Asia Briefing: Regional agricultural growth taking root in North Korea

Drying crops  at a collective farm  about 20 kilometres from the center of Pyongyang, North Korea

Drying crops at a collective farm about 20 kilometres from the center of Pyongyang, North Korea


Satellite photographs showing darkness over North Korea at night, with dim spots of light at the capital Pyongyang, contrasting with the bright electric glare of South Korea, has become one of the defining illustrations of the different stages of economic development on each side of the Demilitarised Zone dividing the Korean peninsula.

Beyond an awareness that the North is one of the world’s poorest countries, getting real data about the centrally-planned economy of North Korea is famously difficult.

Information usually takes the form of anecdotal evidence, either from businesspeople or aid workers operating there, or from South Korean intelligence sources, which are often unreliable as they are also pushing a political agenda.

During the 1970s, by some estimation, and when the government of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung was rebuilding the country from the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War, North Korea had the stronger economy of the two Koreas.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North’s primary benefactor, saw that period of expansion end and by the 1990s there was a famine, which reportedly killed hundreds of thousands.

China has taken over as North Korea’s prime supporter, and is a major investor in the infrastructure there. However, it does not seem to be engaged in similar levels of capital expenditure there as that of the Russians.

While China and North Korea are politically “as close as lips and teeth”, relations are often tense, especially since the North began testing nuclear weapons apparently against the wishes of the Beijing cousins.

Under its young leader Kim Jong-un, the third in the world’s only communist dynasty to run the secretive country, there have been renewed efforts to install special economic zones to boost growth. The model for these is China’s SEZs, and the North has sent delegations into China to work out how to emulate the success of China’s reforms.

There is growing evidence of agricultural reform taking place. In 2002 the government allowed private farmers’ markets to begin selling a wider range of goods. Farmers were allowed to use small plots to grow vegetables and sell them at local markets, letting supply and demand freely determine prices.

Political concerns about free markets led to the reforms being abolished in 2004, but there are signs that the impact of reform was considerable, especially in areas far from the political commissars in Pyongyang.

Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have worked out a way of combining satellite-imaging methods to show that regional agricultural growth is slowly taking place in North Korea.

The fact that North Korea is dark in satellite pictures is not enough evidence for a lack of growth, say Lund University human geographers Magnus Andersson and Ola Hall, because it assumes all growth brings higher energy consumption, and therefore more night-time lights, which isn’t always the case.

The team combined the nocturnal light satellite images with land-cover satellite images, using decades of data to compute their result.

The land-cover data added vital agricultural information, and the end result is a broader way of measuring growth because the images show that more land was converted into farmland.

“The method is especially useful in countries with a large agricultural sector and closed-off dictatorships such as North Korea, where there isn’t very much information available,” said Hall.

The method works even better if the agricultural sector is still very traditional. North Koreans have had no access to commercial fertiliser since aid from the Soviets dried up. Therefore any increase in production has to happen by creating additional farm land, rather than intensifying the use of existing agricultural land.

“It looks like the economic power is slowly decentralising,” said Andersson.

The general trend in other authoritarian regimes is that decentralisation often means a first step towards greater democracy, the researchers say.

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