Rowe Morrow, New South Wales Regional Meeting

How it came about

In October 2018 I was extremely fortunate to visit North Korea as one of a study group of people, mostly Australian Quakers.   We had been asked if we had special interests, and I mentioned that I would like to visit collective farms to see how they work, as I have a special interest in food and water security.   At the same time, our program included visits to the South Korea-North Korea border, the Vegetable Research Institute, a seaport, and three collective farms, which enabled us to see more of the country outside Pyongyang.

We were given a start in this country because, about 10 years ago, American Quakers (American Friends Service Committee – AFSC) had been allocated a farm to assist.   They helped with pumps and other infrastructure.  This created friendship and trust which we wanted to build on because they were our concerns as well.  None of us saw the North Koreans as “enemy”.

We all knew that the Australian government was bound by the present sanctions imposed by the United Nations at the instigation of of the USA.  It was also a time when the US President had met with the Leader of North Korea.  So there was a loosening of anxiety and we were aware that North Korea and South Korea both wanted a lessening of the tensions which had dominated most of their negotiations since 1953 when an armistice was declared at the end of the Korean War.    However to feel safe, Koreans need USA to declare the war of 1953 has finally ended – 57 years later.

Just as we left Australia we learned that almost 1,000,000 landmines on the border were to be removed and while we were there work started on it.   There was a sense of hope.

Our concerns

During the 1990s, while I was visiting Viet Nam there was a terrible famine in North Korea and I was aware of it daily, and so regarded the present embargo and consequent suffering as unconscionable.  In Hanoi, at that time, AFSC took a copy of my book as a present to the North Korean Embassy.

On this occasion we wanted to meet people, try to develop relationships based on trust and friendship and see the country while finding out if there was some way in which we could become involved in the future that would be build ties, for us as Quakers, for Australia and North Korea.

Short history

North and South Korea share a long history of civilisation, and, occupation.   Paleontology reveals thousands of years of continuous culture and agriculture.    However, today the people are fairly homogeneous with few minority ethnic groups.

According to tradition, [the kingdom of] Silla was founded in 57 BCE by Pak Hyŏkkŏse, who was miraculously born from an egg.  His name Pak was perhaps derived from palk, meaning “bright,” since sunlight shone from his body. Seth (2016)

“Pyongyang, a lovely gracious, clean, quiet city with exceptional town planning and transport systems.” Oliver Wainwright, architecture critic.

The Korean peninsula has probably been invaded many times since its original settlement, and the first peoples of the peninsula are said to have also colonised and established Japan.   Invasions came from the Moguls and others sweeping across, or from China.

Japan occupied Korea from 1910 and during WWII and their brutal regime is still remembered.  At the end of the war Japan was expelled, by the USA in the south and by the USSR in the north.  Each of the major powers set up a government in the part of Korea they controlled, with the border at the 38th parallel, but all Koreans yearned for a united country.  In an attempt at reunification, North Korea invaded the south in 1950.  A United Nations force, mainly American, pushed the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel, but then advanced through the country almost to the Chinese border.  The whole country and every city was bombed almost to rubble.  It was devastation.

The rebuilding effort took a huge amount of sacrifice and lives.   Wonderful, non-replaceable temples and treasures were completely destroyed.   There was enormous over-bombing, similar to Viet Nam during their American war.  The people laboured unimaginably hard to rebuild bridges, roads, dams, fields, hospitals, schools, and in fact the whole country had to be reconstructed.   The effort, as we saw it, was amazing, and my admiration for the people is great.

Much of the rebuilding demonstrates elegant and farsighted town planning now coming to maturity and with gracious architecture and landscapes.

After this experience with US, and, as in France and other countries with a history of frequent invasion, North Korea decided they would never be occupied again.  So today they see nuclear weapons as their best deterrent, together with maintaining a large army despite the cost: however it is a People’s Army of service and works with the citizens on many integrated civilian projects, such as dam building and farming.

The landscape

North Korea is a mostly mountainous country in a cool temperate climate and, by Australian standards, good rainfall.   The winters are very cold and long.  The growing season is short and rainfall is sometimes unreliable.   Flat arable land is at a premium.   The landscape has many varied eco-systems from coastal to high mountains.

 Juche and setting goals

Understanding Juche

To rebuild, the country has adopted ”Juche”, the national policy developed by Kim Il Sung,  which would be instantly recognised by permaculturists from Paris to Buenos Aires.

Once you read past the communist rhetoric in his speech it is striking the number of comments which support or demonstrate permaculture principles.  In fact I could be lead to think the planners had access to permaculture principles and texts.   And we saw much of it in practice.


Translated as “self-reliance” Juche, is the official state ideology of North Korea, described by the government as “Kim Il-Sung‘s original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought”.[3] It postulates4] that the Korean masses are to act as the “masters of the revolution and construction” and that by becoming self-reliant and strong a nation can achieve true socialism . . . The practice of Juche is firmly rooted in the ideals of sustainability through resource, agricultural, cultural and industrial  independence and a lack of dependency.

Energy capture: a farm greenhouse

 Juche is extraordinarily like the permaculture concepts of transition, bioregionalism, and localisation where local resources are used and renewed, and local people have an internal circular economy.   It resembles the goals of transition towns.   It could evidently be used with strong results in a country under punitive sanctions.

Below are some statements from Kim Jong-un’s widely discussed 2019 New Year Speech, where he spoke of the policies and successes affecting the country. Many of these will be familiar to permaculturists and others interested in sustainability and resilience.  What is fascinating is that these principles are seen to hold the possibility also for developing a modern sustainable future.

 The agricultural sector, by actively introducing scientific farming methods, increased the ranks of high-yield farms and workteams, and reaped an unusually rich fruit harvest in spite of unfavourable climatic conditions.

. . .  

A shortcut to developing the self-sufficient economy is to give precedence to science and technology and make innovations in economic planning and guidance.

 . . . 

Provinces, cities and counties should develop the local economy in a characteristic way by relying on their own raw material resources.

And he goes on to say:  The country should:

  • introduce seeds of superior strains, high-yield farming methods and high-performance farm machines on an extensive scale, do farming scientifically and technologically
  • boost the production of livestock products, fruits, greenhouse vegetables and mushrooms.
  • launch scientific fishing campaigns, and reenergize aquatic farming.
  • build on the success we achieved in the forest restoration campaign, we should properly protect and manage the forests that have already been created, improve the technical conditions of roads, conduct river improvement on a regular basis, and protect the environment in a scientific and responsible manner.
  • Every sector and every unit of the national economy should enlist their own technical forces and economic potential to maximise and launch a dynamic struggle to increase production and practise economy, so as to create a greater amount of material wealth.


Energy conservation

The hotels and other buildings had low energy light bulbs and automatic energy closing off in different areas.  People’s individual purchases and use of solar panels outside their apartments was everywhere.


Clean air, quiet cities

The seamless efficient public transport system with electric trams, buses and trains and personal transport of electric bicycles and motorcycles result in clean air and a quiet city.  NK appears to have jumped the air pollution and industrial and health effects of polluted air by building its integrated electric transport. They do have brown coal power stations however the cities have clean air and water – freedom from air pollution. They were well aware of the air pollution in China and determined to avoid it.

City street tree planting is not simply one row of trees.  There are two or sometimes three rows of trees giving protection for pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.  They are separated from street traffic,and provide shade in summer.

Ultimately the city sits in parklands since there are so many extensive public areas close to urban housing.  The postwar planting has matured and the hand of the designer can be seen in species choices with their colours and forms.

The rice straw is stooked for drying after cutting – hard work but very picturesque

Collective farms

We visited three collective farms and easily recognised others in the distance.   We saw strongly developed Self-reliance in local areas (bioregions) and the use of local resources to meet local needs – both permaculture principles.

 There is full and complete use of natural resources so that one resources surplus serves another need, e.g. the use of completely ground maize husks to serve as the substrate for winter mushroom grown to help with protein during the harsher winter months.

Fields are small by Australian, but not Asian, standards.   Agriculture is still mainly seasonally heavy labour with hand transplanting, harvesting of rice and maize, and then hay-making, but the soldiers return to assist.

But the grouping of rural activities on collective farms enables the most efficient use of energy e.g. threshing and storing and feeding husks to animals in nearby stables, similar to eco-villages.

 These seasonal activities which engage everyone probably have cultural songs, dances and stories attached.  I wasn’t able to find out in the short time we had.


Bicycles, and sometimes animal-drawn carts, are seen in rural areas.

Agriculture and collective farms

There is a recognition that science can help with production, and what we saw was appropriate and locally applied.

The farms had individual households grouped together and each household has a highly productive garden of slightly different crops and so a village becomes complementary in vegetables.

Although there are fertiliser factories, all household waste, including human sewerage is returned to the fields, and so are all crop wastes.   Only at one farm, the soils looked hungry.

There is very little intractable or non-recyclable waste.  The lack of plastic and packaging is evident  because products are produced close to the points of consumption.

The residents of farms are set, and try to attain, production goals, and when they do well, everyone receives a bonus at harvest time.   However cash payments as salaries, are very small because the Collective and State provide:

  • Free education
  • Free dental and medical treatments
  • Heavily subsidised transport
  • Free entertainment
  • Free housing
  • Free food from the farm i.e. vegetables, fruit, meat, milk and possibly more.

The whole farm’s rice and maize is threshed collectively

I don’t know about work clothes and shoes.  Once these costs are removed the need for cash is much less and also residents can have small private garden plots and sell the produce.

Of 100% produce from a collective farm, 60% is first used to meet the needs of the residents for food, water, animal products and the remaining 40% is sent to the cities.

Encouragement of selective local seed saving is important for biodiversity and local resilience, and is carried out scientifically i.e. understanding genetic selection.

All able-bodied people appeared to be in the fields at this critical rice and maize harvest time.

Returning to the village and assisting with these seasonal activities has been strong in Asian cultures until relatively recently, although it is now changing as countries modernise and introduce small machines suitable for small fields.

Although some drays were ox drawn, there were also tractors.   With two rice crops a year, one collective harvested 8 t/ha/yr. This seems high and may not be the average, but it has been achieved.

For rice and staples self-sufficiency is about 80% and this is a respectable figure.   Numerous countries in the world would like to achieve this.

Although the 2018 figures were not available the FAO report on Food Security and Nutrition showed decline in food insecurity for 2017.

People told us it was a good harvest in 2018, so it is likely that food security is even closer.

Strong connections to permaculture

We repeatedly saw the following permaculture strategies and techniques applied in North Korea: 

Rice harvest time

  • Crop succession eg beans after rice
  • Interplanting of vegetables
  • Crop rotation across fields
  • Large quantities of animal and human manures
  • Sophisticated irrigation planning
  • A range of cultivars
  • Animals grazing stubble
  • People gleaning after the rice harvest
  • All organic waste returned to fields or fed to animals

However, the principles least used in North Korea are:

  • Back up of major functions, in terms of water security and harvesting
  • Value the edges and marginal in terms of rivers, creeks and hillside restoration
  • Value biodiversity: there was not an extensive range of cultivars and varieties.
  • Animals not used to assist in managing the systems

Fields lie outside the village centre


What we can contribute and what we can learn

North Korea has much to offer agriculture, and ways of living for many countries of the world:    sharing resources, moving towards organic growing, commitment to good public transport, elegant landscaping.  For some of us, clear air, good transport, efficient use of resources, lack of waste and plastic and advertising is what we would like to achieve.

Permaculture can offer refinement in some of these achievements.    The rivers and hills in rural areas are degraded.  The rivers are used as quarries, and the hills are denuded and efforts are still being made to grow annual crops.    The range of species and cultivars is small and the small gene pool could be problematic with climate change or a disease epidemic.

Water harvesting, bush regeneration, Land Care and use of more perennial systems would grant farmers greater risk reduction and stability for seasonal variation.

Seed selection and saving on a regional scale and at farms can provide important variation to national crops.

The people work very hard and to a degree which is not good for everyone.   Small machinery would go far to remedy this.     There is small appropriate machinery available throughout Asia.

Hillsides are often denuded

Exchange of principles and technologies would benefit much of the western world and also North Korea.    It would be valuable for everyone.

Human Rights

I was unable to determine clearly the human rights situation in North Korea.   However compared with about a quarter of the world’s countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Philippines, and others North Korea  is far from the bottom.  As a Quaker, I work for and defend human rights.  But I wanted in this article, to draw attention to the importance of quality of life in terms of life’s basic needs for clean air, food, water, work, education, employment and homelessness  and an unpolluted environment for a healthy future of land and people.   North Korea will make their future and their children’s lives and the nation’s health bills less than almost every country where I work.


 My experience of communism

By enormous chance I had been lucky enough to visit the former USSR and Czechoslovakia in 1979, and then Viet Nam in 1986, and Albania in 2003 and, also Cambodia, while under, or newly freed from communist governments.   Being a development agriculturist/permaculturist, I was profoundly interested in traditional models of farming as well as whether these new collective ones had promise, and to understand the impact on food security, the environment, society and culture.

In brief, collectivisation required farmers to unite in working land usually taken from mandarins or colonial land landowners and redistributed to local people.  People carry out farm tasks together and share machinery.  In some cases, as in Viet Nam, the traditional villages were emptied and the farmers moved into various forms of barracks.   Individual enterprises were strongly discouraged or forbidden.   This could work well if knowledge and decision making about agriculture was sound and the management discerning.   Where it was not, and when management came from the Central Government in the form of setting targets, crops failed and there was no enthusiasm.  Sometimes there were large grandiose projects such as building levee banks which failed.  In Albania the country was littered with failed powerhouses, tractor factories, aquaculture structures and so on.   It is generally considered that individual farmers make better decisions than collective ones.  However Cuba has a fine record of moving from famine to food security when the US placed embargos on it. And, where fields are very small it makes sense to rationalise and share machinery, animals and tasks.

From a permaculture viewpoint, eco-villages use this more economic use of resources.

Many farmers, especially the Vietnamese hated living in barracks and longed to return to their individual homes in villages where there had already been a high degree of co-operation.   Some had small businesses behind buildings and quietly grew food for themselves and others.  We heard that similar micro-enterprises started and thrived in NK, and were subsequently legitimised.

In Asia, collectivisation builds on strong cultural traditions and although collectivisation can be difficult for people, it is not too foreign because:

  • Asian societies are largely communal and where the good of the whole community or the family is often considered more important than expressing individuality. This can be difficult for people from individualistic societies to understand.
  • There are long traditions of working together at transplanting, harvesting and even building homes. Everyone is expected to participate.   Soldiers are sent back home at these times to work in their native villages, and children are often on school holidays.  This creates sense of belonging and purpose and real knowledge of rural life.
  • Many traditional Asian farms, due to long centuries of invasion, are grouped around a common village core for security. Outside this core are the orchards, and farmers go daily to their fields to tend rice or other staples.


Further Information


 Morgan, Faith (2006) The Power of Community (DVD)  Released by The Community Solution.

Pembroke, Michael (2018) Korea: Where the American century began. Hardie Grant Books (Melbourne and London).

Seth, Michael (2016).  A Concise History of Korea (2nd Edition) Rowman and Littlefield ( Lanham, Boulder, New York, London)


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