Every year throughout May and June, the North Korean authorities launch the nation’s so-called “rice planting battle.” During this period, citizens of all ages are required to put aside their normal work duties and school classes to work on farms under the hot sun. Today, we’re speaking with Daily NK reporter Choi Song Min to find out more about this grueling experience.
1. Farmers work hard in South Korea during rice-planting season as well, but they don’t call it a “battle.” How grueling is the task in North Korea?
The word “battle” conjures up images of soldiers going to war and risking their lives. In North Korea, residents are assigned to units and mobilized just like soldiers in an army. Every individual has a specific duty assigned to them. For 40 days in the spring and autumn, residents mobilize under the slogans “Go to the rice-planting battle!” and “Head to the rice harvest!”
2. The work would be considerably easier if there was suitable farming equipment available. What are the residents equipped with?
In North Korea, the only noteworthy machinery that can be seen on some farms are 28 horsepower tractors. They are sparsely deployed to collective farms around the Pyongyang region during the battle, but most places have no access to them. In many cases, residents use cows to pull equipment, and in extreme cases the people themselves are forced to pull the frames. Weeding is performed manually. Overall, the agricultural methods used on the collective farms are very primitive.
3. I understand that people from all walks of life – from factory workers, housewives, and students – are all forced to work on farms during the battle. But these people have other jobs that they normally attend to. How does it work?
The authorities call it a “battle” so that no one can avoid participating. The planting period lasts for 40 days and starts in the middle of May. The harvest period lasts for a similar duration, but starts in the middle of September.
During these two periods, students from middle school to university, factory laborers, and the majority of other citizens head to the collective farms. Even younger students and housewives have to report for duty on a daily basis at the farms. Students stop doing their schoolwork and most laborers except for a few personnel are sent to work on the farms as well, so factory production usually grinds to a halt.
4. Are the workers and students given any sort of compensation for their work?
They barely even know the meaning of the word “compensation.” After decades of mobilization for agricultural battles, people have come to consider them to be a fact of life. The inminban neighborhood watch leaders and the local office managers yell out in the mornings, “Anyone who wants to eat, come out now!” Some of the mobilized students and women bring lunch from home, but many survive on nothing but soybean paste stew and a few vegetables.
5. Do the cadres, the donju [nouveau riche], and their children participate in the mobilization? I’ve heard that many are able to bribe their way out of it.
During the planting season, the farm workers are notorious for bossily ordering around the mobilized students, and are referred to as farm leaders. The heads of the farms don’t put their own children to work, and will roam about the fields ordering around the students. There are even reports of farm managers sending their children to go and sell in the markets to earn money during the planting season. Cadres and donju are all well aware of the exploitation, and will sometimes opt to get their children out of manual labor by contributing money or farming tools.
6. Doesn’t this violate Kim Jong Un’s order to “mobilize the entire population?” Has anyone ever been punished for such an offense?
Only those without connections or enough bribery money get punished. Influential donju and cadres are able to get their kids out of labor with the right excuse and some cash. To this day, I haven’t heard of any such cases leading to punishment.
7. With so much grueling labor undertaken, are the results impressive?
The results of forced labor are clearly substandard. The residents who are mobilized do not work hard or with sincerity. And that’s why we see continually decreasing harvests on an annual basis. Kim Il Sung issued a directive that each person needs to produce a million tons of grain in their lifetime. But in reality, it has been difficult to accomplish even half of that. The forced laborers do not work like professional farmers. Furthermore, the farm managers falsify statistics about the harvest. As a result, it would be impossible to survive without external assistance.
8. It seems like the residents have a lot to complain about this time of year. What are their reactions to the planting battle?
All of the students have major complaints, but they can’t simply express their feelings publicly. They find cold comfort in the idea that farmers all over the world probably suffer under similar conditions. Mostly, they just try to endure it. Ever since the country’s formation, residents have been mobilized for farm work, so it’s been accepted as more or less normal. The system has changed, however, because in previous generations, residents received food distribution from the authorities. But now families are forced to acquire their own food. Understandably, this has made many upset. So the residents ask, “We know how this grain is being produced, but where is it going?” Sometimes, residents openly complain, “We do all this backbreaking labor and yet we don’t get any distribution in return.”
9. We’ve seen those sorts of complaints for quite some time. Why can’t the regime stop the planting battle?
For decades, the regime has neglected to take care of the people and committed itself to pursuing nuclear weapons and missile development. Clearly, economic development matters less to the regime than its own survival. This is especially relevant this time of year because the regime invests so little in the country’s agricultural sector. Because of this, there is little incentive to end forced labor mobilizations.