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Drawing Lessons from Experience;
The Agricultural Crises in North Korea
and Cuba -- Part 1

Why Changing the Way Money Works is the Key
to Resolving Peak Oil Challenges

by Dale Allen Pfeiffer
FTW Contributing Editor for Energy

© Copyright 2004, From The Wilderness Publications, All Rights Reserved. May be reprinted, distributed or posted on an Internet web site for non-profit purposes only.

November 17, 2003, 1100 PDT, (FTW) -- So what happens to an industrialized country practicing modern agriculture when it loses its fossil fuel energy base? There are two countries where it has already happened: North Korea and Cuba. Both countries have little or no oil resources of their own, both relied upon the Soviet Union for their oil imports, and both experienced a swift and severe drop in their oil imports following the demise of the Soviet empire. While showing proper respect for the suffering of people in both countries, perhaps we can benefit from studying their examples.

DPRK (North Korea)—A Warning to the US

North Korea has always held less than half the population of South Korea. Prior to the Korean War, South Korea was a largely agrarian society, while the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) was largely an industrial society. Following the war, the DPRK turned to fossil fuel subsidized agriculture to increase the production of their poor soils.

By 1990, DPRK estimated per capita energy use was 71 gigajoules per person,1 the equivalent of 12.3 barrels of crude oil. This was more than twice the per capita usage of China at that same time, or half the usage of Japan. DPRK has coal reserves estimated at from 1 billion to 10 billion tons, and developable hydroelectric potential estimated at 10-14 Gigawatts.2 But North Korea must depend on imports for all of their oil and natural gas. In 1990, DPRK imported 18.3 million barrels of oil from Russia, China and Iran.3

An Energy Crisis

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian imports fell by 90%. By 1996, oil imports amounted to only 40 percent of the 1990 level.4 DPRK tried to look to China for the bulk of its oil needs. However, China sought to distance itself economically from DPRK by announcing that all commerce with DPRK would be settled in hard currency beginning in 1993. China also cut its shipments of “friendship grain” from 800,000 tons in 1993 to 300,000 tons in 1994.5

On top of the loss of oil and natural gas imports, DPRK suffered a series of natural disasters in the mid-1990s that acted to further debilitate an already crippled system. The years 1995 and 1996 saw severe flooding that washed away vital topsoil, destroyed infrastructure, damaged and silted hydroelectric dams, and flooded coal mine shafts rendering them unproductive. In 1997, this flooding was followed by severe drought and a massive tsunami. Lack of energy resources prevented them from preparing for these disasters and hampered recovery.

DPRK also suffered from aging infrastructure. Much of their machinery and many of their industrial plants were ready for retirement by the 1990s. Because DPRK had defaulted on an enormous debt some years earlier, they had grave difficulty attracting the necessary foreign investment. The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that DPRK could no longer obtain the spare parts and expertise to refurbish their infrastructure, leading to the failure of machinery, generators, turbines, transformers and transmission lines. DPRK entered into a vicious positive feedback loop, as failing infrastructure cut coal and hydroelectric production and diminished their ability to transport energy via power lines, truck and rail.

The following graphs illustrate the decline in all sectors of commercial energy between the years 1990 and 1996. As a result of this, North Koreans turned to burning biomass, thus impacting their remaining forests. Deforestation led, in turn, to more flooding and increasing levels of soil erosion. Likewise, soils were depleted as plant matter was burned for heat, rather than being mulched and composted.

from Fuel and Famine: Rural Energy Crisis in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,

By 1996, road and freight transport were reduced to 40% of their 1990 levels. Iron and steel production were reduced to 36% of 1990 levels, and cement was reduced to 32%.6 This effect rippled out through the automotive, building and agricultural industries. The energy shortage also affected residential and commercial lighting, heating and cooking. This, in turn, led to loss of productivity and reduced quality of life, and adversely impacted public health. To this day, hospitals remain unheated in the winter, and lack electricity to run medical equipment. There is even insufficient energy to boil water for human consumption. By 1996, total commercial energy consumption throughout society fell by 51%.7

from Fuel and Famine: Rural Energy Crisis in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,

Perhaps in no other sector was the crisis felt more acutely than in agriculture. The energy crisis quickly spawned a food crisis that proved to be fatal. Modern, industrialized agriculture collapsed without fossil fuel inputs. It is estimated that over 3 million people have died as a result.8

The Collapse of Agriculture

from Modeling future oil production, population and the economy

The above graph, produced by Jean Laherrère, illustrates the relationship between petroleum consumption and agricultural collapse in DPRK.9 Note that the decline of agricultural production follows very closely the decline of petroleum consumption. Also, note that the rise in petroleum consumption after 1997 is not mirrored by the rise of agricultural production. Agriculture begins to make a comeback, but appears to enter another decline sometime around 1999. We do not have enough data at present to state conclusively the reasons why agricultural recovery has faltered. It is likely a combination of other factors, such as failure of farm equipment and infrastructure, adverse weather, and—quite likely—the failure of soils that have been depleted of minerals over the past decade. In any case, the above graph sums up the agricultural collapse of DPRK and hints at the suffering that collapse has entailed.


Agriculture in DPRK requires approximately 700,000 tons of fertilizer per year.10 North Korea used to manufacture 80 to 90% of its own fertilizer, somewhere from 600,000 to 800,000 tons per year. Since 1995, DPRK has had difficulty producing even 100,000 tons per year. Aid and foreign purchases brought the total for 1999 to 160,000 tons, less than one quarter of the required amount.11

The DPRK fertilizer industry relies on coal as both an energy source and a feedstock. They require 1.5 to 2.0 million tons of coal per year to produce 700,000 tons of fertilizer.12 To obtain this coal, the fertilizer industry must compete with the steel industry, electricity generation, home heating and cooking needs, and a host of other consumers. Flooded mine shafts and broken down mining equipment have severely cut the coal supply. Likewise, delivery of this coal has been curtailed by the breakdown of railway infrastructure. Furthermore, transporting 2 million tons of coal by rail requires 5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity,13 while electricity supply is diminished because of lack of coal, silting of dams and infrastructure failure. So once again, we have another vicious positive feedback loop. Finally, infrastructure failure limits the ability to ship the fertilizer—1.5 to 2.5 million tons in bulk—from factories to farms.14

The result of this systemic failure is that agriculture in DPRK is operating with only 20 to 30% of the normal soil nutrient inputs.15 The reduction in fertilizer is the largest single contributor to reduced crop yields in DPRK. Tony Boys has pointed out that to run DPRK's fertilizer factories at capacity would require the energy equivalent of at least 5 million barrels of oil, which represents one quarter of the oil imported into DPRK in recent years.16 However, even capacity production at this point would be inadequate. For the past decade, soils in the DPRK have been depleted of nutrients to the point that it would now require a massive soil building and soil conservation program to reverse the damage.

Diesel Fuel

Agriculture has been further impacted by the limited availability of diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is required to run the fleet of approximately 70,000 tractors, 8,000 tractor crawlers, and 60,000 small motors used on farms in DPRK.16 Diesel is also required for transporting produce to market, and for food processing equipment. It is estimated that in 1990, North Korean agriculture used 120,000 tons of diesel fuel. Since then, agricultural consumption has declined to 25,000 to 35,000 tons per year.17

Compounding the problem of diesel supply is the military allocation, which has not been cut proportionally with the drop in production. Only after the military takes its allocation can the other sectors of society—including agriculture, transportation and industry—divide the remainder. So, while total supplies of diesel have dropped by 60%, the agricultural share of the remained has fallen from 15% in 1990 to 10% currently.18 In other words, agriculture must make due with 10% of 40%, or 4% of the total diesel supply of 1990.

DPRK Diesel Fuel Consumption in 1990 & 1996

from Fuel and Famine: Rural Energy Crisis in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,

The result is an 80% reduction in the use of farm equipment.19 There is neither the fuel nor the spare parts available to keep farm machinery running. Observers in 1998 reported seeing tractors and other farm equipment lying unused and unusable while farmers struggled to work their fields by hand. The observers also reported seeing piles of harvested grain left on the fields for weeks, leading to post-harvest crop losses.20

Loss of mechanized power has required the substitution of human labor and draft animals. In turn, due to their greater workload, human laborers and draft animals require more food, putting more strain on an already insufficient diet. And, although a greater percentage of the population is engaged in farm labor, they have found it impossible to perform all of the operations previously carried out by machinery.21


Finally, the agricultural system has also been impacted by the decreased availability of electricity to power water pumps for irrigation and drainage. The annual amount of electricity necessary for irrigation throughout the nation stands at around 1.2 billion kilowatt hours (kWh). Adding to this another 460 million kWh to operate threshing and milling machines and other farm equipment brings the total up to 1.7 billion kWh per year.22 This is not including the electrical demand for lighting in homes and barns, or any other rural residential uses.

Currently, electricity for irrigation has declined by 300 million kWh, and electricity for other agricultural uses has declined by 110 million kWh. This brings the total electrical output currently available for agriculture down to 1.3 billion kWh; a shortfall of 400 million kWh from what is needed.

In reality, the situation for irrigation is worse than that hinted at by these figures. Irrigation is time sensitive—especially in the case of rice, which is DPRK's major grain crop. Rice production is dependent upon carefully-timed flooding and draining. Rice is transplanted in May and harvested in late August and early September. After planting, the rice paddies must be flooded and remain in water until they are drained at harvest time. In DPRK, virtually all rice irrigation is managed with electrical pumps. Over half of the irrigational pumping for all agriculture takes place in May. Peak pumping power demand at this time is at least 900 MW. This represents over one-third of DPRK's generating capacity.23

On top of this, the national power grid is fragmented, so that at some isolated points along the grid, irrigation demand can overtax generating capacity. This overtaxed system is also dilapidated, suffering the same disrepair as other energy infrastructure, both due to weather disasters, the age of the power stations and transmitters, and the lack of spare parts.

The records of three major pumping stations in DPRK showed that they suffered an average of 600 power outages per year, spending an average of 2300 hours per year without power. These power failures resulted in an enormous waste of water, translating into an irrigation shortfall of about one-quarter of the required amount of water.24

Home energy usage

Home energy usage is also severely impacted by the energy crisis, and—particularly in rural areas—home energy demand is in turn impacting agriculture. Rural residential areas have experienced a 50% drop in electricity consumption, resulting in a decline in basic services and quality of life. Homes in rural villages rarely have electrical power during the winter months.25 As has already been mentioned, hospitals and clinics are not excluded from this lack of power.

Rural households use coal for heating and cooking. The average rural household is estimated to require 2.6 tons of coal per year. The total rural coal requirement is 3.9 million tons annually. Currently, rural areas receive a little more than half of this requirement.26 On the average, rural coal use for cooking, heating and preparing animal feed has declined by 40%, down to 1.6 tons per year.27 Even public buildings such as schools and hospitals have limited coal supplies. Lacking enough coal even for the purpose of boiling water, the result is a reported increase in waterborne diseases.

To make up for the shortfall in coal, rural populations are increasingly turning to biomass for their heating and cooking energy needs. Herbage has been taken from competing uses such as animal fodder and compost, leading to further decreased food supplies. Biomass scavenging is also stressing all rural ecosystems from forests to croplands. Biomass harvesting reduces ground cover, disrupts habitats, and leads to increasing soil erosion and siltation.

Moreover, biomass foraging requires time and effort when other labor requirements are high and nutritional availability is low. This contributes to the positive feedback loop of calorie requirements versus food availability. It is estimated that 25% of the civilian workforce was employed in agriculture in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, the ratio had grown to 36%.28 Furthermore, agricultural work has grown much more labor intensive. Farm labor is conservatively estimated at a minimum of 300 million person-hours per year. However, researchers point out that this number could easily be a factor of two or more higher.29 Workers are burning more calories, and so require more food. This is further complicated by greater reliance upon draft animals with their own food requirements. So necessary caloric intake has actually increased as food production has decreased, leading to less food availability per demand and increasing malnutrition.

Impacts to Health and Society

U.S. congressmen and others who have visited North Korea tell stories of people eating grass and bark. Other reports talk of soldiers who are nothing more than skin and bones. Throughout the country, there is starvation to rival the worst found in Africa. Chronic malnutrition has reached the point where many of the effects are irreversible.30

A study of children aged 6 months to 7 years found that 16% suffered from acute malnutrition—this is one of the highest rates of wasting in the world. 3% of the children suffered edema. 62% of the children suffered from chronic malnutrition. 61% were moderately or severely underweight. Chronic malnutrition can lead to irreversible stunting.31

Furthermore, malnutrition weakens the immune system, leaving the population even more vulnerable to contagions. And the lack of fuel for boiling water has led to a rise in water-borne diseases. Without electricity and coal, hospitals and clinics have become harbors of despair, where only the hopeless go for treatment.32

The situation in DPRK has rendered the country even more vulnerable to natural disasters. The country lacks the energy reserves to recover from the natural disasters of 1995-1997, much less withstand future ones. The infrastructure is fragmented and in disrepair. There is a very real threat that portions of the infrastructure, such as the electrical grid, may fail altogether. Complete electrical grid failure would result in a near-complete crop loss.33

So far, the people of DPRK have faced this crisis together. But continued deprivation may very well lead to rivalry, regional fragmentation, social breakdown and internecine fighting. Rural society is currently faring better than the urban population, and it is actually absorbing urban workers to help meet the rising labor demands of agriculture. But worsening conditions and widespread flight from the cities could lead to violent confrontations. It is even possible that rural instability could eventually result in civil war.

A Model for Disaster

The history of DPRK through the 1990s demonstrates how an energy crisis in an industrialized nation can lead to complete systemic breakdown. Of particular note is how the energy crisis sends ripples throughout the entire structure of society, and how various problems act to reinforce each other and drag the system further down. The most serious consequence for the people is found in the failure of modern agriculture and the resulting malnutrition. The collapse of infrastructure not only makes it more difficult to deal with the decline of agriculture and other immediate disasters, but also acts to amplify the crisis and leads to further social disintegration.

The various far-flung impacts and the numerous interlinking problems render the crisis nearly impossible to remedy. Even with a healthy economy, it is doubtful that North Korea could repair its degenerated society. Though the original problem may have been a lack of fuel, it cannot be corrected now by a simple increase in fuel supply. At this time, it will take an international effort to save the people of North Korea. And given the current political animosity between DPRK and the U.S., it is doubtful that this effort will take place.

The painful experiences of DPRK point out that dealing with an energy crisis is not just a matter of finding an alternative mode of transportation, an alternative energy source, or a return to organic agriculture. We are talking about the collapse of a complex system, in this case a social system that evolved gradually from a labor-intensive agrarian society to a fossil fuel-supported industrial/ technological society. It simply is not possible to step back to an agrarian society all at once, or to take a leap forward into some unknown high-tech society. Complex systems change gradually, bit by bit. Faced with immediate change, a complex system tends to collapse.

For a world facing the end of growing energy production, this means that the changes should have begun decades ago, giving time for a gradual transition. We had our warning back in the 1970s, when there might have been time to make a transition to a society independent of fossil fuels. Now it is simply too late. It is a waste of our time talking about a hydrogen future, or zero point energy, or a breakthrough in fusion. Even if we could find a technological quick fix, there is no time left to make the transition.

This is not to say that our future has to be bleak. We might be able to make a transition into a simpler society. In fact, if we can concentrate our efforts on easing the decline and on building an equitable and democratic social system, we might manage to provide a comfortable existence for ourselves and for the generations to come.

In part two of this article, the author will look at how Cuba has handled its own energy crisis, and will use this positive example to list some ways in which industrial civilization could handle the transition from fossil fuel dependent agriculture.


1 Fuel and Famine: Rural Energy Crisis in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, William, James H., Von Hippel, David, Hayes, Peter. Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Policy Paper  46, 2000.

2 Demand and Supply of Electricity and Other Fuels in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Von Hippel, D.F., and Hayes, Peter. Nautilus Institute, 1997.

3 Op. Cit. See note 1.

4 Ibid.

5 Causes and Lessons of the “North Korean Food Crisis”, Boys, Tony. Ibaraka Christian University Junior College, 2000.

6 Op. Cit. See note 1.

7 Ibid.

8 Op. Cit. See note 5.

9 Modelling future oil production, population and the economy, Laherrère, Jean. ASPO Second international workshop on oil & gas, Paris, May 26-27 2003.

10 DPR Korea: Agricultural Recovery and Environmental Protection (AREP) Program, Identification of Investment Opportunities, Vol. 2: Working Papers 1-3. United Nations Development Programme And the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 1998.

11 Ibid.

12 Op. Cit. See note 2.

13 Op. Cit. See note 1.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 “…the energy cost of ammonia synthesis even in large modern plants averages over 40 GJ/tN, of which 60 percent is feedstock and 40 percent is process energy. It is unlikely that the DPRK fertilizer factories can produce ammonia for less than 50GJ/tN. Further, because ammonia requires special storage and application, most of it is converted to liquid or solid fertilizer (e.g. urea) for easy shipping and application. The conversion of ammonia to urea requires an additional 25 GJ/tN. Since one barrel of oil represents approximately 6GJ of energy, and one ton of nitrogen in urea requires 75 GJ (or more) to produce, to run the DPRK's (three) fertilizer factories at capacity for a year would require:

(75 ÷ 6 = 12.5) × 400,000 = 5,000,000

…or at least 5 million barrels of oil, roughly a quarter of the amount of oil imported annually into the DPRK in recent years.”

Op. Cit. See note 5.

16 Op. Cit. See note 10.

17 Op. Cit. See note 2.

18 Op. Cit. See note 1.

19 Ibid.

20 Special Report: FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. FAO, Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, World Food Programme, November 12, 1998.

21 Ibid.

22 Op. Cit. See note 2.

23 Op. Cit. See note 1.

24 Op. Cit. See note 10.

25 Op. Cit. See note 1.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 Op Cit. See note 20.

29 Op. Cit. See note 1.

30 Op. Cit. See note 5.

31 Ibid.

32 Op. Cit. See note 1.

33 Ibid.


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