The North Korean government enforces rules for agriculture that require farmers to contribute a certain quota to the authorities and permits them to keep the rest for themselves. State media hails the policy as a revolution in agriculture and claims that it is responsible for boosting productivity. However, residents are complaining that their lives have instead become more difficult over time. For more, we turn to reporter Seol Song Ah.
The so-called field management system (pojon) received positive feedback when it was first introduced in 2012. As part of the June 28 New Economic Management Measures, farmers are permitted to keep 30% of the target production, as well as any excess. Many believed that the measures would meaningfully improve their lives and allow them to have plenty of leftover produce to sell.
In 2014, one resident living in Ryanggang Province’s Kimjongsuk County enthusiastically explained to his wife – who had defected to South Korea – that things were going to be different and encouraged her to return to the North.
But the situation began to deteriorate from 2015. Farmers with swampy land or poor soil were ordered to produce as much as other farmers with more arable land. The regime set rules guided only by total product, while ignoring the diverse conditions faced by individual farmers. Difficulties and increasing resentment have resulted.
How is fertilizer and farming equipment distributed under the new system?
Let’s look at one particular region as an example. South Pyongan Province, Mundok County, is famous for being North Korea’s breadbasket. Under the June 28 New Economic Management Measures, agricultural work teams were reduced from 10-25 people to 4-6 people as part of the field management system–a departure from the previous cooperative farm production unit system (bunjo). But for these farms in Mundok Country under the field management system, each individual is regarded as being responsible for the whole process: from applying manure to the fields in the winter, to harvesting in the fall. That’s where the trouble began.
One of the biggest issues is the equipment. In the old days, tractors were used by the communal farms, but under the new system, they are hired out to earn money. If the leader of a work team has a good relationship with his superiors, he might be able to rent an oxcart on occasion, but he can’t use the farm equipment whenever he wants to, as was the case previously.
Those with money buy gasoline for the tractors and rent them out as a business. But many farmers cannot afford the cost of hire. For the poorest families, the only solution is sweat and determination. The entire family has to mobilize to spread the manure, even children and the elderly.
When harvest time in the fall arrives, the authorities demand their cut of the product. The quota is determined on the basis of land area. The farmers have since changed their opinions about the system, saying, “The state doesn’t contribute any money to support farming. Initially, the field management system sounded attractive, but in practice, it is making life difficult for us.”
So I assume that some farmers would prefer not to accept offerings of land. Are they allowed to refuse it?
I’m not sure about other regions, but there’s a story related to this from Mundok County. A farmer in the region was working under the field management system for three years. In the end, he calculated that he could make more money selling in the market, so he quit. But it isn’t permissible to just throw your hands up and say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” That would have made him the subject of an ideological investigation. Instead, he gave the excuse that he was too sick and weak to farm anymore.
Using similar approaches, some people have ended up transitioning away from the field management system and started up their own businesses. To do this, they tend to a small individual farm (150-300 square meters), and sell the produce on the open market. This earns them more than they would have under the collective farming system or the field management system.
What kinds of crops are people farming on their private plots in Kimjongsuk County?
Most tend to grow garlic, corn, or tomatoes. In particular, garlic is harvested around May and June, so it can be a good way to make money early in the season. Garlic plants prefer slightly saline soil, which is good for the local residents because there’s tidal marshland nearby.
Plenty of Chinese garlic is sold in North Korea, but it’s not as good as the local variety. North Korean garlic has a great fragrance and flavor. Although it’s more expensive, some residents buy it for this reason. After the garlic plants are harvested, people plant radish and cabbage. It can be planted earlier in the North than in the South. The cabbage can then be sold as a specialty item for a premium price around August.
Are there any other money-making opportunities for the rural residents of South Pyongan County?
Some residents sell ducks and chicks. They buy the eggs and build themselves an incubator, which they use to help the chicks hatch. Then they take them to the General Markets (official marketplaces) for sale.
Outside of farming, it’s important to keep open other lines of work. Those without other opportunities really struggle to get by.
You’d think that these residents would be better off in terms of food security, because the region is referred to as the country’s breadbasket. But you’re saying that some residents are still concerned about being able to make a living?
The rice grown in Mundok County is high quality and sticky. It’s a top seller in the market. But we have received word that despite this, local living standards are as low as they get. The situation is especially dire for young children. The kids from Mundok and Anju City do various things to try to help their families earn money, like catching mudfish to sell, or working in a false-eyelash factory.
The children are known to walk around the rice fields with hand towels at night because it’s the best time to catch mudfish. Sometimes teenagers will come up and steal their catch. As an excuse, they call themselves ‘patrolmen’ and say that the kids are hurting the rice fields by walking over them. There’s an expression that says that children in this region are forced to grow up faster when compared to kids from the city. The parents use the money their children earn to buy food.
There are children younger than ten years old working in some of the false-eyelash factories.
Another source said, “This is the age when kids are supposed to be running around and playing, but they’ve been mobilized to work in factories. They’re bent over all day doing their work, so their posture is affected. After years of intense focus, their eyesight also begins to suffer. The materials, which come from China, are said to have something wrong with them. Some of the kids who have worked with the materials for many years have developed tuberculosis.”