This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Competition for human feces has once again become cutthroat in North Korea, with mass public brawls breaking out as citizens begin the annual ritual of trying to fill unrealistic quotas to make fertilizer for the farming season.
In impoverished North Korea, farmland is fertilized using human waste, and the government tasks every household with yearly collection quotas.
RFA reported in January 2019 that households were struggling to meet an impossible quota amounting to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) per able-bodied citizen per day.
One source at that time told RFA the quota was intentionally unreasonable because the true purpose of the quota was to force the citizens to pay fines and bribes for failure to meet targets.
The quota is slightly more reasonable in 2022, as each citizen has until March to collect 300 kilograms of manure—human waste mixed with soil—per person, but the quota still means people must dip into their reserves, or find deposits elsewhere.
Those who don’t want to pay fines are fighting over night soil at public toilets and stealing it from each other. But individual fisticuffs are now giving way to group conflicts.
In the northeastern city of Chongjin, whole neighborhoods are mobilizing against each other, a resident who requested anonymity for security reasons told RFA’s Korean Service.
“On the 25th, several residents from Marum village in Sunam district had a dispute with the people of nearby Sinhyang village as the Marumers were trying to collect human feces from a communal toilet located within Sinhyang,” the source said.
“After the authorities imposed their orders for every citizen to produce manure, conflicts are erupting… as the people venture into other districts,” he said.
The order to produce manure went out to every institution, company, school, and neighborhood watch unit according to the source.
“Both adults and children are participating in the ‘Battle for Manure Production,’” the source said. North Korea often stylizes public projects and campaigns as “battles” in the socialist revolution.
“It’s so pathetic that disputes break out over this, but they do this every year at about this time of year. Each family in the neighborhood has been organized into shifts to guard the communal toilet to keep the supply of human waste secure. Residents lament that they have to stand guard at a public toilet at night, then go to work the next day,” he said.
The source said each resident must deliver the 300 kilograms of manure by early March at the latest to a cooperative farm to use as fertilizer.
“The manure assignment is also put on the schools. Even though they are on winter break… students must come to school and pull carts loaded with human feces and soil… People are complaining that authorities had no problems closing school due to fears over COVID-19, but they can mobilize students to collect manure,” said the source.
Elementary school students and seniors who have retired are exempt, according to the source.
Some regions of the country have more sources of human waste than others, a resident of North Pyongan province in the northwest told RFA.
“Residents are having significant difficulty in securing manure here in North Pyongan province, which is located on the plains and has less than other areas,” the second source said.
“Because the residents are having a significant difficulty in securing manure, they are scooping up the residue at the bottom of a sewage treatment plant in the city… causing conflicts with the community sewage management organizations,” he said.
Manure is human feces mixed with ash from firewood, and humus soil made from rotten leaves in a specific ratio, the second source explained.
“It is common for residents to bribe the cooperative farm officials to accept low-quality manure with a higher percentage of soil and ashes,” he said.
Fights over human waste are a sight burned into the memory of a former cooperative farm official who fled North Korean in 2014 and now lives in South Korea.
“When the new year begins, everyone in North Korea must make manure and bring it to a nearby cooperative farm using buckets and handcarts. When you deliver it, you must move as a group. After the manure is given to the official, you will receive a confirmation receipt, which you must submit to the unit manager to complete the assignment,” said the escapee, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“The problem is that North Korea suffers from chronic food shortages, so it is difficult for each family to reach the manure quota,” he said. “Before I left North Korea, there were frequent fights between villages and their residents at the beginning of January each year.”