North Korean farmers sent to labor camp for stealing potato seeds

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an inspection of the Samjiyon Potato Farina Production Factory in Samjiyon County, Ryanggang Province in October 2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an inspection of the Samjiyon Potato Farina Production Factory in Samjiyon County, Ryanggang Province in October 2018. Image: Rodong Sinmun

A farmer at a potato farm in Ryanggang Province was recently sent to a forced labor camp for stealing seeds meant for planting, a Daily NK source reported on June 3. The incident provides a glimpse into the difficulties faced during the potato planting season  in May.

The farm, a major producer of potatoes located in Taehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, is in an area where locals plant potato seeds for a two-week period starting in early May to ensure the seeds are planted on time. Potatoes in North Korea are important because they can replace rice and wheat and are the major source of calories for some parts of Ryanggang Province.

North Korean farmers refrain from removing the germinal disk from potato seeds and plant potatoes whole to increase yields. The state-run publication Rodong Sinmun recently reported that potato production reached record levels last year.

“There have been many cases where farmers have stolen potato seeds during the ‘potato planting battle’ period,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK. “The authorities made an example out of two farmers who stole seeds by sending them to a disciplinary labor center for six months.”

At larger farms in Taehongdan County, farmers use trackers to plant whole potatoes. Farmers working on smaller farms, however, plant the potatoes themselves. The potatoes need to be planted 4-5 centimeters apart, but farmers frequently do not follow this rule. Instead, they plant the potatoes farther apart and then hide the potato seeds that are leftover underground to take home later.

“Farm managers have worried constantly about this issue, so they have told farmers that stealing seeds is tantamount to destroying the Party’s agricultural policies,” said the source.

Poorer farmers, however, are faced with hunger during the planting season so they steal potato seeds regardless of these warnings and even sell the seeds in local markets, the source said.

A farm in Unhung County recently conducted a survey of its potato fields in mid-May and two farmers who broke the rules were sentenced to six months in a forced labor camp, the source added.

“There are many cases of potato seeds being stolen in the province, so the authorities are treating it as a very serious problem,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province reported.

“It’s not common, however, for the authorities to send farmers to forced labor camps because the state needs all hands in the fields. They just wanted to set an example for other farmers to discourage theft.”

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Kim Yoo Jin is one of Daily NK's defector journalists.