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N. Koreans Face Potato Revolution

TIMES STAFF WRITER

North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il has a brave new idea for solving his people’s intractable food crisis: Let them eat spuds.

With unprecedented help from his “imperialist” enemies, the United States and South Korea, the Stalinist leader has embarked on a major campaign to upgrade North Korean agriculture and make the isolated, hunger-stricken nation less dependent on food imports. The hero of this “revolutionary struggle” to feed the hungry North Korean masses is the humble potato.

Never mind that North Koreans, like most East Asians, are mad about white rice. Or that North Korea’s founder, the late Kim Il Sung, promised rice for the masses with the once-ubiquitous slogan “Rice Is Communism.”

Kim Jong Il, his son, has decided that potatoes are the quickest and most practical solution to North Korea’s hunger problem. He has commanded the planting of colossal quantities of spuds--more than quadrupling the acreage devoted to the potato crop last year, according to the United Nations World Food Program.

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He also apparently has ordered up a propaganda campaign to convince the population of the virtues of eating potatoes, which traditionally have been looked down upon as an inferior food and eaten mainly by the poor and famine-stricken.

According to the state-controlled press, Kim has been visiting potato farms and instructing his grateful populace how to improve potato farming, how better to store and transport the rot-prone tuber, and even how to prepare tasty potato dishes despite a widespread shortage of cooking oil.

“We have started to see the potato revolution as an ideological revolution,” declared the official Rodong newspaper. “The great leader said that from now on, potatoes should not be considered a secondary food but a primary food. He said that people can make any dish out of potatoes and that potatoes are tasty too.”

The North Korean media also have touted potatoes as a delectable ingredient for cakes, soups and doughnuts, and even implied that spud-eaters live longer.

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“The implicit message of this campaign is ‘Kiss grain goodbye,’ ” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a visiting scholar at Harvard University. “You’re not going to be seeing rice for a while. And forget about meat.”

To students of communist agriculture, Kim’s glorification of the spud is reminiscent of former Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev’s infatuation with corn. Enchanted by the lush cornfields of Iowa during a 1959 visit to the United States, Khrushchev ordered that vast tracts of Soviet land be planted with corn, a disastrous folly given the frigid climate.

Kim hasn’t been to Idaho, however, and his potato fixation is not necessarily ill advised. But it is by no means the promised panacea for North Korea’s entrenched, multifaceted hunger problem, South Korean, Japanese and U.S. experts agreed.

The article in the Rodong newspaper also includes an unusually candid--for North Korea--acknowledgment of the famine that may have claimed anywhere from several hundred thousand to 3 million lives, in a population of 23 million, since the famine began in 1995.

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“The great general [Kim], unable to suppress a certain regret, emphatically pointed out to officials that if only we had undertaken the task of creating a great revolution in potato farming 10 years ago, our people would not have suffered the pain of the food shortages of today,” it said.

Famine Eases With Global Assistance

Although the famine, caused by flooding followed by drought, has eased this year because of better harvests and an influx of $1 billion in international aid over the past three years, chronic malnutrition still stalks North Korea.

Recent visitors from South Korea and the United States report that they did not see the children with toothpick limbs and bloated bellies that shocked the world two years ago. Nor did they spot the darkened complexions that are a telltale sign of acute malnutrition in adults.

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“The famine peaked a couple of years ago, and it has been getting better slowly,” said an American who frequently visits North Korea.

Much of the population has adjusted from overreliance on the public distribution system for food to a more localized self-sufficiency, including urban dwellers raising rabbits on their balconies and rural residents selling surplus from their garden plots at farmers’ markets.

But foreigners have observed that people are still foraging for edible grasses and herbs that Koreans normally do not eat. And part of the improvement appears to be a result only of grim demographics.

“When you lose people, it leaves fewer people [who need] to eat,” the visitor said. “Just do the math. It does help a lot.” Nevertheless, the American said, “they are still clearly under stress, a lot of stress.”

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Among North Korea’s many woes is its soil, which has been so abused for so long that it now contains little of the organic material needed to sustain life.

“They have in many respects sterilized their soils over the last 30 years by overapplication of fertilizer,” said Randall Ireson of the American Friends Service Committee. The aid organization recently paid for a trip by a group of North Korean agricultural experts to China in search of improved potato strains, and it is providing $400,000 worth of agricultural aid to three collective farms.

Fixing North Korea’s farming sector won’t be easy. The country produces only about a quarter to a third of the fertilizer it desperately needs. Improving depleted soils requires such measures as letting land lie fallow, planting legumes and abandoning monoculture, all of which North Korea can ill afford at a moment when producing more calories is critical.

Moreover, North Korea lacks food to raise livestock, whose manure nurtures soils. To get around this problem, last year authorities began a campaign to encourage the population to raise goats and rabbits, which can live on grass.

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“Nineteen ninety-eight was the year of the goat, and 1999 is the year of the potato,” Ireson said. “Where there were goats here and there last year, they’re all over the place this year.”

But others warned that goats may worsen erosion in the flood-prone highlands.

With such acute soil deficiencies, limited farmland, a short growing season and a communist command system, the country is unlikely to become self-sufficient in food any time soon--let alone achieve a diet that includes meat--U.S. government analysts have concluded.

“North Korea has been dependent on food imports since the mid-1980s,” a U.S. official said, “and will be so for the foreseeable future.”

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Still, potatoes could help some of North Korea’s least privileged hang on, experts said. The areas most devastated by the famine were the highlands, particularly in the remote northeast. These areas are unsuitable for rice and corn farming, but those crops were nonetheless planted there, depleting the already poor soils.

Potatoes, however, grow best in cool climates, flourish in poor soils, can tolerate bad weather and unskilled farming, and, provided potato blight does not strike, produce more calories per acre than do grains.

“It’s a great way of turning the ground into a calorie machine, and if you can order people to eat what you want them to eat, instead of what they want, it’s fine,” Eberstadt said.

Others warned that tampering with a population’s eating habits could be politically risky, even for a totalitarian regime. Imagine the fallout if Americans were told they could no longer expect to eat hamburgers.

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“This new policy of Kim Jong Il’s is quite discriminatory,” said Hajime Izumi of Shizuoka University in Japan. “Rice only goes to the elite. . . . This is quite different from his father’s point of view.”

While his father was in power, Kim was widely portrayed as an unstable playboy who once ordered the kidnapping of a South Korean film director whose work he admired. But five years after his father’s death, he is increasingly viewed as a pragmatic leader willing to do what it takes to stay in power and to keep his country from plunging into the abyss--although his arsenal of missiles and suspected chemical weapons continues to worry the West.

U.S. Strikes Deal by Offering Spud Aid

North Korea experts say they do not know who put the potato bug in Kim’s ear. But he has been calling for a “great potato revolution” in public at least since October, Izumi noted.

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Washington took note too, and when U.S. diplomats were trying to persuade officials in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to allow inspections of suspicious underground tunnels at Kumchangri that the West worried might be a nuclear weapons site, they dangled potato aid as compensation for an inspection. The deal was struck, and in March, the State Department announced that it would, for the first time, allow private U.S. volunteer organizations to raise money and provide North Korea with high-quality seed potato as well as food for the workers who plant and raise the crop.

The food-for-work part of the project is essential because in the past, seed potatoes, which are edible, have been dug up and eaten by the ravenous population before they ever had a chance to grow, meaning even fewer seed potatoes for the next year. “Daytime they planted it, and nighttime they dug it up and ate it,” said a South Korean source.

In a sign of how desperate North Korea is to improve its agriculture, Pyongyang also for the first time is reaching out to its bitter rival, South Korea, for technical help, inviting two of the South’s leading agricultural experts to provide modern seeds and hands-on advice.

Kim Soon Kwon, an expert in hybrid corn, has visited North Korea seven times since 1998, when the South Korean government began allowing such private exchanges. He has begun breeding strains of high-yield, hardy “super-corn” at 12 North Korean research stations and reports that the North Koreans have proven eager to implement to the letter his advice on everything from double-cropping to planting foliage belts to halt erosion.

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Kim, who has bred his super-corn in many African countries as well as South Korea, says he could triple yields. But he is struggling to raise the money for the fertilizer to grow his corn. He spends many Sundays passing the hat at South Korean churches and is depending on his office in Los Angeles, the International Corn Foundation, to come up with the money he needs to continue.

South Korea’s leading potato expert, Joung Hyouk, who works on “microtubers” at the government-run Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology, also has been invited to set up a laboratory in North Korea. Microtubers, which are the size of a pea, are cultured from virus-free potato tissue and, while expensive, can be used to produce huge crops of high-quality seed potatoes and then vastly larger potato crops.

“They need our technology,” said Joung, who visited North Korea in June carrying 100 kilograms of his tiny tubers for a test planting around Pyongyang. He believes that the North could learn to produce the high-tech tubers within three or four years--money permitting.

But the chilling relations between Seoul and Pyongyang threaten to put an end to such exchanges. The South Korean government has announced that it will cut off all but essential humanitarian aid if North Korea goes ahead with its plans to launch a second Taepodong ballistic missile. Last year, the North stunned the world by firing what it claimed was a satellite-bearing rocket but what the West viewed as a weapon.

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On Sunday, North Korea again said it plans to launch the missile.

Another launch probably wouldn’t affect emergency food aid from the United States because a starving North Korea is viewed as a potential menace. As Stephen W. Bosworth, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, recently put it, “We have no interest in the DPRK [North Korea] becoming more isolated, poorer and perhaps more irresponsible.”


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