The Way to Survive for Farmers

Daily NK
Jung Kwon Ho

The price of rice in the jangmadang has been on the decline since June. The rice price which had risen to 3,000 won at one point is now at 2,400 won per unit (1kg in North Korea), which was the standard in the beginning of April. With the upcoming potato harvest season and spreading the news that U.S.’ food aid will come, the forecast has also been proposed that the food crisis will be mitigated from a climax in mid-June. However, even though it is not at a life and death situation, the hunger of citizens still continues. The Daily NK, through the testimonies of three witnesses who came out of North Korea between May and June, got a glimpse into the lives of North Korean citizens.

Mr. B is a farmer in a county, Hwanghae Province. He met with a reporter while visiting relatives in China early last month, when the food shortage was severe in North Korea.

B said that food in Hwanghae Province, traditionally a granary area, is absolutely insufficient. Since the mid-90s, food has not been adequately distributed and a vicious cycle of food crisis and a lack of an effort by farmers have been occurring.

Regarding the cause of the reduction in the volume of food production, B noted, “You could possibly name several reasons, but the most important factor is the lack of earnestness by farmers. It is difficult to find people who work with consciousness. There is no reason to work, because even if people work hard, there is no food provision. In the 80s, before Kim Il Sung’s death, the estimated corn yield per unit of an area (approx. 2.45 acres) was even up to 10 tons. After his death, the yield has been about 3 tons per unit area.”

In June in Hwanghae Province, the reaping of wheat and flour begins. Accordingly, the food crisis can temporarily recover. If wheat and flour are produced, around 20 kilograms are distributed. However, these are excluded from the total distribution from the autumn harvest.

He stated that North Korean farmers have been finding a way to get by on their own for last 10 years after the March of Tribulation in late 1990s, due to the unstable food provisions. He cited three methods of survival for farmers in Hwanghae Province: “private farming, pilfering grains of farms, and doing business.”

Furrows are allocated to farmers for private farming

Because distributed food for individuals has not been enough, he said that land has been allocated according to the number of family members so that private farming could be carried out. This means, the authorities distribute no filed of the farm, but furrows and footpaths in the farm, so that farmers could plant peas or potatoes between crops.

“The state was supposed to provide 280kg of unpolished grain after a year of farming by the farmers, but only 120~130 kg are provided, which is not sufficient for the year. So all kinds of other crops are planted in the furrows and shared among the people. Furrows do not have to be registered with the state, so they can be operated independently. In Jaeryong County, Hwanghae Province, such methods have first been adopted. Half of the Province has started to employ this method.”

In actuality, the production volume of potatoes planted among corn furrows exceeds that of state potato farms. Mr. B said, “Farmers are zealous about planting potatoes in the furrows, because it has to do with private profits. They share over 50kg amongst each other. This helps get over the difficult month of June.”

Mr. B said that 150kg of food was produced from private field cultivated on an inclined plane of a mountain and in his home site. He said, “After discussions with the mountain surveillance directors, they have agreed to give a 30% of their production, even plant some trees, and engage in farming. If the deal is not kept, however, the steep land on mountains is not given to them for the subsequent year.”

B explained that besides private farming, another critical method of survival for the citizens in Hwanghae Province is pilfering grain under the control of the state. For several years, national provision has not been carried out properly, so coping methods by farmers have also become more aggressive.

He said, “Before harvesting officially the farm’s crops, farmers pilfer grains on fields every night. These stolen grains are actually their lifeline for the next year. Farmers are saving corn and rice for a year in this way.”

He said that the amount of food secured by farmers via such a method is different from person to person, but in the Jaeryong plain, people have been able to secure up to one ton of food. Through that rice, people are able to acquire daily necessities and send them to relatives in the cities.

During falls in North Korea, it is a well-known fact that the farmers and the state frequently scramble for grain. As a result, the North Korean authorities, since three years ago, have dispatched nation widely the People’s Safety Agency Political College students and have engaged in food recovery operations.

“Hide the food in a pigsty.”

B said, “Even a few years ago, there were a lot of people whose food were confiscated by the students, but the situation is different now. However, even last year, food was not preserved in the homes, but was hidden under the floor of pigsties or buried underground and covered with garlic fields. During last year’s harvesting season, the citizens benefitted this way and have been able to get by until now.”

However, he said that people who are who is honest and forthright or the elderly inevitably have a difficult time in the battle for pilfering grain.

Mr. B added, “Going out to the fields at night and gathering enough food before the harvesting period is a life and death matter. Without stealing, one ends up starving, so who would just sit there?.”

He additionally introduced a different style of persons belonging to a farm besides farmers. He said “There are about five traders in agricultural districts per work unit which consists of 50 households.” According to him, the managers of work units call them “8.3.” The name stuck after Kim Il Sung’s decree on August 3rd that necessities of daily life were to be independently produced in factories or work units. These people are often deployed by farms to be in charge of civilian projects ordered by the state. When the state demands necessary commodities, money or food from farmers under the pretext of support for the army or national construction, these traders take charge of the management.

They are the ones who go around to secluded villages and purchase 2~3 tons of corn and pea from the villagers in exchange for rice, oil, seasonings and flour, which usually produces a profit of 50 to 100 won per kg. But they have to sell over 15kg per day in order to buy a kilogram of corn.

B said, “Most of the people get by from private farming, theft, or doing business, but a minority do not even have any know-how to do that, so are in adversity. They have to endure the spring shortage period, skip meals, or eke out an existence on porridge. As a last resort, they borrow food at a high rate of interest and get by. Such a pattern is repeated the next year, so their debt only increases and they end up in even more desperate situations.”


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