Why North Korea places so much emphasis on organic farming, by Justin Rohrlich

[CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner and Brain Trust members Randall Ireson and Kathi Zellweger were among interviewees featured in this article by journalist Justin Rohrlich about North Korean farming practices. The resulting article was published on 31 May 2013 in NK News Pro. –CanKor]

“Let us thoroughly implement the Juche farming methods created by the fatherly leader Comrade Kim Il Sung!”

Picture panel at Sambong Farm, Pyongwon County, DPRK (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

Picture panel at Sambong Farm, Pyongwon County, DPRK (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

As reported recently by North Korean state news agency KCNA – and picked up by NK News Pro Media Monitoring – a “short course” in organic farming methods was held at the Pyongyang Centre for Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries from 14-16 May 2013.

A delegation of experts led by Andre Leu, President of the Bonn, Germany-based International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (also the current Chair of the Organic Federation of Australia and former Chair of the Far North Queensland Lychee Growers Association), was in town to direct the two-day program, which included, among other seminars, “Multi-Functional Benefits of Organic Agriculture, Soil Health and Nutrition,” “Green Manure,” and “Humus Soil and its Making.”

North Korean attendees included, per KCNA, Kim Jin Bom, vice-chairman of the Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries and director of the Pyongyang International New Technological and Economic Information Exchange Agency, as well as “officials of ministries and national institutions, officials and researchers in the field of scientific research and agricultural experts.”

One reason North Korea farms organically is, well, because Kim Il Sung said so. Two Decembers ago, the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea published “joint calls” on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, exhorting the citizenry to, among other things, “Let us thoroughly implement the Juche farming methods created by the fatherly leader Comrade Kim Il Sung!”, “Turn the country into a socialist paradise where all sorts of fruits thrive like a sea of apples at the Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm!”, and, crucially, “Be proactive in introducing organic farming method!”

Another reason North Korea is focused on organics? After decades of land mismanagement, they don’t have much choice.

“Under the leadership of Kim Il Sung, the DPRK adapted all the methods of the Green Revolution, but ‘in spades’ and unfettered by economic constraints,” Dr. Randall Ireson, who coordinated the American Friends Service Committee agricultural development program in the DPRK between 1998 and 2007, told me via email. “Thus, if some fertilizer was good, more would always be better.”

Randall Ireson (far right) at an agricultural seminar in Pyongyang with officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

Randall Ireson at an agricultural seminar in Pyongyang with officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Academy of Agricultural Sciences (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

Ireson said the DPRK bred for high yield without much concern for other characteristics, such as insect or disease resistance, thus developing a “reasonably productive ag system which was entirely dependent on high fertilizer application and use of mechanical traction (because the society had already urbanized).”

This was paid for, he told me, through “highly subsidized concessional trade” with the USSR and China. And the North Korean juche ideal of self-sufficiency simply compounded the trouble.

“It was irrelevant, for example, that the cost of fertilizer needed to raise rice yields from seven to nine tons per hectare was greater than the cost of buying the same two tons of rice on the world market,” Ireson wrote in a February 2006 paper for the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “And in any case, the DPRK did not pay world prices for fertilizer, fuel, or feedstock, because of its concessional trade relations with the USSR and China. Similar trading patterns characterized other sectors of the economy, and thus the ‘success’ of juche was achieved through a hidden subsidy, which the DPRK did not acknowledge to even its fellow Communist donors.”

After the USSR disintegrated in 1990, and the Chinese demanded convertible cash payment in advance for fuel and fertilizer, the DPRK economy collapsed.

“This is the cause of the famine, which was exacerbated by three disastrous weather years,” Ireson said. “Years of overuse of ammonium nitrate fertilizer had effectively sterilized the soil (very low organic matter, few soil fauna), and with the loss of fertilizer, farm production crashed.”

Compounding the problem is the continuing starvation of the land.

“The organic material that should be plowed back into the fields – corn stalks, et cetera – are being used instead for fuel,” Erich Weingartner, who spent two years living in Pyongyang as founding Head of the World Food Programme’s Food Liaison Unit, told me.

“Letting fields lie fallow just isn’t done in North Korea because they need to grow food; the soil never has a chance to rejuvenate. The soil is really weak and depleted, and this is one of the reasons why they can’t feed their people.”

“Farmers say, ‘We understand why we should plow back into the land,’ – or even not plow, like the no-till method that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is promoting – but it’s a hard sell because people have nothing else to use for fuel.”

In response, Weingartner said, NGOs and FAO have concentrated primarily on “conservation agriculture,” in which crop residues create an organic layer, and in turn, a natural, self-sustaining fertilizer.

“They’re trying to get nutrients back into the ground,” Weingartner explained. “This is the kind of farming North Koreans really need – not necessarily to produce nice organic vegetables, but to rehabilitate the soil.”


Though it may be called “organic farming,” (yugi nong-op in Korean), Randall Ireson noted that, “in DPRK usage, ‘organic’ does not mean pure organic, or certified organic farming as we understand it in the US, but rather the use of more biological processes than in the past when everything was based on the use of ag chemicals and high-fertilizerresponsive varieties of rice and maize.”

“It is a pragmatic approach which is bent somewhat by a search for special organisms, minerals, or chemicals which would further enhance the organic processes,” he said. “As in most things DPRK, there is always an effort to squeeze the last little bit of productivity out of any activity or process, and a faith that they can find some new way of doing stuff that no one else has identified.”

Ireson described North Korea’s organic farming initiative as “an effort to rebuild the DPRK ag sector in an environmentally responsible way…though the extent and the degree to which farm managers have the knowledge and institutional permission to adapt for local conditions is somewhat questionable in my mind.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Weingartner, who said, “It always boils down to whether the appropriate directives come down from above.”

Experimental plots of the Organic Agriculture Development Association, located in Ssang-un farm in South Pyongan Province (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

Experimental plots of the Organic Agriculture Development Association, located in Ssang-un farm in South Pyongan Province (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

“Some farmers don’t trust it, but others are very enthusiastic,” he told me. “On one experimental farm I went to, a North Korean guy who had just come back from an international conference in Cuba was so keen on organic farming, so fired up, that his dream was to make North Korea the first completely organic country.”

Those “who catch on,” Weingartner said, tend to “get very enthusiastic about it; they see the benefits of it. North Koreans who travel see that, around the world, this is the revolution in farming.”

Indeed, the North Korean powers-that-be would also have to reduce certain quotas when taking a long view, as yields take some time to build back up to previous levels. Unfortunately, admitted Weingartner, this is easier said than done.

“When you go organic, there’s a short-term reduction in yield,” Weingartner explained. “Big collective farms in North Korea might have a population of anywhere from 500 or 600 people to a couple of thousand; they’re divided up into smaller work groups, usually families, and they are each required to produce a certain quota. So, if you’re going to do an experiment with some of these fields, you’ve got to convince people who have a quota to fill [to accept a lower yield].”


Though funding for organic initiatives is spare (“Because of sanctions, people are prevented from giving development aid to North Korea, which means these things are financed with very little money,” said Weingartner), there are a handful of dedicated NGOs making the attempt. Katharina Zellweger served as the North Korea country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation from 2006 to 2011, focusing mostly on sustainable agricultural production and income generation projects during her five years in-country. Echoing Ireson and Weingartner’s experiences, weak, degraded soil was of primary concern, exacerbated further, Zellweger told me, by “crop monoculture,” or, growing the same crop year after year.

“The soil is too acidic [to grow crops], so we did liming with them,” Zellweger, now the

2012-2013 Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Korean Studies Program, said. “That can last six to ten years – and North Korea has the lime.” The real issue, Zellweger explained, is the expense of transporting it throughout the country, a difficult task in the face of increasingly restrictive economic sanctions.

If a North Korean harvest does meet or exceed expectations, Erich Weingartner described “post-harvest losses” as another issue aid workers are trying hard to mitigate.

“If you don’t have enough room in your barn to properly store and dry rice, for example, and then if you have a wet autumn, which often happens, the bundles of rice get wet and begin to rot before you can thresh them,” Weingartner said. Alternatively, North Korean crops routinely rot in the fields before they have even had a chance to be picked. So, Weingartner said, “some NGOs have supplied mobile threshers, which lets them thresh crops right on the spot.”

Dr. Simon Numberger and Dr. Bernhard Seliger of the Hanns-Seidel Foundation on an organic farm, Pyongan-Namdo, Sookcheon County, with members of the Organic Agricultural Development Association and the University of Applied Science for Ecological Cultivation. (Photo by hss.or.kr)

Dr. Bernhard Seliger and Dr. Simon Numberger of the Hanns-Seidel Foundation on an organic farm, Pyongan-Namdo, Sookcheon County, with members of the Organic Agricultural Development Association and the University of Applied Science for Ecological Cultivation. (Photo by hss.or.kr)

Some groups currently on the ground include:

The Hanns-Seidel-Foundation, a German NGO, which “has been cooperating with North Korea in knowledge transfer and training on organic farming since 2007,” and last year organized an introductory seminar on organic farming in Wonsan, with over 80 managers and chief engineers of collective farms in attendance.

FiBL Deutschland, or the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, which will be in North Korea through July 2014, “supporting the development of an organic agriculture competence center.” The project includes Mirim Farm, a 30 hectare state-run experimental farm just outside Pyongyang, managed by the Academy for Agricultural Sciences.

And Andre Leu’s International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, which embarked on the 48-month “Bridges for Organic Knowledge in Korea” project in January 2012, under the coordination of the Pyongyang International Information Center for New Technology and Economy, or PIINTEC, and co-financed by the European Commission.

Whether or not North Korea will ever be self-sufficient is up for debate. Some experts say it can’t happen, that there’s simply not enough arable land to go around. Others say it is entirely feasible, given the proper reforms. And, if North Korea ever gets to a point where it is in a position to export its organic produce, Katharina Zellweger believes there may be a nearby, untapped market available to them.

“I think the North Koreans have the idea that they could export farm products if they were organic,” she said. “They are close to China, where there might be a ready market of affluent buyers.” What with the numerous food safety issues the Chinese have faced in recent years, Zellweger said the populace is “quite aware how important organic products are.”

Aware of this fact, Bhutan, which is aiming to be the world’s first 100% organic nation, has already set its sights on the Chinese market, where China Central Television describes demand for organic produce as “soaring.” (The trend is not limited to Asia, either. Bhutan is also planning to expand its organic exports to India, and, as reported last year by Diaa Hadid of the Times of Israel, Palestinian farmers in the West Bank now export at least $5 million worth of organic olive oil each year to high-end gourmet retailers in the US and Europe.)

Could North Korea be next?

“I’m not so sure they are aware that getting the international certification for organic products is quite complex,” Zellweger told me. “It would mean access to the fields and processing units, plus a whole lot of checks and standards to comply with,” something that the North Korean authorities have never been particularly keen on, to put it mildly. “On the other hand,” suggested Zellweger, “in a country with little money for pesticides, the baseline for starting is probably not too bad.”

Recent data, however, suggests that baseline might be somewhat flexible. Per a report by analyst Kwon Tae-jin of the Korea Rural Economic Institute, North Korean imports of fertilizer from China rose nearly five-fold in April compared to a year earlier (91,318 tons versus compared with 15,218 tons in 2012). Other sources suggest the actual amount of fertilizer brought into North Korea last month could be even higher.

“Our trade department doesn’t normally import such a large amount of fertilizer at once,” a trade official in North Pyongan province told Radio Free Asia, “but the trade department of each province has been ordered to stock up to 200 tons of fertilizer.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: