Why Does N. Korea Stress Flour?
Some of those who are on a diet say that it is very hard to go without food made with flour, such as bread and cookies.
In North Korea, it is believed that flour foods are consumed only by wealthy families. According to Radio Free Asia, flour-based foods including bread and dumplings have become a symbol of wealth in North Korea, as the prices of imported flour have risen. It is also said that North Koreans used to consume rice and corn, which have been replaced by rice and flour these days, reflecting a change in their dietary culture.
Today, we’ll talk about why North Korea emphasizes flour, in particular, with Jeong Eun-mee, research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Last December, an exhibition of flour foods took place at the Pyongyang Noodle Restaurant, one of the famous eateries in the North Korean capital. At the exhibition, about 70 renowned restaurants and food factories in the country displayed some 15-hundred food items made with flour.
It marks the first time that North Korea exhibited as many as 15-hundred different kinds of foods and processed products based on flour.
Let me explain the background for the exhibition. First, North Koreans are now consuming more flour in their diet, compared to the past. Under current leader Kim Jong-un’s rule, the country’s previous staple foods, namely, rice and corn, have been replaced by rice and flour. Second, the exhibition shows the country’s efforts to overcome its chronic food shortage by finding some alternatives. North Korea has found it difficult to import farming equipment for food production since 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global sanctions, border closures and a foreign currency shortage. While grain imports have decreased, there are limits to domestic grain production.
Wheat is processed into various grades of flour and many local citizens like food products made with flour. North Korea held the exhibition in an effort to establish a new dietary culture that promotes the consumption of flour-based foods.
North Korean media have often aired flour-related cooking programs recently. In one program, a chef who won the top prize at the flour food exhibition appears to show how to make bread and fresh cream at home without using baking machines. In another program, a reporter visits the food section at a department store and listens to a housewife who is interested in flour foods but is wondering how to make them.
Then, a chef appears and explains how to make udon noodles with chicken stock to solve the housewife’s problem.
Meanwhile, a program introduces a local factory that produces a variety of food products using rice and flour.
North Korea began to put special emphasis on wheat production in 2021. Leader Kim Jong-un instructed officials to grow rice and wheat as the country’s main crops during his policy speech.
During the plenary session of the Workers’ Party in December the same year, the leader also told the officials to replace the previous staple foods of rice and corn with rice and flour.
North Korea made important decisions on agricultural issues during the key party meeting in December 2021. It announced a comprehensive plan about rural revolution that would develop the nation’s farming sector and agricultural community in the next ten years. One of the key points in the plan was a shift in crop production from rice and corn to rice and flour.
During the plenary meeting of the party in June that year, the leader said that the country was facing a grave food situation and instructed officials to come up with fundamental measures for greater food production. As a result, North Korea outlined the new plan about rural revolution at the end of the year. The country believed that it should address three agricultural issues in a comprehensive way for stable and consistent food production. The three issues involve farmers, the agricultural industry and the rural community.
North Korean founder Kim Il-sung made several attempts to realize the people’s wish to eat white rice with beef soup. He put top priority on feeding the people to meet their very basic needs. As part of those efforts, he promoted corn farming. Locals cut trees on hillside slopes and cultivated paddies to grow crops there. But the rampant hillside farming caused landslides during the rainy season. Also, corn plants use large quantities of fertilizer to grow and yield, and chemical fertilizer overuse caused soil acidification.
Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-il chose potatoes as a staple food. Under the slogan of “potato revolution,” he built a large potato farm in Taehongdan County in Ryanggang Province. But the project proved unsuccessful.
Current leader Kim Jong-un focused on rice and flour instead, as his predecessors failed to solve the food problem with corn and potatoes.
Former leader Kim Jong-il made a failed attempt to grow potatoes as a staple food. While corn had been one of North Korea’s two main crops for decades, corn farming was blamed as a cause of soil acidity. It was a reasonable choice to shift from corn farming to wheat cultivation, in light of the protection of the local ecological environment in agriculture. Moreover, wheat can be planted in both paddies and fields, and the two crops of rice and wheat can be grown yearly in Hwanghae Province. Wheat can be raised in mountainous regions as well as in fields in North Korea, where there is not enough farmland. For these merits, I guess North Korea chose to grow wheat.
North Korean people have experienced with many different kinds of food through the private market or jangmadang since the mid-1990s. In the process, they have developed a variety of desires. Now, processed goods such as instant noodles or ramyeon and snacks have been produced in the country. It is said that large food sections frequented by Pyongyang residents display an extensive line of flour products. North Korea’s YouTube videos designed for propaganda show scenes of various dishes that contain processed flour, including instant noodles.
The change in North Koreans’ food consumption patterns has probably influenced the country’s agricultural policy.
The Kim Jong-un regime tends to justify its policies, saying that the policies aim to improve the people’s livelihoods and implement the people-first principle. For instance, North Korea says that the current leader made a bold decision to stop corn farming advocated by Kim Il-sung and shift to wheat farming, adopting the policy of increasing the wheat cultivation area, because people’s dietary preferences have changed. By making the leader look purposeful and determined, the regime seeks to enlist broad support from the public.
Also, many North Korean residents, from middle to upper classes, have been exposed to foreign culture now. In line with rising incomes, many citizens like to eat out, frequently consuming flour foods including bread, pizza, pasta and noodles. This trend is reflected in the government’s agricultural policy.
2022 was the first year of the implementation of North Korea’s new program on rural revolution. Local media stressed the need for growing wheat, alongside rice.
They also reported about collective farms that have been increasing their wheat planting area.
The media also point out that farmers can double-crop wheat with other options. In this way, North Korea’s grain production has shifted its focus from rice and corn to rice and wheat.
There are no figures on exactly how large the wheat cultivation area is in North Korea. According to the estimates released by South Korea’s Rural Development Administration late last year, North Korea’s crop output in 2022 fell 180-thousand tons from the previous year. But its production of wheat and barley is estimated to have increased 12-point-five percent or about 20-thousand tons. Judging from the figures, it seems the wheat planting area expanded in North Korea. The country appears to have double-cropped wheat with rice in South Hwanghae Province last year. But the result seems to have been unsatisfactory, due to inadequate measures to deal with spring drought and cold-weather damage. Still, since the beginning of this year, the authorities have strongly urged local governments and farms to make all the necessary preparations against natural disasters accelerated by climate change. Therefore, North Korea’s wheat cultivation area as well as its output will likely increase considerably this year, compared to last year.
North Korea convened the plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party from February 26 to March 1 to focus on agricultural issues. During the session, participants checked some problems from 2022, the first year of the implementation of the country’s rural revolution initiative, and discussed ways to remedy the problems. Leader Kim Jong-un is said to have stressed a strong reform drive to develop the agricultural sector.
Dear leader Kim Jong-un urged officials to meet grain production targets this year and called for a fundamental transformation in agricultural production in the next few years to lay the groundwork for stable and sustained development of agriculture.
It is rather unusual that North Korea held a party plenum for the second time in just two months, with agriculture at the top of the agenda.
Wheat grows fast in spring, when North Korea is prone to damage from drought and cold weather. Last year, the North failed to supply agricultural water on time, apparently contributing to a decline in crop production. During the key party session this year, North Korea proposed improving the irrigation system as the first impending task. In reality, however, it doesn’t seem easy for the country to provide construction equipment and materials for the refurbishment of the irrigation system because a massive housing construction project is underway in Pyongyang and across the nation. Lately, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper has often reported that local farms are reusing wells that had not been in use and restoring old facilities that draw up groundwater.
For North Korea, another urgent task is to upgrade agricultural machinery. But military goods come first in the nation’s machinery industry, followed by manufacturing. So, it is difficult to focus on agriculture. It seems farming equipment will be provided in a limited way, mostly to farming areas in Hwanghae Province for now.
It doesn’t seem North Korea announced special measures aimed at increasing food production during the latest party plenary meeting, and the country will likely continue to focus on growing wheat.