Earlier this month, Daily NK reported that the North Korean regime announced its intentions to reclaim small private plots being used for farming in mountain areas, prompting an outcry from residents. Today we will take a closer look at the recent developments and their implications with Daily NK Reporter Lee Sang Yong. Mr Lee, can you tell us why the North Korean authorities made the decision?
The stated aim of the measure is to recover farmland that has been cultivated in a disorderly manner for reforestation efforts. The official announcement included an emphasis by Kim Jong Un on the nation’s forests. There were even unusual criticisms made toward his late father Kim Jong Il, stating that the country’s forest resources were greatly reduced during the period of the arduous march.
Food conditions in North Korea have improved somewhat due to the development of marketization, and the regime seems to have assumed that residents would not be particularly averse to the reclamation of their private plots.
Is this the first time that the regime has sought to reclaim private plots cultivated by residents?
The North Korean authorities have repeatedly attempted to reclaim these dispersed farmlands, but has failed each time due to strong opposition from the residents. The regime has previously portrayed the situation as an example of Kim Jong Un’s affection for the people. Low-ranking officials have no choice but to follow orders and begin reclaiming the individual plots. As progress becomes more difficult due to increasing resistance from the population, the authorities discreetly withdraw the orders, and announce that the Marshal (Kim Jong Un) has magnanimously decided to return the farmlands to the people. So it’s really the officials who take all the blame.
The private plots are allegedly being reclaimed due to rampant deforestation throughout the country. Can you tell us more about North Korea’s forests?
In the past, more than 80% of North Korea was forest. But the proportion has decreased by more than 30%. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that every year, 112,000 hectares of forests disappear in North Korea, an area equal to the size of Pyongyang.
What’s interesting is that Kim Jong Un was named as an author of a paper entitled, “Let’s fight for forest rehabilitation through the combined efforts of the party, the army, and the entire population to generate rich forests across the country” in 2015. But the measures taken to achieve the goal are out of step with the reality of life for North Korea’s residents.
What kind of measures have been taken?
First of all, North Korea restricts logging for individual heating purposes. In some regions, forestry guards patrol at nighttime to arrest those trying to cut down trees in secret.
The regime has not offered any alternatives for people to heat their homes, thus making the measure impractical. No matter how many trees the authorities plant in the spring and summer, they are repeatedly cut down for firewood in winter.
So it will be necessary to address the core issues before residents are likely to protect the forests.
Yes. That’s why the residents condescendingly refer to Kim Jong Un’s plan to rejuvenate the forests as a “tree frog project” (colloquial expression for a self-contradictory plan). People say that if the regime does not address the issue of fuel shortages first, they have no choice but to chop wood for heating.
In addition, most people think that it is impossible to rejuvenate the forests unless the general economic situation improves. With food and firewood shortages showing no signs of abating, the regime will not be able to stop people from cultivating private plots or logging the trees.
The North Korean authorities are carrying out large-scale forest restoration projects, including tree planting projects, as well as the reclamation of eroded fields. Have there been any positive outcomes?
The North Korean authorities dispatch residents and students to plant trees under a contract work system implemented on Tree Planting Day (similar to South Korea’s Arbor Day). Usually, students are given 100 seedlings each and adults are tasked with planting 200 tree seedlings on the day.
A group of ten students needs to plant 1000 tree seedlings in a day, but as it is difficult for children to dig properly and plant trees, they often just bury all the saplings in one place.
Also, the tree planting efforts usually take place in mountain areas that have already been converted into farmlands by the residents, so the saplings planted on the slopes of the hills usually dry out before they can fully take root. The few seedlings that survive are then pulled out or cut down by the residents who farm the land, because they reduce the grain harvest.
So it seems that these tree-planting efforts are doomed to fail, but Kim Jong Un remains focused on tallying up his ‘achievements.’
Tree-planting will be a waste of time so long as the core issues of inadequate provision of food and firewood persist. With such a chronic lack of heating sources, it will be impossible for any planted trees to survive more than 3 or 4 years.
The mountains are becoming increasingly barren as the residents move higher up in the mountains to grow enough food to survive. But the North Korean authorities should focus less on covering the mountains with propaganda extolling the leadership and more on addressing the problems of food shortages and deforestation.