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Can Wheat Save North Korea From a Food Crisis?

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The Koreas | Economy | East Asia

Can Wheat Save North Korea From a Food Crisis?

While wheat farming can help to alleviate North Korea’s food shortages, it would require significant investments in modern agricultural techniques and infrastructure.

Can Wheat Save North Korea From a Food Crisis?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Dreamy Pixel

Many experts say that North Korea’s food shortage has deepened due to pandemic-related lockdowns, persistent international sanctions, and natural disasters.

According to South Korea’s Rural Development Administration (RDA), North Korean agricultural output last year declined by 3.8 percent compared to 2021. More specifically, the RDA estimated that the country’s crop production was 4.51 million tons in 2022, down 180,000 tons from 2021. The report said the growth of all of crops was impacted by floods, drought, and other negative weather conditions. Among different crops, rice production was most seriously damaged by such natural disasters, declining 4.2 percent (90,000 tons).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicted in its “World Food Security Assessment 2022-2032” report, published last year, that the food shortage in North Korea in 2022 would be 1.21 million tons – meaning the country requires urgent assistance.

Although the North Korean regime has sought to meet that gap by grain purchases from China and Russia through the railway trade, chronic food problems still need to be urgently solved.

Agricultural Reform for Wheat Production 

During the meetings of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) held in February this year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un urged government officials to engineer a “fundamental transformation” in agricultural production, amid fears that the country’s food shortage is worsening. However, Kim did not elaborate on what measures North Korea would take; he just said the changes need to happen in the next few years.

Although its reform measures remain veiled, the government seems to have recalibrated agricultural policy by envisaging an increase of wheat production as part of its efforts to achieve food self-sufficiency. Since 2021, North Korea has begun encouraging farmers to produce wheat, which has not been among the country’s traditional crops, such as rice, corn, and potato.

At the fourth plenary meeting of the Eighth WPK Central Committee at the end of 2022, Kim said the changing of North Korea’s grain production structure and the heavy promotion of rice and wheat farming are major party tasks. To achieve this goal, he called for increasing nationwide acreage for paddy and upfield rice and doubling the acreage for wheat and barley. At the seventh plenary meeting, held in February this year, Kim Jong Un also said, “We will create conditions for improving the dietary life in a civilized way by guaranteeing white rice and wheat flour to the people.”

The recent efforts by Pyongyang to transform crop production are not unique in North Korea’s agricultural history. In the aftermath of the widespread starvation in the 1990s, North Korea had begun promoting the cultivation of potatoes, as an alternative crop to corn, under the slogan of the “potato revolution.” As a result, the production of potatoes successfully increased in the 2000s, which contributed to solving the country’s food problem.

Despite this successful story, since North Korea is likely facing another food crisis due to its mismanagement and unavoidable climate phenomena, the government decided to restructure the spectrum of crop production by promoting wheat as a staple food along with rice. According to Daily NK, the farmland for cultivating wheat, mainly in South Pyeongan province, was expanded by 30 percent in 2021, usurping corn and potato fields. As a result, the output of wheat and barley increased by 12.5 percent, while the production of corn and potatoes declined in 2022 by 1.3 percent and 14 percent, respectively, from 2021 levels.

There are many reasons for this transformation.

First, in recent years North Korea has experienced difficulties storing harvested potatoes due to its vulnerability to rains and humidity. Meanwhile, wheat is easily stored and transported in the form of flour, which can be distributed remotely and widely. As a result, the North Korean regime has chosen wheat to replace potatoes and corn, usually cultivated in the remote northern part of North Korea.

Second, normally wheat farming requires less fertilizer. Potatoes and corn, on the other hand, are known to be heavy feeders and require a significant amount of fertilizer to produce high yields. Therefore, in the long term, expanding wheat cultivation will likely help reduce the use of fertilizers, which North Korea often lacks.

Third, food trends and patterns in North Korea have changed in recent years. Rice, corn, and potatoes are gradually being replaced by rice and wheat as staple foods, particularly as noodles, bread, and snacks are becoming more and more popular among younger and middle-class North Koreans.

Remaining Challenges

Nevertheless, there are many challenges for North Korea to reduce corn and potato cultivation to increase the area for producing wheat.

First, in the case of North Korea, most of the lands for wheat and barley cultivation were newly created by occupying corn and potato fields as double cropping areas. Therefore, the production of corn and potatoes will likely continue declining in the future. However, it is not guaranteed that North Korea will actually increase the production of wheat instead. For example, as mentioned earlier, while the land for wheat farming increased by more than 30 percent in 2021, wheat production only increased by 12.5 percent in 2022. Indeed, the first harvest was not successful as Pyongyang hoped, even with the additional acreage.

A major problem was that a large part of the lands prepared for wheat farming were not sown, due to a lack of seeds. In this regard, Pyongyang urgently needs to secure enough seeds to be sowed this year. To solve this issue, North Korea has been working to develop new strains of wheat that are better adapted to the country. It is important to develop seeds that fit local growing conditions and are more resistant to pests and disease, as well as providing high yields in double-cropped fields.

Second, North Korea also faces technical difficulties such as lack of machinery, fertilizer, electricity, and adequate storage facilities to accommodate wheat farming. However, North Korea is not easily able to import agricultural materials and equipment from foreign countries due to sanctions and its self-imposed border closures.

Third, natural disasters such as droughts and torrential rains could damage wheat harvests in the upcoming years. This is the most difficult challenge for Pyongyang. With this in mind, Pyongyang has prioritized accuracy of agricultural weather forecasts, establishing a scientific water management system and and listing solving water problems as the Cabinet’s important policy task.

Despite these efforts, if wheat production continues failing to meet the desired levels, food shortages will be accelerated even further in the future because of the decline of production of corn and potatoes, which are more accessible crops to North Koreans in rural areas in terms of price and nutritional value.

Prospects for Development

As such, there are challenges and opportunities for wheat farming in North Korea. However, if Pyongyang makes progress in reforming agricultural production, wheat production can help to alleviate North Korea’s food shortages and food crisis, as well as diversifying food supplies. Furthermore, solving the food problem through successful reform, without receiving external support, will serve as a turning point for Kim Jong Un to strengthen his leadership and regain loyalty from his people amid increasing of criticisms about the regime due to the current economic difficulties.

Under this scenario, Pyongyang could speed up the development of its nuclear weapons freely without fears of food and economic crisis, while refusing opportunities for nuclear negotiations, humanitarian aid, and inter-Korean cooperation in the future.