The autumn harvest has begun in North Korean farming villages. People are busy working day and night, not least since the recovery from recent flood damage is incomplete. As has been the case for more than 20 years, days are filled with farm work while nights are spent trying to secure food for the family.
Ironically, the reality in North Korea is that farming villages, the coal face of state agriculture, are always short of food. Therefore, farmers must use both fair means and foul to build up their own supplies.
Taking out seed procurement, military deliveries and central quotas, there is very little left for the farmers themselves. This is why many take what they can get when given the chance. Thus, every year local committees cooperate with the relevant security forces to run harvest patrols aimed at catching thieves and limiting the state’s losses.
However, the saying goes that ‘ten patrolmen are no match for one thief’, spurred on as the thieves are by the knowledge that failure to secure enough to eat during the autumn will mean a shortage of food for the entire year. Farmers justify this easily, for despite working exhaustively to harvest the crops in the first place, the nation’s broken rationing system means that very little of it finds its way back to them and taking what they can, while they can, is the only option.
In mountainous regions where the crops are predominantly potatoes and barley, thieves pull sheaves of the latter and replant them in the woods or their own private plots. This phenomenon takes place during the harvest itself, with workers seizing the opportunity when guards and other workers are not around. Where potatoes are the target, they are simply dug up and taken away.
If people don’t do this they run the risk of great hunger the next year, and stealing is worth the risk of being sent to prison. In truth, for many it’s not even a choice.
Once the agricultural harvest begins, surveillance steps up extensively, but the security guards quite often end up becoming accessories to the ‘crime.’ They sense a golden opportunity to procure their own food, and keenly cooperate with workers to siphon off some of the harvest.
Defector Han Yong Kwon explained “Guards sent to crackdown on theft ask thieves to put some aside for them in return for protection, pointing out that even they do not get proper rations anymore. People who can bring the guards in on their activities run a far smaller risk of getting caught.”
“The authorities order the people every year to bring in the harvest without losing a single grain, but because nobody has anything to eat such appeals fall on deaf ears,” Han noted.