State orders farmers to supply more food to the military

North Korean farmers at the Chilgol Vegetable Farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Image: Yonhap News Agency

The North Korean authorities have ordered collective farms to supply all of the planned food quotas to the military following a failure by the government to secure the supplies via its regular procedures, according to sources inside North Korea.

The North Korean government and the nation’s farmers have long harbored issues over food supplies. The government’s aim is to increase the volume of rice that farmers sell while farmers try to retain as much food as they can. However, tensions had subsided until recently due to an overall increase in food production to around 5 million tons over the past four years.

Due to various factors, this year’s harvest has been lower than expected and food supplies for the military are consequently insufficient. This has led the authorities to mobilize government agencies like the Prosecutor’s’ Office to ensure that farmers are compelled to sell the required volume of produce to the government (at significantly below-market prices).

“Production fell due to floods and droughts last year, so government purchases of rice for the military didn’t happen on time. The authorities have turned to the state’s legal apparatus to force the farmers to fulfill the quotas they are required to sell to the government to make up for the shortfall,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on January 7.

“Farm managers argue that they cannot sell the government any more rice due to the various taxes and farming costs they have to pay along with preparing seed grains, but the Prosecutor’s Office is demanding that the government receives the reserve supplies of food produced by the farms.”

Farmers who have received plots of farmland are required to provide 70% of their production to the military, and are facing harsh difficulties due to the government’s demands.

“Local prosecutors in Pukchang, Sukchon, Yangdok County and other places are visiting farms and even the homes of farmers to search for grains that have been hoarded in secret,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province. “The prosecutors are telling farmers that if they are caught hiding grains, they’ll be tried in court and sent to correctional facilities.”

Prosecutors in the past have taken farm unit leaders to detention centers for up to 10 days for interrogation, only releasing them if they resolve to provide the government quotas. The situation has led some farms to resort to buying rice at market prices to give to the government.

During the harvest season, the North Korean authorities generally purchase around 30% of planned production from the farms at a rate of 120 KPW (market-set price: 5,200 KPW) per kilogram. However, the proportion that the government purchases from farms does not change depending on the actual level of production during a given year; the percentage is based on desired production rates determined at the start of the year. If the harvest is poor, the proportion that the government acquires from farms may reach 50% to 70% of the entire harvest.

In reality, the government cannot collect 100% of what it is demanded, given that such actions would lead farms to shut down and farmers to starve.

Food for the military makes up around 70-80% of the government’s purchases, with the remaining 20-30% placed in reserves for wartime, used for industrial production, or distributed to the population. Food for the military is purchased by the May 14 Military Unit, which is part of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces’ Support Bureau, the People’s Committee Military Supply Mobilization Department, and the Farm Management Committee’s Military Supply Mobilization Department. Some military units use trucks to collect the supplies themselves.

After farms sell their food to the government, they are responsible for paying electricity and water bills, costs for fertilizer and manure, and fuel for farming equipment and trucks. Farms also place seed grains for use in the following year’s harvest in reserve and distribute the remaining food to the farmers. Given all the costs and the need to distribute food among the farmers, most farm managers attempt to reduce the amount of food they are required to sell to the government by providing the lowest planned production rates that can be accepted by state officials.

Some farmers with their own farm plots have shut down their activities and moved to live with relatives in the cities to wait out the government’s demands for more food. These farmers are often unable to pay back their debts and are hounded by debt collectors, according to a source in South Hamgyong Province.

“The farmers have so little food themselves, and even scary-looking prosecutors can’t force the farmers to create food out of thin air,” she said. “All of the responsibility for the poor harvest is being unfairly thrown on the shoulders of the farmers.”

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