Small Plot Farming in North Korea

Eunjeong Soh

With the famine in the 1990s and persistent food crises in the decade following the famine, private plot farming has become widespread in North Korea. In the northern regions of North Hamgyong Province and Ryanggang Province, this occurs in the mountains and it is called sot’oji farming (literally means small plot farming). Bare mountains are noticed as striking to many foreign visitors and distant observers of North Korea. In a country where the agricultural sector is organized into state and cooperative farms, a spread of small plot farming outside of state-designated spaces has been attention-grabbing. According to 2008 census, nine million residents, which constitute 56% of those the entire population over the age of six-teen cultivate private plots.[1]

Sot’oji farming along with selling and trading was a desperate effort by residents of semi-city and rural areas to obtain food as the state ration became increasingly sporadic starting from the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.[2] Given that sot’oji farming is a painstakingly laborious task and needs patience to obtain outcome, it has a characteristic of long-term investment. It is done in family units and is possible through the division of labor among family members. Sot’oji farming was one of many mechanisms through which households demonstrated entrepreneurial spirits. Sot’oji has also become the first private property for many residents in North Korea.

The experience of sot’oji farming is told with a strange combination of agony and enthusiasm. On the one hand, it is a painful experience of hard labor in desperation. Many professionals like doctors and teachers had to push their profession aside and bear the life of a subsistence farmer. Sot’oji farming required a hard labor of making organic fertilizer with human and animal manure, backpacking it across 4 to 6 kilo meters of mountainous roads, and bringing back firewood and grain without any help of transportation available. On the other hand, it was the first experience of private ownership. In contrast to working in a cooperative farm, individual plot farmers have every incentive to put as much effort as possible into the land. Elderly informants confess that the farming is physically demanding but fun because the land produced as much as the efforts they put into the land.

There are various types of sot’oji farms, ones allocated to state institutions such as state enterprises and schools to survive without the state ration, small plots obtained and tacitly allowed for women and elderly, and small kitchen plots of individual households. The state not only tacitly allowed sot’oji farming but even encouraged it through the campaign of “reviving through relying on one’s strength.” Under this campaign, social units at all levels, individuals, families, neighborhoods, work units, factories, collective farms, administrative regions and provinces, were exhorted to seek their own means of survival. In order to make workers in the factories, cooperative farms, hospitals and schools to remain in their workplace, they had to be provided with means to survive on their own. For instance, in the early 1990s, Musan Mine began to collectively cultivate a mountainous area near the mine and a year later it was distributed to individual workers as a household plot. Some workers expanded their private plots by obtaining more plots of land. Similar stories are heard from the teachers and health care workers. Unless such state-society dynamics are taken into consideration, it is difficult to comprehend the speed and the scope of the spread of sot’oji farming since the 1990s.

Whether the importance of sot’oji farming for ordinary people is rising or declining is debatable. On the one hand, it has become more important as market conditions for trade activities have become unstable. On the other hand, the state expropriation of grains produced from sot’oji plots has also intensified. Thus, as a result, sot’oji farming has become increasingly difficult.

Informal life politics, i.e. collected responses to the shared hardship, is manifested in quiet but widespread resistance of sot’oji farmers. Sot’oji farming has implications to agricultural reform and reforestation policy in North Korea. Unless adequate subsistence security is guaranteed, any reform policy will fail.

North Korea’s ttoegibat’ seen from the North Korea-China border – summer (source: P’yonghwamunje yonguso, http://blog.naver.com/ipa1983/159566307)

North Korea’s ttoegibat’ seen from the North Korea-China border – autumn (source: P’yonghwamunje yonguso, http://blog.naver.com/ipa1983/159566307)

North Korea’s ttoegibat’ seen from the North Korea-China border – autumn (source: P’yonghwamunje yonguso, http://blog.naver.com/ipa1983/159566307)

Selected References and Links

FAO/WFP. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea- FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission. November, 2004.

Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel and Grau), 2009.

Haggard, Stephen, and Marcus Noland. Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea. Washington DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011.

Lankov, Andrei, Seok Hyang Kim, and Inok Kwak. “Relying on One’s Strength: The Growth of the Private Agriculture in Borderland Areas of North Korea.” Comparative Korean Studies 19, 2010: 325-355.

Good Friends. North Korea Today. http://www.goodfriends.or.kr/n_korea/n_korea1.html (in Korean), http://goodfriendsusa.blogspot.kr/ (in English).

Joo, Sungha’s Blog. http://blog.donga.com/nambukstory/ (in Korean)


[1] Chong-un Yi and Yi-kyong Hong, Pukhan hwangyŏngmunje’ui silte’wa kugjesahoe’ui jiwŏn bang’an (Realities of environmental problems in North Korea and international society’s assistance strategy). KIEP Jiyŏkgyeongje Focus (KIEP Regional Economy Focus), Vol. 6, No. 38, Seoul: Korean Institute for International Economic Policy, 2012.

[2] Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, (New York: Spiegel and Grau), 2009.