and its implications for the future of Korean food sovereignty
By Moe Taylor | November 2, 2023
On October 10th, 1958, Kim Il Sung, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), visited the Kiyang Machinery Factory in what is today part of the major port city of Nampo. Addressing the workers, he framed the task before them as a crucial battle in a broader struggle to rebuild from the destruction of the Korean War, and create a prosperous, socialist society. Empowering the nation’s cooperative farms with tractors would be the catalyst for a revolution in food production. “Since ancient times, our people have said that to live well is to eat white rice with meat soup every day,” Kim told those present. “But in order to do that, we need to be producing 5 to 7 million tons of grain per year.” While the Kiyang Machinery Factory was to manufacture 3,000 tractors that year, its longer-term goal was 10,000 annually. This was not merely to meet the needs of the DPRK, however. While the complete mechanization of agriculture in the northern half of the peninsula would require 30,000 tractors, Kim asserted, the South, richer in farmland, would require an additional 50,000. In other words, Korean unification was assumed to be on the horizon, and the millions of poor farmers in the South had to be considered in setting production goals. On this basis, a goal of 80,000 tractors was proclaimed.
A month later the first Korean-made tractor rolled off the assembly line. The boxy, bright-red “Chollima 28,” named after the magical flying horse of Korean folklore, was equipped with a 28 horsepower (HP), 2-cylinder diesel engine, a gearbox transmission, and a 3-point hitch. Six years later, by which time tens of thousands of these machines had arrived at cooperative farms throughout the country, Kim told a national meeting of tractors operators that they were “the vanguards of the rural technical revolution,” entrusted with the “history-making task” of “freeing the farmers from arduous labour.”
The Peruvian intellectual Genaro Carnero Checa (1930-2010) marvelled at how the DPRK successfully developed a domestic tractor industry while struggling to recover from the widespread devastation wreaked by the US military during the Korean War. For Carnero, it was an example of the kind of grassroots initiative and working-class ingenuity that distinguished those difficult years. According to Carnero, ordinary workers, lacking blueprints and all but the most basic tools, fashioned the Chollima 28 through a feat of reverse-engineering in which they disassembled and studied a foreign model piece by piece. This onerous process of trial and error included ten unsuccessful prototypes, including one which could only drive backwards, to which Kim Il Sung is said to have responded, “the important thing is that the tractor is moving.” This story, recalled by many foreign visitors to what was renamed the Kumsong Tractor Factory in the early 1970s, contains an additional point, subtly made but no less important: the DPRK’s allies preferred to sell them tractors rather than share their technology. But for the DPRK leadership, relying on imported Soviet, Polish, or Romanian tractors could not meet the party’s ambitious goals of mechanization and self-reliance. Fundamentally, the DPRK’s aim was to become an industrialized nation with a sufficient degree of domestic manufacturing capacity, rather than a dependent exporter of raw materials.
Thus, in 1958 the DPRK became a rare case of a developing country manufacturing its own tractors – a high-tech, high-value industry then dominated by the industrialized countries of Europe and the United States (as it still is today, although to a lesser extent). Followed by the rapid and widespread mechanization of its farming sector, it was a remarkable achievement which earned the DPRK widespread admiration among the newly-independent nations of the global South.
By the 1970s the DPRK was producing 5,000-7,000 tractors annually. While this fell short of the ambitious target of 10,000 set by Kim Il Sung in 1958, it was nonetheless impressive, and meant the government likely achieved its goal of having one tractor for every 10 hectares of arable land. The South Korean government estimated the North had produced some 136,000 tractors by 1984. Grain production grew in parallel, with annual yields likely reaching approximately 8 million tons by the end of the 1980s. While there is some debate over the DPRK’s exact agricultural output in the decade, there is broad consensus that it was impressive by developing world standards, and that the country was likely self-sufficient in grain. Of course, tractors were not the only or even the most important factor in greater yields. Rice transplanting and threshing machines, chemical fertilizers, extensive irrigation schemes including the construction of canals, reservoirs, and water-pumping infrastructure, and ambitious land reclamation efforts were all part of the transformation of farming in the DPRK.By contrast, in the same period South Korean agriculture remained private, small-scale, and mostly unmechanized. Most farmers were poor, heavily indebted, and owning an imported tractor from Japan, the US or Europe was but a fantasy. Even smaller, two-wheeled power tillers, which the government encouraged, typically cost more than most farmers’ annual income in the 1960s. By 1980, there still only some 2,500 tractors amongst South Korea’s 2.12 million farming households.
In the 1970s the DPPK became an outspoken advocate of the Non-Aligned Movement and South-South Cooperation. The latter concept held that developing countries could overcome what they might lack individually in natural resources, expertise, or technology by trading and cooperating amongst themselves in a spirit of solidarity. It offered an alternative path to development than that of the global capitalist market dominated by the Triad (the United States, Western Europe, and Japan). In this context, Pyongyang gifted large numbers of tractors to friendly countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The biggest recipient region was Africa, where at least 11 countries received significant shipments of North Korean tractors in this period (grants of anywhere from 20 to 100 tractors to a single country were typical). These tractors were often part of larger assistance packages in the areas of farming, fishing, food processing, irrigation, and land reclamation. They could include tractor harrows, plows, trailers, and spare parts, other kinds of agricultural machinery and implements, fishing boats, and boat motors. In many countries the DPRK also constructed standing facilities for the production of salt, sugar, cooking oils, and flour, poultry slaughterhouses, shipyards and dockyards, and factories for the manufacture of fertilizer, pesticide, agricultural implements, and water pumps.
Despite these accomplishments, the DPRK’s food system met calamity in the radically altered geopolitical, economic, and ecological conditions of the post-Soviet era. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, the DPRK abruptly lost its primary source of trade, and most crucially, affordable oil supplies. On the heels of this economic crisis came the climate disaster of July-August 1995, when the country experienced massive floods resulting from torrential rains – the heaviest recorded in the country in seventy years. This flooding wiped out farmland, but also emergency grain reserves, many of which were stored underground. Flooding also crippled the DPRK’s domestic energy production capacity as it damaged or destroyed hydropower stations, coal mines, irrigation systems, and transportation networks. In this sense, the DPRK was an early victim of the extreme heavy precipitation events caused by climate change that have since become more frequent around the world.
The floods of 1995 were followed by more extreme weather in the following years that further damaged the agricultural sector, including above-average temperatures and drought. The loss of its primary source of affordable energy imports, combined with the damage done to its domestic energy sector, was devastating for the DPRK’s highly mechanized food system, by severely restraining its ability to power tractors, water-pumps, and transportation, and produce fertilizer and spare parts. One 2000 study estimated that eighty percent of the country’s farming machinery was in disuse. The result was the near implosion of the economy and a famine that may have killed as many as one million people, a grim period North Koreans refer to as the Arduous March (gonanui haenggun).
Despite the hardships the DPRK has endured since the 1990s, the hardening of both US and UN sanctions since 2017, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kumsong Tractor Factory still operates today. In December 2022, the DPRK press announced a new tractor model, the harlequin-green Chollima 1104. At 110 HP and with a traction capacity of 20 kilonewtons (KN), it is the most powerful North Korean tractor model to date. These developments have occurred in the context of what various analysts have recognized is the government’s determination to raise agricultural production and strengthen food security since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Fourth Plenary Meeting of the Eight WPK Central Committee in December 2021, Kim Jong Un called for the country to “increase the state investment in agriculture and thus decisively strengthen the material and technical foundations of agriculture,” stressing the need for science-based policy, greater mechanization, and special subsidies to cooperative farms. Pyongyang’s diplomatic activity abroad is another indicator of the importance it places on strengthening food security. The primary benefit the DPRK has sought in its bilateral relations with Brazil, for example, is cooperation and assistance in soybeans – learning Brazilian production techniques, sharing germplasm, while opening DPRK seed banks to the Brazilian Agricultural Research Enterprise (EMBRAPA). In the author’s personal experience, efforts by DPRK scientists and policy makers to collaborate with their foreign peers – efforts made near-impossible by the existing sanctions regime - have largely focused on agriculture, fungiculture, aquaculture, child nutrition, and renewable energy.
While South Korea has witnessed remarkable economic growth over the last forty years, its agricultural sector faces severe challenges of its own. In recent decades the country has witnessed a troubling reduction in farmland and domestic food production. In the context of rapid industrialization and urbanization, farmland has shrunk 33.6 percent, from 2.29 million hectares in 1970 to 1.52 million in 2022. In 2020, South Korea’s rate of grain self-sufficiency dropped below 20 percent for the first time in history, while the country was importing 54.2 percent of its food, making it one of the most food-dependent nations in the OECD. Moreover, as South Korea has been fully incorporated into a neo-liberalized global economy, its agricultural sector is more vulnerable to foreign competition. The recent controversy over Chinese-made kimchi is exemplary (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese imports had come to supply 40 percent of South Koreans’ kimchi consumption).
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic, the global climate emergency, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have exposed the fragility of a highly globalized and fossil fuel dependent food trade system. The fact that in the West the global food crisis appears to have lost the attention it received during 2022, when the FAO reported that approximately 9.2 percent of the world’s population faced hunger, does not mean it went away. Moreover, the reduction in carbon emissions the climate crisis demands will need to include more localized food systems as part of a part of a broader process of, as Nicolas Graham puts it, “lessening the spatial disjuncture between production and consumption” through “partial deglobalization and the shortening of commodity chains.”
Greater integration of the North and South Korean agriculture sectors could be a pathway to both strengthening food security in the North and decreasing food dependency in the South. We caught a glimpse of such potentials during the high-point of North-South dialogue during 2000-2008, when South Korean companies explored producing kimchi, medicinal herbs, and dairy products, among other things, in the North for export to the South. Increased scientific collaboration in areas such as agronomy, plant nutrition, and soil chemistry, and collaborative environmental stewardship, also present logical steps forward, and again, is a form of cooperation that made significant headway prior to 2008.
How the DPRK leadership has handled its food security issue at various points over the last thirty years deserves to be thoroughly scrutinized, and criticism levelled accordingly. However, the familiar refrain in the West that the DPRK government “builds nukes while its people starve” simplifies a much more complex situation by ignoring several crucial factors. First, the contribution of the United States government and its allies to food insecurity in the DPRK through coercive sanctions that strangle the economy, handicap domestic food production specifically, and block the efforts of other states and NGOs to deliver humanitarian assistance, in what US policymakers have confessed are a deliberate attempt to induce regime change through increasing hardship on the civilian population. Secondly, the role of the United States and its allies in escalating tensions and increasing the danger of war on the Korean peninsula, which recently has included the stationing of a US nuclear ballistic missile submarine at Busan, the creation of the Japan-South Korea-U.S. Trilateral Alliance (JAKUS) and the expansion of joint US-ROK-Japan war exercises, and Japan’s decision to double defense spending while revising its defence policy. The latter, according to many analysts, amounts to a work-around of its constitutional prohibition on waging war. Lastly, as serious as the DPRK’s food insecurity issue is, there are no shortage of US-allied governments in Asia and throughout the global South, praised by Washington for their “free market” and “robust democracy,” who have comparable or significantly worse issues of hunger. Consider India, the fifth largest economy in the world, where the Modi government is estimated to spend several billion dollars annually on its nuclear weapons program, and scores significantly worse on the Global Hunger Index than does the DPRK.
Fundamentally, therefore, the tragedy of food insecurity in the DPRK is one of many consequences of the absence of peace on the Korean peninsula. An end to the hostile policy of the United States and its allies, including military aggression and coercive sanctions, would make possible the rehabilitation of DPRK’s agricultural sector by enabling it to interact with foreign markets, import crucial inputs, and re-engage in international cooperation, within a broader process of economic recovery. The DPRK’s impressive experience in feeding its population through innovative farming methods and cooperative labour would have the opportunity to rejuvenate and evolve in line with contemporary advances in renewable energy, sustainable agricultural, and DIY manufacturing empowered by Open Source and 3-D printing. Ultimately, peace and unification would open the possibility of Koreans building an integrated, peninsula-wide green agricultural sector based on goals of sustainability, food security., and food sovereignty.
Moe Taylor is a historian, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) scholar, and a Senior Policy Analyst with the Canadian government. He is the author of North Korea, Tricontinentalism, and the Latin American Revolution, 1959–1970 (Cambridge University Press, 2023). He lives in Toronto.
 Kim Il Sung, “Uri ŭi himŭro ttŭrakttorŭrŭl saengsanhaja” [Let us build tractors by our own efforts], October 10, 1958, in Chŏnjip, vol. 22 (Pyongyang: Korean Workers’ Party Publishing House, 1998), 379-390, here 380.  Ibid., 384.  Kim Il Sung, “Tractor operators are the vanguards of the rural technical revolution,” February 20, 1964, in Works, vol. 18 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House,1984), 158-165, here 158.  Genaro Carnero Checa, Corea: Arroz y Acero (Lima: Ediciones Siglo XX, 1974), 141.  Randall Ireson, “Food Security in North Korea: Designing Realistic Possibilities,” February 2006, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 8.  The basis for the author’s claim is a comparison between South Korean government figures on the numbers of tractors in the DPRK between 1974 and 1984, and World Bank estimates of total arable land in the DPRK in the same period. 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