Following North Korea’s acknowledgement to the United Nations that it is suffering food shortages, Daily NK has learned that insufficient agricultural supplies, such as pesticides and fertilizers, have hindered the weeding of rice fields this year. 

“The second round of weeding should have finished by this time of year, but many fields have yet to start their first round,” a source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on July 21. “Weeding has been completed only in easily noticed areas of the fields. Other parts of the fields are so overrun by weeds that rice cultivation will likely be negatively impacted.” 

By contrast, North Korean media has stated that the country’s “agricultural processes” are running smoothly, while emphasizing the importance of “increasing grain production.” The Rodong Sinmun, for example, claimed recently that “agricultural processes, including the weeding of paddy fields, are proceeding as planned nationwide.”

However, weeding has progressed as scheduled only in roadside fields that the authorities can scan as they drive by.

A lack of pesticides and workers is reportedly to blame for the sluggish progress.

North Korea has recognized its chronic shortage of pesticides and fertilizer, but this year’s conditions are exceptionally poor: agricultural supplies – which include pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers – have fallen to 80% of what was available last year. 

Moreover, pulling the weeds by hand is not a solution because many people are reluctant to be mobilized for agricultural work in rural areas.

experimental fields
Images from a collective farm in Chongsan-ri. / Image: Daily NK

“[The authorities] have recently given instructions to provide the fields protection against heat waves and typhoons, but nobody is coming to work, which means nothing is happening,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.  

Bracing for the poor harvest, the subject of “preparing food substitutes” was brought up during cadre training sessions and lectures for ordinary people. 

During these meetings, there has been mention of “rice roots,” eaten by North Koreans to stave off starvation during the Arduous March, and even “peat bread,” which is made by mixing unburned coal powder with a little flour.

The source claims the discussion of food substitutes by government officials suggests this year’s grain production will fall short of projections. “Farmers expect the situation to be worse than the previous year,” he added. 

North Korean authorities released a report to the Voluntary National Review (VNR) at the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on July 13 , stating, “[We are] struggling to meet the target of producing seven million tons of grain. In 2018, 4.95 million tons were produced, the lowest in ten years.”

This is the first time North Korea has publicly disclosed its food shortage through a VNR report.

The submission of the report may be an indirect request by the North Korean authorities for food aid from the international community given signs the country faces a poor harvest this year.

*Translated by Kyungmin Kim

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to