October 11, 2012

Setting The Stage For Famine In North Korea

Reorganizing and purging my library recently, I came across a book I had made a mental note of years ago. Entitled Glorious Forty Years of Creation, Volume II, it is a rather sympathetic, to put it gently, account of Kim Il Sung's role in economic development and planning in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea from 1953 to 1966.

What struck me when first I read it, and the reason I hung on to it, is Chapter 7, "Maize Is the King of Dry-Field Crops." It describes certain policies adopted in the Three Year Plan put in place after the end of the Korean War, which had devastated the country's economy, South and North.

It was decided that the key in agriculture was the adoption of maize to replace millet, sorghum and other traditional grains as the main supplement to expanded rice production. Hence the slogan that heads the chapter,

So far, so good, I guess.

Nevertheless, the officials in the field of agriculture and scientists and technicians paid little attention to increasing the area in which maize was cultivated. To make matters worse, the anti-Party, counter-revolutionary factionalists said that if maize was planted every year, the yield would fall. They argued that crop rotation, which was not suited to our country with its limited area of arable land, should be introduced.

Naturally the great leader Kim IL Sung stepped in to "correct the erroneous view of the factionalists." The first few years' results, we are told, were good and thus "shattered the arguments" of those who insisted on crop rotation.

Okay, I'm no agronomist, no agricultural economist, but this is just tutti-frutti. Crop rotation is essential in maize and other high yielding grains. It's not just that they rapidly deplete the soil of nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients. These can be replaced, if imperfectly, with expensive fertilizer inputs. Rotation also interrupts the life cycles of harmful diseases and parasites that target one or another crop. It also, by extending the growing season, cuts soil erosion.

Even in giant corporate agriculture in the US, corn-soybean-corn (c-s-c) rotation is common although soaring prices can often tempt farmers to plant maize two or three years in a row (c-c, c-c-c) before rotating another crop in. Many farmers also add a third crop like wheat or red clover, as in this picture.

Now you might could argue for cutting some slack for 1953, but Glorious Forty Years of Creation was published in 1989! Advocates of crop rotation are still "anti-Party, counter-revolutionary factionalists."

The year 1989 is ironic. The broke and collapsing USSR, a major bulwark of the DPRK economy, has started charging market prices for petroleum, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs and within a couple of years will shut off the spigot entirely. And the great famine of the 1990s commences, causing many thousands of deaths and a sharp decrease in actual physical size among survivors who grew up during it. The DPRK is still far from self-sufficient in food production.

This is not a scientific study, just an impression, and I'd be interested to read arguments to the contrary, but until then, I'll stick with the idea that folks who have neither farmed, nor even studied farming in a systematic way, can be awfully dangerous when they pick up the cudgels of political and ideological line to determine how to feed a nation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And in any case, the Great Leader didn't read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" published only 17 years later. Had he done so, he might not have chosen corn as the chosen crop. More striking still is how anyone, even Jimmy Higgins, would EVER have seen, let alone, read, the Great Leader's agricultural masterpiece.