A Time to Harvest Wealth for the Lucky Few

North Korea’s autumn harvest officially began on September 20th. As a result, North Korean cooperative farms are in the midst of the annual war with food thieves. Among the rice paddies and farms owned by the North Korean state and private civilian farmers, one can see not only workers busily gathering the crops manually in the absence of agricultural machinery, but also guards charged with protecting the harvest from thieves.

Guards were introduced to North Korean farms at the dawn of the 1990s. As the Public Distribution System began to collapse, the appearance of people stealing corn and rice from cooperative farms was inevitable, and so were efforts to stop them.

Of course, the guarding of private land is the more diligently accomplished; making cooperative farms the better target for thieves. As it is with cooperative farming, so it is with cooperative farm guarding; no incentives, less effort, and this has led to a complex system of bribery and corruption.
In 1994, the North Korean authorities issued a warning whereby trespassing on national property would be severely punished. Then, faced with an unchanged situation, in 1996 they enacted official measures to protect the crops on cooperative farm by forming community watch guard units.

Among these, there are three main types of guard unit. Firstly, there are military units. Secondly, there are units formed by workers who have influence at the top of the farm. Third, there are groups organized by the local People’s Safety Ministry (PSM). All officially pursue the same objective of guarding the nation’s property, yet the reality is very different.

Soldier security units are composed of soldiers belonging to “April 5th Inspection Unit”, which is similar in role to the Military Police; they deal with criminal issues between the military and civilians, oversee crackdowns and manage criminality within the military. They begin guarding agricultural facilities from July, when the harvesting of tomatoes or cucumbers begins.

Their work is done through checkpoints erected on roads or rivers connecting farming areas and cities. They control the flow of agricultural products moving into urban areas and check the source of the products being transported.

Members of “April 5th Inspection Unit” have are responsible for recovering agricultural products being illegally traded without the approval of farm management committees and returning them to the farms.

However, it goes without saying that bribery impedes the success of this system. When a soldier recovers agricultural products and simply returns them to the farm, it ends with a warm thank you, which is considered somewhat insufficient.

Meanwhile, farm community watch guard units are formed by the farms from farm workers, but only farm workers with connections at the top tend to take part. They begin their activities from the middle of August, when the first corn is harvested. Usually, three people form a group and guard the crops one night in three. They work from the time farm workers get off work until the beginning of the next day.

However, they are no less corrupt than the soldiers. This is understandable, however; even if they work hard throughout the year, the amount of food distributed to them at the end of the year is small, so they augment their share while the opportunity is there.

There are a number of ways they can do this. In a lot of cases, members of community watch guard units make a deal with the thieves, which helps them control the level of stealing and also benefit from it. This makes sense; if thieves steal too much, those on guard duty will face censure.

So, they stand on night guard duty as a group of three; thieves prepare alcohol, cigarettes and some snacks for the night, and sometimes a cash sweetener. Currently in North Korea, a farm community watch guard can be bought for approximately 10,000~15,000 won this way.

However, there are some guards who want to make a greater profit. They do this through higher level corruption. In order to purchase vegetables from a farm, a sales docket is required. Therefore, first a buyer makes a deal with the relevant official on the farm management committee and acquires a 50kg sales docket for, let’s say, cucumbers. However, they then go to the cucumber field of the farm and are given 150kg.

The market price for cucumber was 1,200 won per kilogram in Hyesan market in August. Therefore, if 150kg of cucumber were sold in the market, the seller could earn 180,000 won. After paying 450 won to the state (the state price is nine won per kilogram) to the cooperative farm for the 50kgs, the other 179,550 won is shared between the farm manager, the buyer and the community watch guard unit.

Worker community watch guard units under the neighborhood PSM office are no different from farm community watch guards. They also try to take advantage of farm guarding duties.

Therefore, the North Korean harvest comes in at far less than the estimates of the North Korean authorities. Not only is the estimated harvest exaggerated, but crops are also stolen due to the corruption of farm officials and related personnel.