One N. Korean farmer’s view of the state of his country’s agricultural sector

farmers work
Farmers working with masks on a collective farm in Pyongwon last year. (Rodong Sinmun-News 1)

As part of its focus on bolstering the agricultural sector and increasing the harvest, North Korea boosted the budget for rural construction and environmental improvement projects in a recent session of the Supreme People’s Assembly. These agricultural investments seem designed to raise productivity and resolve the country’s food shortages. 

However, the more money and interest the government pays to the farming sector, the greater the burden on North Korea’s farmers. When targets are set too high, it’s the farmers who must contend with frequent inspections, and it’s the farmers who are blamed for the failure to meet those targets.

Daily NK recently interviewed a farmer in South Hwanghae Province, North Korea’s breadbasket, to hear about the farming environment, farmers’ current circumstances, and what farmers are hoping for most in 2023.

Read on for the full text of the interview.

Daily NK (DNK): Once again, North Korea is heavily stressing agricultural output this year. Are you busy with farm work?

“Farm management committees not only at the provincial level but also at the city and county level have been sending teams to each farm since the beginning of the year. Since last year, we’ve received instructions for farm workers to go out to the fields before staff from the supervisory organizations get here and to come home late in the evening.

“Our typical routine is to wake up at 4 AM, gather together the families, livestock and manure, and send tractors carrying the manure to the fields at 5 AM. Then at 5:30 AM, we come back home to wash up and clean the house. We finish eating breakfast at 7 AM and head to the work unit’s office. Following our (morning political) reading session, we receive instructions from the technical guidance officer and the management committee and make it to the fields around 7:40 AM.

“Once we’re in the fields, we spread out the manure and cover it up with dirt. Once the manure is mixed up, we move it to the fields where we need to refresh the soil. That work takes about a day to do. This year, we weren’t asked to collect as much scrap metal and scrap paper. The Workers’ Party just told us to do a good job on our original revolutionary tasks.”

DNK: It sounds like things have been very busy since the beginning of the year. Are there any complaints among the farmers?

“The complaint for us farmers is that we have to clock in so early and stay at work so late. In the past, we got to go home around 6 PM or 7 PM. But nowadays, farm workers in South Hwanghae Province have to work in the fields, trim the borders of the paddies or collect manure from the livestock until 8 PM before they are allowed to go home. That makes people unhappy. When workers don’t have anything to do, they’ll sit around a fire or go off somewhere, keeping a low profile until it’s time to go home. That makes us less effective.”

DNK: North Koreans are being mobilized for the yearly “fertilizer campaign.” Does that actually help with farming?

“People are brought out to fertilize the fields at the beginning of the year. There are so many people that the fields go black with fertilizer. But when you actually take a look at it, the fertilizer is poor quality. Some people just go through the motions and mix 10% human feces in with 90% dirt. That’s actually harmful for the soil, so we have to throw it away.”

DNK: How was last year’s crop compared to previous years?

“The provincial authorities said that all plans would be based on 2019 standards. But we’ve done much worse than 2019, and our rice harvest was similar to 2021. The wheat, barley and corn crops were even worse than 2021. But since we at least had a decent rice crop, South Hwanghae Province was left off the hook for the poor harvest in the other crops.”

DNK: What are your projections for this year’s crop?

“The key factors are getting enough workers to do the planting, weeding and autumn harvest and getting a steady supply of fertilizer, [vinyl] sheeting, farm equipment, water and electricity. Provided that we have the workers, fertilizer and water, I think we can have a bumper crop, but it won’t be easy. When we were planting the rice last year, the whole country was in an emergency because of the viral outbreak. So even though the army was helping the farm workers, we weren’t able to get the seedlings into the paddies in time.”

DNK: Has the government taken any special measures this year to increase farm productivity?

“Since South Hwanghae Province is one of the provinces that’s supposed to boost the rice crop during the [state’s] five-year plan [for economic development], it’s under orders to proactively support farming districts. I’m told that puts a heavier burden on people in the cities.

“What’s different from the past is that the authorities are ordering that farming districts receive assistance in all areas, starting with farming implements such as hoes, scythes and hatchets. People are collecting work gloves, work clothes, socks and even toiletries for farm workers and focusing on helping the rural areas.”

DNK: What areas need to be improved for a good crop?

“There’s a lot of talk about mechanization, but that’s not enough on its own. They make tons of machines for us, but then expect us to obtain our own fuel. That’s an issue I think needs to be resolved. We can’t increase our efficiency unless we have fertilizer, sheeting, irrigation, oxen and farming equipment supplied and repaired each year. You can’t have a good crop without fertilizer, and one ox is better than ten people.

“The government also needs to provide us with accurate weather forecasts. I’m sure that other countries have to farm in the same weather and climate, and I wish we could be taught some of other countries’ advanced farming techniques. The government emphasizes that we would have “nothing to envy” as long as the food issue could be resolved. But to do that, I think we need to start importing some food, instead of just staring at the fields.”

DNK: As a farmer, what’s your biggest hope for the new year?

“A new revolutionary program for agriculture has been announced, and the Workers’ Party’s policy is to focus investment on South Hwanghae Province. That’s gotten people around here thinking that farmers are going to be put through the wringer now. Rather than working farmers to death, I wish they’d bring in some new farming techniques that are appropriate for life in our country, which has limited farming space. I wish that new methods could be adopted so that farm workers could get a late start and still come home early.

“I also wish that farm workers and their children would have a chance to work in factories or live in the cities instead of staying on farms forever. I’d like to see large-scale person-to-person exchanges between the cities and the rural areas. It’s too late for me, since I’m already a farmer, but I’d like my children’s generation to be able to choose their own occupations.”

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

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