This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
As another bitter winter grips North Korea, authorities are ensuring that its bullocks – working cows that pull plows and do other chores – are getting fed, even though it’s not doing the same for its citizens, sources in the country say.
Sources told RFA that caretakers are receiving plenty of feed for the bullocks on collective farms, while annual rations for farmers have been halved, owing to a poor harvest. The move seems to be aimed at boosting harvest production.
A source from South Pyongan province who declined to be named told Radio Free Asia that grain distribution for the winter at collective farms in Maengsan county ended in December. “This year’s distribution received by the farmers is only about half a year’s worth of food,” the source said.
“However, 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of corn kernel and corn stalks were supplied to the working cows of the cooperative farm,” he said. “As a result, farmers complained that cows were treated more favorably than people, and that cows are more important than people.”
Sources in North Korea say temperatures have dropped far below freezing in the country and, as food becomes more scarce, large numbers of people have gone missing, believed starved or frozen to death.
RFA received reports of homeless beggar children, known as kotebji, dying on the street, while even the employed have been deserting their homes to subsist on hunting and fishing in remote areas because they cannot afford to buy food.
Speaking on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, a farmer in the province confirmed to RFA that local cadres delivered year-end feed rations last week for “working cows” at the 22 cooperative farms in Kimjongsuk county.
“I work in Team No. 4 of Agricultural Group No. 1 in Wondong village, and our team has 5 cows,” said the farmer. “Each working cow is raised in a barn adjacent to the house of the cow’s manager. The cow manager receives the food for the working cow.”
Each cooperative farm in Kimjongsuk employs 300-400 farmers in four to six work groups. Each work group is divided into five to six teams, each of which raises three to six working cows, the farmer said. While the size of collective farms varies in the county, each raises around 100 cows.
The farmer told RFA that at the end of this year, cow managers were provided 100 kilograms, or 100 days’ worth, of grain in addition to the year-end grain all farmers receive for their daily labor.
A poor harvest this year saw regular farmers receive only half their grain, frustrating those who say the government prioritizes the nation’s cows over its people. “Due to the lack of harvest this year, farmers who went to work 365 days … only received 200 days worth of grain,” the farmer said.
North Korea stopped providing rations for cows at collective farms during the country’s economic crisis in the 1990s. The first source told RFA that, until this year, cow managers had been required to foot the bill for feed, in addition to medicine and shoes for hooves, forcing them to earn additional money as porters at train stations and in the marketplace.
“The fact that corn kernels and corn stalks were supplied as feed to working cows for the first time [since the 1990s] seems to be an attempt to increase food production by mobilizing all working cows for farming,” the source said. “But it remains to be seen whether working cows will increase grain production as a result.”
According to the “2022 North Korean Crop Production Estimate” recently announced by the Rural Development Administration, North Korea harvested 4.51 million tons of food this year, a decrease of 180,000 tons from 2021.