North Koreans farmers turn to asbestos paper manufacturing

Asbestos paper recently produced by residents in North Korea. Image: Daily NK

Due to a slump in the harvest season, some farmers have abandoned the fields to find work elsewhere.

It is estimated that this year’s poor harvest will yield only a single month’s supply of grain, leaving it up to each individual to fend for themselves for the rest of the winter. To illustrate, a potato farm located in Ryanggang Province that yielded six months worth of crops last year has only managed to produce one month’s supply this season.

Multiple sources in Ryanggang Province reported that farmers and their entire families living in the northern part of the country have been entering the asbestos paper manufacturing business as a result.

Asbestos paper is commonly produced by affixing asbestos to a 30-by-15 cm rectangular sheet of greased paper with a rolling stick. This paper is widely known in China for its use in ‘floating lantern boats’ during major holidays and festivals.

The manufacture of asbestos paper was a job originally undertaken by Chinese prisoners. However, after exposure to asbestos was proven to be a serious health hazard, even prisoners in China have begun avoiding this type of work. As a result, the dangers of asbestos paper production have been outsourced to North Korea.

“Due to the tough harvest year, farmers have resorted to asbestos paper manufacturing as a means to make money. The source relayed an instance where a Chinese businessman was taken aback at the sharp increase in asbestos paper orders being filled, allegedly remarking, “I didn’t realize there were so many prisoners in North Korea,” one source in Ryanggang Province reported.

A separate source in the region added, “In the past, North Koreans would have just suffered through the winter and eaten what they had been given, but these days everyone is looking for ways to get more food for themselves.”

There are a considerable number of farms where workers are making asbestos paper instead of tending the fields. Reports are rising of landlords threatening tenants with taking away their share of the crop and prison time.

Asbestos has a wide variety of uses due to its tough, durable, and heat-resistant properties. However, the use of asbestos was outlawed in North Korea in 2015 due to its classification as a carcinogenic material and link with mesothelioma.

*Translated by Brian Boyle