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One of the agriculture projects in which Kim Jong Il took a particular interest was potato farming in Baekam County, part of Yangkang Province. However, such high-level patronage has not been enough to save Baekam from disaster, people from the area say, since more than half the discharged soldiers dispatched by the state to work there subsequently disappeared without a trace.
Yangkang Province, a place where “potato farming is the only thing left to do,” first began receiving attention in 1998. When North Korea’s famine was at its peak in October that year, Kim Jong Il visited nearby Daehongdan County and declared, “Potatoes are the same as white rice.” However, there was no labor available to produce the potatoes Kim wanted. So, by way of a solution, the authorities decided to dispatch discharged soldiers en masse to work the potato farms.
Defectors from the region have testified that around 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers were settled in Daehongdan County. To keep these men happy, the Party even settled hundreds of women in the district to marry them. Kim Jong Il suggested they should name sons ‘Daehong’ and daughters ‘Hongdan’.
Then, in December of 2009, Kim Jong Il ordered the establishment of a potato farm in Baekam County as well. In the following May, according to Chosun Central News Agency, Kim visited, and while there he reportedly commented, “I believe it to be highly significant that we turn Baekam County into a potato producer.”
Again according to Chosun Central News Agency, in August of that same year the mass dispatch of discharged soldiers to Baekam County was completed. All the soldiers were given medals and an awarding ceremony was held in Pyongyang; the whole event was broadcast on North Korean TV.
However, now the situation is different. In 1998, a soldier might have accepted the Party’s decision on the sensible premise that “at least I will not starve.” However, young soldiers living in capitalist North Korea today are not being presented with the same incentives. Indeed, people say that handing ‘farming’ down to one’s children as an occupation is like a death sentence. Now, working hard can lead to a life that a cadre in Pyongyang would not look down upon. Living in the countryside and eating little other than potatoes can no longer satisfy.
The result was predictable. In October, 2010 the discharged soldiers were given a one month break to visit their hometowns. It was advertized as a gift for men who had not been able to return home after their discharge from the military. However, in reality it was a holiday given because the men could not be given their rations. They needed to go home to obtain money and necessities.
Regardless of which, a year and six months have now passed since the day when they were meant to return, but 50% of the 3,000 men have not been seen since, sources say.
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