Scholars conventionally suggest one of three causes for North Korea’s agricultural collapse in the mid-1990s: overall economic decline, deficiencies in the socialist collective system, or environmental disaster. In contrast to these explanations, each of which characterizes the North Korean agricultural collapse as an idiosyncratic failure, this article shows that this crisis can be attributed to the unsustainable nature of modern industrial agriculture, which has been rooted in a thoroughgoing implementation of the worldwide modernization project of the past century. From its outset, North Korea’s industrial agricultural production growth was predicated on the high consumption of petroleum used to produce agricultural chemicals and provide energy for mechanization and irrigation. While North Korea achieved substantial agricultural success during the first three decades of its industrialization, its methods produced an unsustainable level of physical and environmental externalities. The subsequent decline of the Soviet Union meant that North Korea’s need for synthetic agro-inputs could no longer be met, a state of affairs that led to the collapse of the 1990s. This analysis shows that the uniqueness of North Korea’s agricultural collapse lies not in the industrial agricultural methods used, but rather in their extremity. With a variety of analyses that indicate declining oil production in a context of increasing demand for petroleum energy, the North Korean case has implications for agriculture that extend well beyond the Korean peninsula.

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