North Korea facing widespread farming problems

Scene from last year's corn harvest in North Korea
Scene from last year’s corn harvest in North Korea. Image: Daily NK file photo

Farming season reaches its peak in North Korea in May, but the chronic lack of farmers, agricultural materials and equipment, along with droughts, is continuing to plague the country. May is an important time in the country’s agricultural cycle and such issues are causing many North Koreans to express concerns about this year’s harvest.

“There were many areas that didn’t receive enough snow in the winter, so a lot of the land is dry and dust storms are common,” a South Hamgyong Province-based source told Daily NK “We need rain to get rid of the drought, but people are worried [that it won’t happen].”

North Korea is facing serious droughts across the country. Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party of Korea’s mouthpiece, published an article on its front page entitled “Let’s Establish Measures to Thoroughly Protect Against Drought Damage.”

“Our country is now facing severe droughts,” the article reads. “A lot of wheat and barley leaves farms in some provinces, cities and counties received little rain in April and are now suffering from drought, and even corn is starting to dry up.”

The article goes on to say that “there is nothing more important than protecting the country’s agriculture from drought as part of efforts to protect the main frontline of the socialist economic construction, the agricultural frontline,” and goes on to call on  “everyone to actively participate in establishing thorough measures to protect against drought.”

North Korean citizens are expressing deep concerns about the lack of agricultural equipment as they face these harsh environmental conditions.

“Some inminban (neighborhood watch units) have 30-40 pesticide sprayers, but now all of them are old and can no longer be used. They are fixing some of them but there’s limits to what can be done. These inminbans just have a few working sprayers left,” the source said, explaining that farmers “have to spray huge fields with pesticides but because there’s so few working sprayers, the farmers are having a really tough time.”

“Farmers also have to feed their cows, but the cows are all thin and malnourished so they’re useless,” he added. “Farmers need to use cows or tractors to plow the fields, but both cows and tractors are scarce. Adult farmers are having to head to the fields and plow them with shovels. Many farms are just relying on people to plow the fields rather than cows.”

Cows are an important resource for farming in North Korea, but they have become a scarce resource. Bribes are frequently exchanged among farmers during the farming season to use available cows first.

A source in Ryanggang Province said that collective farms “provide one work unit with a single cow and farmers use that cow in a particular order. Farmers can give bribes to the person managing the cows to go higher up the list, or use the cow to plow their own individual plots of land during the night.”

“Cows have to rest if they work all day and night. People without any money to pay bribes can’t use the cows to plow their fields at the right time. This means they have to abandon the year’s harvest,” the Ryanggang Province-based source continued. “Many farmers use small plowshares (the cutting or leading edge of a moldboard) so that they can plow the fields themselves instead of cows.”

North Korean farmers also face shortages of herbicides and other agricultural materials. Farmers with money can buy these materials, but there are increasingly farmers who cannot.

“Farmers use herbicides because all they have to do is spray it on their fields once. Without herbicides, they would have to weed their fields two or three times,” said the source. “There are some farmers who buy herbicides because they can afford it, but many others have to weed their fields at least three times in the hot sun.”

Farmers are supposed to receive farming equipment and agricultural materials from the government, but the government’s supply system collapsed many years ago. In the absence of government support, some cooperative farms obtain the required materials and equipment and provide them to their farmers.

North Korean defectors say that traditionally, agricultural equipment repair centers have assisted cooperative farms by repairing broken pesticide sprayers and other equipment, but the centers have not been operating recently.

“North Koreans have to worry about food all the time, but people are even more worried about the harvest this year because of the lack of equipment and the drought,”  separate South Hamgyong Province-based source told Daily NK.

“People can cut down on the clothes they wear, but that’s not the case for food. Parents want to feed their kids corn, but they’re already feeling uneasy about the future.”

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