Food Security or Food Sovereignty? Agricultural Technology Reforms after the Famine in North Korea


Harumi Kobayashi and Jae-Jung Suh

Pacific Affairs (Volume 96, No. 4, December 2023)

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Abstract: How did North Koreans reform their agricultural technology after the massive famine in the 1990s? While the existing literature focuses its analysis on the nexus between the state and market to assess the possibility of a transition economy, we instead examine agricultural methods and technologies employed in farmlands to evaluate the nature of technological reforms. After identifying technology reforms on the basis of primary sources published in the DPRK such as yearbooks, academic journals, and newspaper articles, as well as other materials published in South Korea, Japan, and the United States and by international organizations, we classify them into two kinds of initiatives: modernization measures that sought to address the earlier failure to modernize agricultural technologies, and ecology-friendly farming practices designed to reduce or reverse the negative externalities of industrial agriculture such as overdependence on chemical fertilizers or erosion of soil fertility. While the two are commonly seen as incompatible by scholars of agriculture, we conclude that North Koreans synthesized the two to transform their decaying industrial agriculture into a more modernized and ecology-friendly sector. They have, through these reforms, maintained food sovereignty as their pillar of agriculture but complemented it with food security on a national scale as a way to maximize their agriculture outputs. Most of these initiatives seem to continue to date although it remains to be seen if they have actually succeeded in increasing overall agricultural productivity and sustainability.

About the author: Jae-Jung Suh was a HYI Visiting Scholar from 2022-23.