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North Korea tries to secretly get South Korean rice seeds using traders in China

Rice Fields on the outskirts of the city of Namwon, South Korea. (Shamus7792003/Wikimedia Commons)
April 21, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean authorities are trying to procure higher-yield South Korean rice seeds to cope with chronic food shortages. But instead of simply asking Seoul for the seeds, which are not subject to economic sanctions, Pyongyang’s trade representatives are attempting to bring them in via China, posing difficulties with Chinese customs inspections, sources say.

“I was asked by a North Korean trade worker in China to get South Korean rice seeds, but there’s no easy way to bring seeds from Korea into China, so I am not sure what to do,” said a source in a Chinese border city.

The source said relatives living in South Korea have already procured 30 kilograms of the seeds and are ready to ship them.

“But I have to go through a very complicated process to bring the seeds here, so I am hesitant about the whole thing,” said the source, adding, “Plant seeds, especially those for agricultural products have a meticulous customs inspection that takes forever to get through.”

Other products from South Korea can be brought into China with relative ease, according to the source.

“Merchants who do the China-South Korea run by ferry can usually bring whatever they want into China but most of them avoid anything having to do with farming, because clearing customs is so difficult,” said the source.

In recent years, farming conglomerates worldwide have vigorously defended their intellectual property rights for engineered seeds. Seoul, however, doesn’t mind if merchants take the rice seeds out of the country.

“It isn’t too difficult to pass South Korean customs, but [merchants] have to report the seeds to Chinese maritime customs. Then they have to pay high tariffs and go through a strict quarantine,” the source said.

“If they try to smuggle them (into China) to avoid the hassle, they face [the possibility of] heavy fines and criminal punishment,” said the source.

“I am pretty certain that North Korean authorities are ordering their trade workers in China to find South Korean seeds. They aren’t really asking for a lot of them. I think they will conduct experiments on the seeds to see if they are suitable for North Korea’s soil and weather,” said the source.

A second source, from a Chinese border city, noted that North Korea was able to bring beech seeds from Ulleung-do, a South Korean island east of the Korean peninsula, but wondered why Pyongyang is trying to get Southern rice seeds in such a roundabout way.

“They can have these kinds of plant seeds easily if they just ask the South Korean government, especially now that North and South Korea are trying to be friendly with each other,” the source said, adding, “It is hard to understand why they are being so secretive.”

The source pointed out that Pyongyang was able to get the seeds directly from the South in the past.

“During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, South Korea sent rice seeds to the North several times as part of an inter-Korean exchange project. North Korean [farmers] harvested a surprisingly large amount of rice, so the seeds received favorable reviews from Northern agriculture officials,” the source said. The exchanges were conducted by South Korean civic group.

But there are now questions about why the seeds didn’t get distributed nationwide and why it ended as a one-time project,” said the source.

The source suggested that international sanctions aimed at deterring Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions might be the reason for all the secrecy. But Seoul says the seeds are not covered by the sanctions.

“North Korea may have felt it difficult to just ask South Korea for the seeds and chose this method instead,” said the source.

But regardless of how they get the seeds, the source thinks they will be of little help in improving yields.

“North Korean authorities should know that their rice seeds are not the reason their crop yields are so low. It is their old-fashioned socialist agriculture system that causes food shortages. It’s really hard to guess what they have in mind,” said the source.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification told RFA last week that shipments of seeds to North Korea would not be subject to sanctions.

“The South Korean government has not provided seeds to North Korea in the past, and has no plans to send seeds in the future,” said the ministry’s spokesman’s office.

“But if civic organizations say they want to send seeds, the government might review the details of [this type] of shipment,” the office continued.

According to the ministry, all items sent to the North, including seeds, must first be given ministry approval.

The ministry confers with the South Korean Customs Service, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Ministry of Justice during the approval process. Staff from the latter three ministries will then check the approved items again in a transit office between North and South Korea before they are allowed to go North.

A South Korean expert on North Korean agriculture told RFA that seeds aren’t sent as aid by the South Korean government.

“South and North Korea had a very active relationship during Roh Moo Hyun’s presidency. At that time North Korea requested seeds from the South Korean government, but it was always the South Korean civic organizations that filled those requests,” said Kwon Taejin, head of the North Korea and Northeast Asia Research Center at the GS&J Institute in South Korea.

One such group, the International Corn Foundation, said they shipped corn seeds multiple times to North Korea, but almost never through China, due to the difficulty.

Reported by Joonho Kim and Jae Wan Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.