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Investment in land and water in the DPR Korea - Mun Jong Nam

Mun Jong Nam, Counsellor and Permanent Representative to ESCAP
Embassy of the DPR Korea, Thailand


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is located on the Korean peninsula of continental northeastern Asia. The peninsula has a total area of 222 209 km2, of which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea holds 122 762 km2 or more than 55 percent. The DPRK shares borders with China and Russia on the north bounded by the Amnok and Tuman rivers respectively.

The population of the DPRK is 22 550 000 and it has an annual growth rate of about 1.5 percent. The population in unevenly distributed, being concentrated primarily on the western plains. Two - thirds of the population live in cities and the rest in rural areas. The majority of the rural people work on cooperative farms. Life expectancy is 66.8 years. The primary school enrolment rate for both girls and boys is 100 percent. The secondary school enrolment rate is 100 percent for girls and 100 percent for boys. All adults are literate: 100 percent of both men and women.

The DPRK's gross domestic product is US$10.273 billion while per capita GDP is US$458. The Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has consistently put the attainment of self - sufficiency in food production as a primary task - by developing agriculture (mainly by investment in land and water) - and has directed every effort to carrying out this task.

At the beginning of the year 2000 the government called on its people to make decisive progress in building a strong and prosperous country and announced national priorities regarding agriculture, power generation and transport. The government emphasized that the highest priority should be given to the development of science as one of the means for a breakthrough in the country's current economic difficulties.

Agriculture is intensively managed, but has always been constrained by the fact that Korea is largely mountainous, with only 20 percent of its land suitable for agricultural production. Winters are harsh and the growing season is short.

The economic problems that affected industry at the beginning of the 1990s also affected agricultural production during the decade. Although government made efforts to counter such limitations through appropriate research, planning and intensive management, ageing agricultural infrastructure, equipment and fuel shortages also negatively affected production.

But the economic problems that affected industry in the early 1990s also affected agricultural production due to political and economic sanctions, pressure from outside forces and continued natural disasters. Fertilizer production from local plants, for example, virtually ceased because of the shortage of inputs and energy. This in turn drastically affected agricultural yields.


Since 1995 shortages have been exacerbated by a series of natural disasters caused significant damage to DPR Korea's agriculture and to its capacity to feed its people. Natural disasters from 1995 to 2001 occurred in unfortunate succeession, one after another:

- In 1995, floods caused overall damage estimated at US$15 billion by DPR Korea government officials. Of this amount, US$925 million was damage to the land itself, US$1 billion in damage to irrigation facilities; US$225 million in damage to pumping stations and agricultural structures; US$1.3 million in damage to rivers and streams; US$1.575 million n losses to forests; and 1.9 million tonnes of grain lost;

- In 1996, flood damage was lower than in 1995 but still severe with an overall loss valued at US$2.27 billion. Of the total, the agricultural sector sustained US$782 million in losses, with 29 760 ha of arable land submerged, 27 300 ha of land lost to erosion and 15 000 ha of land rendered unusable by being covered over by low quality siltation;

- Drought was the problem in July 1997 with 465 862 ha of arable land sustaining damage. Of this 107 000 ha were paddy fields while 358 700 ha of general agricultural land was rendered non - productive, Grain damage of 1.7 million tonnes was registered, together with the loss of 80 000 head of livestock. So severe was the drought that 40 617 ha if forest cover was lost;

- Some 2.8 million people were affected only a month later (August 1997) when a severe tidal wave damaged 288 800 m of sea dykes, and seawater flooding damaged 107 625 ha of arable land and ruined 0.7 million tonnes of grain;

- Floods occurred again in 1998, with overall damage calculated at US$2 billion, including US$862 million in the agricultural sector and damage to 14 817 ha of arable land and 355 000 tonnes of grain;

- May 2000 brought drought again - and damage to 400 000 ha of arable land. Paddy fields amounting to 160 000 ha were damaged by drought, while serious insect infestation affected 530 000 ha and 0.96 million tonnes of grain were damaged.

- A typhoon followed in August 2000, with overall damage amounting to US$6.1 billion. The agricultural sector sustained US$165 million in damages while arable lands registering US$136 000 in damage together with 400 500 tonnes of grain damage.

- The chronicle of disaster culminated in August 2001 by heavy rainstorms that resulted in US$4.8 billion in rain and water damage. Some 85 000 ha of grain (including 58 000 in paddy) was lost (180 000 tonnes) and 28 000 m of river dyke infrastructure;

The historically catastrophic losses of 1995 - US$15 billion - impacted arable land, irrigation facilities, pumping stations and agricultural infrastructure to flooding, effectively destroying Korea's overall economy. Moreover, from 1995 to 2001 natural disasters ranging from flood, drought and typhoon, compounded by frozen, heavy rain and tidal waves annually was responsible for some US$2 to US$6 billion in agricultural field losses.


Difficulties in agriculture brought on by economic problems continue to seriously undermine DPR Korea's domestic food production. The effects of these tragedies have accumulated over several years and are now probably more significant than in the past in constraining production.

There are serious problems in the provision of electricity and fuel, which in turn have greatly reduced the capacity of farms to reserve and deliver adequate supplies of water, while mechanization and the provision of transport have also been severely curtailed and there is a chronic shortage of fertilizers and other agrochemicals.

These in turn have severely limited necessary farm operations reducing the ability of co - operatives to cover water shortages, through increased irrigation, in adverse years and reduced potential productivity.

Machine hours are declining as more and more become irreparable, constraining key agricultural operations, while aggregate fertilizer use has dropped in recent years to well bellow basic requirements to maintain reasonable soil nutrient levels.

Although the international community has assisted the country bilaterally and through UN agencies to rehabilitate agriculture and through donations of fertilizers and other inputs, the levels have been well short of what is required to maintain agriculture and food production sustainability.

In view of all these problems, the output of rice and maize has fallen sharply. The corresponding decline in fertilizer use and production of paddy and maize in illustrate in Chart 1 and Figure 1, which clearly indicate the direct relationship between limited fertilizer supply and the DPRK's falling rice and maize harvests since 1989.

Chart: DPRK: Production of Paddy and Maize 1989-2000 (000 tonnes)

Available land resources

Arable land in the DPRK is extremely limited due to the topography of the country. Of some 12 million ha of land overall, 80 percent is mountainous and unsuitable for agriculture. The main land use systems comprise: (i) annual cropland; (ii) perennial cropland; (iii) permanent meadows and pastures; and (iv) forests and woodlands.

About 1.85 million ha of land are used for agriculture, of which 300 000 ha are under permanent crops (fruit, mulberries), 600 000 ha are used for paddy production, 650 000 ha for maize and 200 000 ha for vegetables.

Of the remaining area, 50 000 ha are under wheat, buckwheat and barley and 40 000 ha are planted in potatoes. The area under cereals covers over 80 percent of Korea's arable land. The limited availability of arable land and the government policy of food grain self - sufficiency has led DPR Korea to opt for high intensity agriculture. Soils are poor (pH 5 to 7, with organic matter only at 0.5 to 1.5 percent) - and the risk of erosion is high in uplands.

Figure: DPRK: NPK Availability 1989-2000 (000 Tonnes)

All flat land is irrigated for paddy production. Sloping land below 16 is planted in maize and other field crops, while steeper hillside land (16 is planted to mulberry and fruit trees. Hilltops are usually forested. Each rural household is entitled to a plot of up to 90 m2 for its own use. Such plots are intensively cultivated with beans, potatoes, cabbage, and maize and support poultry and small livestock.

National plans for current and future land needs

Field reconfiguration permits high - efficiency mechanization of agriculture

In order to cope with these circumstances, the Government of the DPRK together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), initiated the Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection (AREP) programme which targets the replacement of emergency humanitarian aid with development cooperation by the year 2002 by producing three times more food (6 million tonnes).

The AREP proposals were formulated by an FAO/UNDP Sector Studies and Project Formulation Mission in 1998. AREP costs were estimated at US$344 million over three years (1999 - 2001) including a food - for - work programme in forestry. In addition, the government would invest US$374 million - of which 287 million in hard currency is mainly for feedstock and fertilizer imports. So far since the formulation of AREP in 1998, approximately US$130 million has been delivered bilaterally through UN agencies and NGOs.

The government proposed improving field configurations as an important policy for the revolution in agriculture and also concentrated efforts on the land readjustment in such granary provinces as Kangwon, North Pyongan and South Hwanghae from 1999 through the year 2001 to expand and standardize arable land for high efficiency application of farm machinery.

As a national campaign with farmers, workers from all provinces and the Korean People’s Army, the government completed reconfiguration projects for 300 000 ha of fields in Kangwon province in 1999 and 500 0000 ha in North Pyongan province in 2000 and 500 000 ha in South Hwanghae province in 2001.These provinces are in mountainous places with high yielding soils but erosion, soil fertility depletion, salinity, alkalinity and acidic soils were increasingly unable to meet the challenge of producing the required yields.

Improving agricultural field and crop design and layout in this manner is a great transformation of nature for the prosperity of the country, a patriotic work of lasting significance. Land rezoning is essential for boosting gram production. This is a good way to increase grain production in countries with limited arable land. Proper realignment of fields is also important for effecting comprehensive mechanization of rural agricultural economies.

The government invested heavily not only in field layout projects during construction but also by providing hundreds of tractors for the three provinces and enough organic and chemical fertilizer so that each province produced 2.5 to 4 times the crop yield compared to the previous year. Economies have been realized by minimizing the amount of fuel necessary for transporting food grain from other provinces.

To increase grain production where farming areas are limited, the government put forward a new policy of double cropping. The two - crop farming system is based on growing different short - growth - period crops in different periods on the same land in one year. Introduction of the two - crop farming system has increased Korea's land utilization rate as well as per unit area of land. In parallel with the above activities, the government promoted initiatives for quality seed production. Potato cultivation was also expanded in consideration of the characteristics of each region and its soils on the principal of right crop on the right soil at the right time.

Government targets were relatively constant during the past decade: an annual target at around 580 000 ha for rice - although in 2000 the target was reduced to 535 000 ha - which produced from 4.5 tonnes/ha in good soil, allowing 45 000 ha to be diverted to other low yielding crops, such as buckwheat, sorghum and millets, which are less susceptible to drought.

For example, in 1999 the government reported a significant fall in the area of maize planted from an average of around 650 000 ha in the early 1990s to 496 000 ha. The decline was attributed to substitution of potatoes for maize. Together with double cropping, such substitution is generally viewed as an important strategy to increase food supplies, particularly during the lean season beginning in June.

The targeted area to be planted under the 1999 - 2000 double crop programme was 100 000 ha of winter wheat/barley and 23 000 ha of spring barley/wheat.

The target for potato cultivation in 2001 was 187 000 ha of which 103 000 ha was planted as the main crop and a further 77 000 ha as a double crop, though low yields were anticipated because of the continuing heavy drought.

At the same time, the government ensures production of organic fertilizer as the first and foremost method for improving soil fertility. With a correct understanding that producing organic fertilizer in quantity is essential for increasing crop yields, the government is producing organic fertilizer to enrich by the application of rich organic fertilizer through a mass movement and to apply it to the newly realigned fields as planned. Government agricultural authorities are also giving more attention to the supply of chemical fertilizers to every province.

Available water resources

Water resources are abundant in the DPRK. Renewable water volume is estimated at 23 000 million m3, the surface flow at 13 000 million m3. Substantial investment has been made in reservoirs, canals and pumping systems for irrigation of paddy and maize. Some 1.46 million ha (79 percent of agricultural land or 94 percent of arable land) has infrastructure for irrigation but only half of the design area is on average irrigated. Not more than 1.2 billion m3 water is actually used for irrigation. Operation of the important West Sea Barrage which serves 300 000 ha is hoped to be a major contribution towards this objective.

Irrigation is primarily from surface water. All but 300 000 ha of irrigation areas are served by pumping from rivers. This involves considerable lifts using large amounts of electrical and diesel energy. Groundwater is rarely used. Paddy land is irrigated by flood basin, uplands by both furrow and sprinkler. Furrow irrigation in uplands is often done on sloping land favouring erosion.

National plans for current and future water needs

In order to reach its goal of self - sufficiency in rice and maize, the DPRK Government has focused on investment in water development. Water supply is critical to this effort.

As one step toward solving DPR Korea's water supply challenge, the government is carrying out a large - scale project of 150 km to streamline natural waterways from Kaechon to Lake Taesong in the western part of the country. From an engineering standpoint it is a challenging project, and it was undertaken under difficult economic conditions from the year 2000 as a national campaign project. The Kaechon - Lake Taesong waterway project would increase grain production by 300 000 tonnes in South Pyongan province. With its completion, water will flow naturally into paddy and nonpaddy fields, making many pumping stations unnecessary. It would make it possible to dispense with many electric motors, transformers and water pumps and considerably economize in electric power.

In the Kaechon - Lake Thaesong waterway project, it is important to concentrate on digging water tunnels and finish them as soon as possible. Tunnelling takes a long time to complete and therefore heavy equipment for tunnelling is mobilized.

To cope with energy shortages, construction of small - medium hydro power stations was successively conducted in the eastern and northern parts of the country, enabling rural areas to benefit from power for heating and irrigation.

The government has conducted to built thousands of reservoir and irrigation ponds so on in every where in the country while repairing irrigation facilities damaged by consecutive natural disaster.


In the economic sector, the government in early 2000 called on its people to make decisive progress in building a strong and prosperous country, announcing the national priorities of agriculture, power generation and transport. It emphasized that the highest priority should be given to the development of science as one of the means for breaking through the current economic difficulties.

The great leader of the Korean people, General Kim Jong Il, always pays deep attention to solving the problem of food supply for the Korean people. While on frequent on - the - spot guidance to rural areas, he sits together with peasants to share views on farming and teaches them the ways and means to increase agricultural production.

The government is establishing strategies to solve the food problem mainly by investment in land and water, revitalizing and modernizing the national economy in a short period, and increasing expenditure for their implementation. The government also directs great effort to reforestation work to provide favourable agricultural environment.

Taking full notice of diversified agricultural development, Democratic Korea is constructing fish farms and breeding high productivity fish, wherever government has water sources, and vigorously pushing ahead with a movement to increase the production of livestock including grazing animals.


In the year 2001 as well, the government is striving to clear away the consequences of continuing natural disasters, such as drought and unseasonably high temperatures, to raise agricultural production by investment in land and water.

Thanks to the fighting sprit of the Korean people advancing in unity with the leader under any difficulties, agricultural production will soon reach the levels achieved in the pre - disaster period.

The DPRK Government appreciates and thanks the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization for Asia and the Pacific for the sincere support to the Korean people in their striving to normalize agricultural production and solve the country's food problem with about US$23.3 million of farming materials and technical aid from 1980 to 2001.

The Korean people’s struggle to raise agricultural production to the normal level will surely produce good results.

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