A satellite image of an unidentified yellow substance in an empty space near the Yongbyon Nuclear Center. / Image: 38 North (Mar. 12, 2021)

The US-based website 38 North reported on Mar. 12 that it had discovered an “unidentified yellow substance” at Yongbyon Nuclear Center in a satellite photo taken Mar. 10 (see photo to the right). The unidentified substance was spread out in a line in an empty space between buildings of Yongbyon’s uranium enrichment facility, with people apparently working on it. “During harvest time, grain is laid out to dry in the sun, but this is March — an unlikely time to dry grain,” wrote 38 North. “Therefore, the nature of this substance and activity remains unclear.”

In another article posted on June 7, 2013, 38 North mentioned a yellow substance — apparently grain drying in the sun — laid out along a road in Yongbyon. The site said the substance appeared to be drying corn. Analysts at 38 North seemed a bit bewildered, however. Noting that the satellite photo was taken in April, they pointed out that corn is usually harvested and dried in autumn, not spring.

In other 38 North posts on Mar. 29 and May 16 of 2013 as well, analysts observed an unidentified grain drying at Yongbyon Nuclear Center in spring, a phenomenon they found mystifying.

38 North detected drying grain in satellite photos taken on Sept. 9, Sept. 21 and Nov. 1 of 2012, too. The site’s analysts said it appeared to be corn harvested in autumn. Back in the 2013 article, they admitted it was strange to dry corn in spring rather than the autumn harvest season. “[T]he mid-September typhoon may have set back the effort and the North might have had to store the grain over the long cold winter,” they posited. “Good weather in late April and May could have been their first chance to dry it.”

Based on my rural background and my imperfect knowledge of the subject, I thought it was barley that was laid out on the street to dry in spring. I researched the matter further based on general agricultural information scoured from the Internet and inquiries to acquaintances with farming knowledge and experience. This is what I found.

Barley and wheat are usually harvested from fields and dried in the sun in spring, while corn is harvested and dried in autumn. Here are the specifics:

  • Drying grain in the sun is to remove moisture; that is to say, to dry it in order to prevent rot and store it for a long period.
  • Corn is a summer crop harvested from Autumn to September. If you just leave it without drying it, it rots, making it hard to store for a long time.
  • On the other hand, wheat and barley are winter crops that you sow in autumn and harvest the following spring. This is called winter wheat or winter barley. Meanwhile, in warmer regions, wheat and barley are sown in early spring and harvested in late spring or early summer. This is called spring wheat or spring barley.

Taking all of this into consideration, I conclude that the grain harvested and left out to dry in Yongbyon in spring is wheat or barley, not corn. However, it is also true that when seen in a color satellite photograph, it is difficult to differentiate barley from corn due to their similar light yellow or light orange color.

Putting all this information together, I sent an email to 38 North. I presented my opinion that the unidentified yellow substance the website had discovered at Yongbyon was drying barley in spring and drying corn in autumn. I also sent some material I found on the Internet.

Farmers in Gwangyang, South Cholla Province, laying barley out to dry.  / Image: Yonhap (June, 2, 2004)

In its response sent several days later, 38 North asked, “If so, could it also be that they took out corn harvested in autumn the previous year after winter passed to dry it [because they couldn’t get enough sunlight the previous autumn] due to weather conditions?” They also asked if Yongbyon had a separate place for farming, and if so, where it was. To the first question, I responded that it is hard to store wet corn for a long time since it goes bad. To the second question, I responded that though I did not know if there was a separate space for farming in Yongbyon, I believed they were using empty land within the facility on their own accord. I wrote, “Since food rations aren’t being properly distributed and things are tough, I think — as a last resort — they are farming for self-sufficiency and self-reliance.” 38 North sent a follow-up email thanking me for addressing their questions, bringing to an end this brief agricultural Q&A session conducted by email between South Korea and the United States.

In South Korea, too, when it is spring or early summer, farmers lay out barley to dry in empty spaces in front of their homes or along roads on sunny days.

Accordingly, we should conclude that the drying grain laid out in yellow lines along the road in Yongbyon Nuclear Center is barley in spring and corn in autumn (see photo below).

We must now wait and see what the analysts of 38 North write in their reports when they see yellow substances drying on roads or on roofs. At the same time, I worry that perhaps my opinion contained errors.

To the left, a satellite image of barley being dried in the spring on a road near a 5MWe reactor in the Yongbyon Nuclear Center. To the right, corn being dried in the same place in the autumn. / Image: Google Earth

In the past, Koreans considered barley a typical “hunger relief” food. When the food situation was hard, things would bottom out in spring, and until the rice and corn harvest in autumn, people barely overcame their hunger during that long period by planting and harvesting barley. People soothed their hungry stomachs by harvesting barley in spring and summer; the period until the barley was reaped was called the “barley hump.” Potatoes were also a typical hunger relief food that were usually planted in early spring and harvested in summer.

Meanwhile, unlike South Korea, where rice is the staple, corn and potatoes are staples in North Korea. It is not easy to farm rice in North Korea, where there are many mountains, farmland is limited, and the climate is unfavorable for rice cultivation. Accordingly, rice is rare enough it is reportedly considered “precious.”

In the end, considering how North Korea still suffers from a poor food situation, I hope that with good weather this spring, North Korea has a bumper crop of barley and potatoes and North Koreans can avoid at least a little bit of hunger even amid continuous UN sanctions and the era of COVID-19.

Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Bruce Songhak Chung is a former researcher at South Korea's National Institute of Forest Science.