By Andrei Lankov
Every visitor to North Korea who has passed through mountainous areas in the country has seen some peculiarities of the modern North Korean landscape.
Somewhere high in the mountains one can see small fields of strange, irregular shapes which look quite different from the orderly, rectangular shapes of the cooperative farm fields. If asked about these fields, North Korean minders will probably avoid giving a straight answer. This is understandable ― even though the existence of such fields is tacitly accepted by the authorities, from a purely ideological view, which minders are obliged to present, these fields are not supposed to exit.
We are referring to sotoji, private plots, which have been spreading across North Korea over the last 15 years and now play a major role in food production in North Korea.
It would be only a minor exaggeration to say that in his policies, Kim Il-sung tended to be more Stalinist than Joseph Stalin himself. He took the state-run economy to its natural (or unnatural) extreme and collective farming was no exception. Once upon a time, the North Korean peasantry was herded into so-called ``agricultural cooperatives.” The description of these institutions as cooperatives is actually misleading because they were essentially state-run farms, where farmers had basically no influence over management or income distribution.
But North Korea has one important peculiarity: unlike Stalin’s Soviet Union, in North Korea farmers were not allowed to cultivate even small private plots. In the Soviet Union a farming family would be allowed a plot which might have been as large as a few thousand square meters. In North Korea, the maximum size of an individual plot was limited to a paltry 100 square meters – barely enough to grow some pepper and spice and clearly not enough to make any meaningful economic difference.
This was done on purpose ― North Korean policy planners assumed that farmers, being deprived of any alternative means of existence, would work more efficiently in state-owned fields. In agricultural cooperatives farmers essentially worked for their daily ration ― one full day of work was rewarded with 700g of grain (similar to the ration of the average worker in a city).
This system was never especially efficient but for a few decades it managed to exist and function somehow. However the collapse of the North Korean economy in the early 1990s produced a devastating blow to state-run agriculture. In 1995 and 1996 the harvests were around half of what was necessary to keep the North Korean population alive, so many North Koreans starved to death (the exact numbers are disputed but it seems that between 500,000-1,000,000 perished) and the survivors began to look for ways to make a living outside the state-run-economy. Predictably enough, farmers did what one would expect them to do ― they began to develop their own food production.
Unlike their Chinese counterparts, the North Korean elite refused to disband the state-run agricultural cooperatives. Therefore farmers had no choice but to acquire land on their own, outside of what would be normally considered arable land. Usually they went to the mountains, since all arable land in the valleys had long been cultivated within state-run farms.
In some cases, farmers would make agreements with local forestry departments whose officials agreed to turn a blind-eye to unlawful activities in protected forest areas. In some other cases the local authorities tolerated and even encouraged the sotoji cultivators.
A quick look through satellite images of North Korea shows the widespread nature of the sotoji phenomena. In some counties near the Chinese border, the percentage of land under the cultivation of sotoji owners roughly equals that under cultivation by state-run farms. In other areas the level of private production may be smaller but it seems clear that private food production makes a major contribution to North Korea’s food supply today.
Indeed, in the above-mentioned borderland counties, sotoji fields seem to produce as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market. This might be an exception because the current county in question is covered by mountains and contains a lot of places where people can hide from police. Nonetheless sotoji produced food is found widely in the country’s markets.
In the last 15 years or so, North Koreans have developed a large and successful private economy of which the sotoji phenomenon is an important part. However their cultivators are not high on the newly emerging social ladder. Sotoji are usually tilled by people who do not have the money, skills or inclination to start a more conventional business. Some of them are essentially market-orientated enterprises which make profit but the majority lose money.
Nonetheless, the random new shapes of North Korean mountains nowadays are yet another reminder of how much the country has changed over the last two decades.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.