By Kim Soobok (Translation and edits by Hyun Lee)
Continued from Part 2
Along the Chongchon River in Namhung, South Pyongan Province is the massive Namhung Youth Chemical Complex. Established in 1979, it is one of North Korea’s largest fertilizer production plants. Prior to the Arduous March period of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the base material for fertilizer production was a byproduct of oil refining called naphtha. The Namhung Complex, advantageously situated near the Bonghwa Chemical Factory in Sinuiju, one of North Korea’s two oil refineries, had access to an abundant source of naphtha. It is also near Kaechon, the heart of North Korea’s coal production and a supplier of fuel for the complex, as well as Chongchon River, a source of industrial water. The complex used to produce 360,000 tons of urea fertilizer, 25,000 tons of polyethylene and 10,000 tons of acrylic per year.
In the 1990’s, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union and choking economic sanctions led to a steep decline in North Korea’s ability to import crude oil. With no more access to naphtha, fertilizer production lagged. This is when then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il proposed the production of a new type of fertilizer with anthracite, abundantly available in the mountainous country.
A series of catastrophic floods in 1995 and 1997 paralyzed North Korea’s extractive industries, however, and the task of turning coal into fertilizer was indefinitely put on hold. It took the country many years to fully recover from the flood damage and restore its waterlogged mines. By 2009, the country was able to restore its basic industries, such as vinalon and steel production. Buoyed by technological advancements that enabled accelerated production, North Korea set its goal as becoming a “strong and prosperous nation.” Increasing fertilizer yields to boost grain production was a critical part of meeting this goal.
North Korean scientists and engineers, including experts at the Kimchaek University of Technology, finally succeeded in gasifying anthracite, and in 2009, the country began to mass-produce coal-based fertilizer. It is a complicated process that involves no less than nine steps, including gasification, gas purification, gas compression and ammonia synthesis. They also built a supersized oxygen separator, an essential component in the gasification process, and pulverized coal-fired boilers to increase production efficiency.
According to my notes from my visit there in September 2012, the Namhung Complex produced 350,000 tons of urea fertilizer in 2011-2012. And according to records at North Korea’s National Academy of Sciences in May 2015, the entire country produced 700,000 tons of urea fertilizer and 300,000 tons each of phosphorus and potassium fertilizers, totaling 1.3 million tons that year. Scientists and engineers at the Namhung Complex continue to research ways to increase productivity and efficiency while lowering the production cost. And the more than four hundred chemical byproducts of the fertilizer production process are recycled by the country’s chemical industry as base material for a wide range of products, including paint, polypropylene fiber and pharmaceutical raw materials.
Biotechnology and Organic Fertilizer
Overuse of chemical fertilizers can devastate the natural micro-biotic environment of the soil and make it evermore dependent on artificial fertilization. Hence, North Korea is now turning its focus to biotechnology to produce organic fertilizer to help farmers revivify microorganisms and rebuild the organic content of the soil.
Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium–essential macronutrients for plants–may be present in soil but in forms that plants cannot easily absorb. Organic fertilizers introduce microorganisms that transform the nutrients into forms that are available for plants. The Patriot Compound Microbial Fertilizer Factory is a research institute that uses new biochemical technology to mass-produce compound microbial fertilizers that do exactly that. The institute has manufacturing plants at the county level all across the country to produce fertilizers with microorganisms indigenous to the local soil. Local farmers are also encouraged to produce their own organic fertilizer using local, low-energy methods. They compost plant residue and animal manure, then sometimes augment the composted material with some form of chemical fertilizer.
The Patriot Compound Microbial Fertilizer Factory is also praised by the country for developing an all-natural plant growth accelerator called Bonghwasan 1, made by extracting bioactive compounds from a wide variety of plants that are indigenous to North Korea. In times of drought, plant roots need to dig deeper into the ground in search of moisture and nutrients. Bonghwasan 1 promotes root growth and enhances photosynthesis. Treating seeds with Bonghwasan 1 before sowing enables plants to withstand droughts by increasing their root length by more than sixteen inches and allowing them to absorb moisture and nutrients deep underground. Heartier and deeper roots also enable plants to withstand heavy rains and winds during the monsoon season.
The Ryongjin Cooperative Farm in Kaechon County, which had enhanced soil fertility by adding blue-green algae to organic compost, reported that after adding Bonghwasan 1 to its seed treatment, its crops were hardly affected by drought. It now relies less on chemical fertilizers and is still able to increase crop yields. The Gwanbong Cooperative Farm in Chunghwa County, which had suffered chronic water shortages due to its distance from the nearest reservoir, also reported successful crop yields after using Bonghwasan 1. Its corn is unaffected by drought, farmers reported, and bean blossoms, which often fell off due to high heat and shortage of water, remain healthy and intact. The cooperative expected an increase in yields by fifty to one hundred percent.
New innovation by the Patriot Compound Microbial Fertilizer Factory is also revolutionizing the production of organic fertilizer. The process of decomposition usually involves the loss of eighty to ninety percent of organic waste in the form of carbon dioxide and water. Thus, producing one ton of compost normally requires ten tons of organic waste. But the institute has created a new type of bio-organic catalyst with rice bran and bean residue as substrates that prevents the loss of organic waste in the decomposition process and significantly increases compost yield. According to Kim Seon-ok, the chief engineer of the Boseong Cooperative Farm in the Rangrang District of Pyongyang, with the use of this new catalyst, “what used to require twenty tons of input now only requires five.”
Toward Food Self-Sufficiency
Thanks to advances in fertilizer production, North Korea is progressing closer toward its goal of food self-sufficiency each year. According to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, North Korea’s cereal production, which had plummeted to below 3 million metric tons in the mid-1990’s, has been steadily rising. In 2013 and 2014, the country annually produced roughly 5.3 million metric tons of cereal–enough to feed the entire North Korean population at basic levels of sustenance. (Table 1)
Other indicators also signal improvements in North Korea’s quality of life. According to the World Bank, North Korea’s infant mortality rate, which had soared to close to sixty deaths per one thousand live births at the height of the Arduous March period, has gradually dropped and is now approximately twenty deaths per one thousand live births, much lower than the global average and only slightly higher than that of its neighbors in East Asia and the Pacific. (Table 2)
Life expectancy in North Korea, which had dipped to below sixty-five years at the height of the Arduous March, has also steadily increased, according to the World Bank, and is now on par with the global average at seventy years. (Table 3)
Diversifying the Nation’s Diet
Having met its goal of increasing grain production, North Korea is now able to turn its attention to improving the nation’s diet by diversifying their sources of protein, dairy and vegetables. Sepo Mound in the northern region of Gangwon Province, for example, is being turned into a mega-ranch to provide dairy for the entire country. It spans 122,000 acres in three counties–Saepo, Ichon and Pyonggang–but used to be a vast, infertile wasteland of acidic soil left behind by ashes from a volcanic eruption.
In 2012, newly-anointed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set out to carry out the vision of his father and grandfather to turn the area into a “world-class ranch” and instructed party officials to draft a plan. After conducting a soil analysis of the acidic land, the country set out to turn it into grassland. Members of the Central Committee of the Workers Party, the People’s Army and the Cabinet led the charge, and people from all walks of life, including party officers, government workers, barbers, receptionists and housewives, from all corners of the country answered their call to head to Sepo Mound. Soldiers put down their guns and picked up shovels to join the project.
Thousands of volunteers plowed and tilled 122,000 acres. The land had been neglected for so long that they found bomb fragments, grenades and mines from the war sixty-five years ago. After clearing the land of debris and uprooting weeds, they added 60,000 tons of limestone and Hukbosan fertilizer to improve the soil. They dug up peat from the bottom of frozen reservoirs and made tens of thousands of tons of soil amendments, which they applied like precious tonic to the damaged soil. They then sowed seeds for clover and other nutrient-rich grass that make good forage for grazing animals. When new sprouts emerged the following year, they shed tears of joy.
The crew also built all the facilities necessary for a fully-functioning ranch: thousands of residential homes, pens for domestic animals, a scientific research center, a livestock processing center, a quarantine facility for diseased animals, hundreds of methane gas production facilities, feed and feed additive manufacturing facilities, as well as a residential quarter for fifty animal husbandry experts from North Korea’s Agriculture Research Institute. Thanks to these efforts, Sepo Mound is now a vast, fertile grassland where farmers have begun to raise grazing animals to produce cheese and milk for distribution throughout the country.
North Korea also has large-scale orchards like the Daedong River Orchard and the Gosan Orchard. The Daedong River Orchard has an automated apple juice manufacturing plant and a retail store that sells a variety of apple products, such as apple juice, shampoo and soap.
Large-scale grain processing plants and regional factories produce essentials in Korean cuisine, such as soy sauce, soybean paste, red chili paste, rice malt syrup and starch, as well as a variety of confectionaries. Breweries such as the Daedong River Brewery, Ryongsong Brewery, and the Rason Brewery produce beer with flavors that are distinct to their respective regions. It has become commonplace to see workers enjoying a glass of beer on their way home from work–a scene that would not be possible without sufficient grain production.
Most impressively, almost every unit of North Korean society — cooperative farms, factories, businesses, etc. — is now self-sufficient in producing the necessary meat and vegetables for themselves. Based on the principle of self-reliance, they operate small-scale livestock farms and cooperative vegetable gardens and greenhouses to feed themselves. This will be further discussed in the next and final part of this article.
To be continued in Part 4: Using Sustainable Farming Methods for Local Food Self-Sufficiency
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