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North Korea sends farmers to labor camps for hiding corn amid food shortages

North Korean farm (Attribution to (Stephan) at Flickr/WikiCommons)
October 25, 2021

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

Authorities in North Korea have sentenced five farmers to disciplinary labor for hiding corn meant for redistribution to state supplies, sources in the country told RFA.

With an expected meager autumn harvest looming, farmers are nervous about the annual grain redistribution this year. The government takes 60 percent of the harvest from every farmer, leaving them with the remaining 40 percent.

In most years, their share is not enough to live on, but with yields about 20 percent smaller than expected in some areas, this year could be worse. For this reason, many farmers are looking to cheat the system, a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service.

“A few days ago, five farmers were caught hiding corn during an unexpected inspection. Each of them was sentenced to five months in a disciplinary labor center,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“Since each farm receives distribution based on yield, the amount of distribution for farmers will inevitably be reduced,” said the source.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization predicted in June that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, or about two months’ supply.

The smaller yield this year could mean that farmers will only get five- or six-months’ of food for next year, a source in the agricultural industry in the country’s northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA.

“Since the beginning of October, farms nationwide have been estimating how much of the harvest the farmers are going to get. They expect their distribution will be smaller than usual, and they are worried about how they will live next year with very little food,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“The farmers’ livelihood is intimately tied to the redistribution, because they are working on the farm all year,” said the second source.

In North Korea’s nascent market economy, most people have secondary jobs because a government salary is not enough to live on. Farmers, however, do not have the time to work anywhere else, so they live or die by the harvest.

Plans by the government to take more of the crop this year could potentially leave the farmers with only two months’ worth of food, while soldiers and other grain recipients will get their full distribution.

“Grain silos and outdoor warehouses are already empty… so the situation is frustrating, it’s eating them inside,” said the second source.

The coronavirus pandemic has had profound negative effects on the agriculture industry and the food situation in North Korea, according to the second source.

When Beijing and Pyongyang closed off the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade at the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020, North Korea was left to its own devices to produce enough food, without Chinese imports to cover shortfalls and with no access to imported fertilizer or farming equipment.

The shortage of farming materials increased prices and farmers went into debt, agreeing to pay back their creditors with food from the fall harvest, the second source said.

“This is going to reduce the redistribution to the farmers even more. They worked hard all year to produce as much grain as possible, but what they are going to get back this fall is going to be a trivial amount, so they are beyond frustrated.”

The food situation in North Korea is dire.

UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report in March that the closure of the border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.”

“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” said the report.

RFA reported in April that authorities were warning residents to prepare for economic difficulties as bad as the 1994-1998 famine which killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.