PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Kim Jong-un continues family tradition, promises a chicken in every pot. Can maggot-breeding be far behind?

by | June 25th, 2014 | 06:29 am

North Korea plans to double meat production between 2017 and 2020 according to a Chosun Sinbo account cited in a recent piece by IFES. The construction of a new stockbreeding complex in Sepho County is the centerpiece of the effort, with construction slated for completion by October 10, 2015, Party Foundation Day. To what extent will a doubling of demand for feedstock affect the supply of grain available for human consumption?

According to the most recent FAO-WFP assessment (.pdf here), for the harvest year 2013-2014, North Korea has total domestic grain needs of 5.370 million metric tons (MMT) and total availability (inclusive of imports) of 5.330MMT , leaving a 40,000 metric ton uncovered deficit. Total needs consist of human consumption, feedstock, seed requirements, post-harvest losses, and stock buildup. The UN agencies assume that there is no stock buildup, and if seed requirements and post-harvest losses cannot be compressed, then the reallocation of supply to feedstock must come at the expense of human consumption. The FAO-WFP estimate human consumption is 4.315MMT and feedstock use is 120,000 metric tons. So a doubling of feed requirements would amount to tripling of the uncovered deficit, reducing availability for human use by approximately 0.03 of a percent—non trivial if you are one of the people going without, but not a large figure from a macro perspective.

Perhaps more important than the direct impact a doubling of meat production might have on grain supplies is the diversion of resources into this high profile project. Sadly, North Korea has a history in this regard. In Avoiding the Apocalypse I recount a similar initiative undertaken by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung:

In 1962, in a Hooveresque moment, Kim Il-sung promised the North Korean people “meaty soup, steamed rice” and the other ingredients of the socialist good life.  Soon thereafter a General Bureau of Poultry was established with the goal of fulfilling the Great Leader’s promise by putting chicken in every pot.

The bureau began by importing a large number of baby chicks and establishing huge chicken plants, one allegedly larger than the biggest in the capitalist world.  The bureau had neglected to secure adequate supplies of chicken feed, however, and in 1970 Kim Il-sung proclaimed “an all-people movement to raise chickens everywhere.”

This mass mobilization was not entirely successful, as marauding chickens were eating feed meant for humans.  In 1977, Kim Il-sung seized upon the idea of breeding earthworms, night crawlers, and even maggots to use as protein supplements for the nation’s chickens and pigs.  (The Great Leader admitted that raising maggots might attract flies, but nonetheless ordered chicken plants not located near populated areas to begin breeding maggots.)  Indeed, the following year he decreed that each province and city should establish a dedicated earthworm breeding scientific facility.

Despite the high-level attention, all was not well on the earthworm front, and in 1980 the Great Leader admitted that the earthworm project had failed.

Night crawlers disappeared from the radar screen until 1992 when the official press began touting a protein feed breakthrough led by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.  On 7 May 1993–more than 20 years after his fateful promise–at the Sopo Chicken Plant in Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung proclaimed the triumphal achievement of the earthworm protein industry and his approval of the quality of meat and eggs produced using earthworm protein feed.

To be fair, the North Korean leadership is not alone in pairing lofty goals with insufficient means: as my colleague Caroline Freund has observed, President Obama set a goal of doubling American exports and then followed up with a plan that had virtually no chance of succeeding. One can only hope that the North Korean system now embodies sufficient flexibility that the Sepho County stockbreeding complex can function without the sorts of top-down hectoring, idiosyncratic interventions, and mass mobilization campaigns that accompanied Granddad’s foray into juche stockbreeding. We’ll see.