil price increases in the 1970s and ’80s, North Korea was able to obtain large amounts of crude oil at a discount price from the Soviet Union and China.43 However, unsurprisingly, when the entire socialist bloc started to go through market transitions in various ways in the late 1980s, North Korea also entered its crisis phase.

As the other socialist countries embraced the market economy and profit principle, aid and credit to North Korea became an unnecessary expenditure. The Soviet Union and China did not really pressure North Korea to pay back old loans, but easily could cancel new ones. The Soviet Union cut its aid and support to North Korea starting in 1987. What was likely the most painful moment came when the Soviet Union demanded North Korea pay world market prices in foreign exchange for imports when it established a diplomatic relationship with South Korea in 1990.44 China followed suit and established its own diplomatic relationship with South Korea in 1992. Before that year, China often had reciprocal goods exchange agreements with North Korea, such transactions being handled by the Ministries of Commerce in both countries. Starting in 1992, the term “goods exchange” was replaced by “trade” in such agreements, and such “trade” was to be managed by trading firms.45 In 1993, China also began to demand hard cash for trade payments, which became “increasingly difficult” due to the tightening of sanctions.46

The dissolution of the socialist trading system was a huge blow to North Korea, as the country’s economic model was not designed for international market competition. The rapidly changing political economy in both the Soviet Union (soon to be Russia and other countries) and China suddenly meant that North Korea actively had to engage with the capitalist world system to gain U.S. dollars to buy basic economic inputs. No one expressed this urgency better than the late Kim Il-Sung himself. In a speech at the end of 1992, Kim argued that “we must boldly venture into the capitalist market to develop foreign trade…officials must be positive in their activities. They can never develop economic relations with foreign countries if they only wait for someone to take the initiative in joint ventures or collaborations or if they worry about the defunct socialist market.”47

Despite North Korea’s intense efforts to increase its volume of exports in order to establish a favorable balance of trade, its products were not competitive on the world market. For a long time, North Korea’s so-called soft goods were acceptable to other socialist countries, but the new, profit-oriented enterprises in those countries were unlikely to honor such a tradition of solidarity.48 In a speech regarding this situation, Kim carefully discussed the details of all the major potential export items from North Korea, saying that “if we want to sell our goods on the capitalist market, we must improve their qualities much higher. The quality of the goods we are now producing is not high. Nobody will buy goods of poor quality in the capitalist market.”49 Such efforts, for example, would include better packaging, as “it is very important to package export goods well.… Poorly packaged goods do not fetch good prices. Goods should be packaged to cater to the tastes of people in capitalist countries.”50

Without sufficient international currency, North Korea was not able to maintain crucial imports such as crude oil and grain from abroad. At the same time, North Korea had to struggle alone with the increase in longstanding U.S. hostility, the embargo, and sanctions. The dramatic pressure can be seen in virtually every statistic. In terms of overall trade, North Korea lost about 58 percent of its exports and 46 percent of its imports between 1990 and 1995.51 During the same period, North Korea’s crude oil imports also dropped by more than half, according to one estimate.52 All of these factors led to a rapid decline in total energy supply by 28 percent in five years, even though the country still had rich coal resources.53 Meanwhile, severe natural disasters destroyed about 19 percent of farmland permanently.54

More than anything else, being cut off from crude oil was devastating for a highly urbanized economy that had grown to rely on chemicals and mechanization. Already mechanized agriculture requires fuel to run the tractors and trucks and to pump water for irrigation, among other uses. For instance, with an increasingly smaller oil supply, Kim ordered in 1992: “The oil produced by the chemical works must first be supplied to the countryside and then the remainder to other sectors.”55 Under this oil shortage, Kim would also place part of his hope in a particular vehicle model: Sungni-58 trucks, as they could work on farms using substitute fuels, such as methane or sub-bituminous coal, instead of petroleum.56

Equally importantly, the shortage of oil also meant a shortage of chemicals. Kim never gave up his idea of industrialized agriculture, and amid the oil shortage he still emphasized that “fertilizer means rice” and “rice is socialism.”57 Among other demands, he asked that “the chemical industry sector must by all means produce 1.8 million tons of nitrogenous fertilizer next year. Along with this, 500,000 tons should be imported from other countries.”58

Indeed, in North Korea’s industrial agriculture, fertilizer means rice and other foods. But a shortage of oil and subsequently fertilizer would then mean a shortage of food. Chart 3 presents the total cereal output and the aggregate chemical fertilizer application in North Korea from 1961 to 2020. Although fertilizer statistics for North Korea are usually based on some educated guess, the overall trend is likely reliable.59 Based on the data, North Korea’s industrial agriculture was successful before 1990, when it raised its cereal output on the basis of increasing fertilizer application. After 1990, fertilizer application rapidly dropped; the level in 1995 was just 12 percent of that in 1990. Even assuming other factors stayed the same (and the actual conditions were much worse in North Korea), a decline of this magnitude in fertilizer would lead to a disastrous output in any country. Thus, the drop in oil imports was probably the most direct cause of the 70 percent decline in cereal output.

Chart 3. North Korea Fertilizer Use and Cereal Output: 1961–2020

Xu Chart 3 - North Korea ferilizer use and cereal output 1961-2020

Notes and Sources: Fertilizers are calculated as the sum of potash, phosphate, and nitrogen. Both cereal output and fertilizer are measured in thousands of tons. Estimates are based on data from the FAO,, and World Development Indicators,

Not unlike shock therapy, the huge decline in food production and other economic activities paralyzed the entire North Korean society. Hitherto well-functioning institutions met with great difficulties, including less efficient collective agriculture, a malfunctioning public food distribution system, and, not surprisingly, clumsy responses from the government.

All the resulting problems would become the main talking points of mainstream writers such as Natsios, who argued that the institution of socialism was the ultimate problem, and capitalism and the market would save North Korea. However, as discussed above, the problems North Korea encountered in the 1990s had much more to do with industrial agriculture than socialism. The disappearance of the socialist trading system and the reduction of oil imports were the direct causes of the hardships. On a fundamental level, North Korea’s challenge was its excessive dependence on fossil fuels, which was a result of the efforts to build an independent, industrialized society in a small territory with too few favorable natural conditions and too many hostile imperialist aggressions.

The Food Question and Socialism

Following the crisis in the 1990s, North Korea has made efforts to address its food shortage problems. These measures include a more active role in the free market, more private incentives, more private plots, and a less regulated and subsidized food distribution system.60 In other words, North Korea did implement most of the mainstream writers’ suggestions to a certain extent. However, North Korea’s industrial agricultural model still seems intact, and so the fundamentals have not really improved. According to Chart 3, although cereal output is now generally better than in the mid-1990s, it is still considerably lower than the level in the 1980s and early ’90s, as the fertilizer application remains low.

The contemporary lack of access to fertilizer and fuel in North Korea is not just because of the balance of payment issues, but is also due to relentless sanctions by the United States and United Nations. A more recent joint assessment of food insecurity in North Korea by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) acknowledged that the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council in 2017 were “the strictest yet.”61 The report argued that the restrictions on the importation of fuel, machinery, and spare parts for equipment are harming North Korea’s agriculture, as the shortage of those resources limits the ability to irrigate, reducing yields and making crops susceptible to extreme weather shocks.

The report also noted a severe decay of North Korea’s agricultural mechanization: “There is a starkly diminished level of agricultural mechanization in the country as machinery ages, spare and replacement parts are unavailable, and fuel is in short supply…. Delays are experienced in agricultural operations because manual labour and animals substitute for mechanized operations.”62 That is, some of the most important legacies of industrial agriculture are falling apart, decades after the high mechanization days.

Fortunately, the public distribution system, part of the socialist legacy, remains in place. This nationally planned system provides food rations twice a month to all registered households at low prices.63 In 2018 and 2019, for example, comparable food items in the public distribution system were around fifteen times lower than market prices.64 The food problem in North Korea would have probably been worse without such an egalitarian ration system. Even so, Natsios, the former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, argued that the market mechanism is the only correct choice while acknowledging that “some relief workers actually admired the egalitarian public distribution system.” He suggested that these workers were simply being naïve and deceived.65

Nevertheless, an egalitarian distribution system does not by itself address the entire food problem. Although the public distribution system ensures basic access to food, rations have been declining since 2012 and remain considerably below the government target.66 North Korea still needs to navigate through many challenges and build a new path of development to increase food availability, among other goals.

As discussed above, the main challenge for North Korea is not so much a lack of income or technology per se; rather, it has to do with the unreliability of industrial agriculture, especially under the geopolitical constraints on the Korean peninsula.

Politically speaking, transcending industrial agriculture might meet less opposition in North Korea compared to many wealthier countries. With the challenges that North Korea faces, its leadership has a genuine motivation to build an alternative agriculture. The reason does not need to involve any romanticizing of the North Korean leadership, but it is useful to understand the country’s political economy. Despite years of hardship, North Korea did not implement shock therapy or a gradualist transition to a market economy. The North Korean government did try waves of marketization on smaller scales, but none of them has caused profound changes.

Importantly, this impasse is a result of the high industrialization achieved before the crisis in the 1990s.67 A Chinese type of gradualist market transition in essence relies on a large potential reserve army in the countryside. Without such a large potential reserve army, a market transition would have to create a reserve army among the existing workers; that is, the Soviet Union type of shock therapy. North Korea has had many years of successful industrialization and was already highly urbanized by the 1980s. Since it did not have a considerable potential reserve army in the villages, the gradualist model was not viable. At the same time, suicidal shock therapy was a unique outcome at the end of the Soviet Union, and it would not be quite so persuasive to the North Korean working class or society at large, given the disastrous consequences. This is why North Korea still maintains some core elements of the Soviet model, at least in part, even decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, despite repeated attempts to embrace the market economy. In a similar vein, given the objective conditions—regardless of what the elites in North Korea might think—it would only make sense to transition from the old industrial agriculture built in the high age of the Green Revolution to a much more pragmatic, effective, and ecological mode of agriculture. The recent geopolitical rift in Europe and high oil and fertilizer prices only reinforce the necessity of moving away from fossil fuels.

It is notable that the problems of industrial agriculture are not confined to North Korea. Within the same geographical region, South Korea and Japan, with much higher incomes, have not really done better in feeding themselves in comparable terms. Table 1 presents fertilizer intensity, cereal output, and yield, as well as the relative scale of cereal imports for selected countries in 2020. As a snapshot, the data illustrates some interesting patterns. First, North Korea had a lower fertilizer intensity than all other countries listed, including Cuba. North Korea has managed to achieve more than half of the yields of South Korea, Japan, and China with less than one-fifteenth of those countries’ fertilizer intensity. If North Korea or Cuba raised their fertilizer intensities to U.S. levels (while still keeping them much lower than those of the other East Asian countries), their cereal yields likely will increase dramatically and might even be higher than U.S. levels. Second, South Korea produces roughly the same amount of cereal as North Korea, despite having a fertilizer intensity twenty times higher. Additionally, both South Korea and Japan are highly dependent on food imports. In other words, these wealthier East Asian capitalist countries with highly intensive industrial agriculture only avoid a major food shortage because they can purchase large quantities of food in the global market.

Table 1. Fertilizer Usage and Cereal Output in 2020

Fertilizer Intensity Cereal Output Cereal Yield Import Ratio
North Korea 14 4,663 3,496 21%
South Korea 362 4,945 6,212 354%
Japan 238 11,686 6,473 219%
Cuba 26 526 2,572 642%
China 383 61,8599 6,314 7%
United States 126 433,257 8,145 -17%
Notes and Sources: Fertilizer intensity is measured as kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of arable land; cereal output is measured in thousands of tons; cereal yield is measured by kilograms per hectare; import ratio is defined as net import of cereal as a share of domestic cereal output. The numbers are based on FAO data,, and World Development Indicators,

As a neighbor with much larger territories, China largely has been able to maintain a high level of self-sufficiency, but has also accumulated tremendous problems decades after its own application of aspects of the Green Revolution. Table 1 shows that China uses fertilizer even more intensively than South Korea and Japan. Partly due to the rapid development of industrial agriculture and overuse of agricultural chemicals, China has seen significant soil acidification, degradation, and pollution in the decades following decollectivization.68 It is at least partly against this backdrop that the Chinese leadership has been calling for an ecological transition and the establishment of an ecological civilization.69

Table 1 also suggests that Cuba is still under immense pressure regarding the food problem. Like North Korea, Cuba’s economy suffered greatly since the ending of the Soviet Union centered economic network, and Cuba similarly has faced a long-term blockade by the United States. Since the “special period” in the early 1990s, the Cuban people have explored sustainable models of agroecology that have been highly effective.70 Cuba has also been able to import more food and fertilizer than North Korea, which helps alleviate some of the pressure. Cuba’s cereal output dropped by more than half between 1990 and 1993, but its output quickly rebounded to a historic level in 1997.71 At the same time, Cuba has developed “two extreme food-production models: an intensive model with high inputs, and another, beginning at the onset of the special period, oriented toward agroecology and based on low inputs.”72 This means that Cuba has not been able systemically to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and chemicals. Cuban food output remained stable throughout the current century until the most recent economic crisis starting in 2020. The reports so far seem to point to the lack of fossil fuels and fertilizers as the key reason for the food shortage.73 If this is the case, the current crisis is again a crisis in industrial agriculture, and it is of the same nature as the challenges that both Cuba and North Korea faced in the 1990s.

It is fair to conclude that the lessons from North Korea, Cuba, and the other models of agriculture strongly suggest that industrial agriculture—though seemingly productive and even “scientific”—is unreliable and unsustainable. We must acknowledge that twentieth-century socialists have usually taken the industrial agriculture model for granted. This was clear in the vision of a future socialist society shared by Kim. Socialism, or any attempts to sustainably feed the working people, must move beyond the model of industrial agriculture. An objective understanding of North Korea among the experiences of socialist countries would be a necessary first step.

However, ecological agriculture would be impossible without socialism. If a society plans to phase out fossil fuels and intense chemical applications, it implies we have to keep a considerable level of human physical labor in farming and other activities and a robust and populous countryside. This is against the overall trend in the history of capitalism. The people must develop the effective economic means of bringing an end to both the division of material and mental labor and the separation of town and country. This, of course, is just another way of describing socialism.


  1. Tim Beal, “In Line of Fire: The Korean Peninsula in U.S.-China Strategy,” Monthly Review 73, no. 3 (July–August 2021): 92–111.
  2. Beal, “In Line of Fire”; Martin Hart-Landsberg, “The Need for A New U.S. Foreign Policy Toward North Korea,” The Bullet, June 13, 2017.
  3. John Halliday, “The North Korean Enigma,” New Left Review, I/127 (May–June 1981): 18–52; Joseph S. Nye Jr., “North Korean Enigma,” Korea Times, December 6, 2010.
  4. Maddison Project Database, version 2018; Jutta Bolt, Robert Inklaar, Herman de Jong, and Jan Luiten van Zanden, “Rebasing ‘Maddison’: New Income Comparisons and the Shape of Long-Run Economic Development,” GGDC Research Memorandum No. 174, Groningen Growth and Development Centre, Groningen University, Groningen, Netherlands, 2018,
  5. Gavan McCormack, “North Korea: Kimilsungism Path to Socialism?,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 13, no. 4 (1981): 50–60.
  6. McCormack, “North Korea: Kimilsungism Path to Socialism?”
  7. Life expectancy data from the United Nations, 2022 Revision of World Population Prospects (New York: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2022),
  8. Lucas Rengifo-Keller, “Food Insecurity in North Korea Is at Its Worst Since the 1990s Famine,” 38 North, January 19, 2023.
  9. Andrew Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2001).
  10. Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine, 92.
  11. Woon Keun Kim, Hyunok Lee, and Daniel A. Sumner, “Assessing the Food Situation in North Korea,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 46, no. 3 (1998): 519–35.
  12. Elizabeth Brun and Jacques Hersh, Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976), 151.
  13. Halliday, “The North Korean Enigma”; SeogKi Lee interviewed by Suk Lee, “Industries and Enterprises of North Korea: Facts, Concepts, and Trends,” Dialogue on the North Korean Economy (KDI Research Paper Series), Korean Development Institute, Sejong-si, South Korea, February 2022.
  14. Halliday, “The North Korean Enigma”; Lee and Lee, “Industries and Enterprises of North Korea.”
  15. Based on the Maddison Project Database, version 2018.
  16. Marcus Noland, “Why North Korea Will Muddle Through,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 4 (1997): 105–18.
  17. Based on the Maddison Project Database, version 2018.
  18. Halliday, “The North Korean Enigma.”
  19. Lee and Lee, “Industries and Enterprises of North Korea.”
  20. Based on FAO data,
  21. Based on FAO data,
  22. Kim, Lee, and Sumner, “Assessing the Food Situation in North Korea.”
  23. Kim, Lee, and Sumner, “Assessing the Food Situation in North Korea.”
  24. See Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, Socialist States and the Environment: Lessons for Ecosocialist Futures (London: Pluto Press, 2021) for further discussion.
  25. Kim Il-Sung, Works, vol. 18, 184. Brun and Hersh quoted this article and examined the development of the four components in detail.
  26. Kim, Lee, and Sumner, “Assessing the Food Situation in North Korea.”
  27. Brun and Hersh, Socialist Korea, 222.
  28. Central Intelligence Agency, Korea, The Economic Race Between the North and the South (Washington, DC: CIA National Foreign Assessment Center, 1978).
  29. Brun and Hersh, Socialist Korea, 223.
  30. Kim, Works, vol. 42, 306.
  31. Kim, Works, vol. 42, 316.
  32. Maddison Project Database, version 2018.
  33. Based on FAO data,
  34. Based on FAO data,
  35. Soo-Young Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea, 1946–1988: Structure and Performance,” PhD dissertation, Northeastern University, Boston, 1991, 58.
  36. Alexander Zhebin, “Russia and North Korea: An Emerging, Uneasy Partnership,” Asian Survey 35, no. 8 (1995): 726–39.
  37. Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea,” 85–86.
  38. Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 29.
  39. Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea,” 231.
  40. Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea,” 72.
  41. Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea,” 210–17.
  42. Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea,” 230–32.
  43. For example, one source suggests that the Soviet Union sold crude oil at two-thirds of the world price. See Sang T. Choe, Hyun Jeong Cho, and Sang Jang Kwon, “North Korea’s Foreign Trade: An Indicator of Political Dynamics,” North Korean Review 2, no. 1 (2006): 27–37.
  44. Zhebin, “Russia and North Korea”; Haggard and Noland, Famine in North Korea, 27.
  45. All such treaties can be found in the Treaty Database maintained by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
  46. Haggard and Noland, Famine in North Korea, 32.
  47. Kim, Works, vol. 44, 14.
  48. Choi, “Foreign Trade of North Korea,” 281.
  49. Kim, Works, vol. 43, 206.
  50. Kim, Works, vol. 43, 207.
  51. Ministry of Unification (South Korea), Understanding North Korea 2014 (Seoul: Ministry of Unification, 2014), 255.
  52. Vincent Koen and Jinwoan Beom, “North Korea: The Last Transition Economy?,” Economics Department Working Paper No. 1607, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2020.
  53. Koen and Beom, “North Korea: The Last Transition Economy?”
  54. Choe et al., “North Korea’s Foreign Trade.”
  55. Kim, Works, vol. 44, 8.
  56. Kim, Works, vol. 44, 7.
  57. Kim, Works, vol. 44, 2–6.
  58. Kim, Works, vol. 44, 4.
  59. This fertilizer data series is somewhat different from older FAO/WFP estimates reported elsewhere, such as in Haggard and Noland, Famine in North Korea, 33, but the scale and trend are comparable.
  60. For example, see Haggard and Noland, Famine in North Korea, 176–82, and Cui Wen and Jin Hualin, “DPRK’s Policy for Economic Improvement and Evaluation in Kim Jeong-eun’s Era,” Journal of Yanbian University 48, no. 4 (2015): 25–32.
  61. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Food Programme (FAO/WFP), Joint Rapid Food Security Assessment: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Bangkok: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 2019), 14.
  62. FAO/WFP, Joint Rapid Food Security Assessment, 14.
  63. FAO/WFP, Joint Rapid Food Security Assessment, 29.
  64. FAO/WFP, Joint Rapid Food Security Assessment, 35.
  65. Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine, 54.
  66. FAO/WFP, Joint Rapid Food Security Assessment, 30.
  67. For a detailed discussion on the different models of transition, see Zhun Xu, “Potential Reserve Army and Diverging Paths of Transition in (Former) Socialist Economies,” Science and Society 87, no. 1 (2023): 76–94.
  68. Zhun Xu, “Farm Size, Capitalism, and Overuse of Agricultural Chemicals in China,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 31, no. 3 (2020): 59–74.
  69. See a detailed analysis in John Bellamy Foster, “Ecological Civilization, Ecological Revolution: An Ecological Marxist Perspective,” Monthly Review 74, no. 5 (October 2022): 1–11.
  70. Roger Atwood, “Organic or Starve: Can Cuba’s New Farming Model Provide Food Security?,” Guardian, October 28, 2017.
  71. Based on FAO data,
  72. Miguel A. Altieri and Fernando R. Funes-Monzote, “The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture,” Monthly Review 63, no. 8 (January 2012): 23.
  73. T. Whitney Jr., “‘Worse than the Special Period’: Cuba’s Food Situation More Desperate by the Day,” People’s World, August 16, 2023.
2024, Volume 75, Number 10 (March 2024)
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