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North Korea's agricultural reforms fall short

Kim Ga Young  |  2016-09-05 16:41
It has been four years since Kim Jong Un introduced agricultural reform measures, one component of which involves the individual management of plots. However, at present, residents complain that farming equipment and manure provisions are insufficient, and the quota demands absurdly high.   

When the measures were laid out, it was announced that cooperative farms would be divided into smaller pojeon, managed by 3-5 farmers apiece. Before the reform measures, the farms were divided into much larger "bunjo" units, consisting of 10-25 people. After the harvest, each unit is responsible for providing a set proportion of the yield to the authorities. The rest, according to the reforms, should be the property of the workers. 

This is not how things have played out in practice. Although food production is up in North Korea, the authorities still grab as much of the yield as they please, and some of the measures have even become a means to exploit the workers.

A defector who goes by Mrs. Han offered invaluable insight to the problems pervading the new system at a recent event hosted by the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) in Seoul. When the pojeon system was first introduced, rural residents were singing its praises, thinking to themselves, Were finally going to be able to make a living. But when the system was actually implemented, the vast majority of the yield went to the state, leaving very little behind for the farmers who worked the land. That turn of events was deeply dispiriting for the workers, said Mrs. Han, formerly the manager of the TaeHong Country Cooperative Farm in Ryanggang Province before she defected last October.

NKIS President Kim Heung Kwang added that if the pojeon family unit system was truly implemented, the degree of autonomy and living standard of agricultural workers should have improved. "But that is simply not what has happened," he pointed out.

The most difficult aspect of the system, according to Mrs. Han, was the way the distribution is decided. It is determined based on whether or not the unit is able to fulfill the states set production quota. Those who can not meet the quota are provided with less. In the rural areas, many pojeon are managed by groups of families. If the yield is good, then they can satisfy the Korean Workers Party quota and therefore fare relatively well. If the land fails to produce enough, however, then the whole family is deprived of sufficient provisions. Most of the units underperform and receive very little as a consequence, Mrs. Han explained.

In my own case, my husband and I were tasked with managing a plot of 2,000 pyeong, mostly consisting of potatoes. We were given a production quota of 60 tons of potatoes by the Party. However hard we worked, it was difficult to end up with anything more than 40 tons of potatoes. And of course, when we couldnt fulfill the production demands, we were provided with less," she lamented.

In order to really meet the expectations, Mrs. Han and her team needed fertilizer and pesticides, but the process of acquiring them from the state took far too long, if it came at all. Furthermore, they required about 300 kg of fertilizer, but were only provided with 100kg. 

"The local families in our area had similar experiences. It was hard for all of us. In state media, the Party has blamed the pesticide problem on a lack of expertise, not a lack of supplies. Many farmers struggled with proper handling of pesticides and ended up wasting them or damaging their crops," she said.

Another problem with the high quotas is that if I got sick for three days, I wouldnt be able to produce enough. To even get a diagnosis at the hospital, one has to prove that they are really sick. Of course, the hospitals dont give proper treatment in North Korea, so the chances of getting a diagnosis slip from the hospital are also quite low. In those types of situations, its beneficial to give the doctor some cigarettes and ask for a favor.   

Although Kim Jong Un often stresses the importance of modernizing the production methods and equipment of the agricultural sector, farmers are still unable to procure their own tractors. Instead, they are forced to borrow from the state. The state companies buy 5,000 yuan tractors from China and get ownership rights, before renting them out to the farm managers. Mrs. Han explained that during corn and potato harvest time, we borrowed a tractor for a set amount of time. 

She also recounted that in the month of May, many of the pojeon needed extra labor in order to get all of the required work done. As previously reported by Daily NK, this involved such measures as the authorities declaring a school closure to mobilize middle and high school students to the farms to assist in the agricultural work. 

Mrs. Han explained that residents mobilized from the cities to work on the farms are typically responsible for bringing their own food to eat while working, and in return state-run enterprises provided them with rations or wages. 

Some of the more well-off rural residents paid people a small daily wage to come and work in their fields. They usually work for about three or four days out of the week, and then rest on the off days," she said.

Mrs. Han added that residents in agricultural communities are also required to raise livestock and contribute it to the Party. Bribes in the form of meat provisions payable to the Korean Peoples Army [KPA] are an additional burden for most in farming regions, she said, noting, Farm workers is required to give about seven or eight kg of pork to the KPA on a yearly basis," she said. 

"My husband and I were no exception. This might not sound like very much to someone who has never raised livestock before, but for us, this was a considerable imposition. Those who had to borrow money to do so were forced to pay the loan back at 1.5 times the original amount. 
 
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2017.06.09
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