CHANGPYONG RI, North Korea (AP) — Rim Ok Hua looks out over her patch of farm just across the Tumen River from China, where rows of lush, green young potato plants stretch into the distance.
As North Korean farmers go, Rim is exceptionally lucky. The Changpyong Cooperative Farm where she works is mechanized, has 500 pigs to provide fertilizer and uses the best available seeds, originally brought in from Switzerland. In most fields throughout the country, farmers work the fields by hand, or behind bony oxen.
However, this year, even more than most, they are all under intense pressure to feed a hungry nation. Leader Kim Jong Un has succeeded in establishing his country as a nuclear power, and even sent a satellite into orbit. Now, with prolonged international sanctions and largesse from former communist allies mostly gone, Kim is calling on farmers to win him another battle. In 2012, and again this year, he promised the nation it would never face famine again.
But can isolated and impoverished North Korea ever escape the ghosts of famines past? For more than four decades, farming in the North was characterized by heavy use of mechanization swiftly followed by chronic fuel and equipment shortages and stopgap policies. That legacy has left its mark not only on the North Korean psyche, but on its countryside.
Hillsides denuded of trees for terraced farming plots produce little but increase the risk of damage from erosion or landslides. Goats, which are everywhere after a mass goat-breeding campaign in 1996, eat their way into hillside shrubs, which makes the landslide problem even worse. Overuse of chemical fertilizers has trashed soil fertility in many areas.
North Korea has struggled to obtain tractor fuel for more than two decades. Housewives, college students and workers brought in from the cities, along with military units, make up for the lack of mechanization at crucial times.
There are many less tangible problems: state-controlled distribution, top-down planning and a quota system that doesn't fully encourage innovation and individual effort. All these factors make North Korea's agricultural sector a very fragile ecosystem. Almost as soon as this season's rice was transplanted, the North's Korean Central News Agency reported that tens of thousands of hectares of farmland had already been damaged by drought.
Even so, North Korea is by no means an agricultural lost cause. As the summer growing months approach, the North Korean countryside is bursting with the bright greens of young rice, corn, soybeans and cabbage. On hillier ground lie orchards for apples and pears. Whole villages are devoted to growing mushrooms — another "magic bullet" innovation from the 1990s. It seems every valley and flatland, each nook and cranny, has been turned into a plot for some sort of crop.
In the minds of North Korea's leaders, agricultural self-sufficiency is as much a key to the nation's survival as nuclear weapons are to keeping its foes at bay. North Korea needed massive international aid during the devastating famine of the 1990s.
There are some signs of improvement. The combined overall crop production for this year and 2013 is expected to increase by 5 percent, to 5.98 million tons, according to a joint report compiled by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program. The report, released last November, estimated the North would still need to import 340,000 tons of cereals.
About 16 million of North Korea's 25 million people rely on state-provided rations of cereals, and stunting from chronic malnutrition is estimated to be as high as 40 percent in some areas. But according to U.N. monitors, North Koreans have been getting larger rations of rice, potatoes and corn over the past two years. The production gap in the FAO-WFP report, meanwhile, is the smallest North Korea has seen in about two decades.
North Korean farmers are learning sustainable farming, with more use of manure and better compost, said agricultural consultant Randall Ireson. He recommended rotating and planting a wider variety of crops, particularly soybeans, and using organic fertilizer.
"No magic technology is needed," he said. "Just good 'best farming practices.'" In rural North Korea, some of those changes are well underway. Nestled in high country near the scenic Mount Paektu, the Taehongdan district became a national priority development area for potatoes around 2002. The Changpyong farm is one of its shining successes.
"We don't need chemical fertilizer," boasted farmer Jo Kwang Il, one of the cooperative's 500 workers. "We have pigs to produce tons of manure a year. They also provide meat, so that benefits our whole community."
For the whole agricultural sector to succeed, more systemic, and politically risky, changes may also be needed, such as relaxing central government command and bringing state-set prices for crops more in line with what farmers can get for surplus sold in farmers' markets. Farms and divisions within them could then afford to reinvest their profits in small walk-behind tractors, rice-transplanting machines, fuel or fertilizer. This kind of action, however, could move North Korea closer to sanctioning capitalist-style markets and reforms, which it has long resisted.
In the meantime, as she stands near her potato patch, Rim says it's been nothing but rain here in the high country. "The weather hasn't been so good lately," she said, squinting into the glare of the overcast, late-morning sky. But then, after a pause: "All of us farmers are working harder than ever. It will be a good harvest this year."