My (Foreign) Country Home

March 25, 2015 7:00 AM

Back when I taught international trade, land was treated as an internationally fixed factor, while capital and labor could cross borders. That’s still a reasonable assumption (excepting eastern Ukrainian farmland, that is) but there has been a trend in recent years of foreign entities purchasing or leasing large tracts of agricultural land in foreign countries in response to food insecurities at home. Unsurprisingly, these transactions often generate controversies in the host country (contributing to a coup in the case of South Korean activities in Madagascar). North Korea has gotten into the act, or at least tried, with attempts to purchase or lease agricultural land in Russia and Zimbabwe.

Back in October, the Russian Deputy Far East Development Minister Maxim Shereikin told TASS that North Korea was interested in leasing 10,000-15,000 hectares of land in the Amur Region. The idea was that North Korea would come up with financing and labor and rent the agricultural land with production shipped back to North Korea. Given the history of North Korea exporting labor to Russia (mainly in logging and construction) and the growing closeness of DPRK-Russia relations, the idea is not entirely implausible, though with all things North Korea, “show me.”North Korea also has a history, and not an entirely pleasant one, with Zimbabwe. As I observed in a post several years ago:

“Ties between North Korea and the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe are long-standing. Mugabe apparently got some of his cult of personality ideas after visiting Pyongyang, and the North Koreans went on to train Zimbabwe’s notorious 5th brigade (as well as the mural painters of Harare).”

Mugabe rubbed salt into old wounds by inviting the North Korean soccer team to train for the 2010 World Cup, in Bulawayo, site of some of the brigade’s worst atrocities, and commissioning North Korean sculptors to create two statues there of deceased Zimbabwean patriot (and Mugabe rival) Joshua Nkomo. The soccer team was run out of town and the statues were removed.

The motivation for the passage above was a 2011 South Korean claim that Pyongyang had sought food assistance from Harare. This past fall the Telescope, an African newspaper, reported that in the wake of Zimbabwe’s botched land reform (which consisted in large part turning over seized land to Mugabe relatives and cronies regardless of competence to operate farms) Pyongyang had approached Harare about gaining massive tracts of fertile agricultural land to produce staples in the Mashonaland East and Mashonaland Central provinces. It was speculated that Pyongyang might want to employ “front farmers” to maintain a low(-er) profile. And to be clear, according the news report, North Korea was not alone: other governments in line for land included China (rice and tobacco), Libya (wheat), and Russia (mining).

In the meantime, South Koreans are headed in the other direction: Nonghyup, the South Korean Agricultural Federation (the guys whose financial system the North Koreans hacked a couple of years back) says that it has the green light from the South Korean government to launch two agricultural cooperation projects involving raising 100,000 head of cattle. The group is waiting on approval from the North Korean government. How does one say “let bygones be bygones” in Korean?

And in the “teach a man to fish…” category (man, I have all those clichéd adages rolling this morning) Yonhap reports that the Korea Maritime Institute, a government-affiliated think-tank under the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, is signing an agreement with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization to do a preliminary study of building fish farms in North Korea. Yonhap, the semi-official press agency reports that this government entity is routing the aid through the FAO because “Pyongyang continues to be at odds with Seoul over its nuclear program.” Uh, how do you say “watch what I do, not what I say” in Korean?

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Marcus Noland Senior Research Staff

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