PYONGYANG, North Korea – North Korea could be looking at a better harvest than last year despite severe flooding in the country's northeast, thanks to generally good weather and ongoing changes in official policy that allow farmers to keep — and profit from — more of what they produce.
While formal data is not out yet, the main harvest of 2016, which is currently underway, appears to be shaping up to be slightly better than last year, according to the World Food Program.
The WFP, which has an office in Pyongyang, attributed the positive outlook to good weather, but noted North Korea will still need to top up locally produced food with imports and added that the flooding in the northeast caused by Typhoon Lionrock in late August and early September could have a significant impact on food supply in the affected areas.
North Korea has made significant strides in agriculture since the disastrous famine years of the 1990s — caused by floods, drought, the collapse of Soviet bloc benefactors and the North's own policy missteps. But the mountainous and isolated socialist country has yet to achieve its official goal of food self-sufficiency. Malnourishment caused by the lack of balanced diets is widespread, and the United Nations continues a long-term program of assistance to the most vulnerable segments of the population.
But there are also signs that incentives for farmers introduced by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are increasing production.
In his first public speech after assuming power upon the death of his father in late 2011, Kim vowed in April 2012 that the North Korean people shouldn't have to tighten their belts again. That same year, outsiders started to detect changes in the North's agricultural policy, including allowing farmers to keep more of their crops, if they could produce more, instead of having to hand over all their harvest to the state.
North Korea calls it the "field responsibility system" and officially credits the idea to its founding leader, Kim Il Sung.
In effect, it's an effort by the government to create an incentive for production while maintaining overall state management. The policy is believed to have been cemented when Kim wrote a long letter to a meeting of farm workers in 2014 to promote the idea.
Ri Won Jae, the chief engineer at the Samjigang Cooperative Farm, said it has indeed inspired farmers to produce more.
"I think the main thing for success is that the incentive to produce, and the farmer's sense of responsibility, have increased, because we introduced the field responsibility system," he said in a recent interview with Associated Television News.
O Jong Hyok, the head of a sub-work team on the cooperative in South Hwanghae province, said the new policies have spurred competition. The sub-units themselves — generally from five to 10 people — are something of an innovation along the same lines. The smaller groupings increase each worker's feeling of having a stake in the yield.
"This is a field that our sub-work team is in charge of," O said in an interview with APTN at the farm. "After finishing cutting the rice, we are carrying the rice sheaves and threshing now. Since we started the field responsibility system, the farmers have become more competitive and the harvest yield has increased. The more we grow, the more the farmers get, and then we will become wealthier."
Even so, Colin Kampschoer, the WFP's representative in Pyongyang, stressed that the food losses caused by the flooding in the northeast come at a critical time, just before the start of the North's extremely cold winter.
"The floods that hit the north of the DPRK in early September have reportedly damaged 27,411 hectares of arable land," he said, using the acronym for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "Greenhouses were washed away and people have lost their food stocks, kitchen gardens and livestock, which are all important sources for vegetables, fats and protein to make families' diets more diverse."