A rural woman pulling a cow. Peasants are treated poorly as they are considered the lowest class in North Korea. Taken in a rural area on the outskirts of Pyongyang in October 2008. Chang Jong-gil (ASIAPRESS)


Starting in April North Korea faces a major problem as the number of “food-insecure households,” or families that have almost run out of cash and food, has increased in various parts of the country. In urban areas, the authorities are distributing small amounts of corn to the poorest people, but in rural areas it has been found that farms are being put in charge of relief efforts, essentially meaning that there appear to be no relief efforts by the government for starving people.. (Kang Ji-won / ISHIMARU Jiro)

North Korea is currently in the midst of an annual period where food is in short supply, a time before the fall harvest called the “barley hump,” or poritgogae. This period marks the start of the "spring plight," when the harvest from the previous autumn is consumed and food reserves are all eaten up, forcing people to endure until corn and rice are again harvested from the end of August to October.

◆The urban poor are starving

In April, ASIAPRESS received heartbreaking reports from its collaborators in various regions of North Korea

At the Musan Mine in Musan County, North Hamkyung Province – the largest company in the county – there is an increasing number of households that lack the ability to eat on a daily basis.

"Workers only get 5-7 days' worth of corn a month. It is said that the mine will manage and support “food-insecure households”, but no special measures have been put in place,” a local collaborator told. He further noted that there are many workers who are hungry and cannot go to work.

ASIAPRESS received another report from a collaborator in Hyesan city, Ryanggang Province.

“Starting two years ago, the People's Committee (the local government) has occasionally provided corn only to “food-insecure households” that would starve to death if left untouched. In addition, 30 kg of corn was supplied to each inminban (people's unit) on the Day of the Sun (Kim Il-sung's birthday on April 15th) and distributed to poor households.

In the area in which I live, four households were given 7 kilograms each. However, there are complaints as to why it is only given to the “food-insecure households.” They say it's strange to give only to households that have no one to take care of, even though households such as ones with sick people or who have been scammed or thieved, are suffering as well.”

Ordinary residents and workers in urban areas are starving because of North Korea’s economic downturn. People part of the country’s disadvantaged class who have suffered reductions in their cash income can no longer buy food in local markets.

A rural woman walking beside a field with a large back sac. Taken in mid-July 2021 ASIAPRESS

◆Why are farmers - the producers of the country - starving?

Currently, the people who are facing the most difficulty are North Korea’s food producers – the country’s farmers.

Over the past several years, ASIAPRESS has conducted field surveys of a collective farm in North Hamkyung Province. The farm will be referred to here as “Farm A.” The farm boasts about 500 farmers who mainly grow corn. Among farms in North Hamgyong Province, it is somewhat small in size.

At the collective farm, there are work groups that handle each type of crop, such as rice, corn, and vegetables, and under the work groups there are the subgroups that plant and harvest the crops. The subgroups currently consist of about 10-12 people.

Farm A’s crop yield decreased last year due to the lack of fertilizer. About 250 kg of corn was supposed to be distributed to each member of the subgroups, but only about 150-170 kg was distributed. Households that had consumed all the food they received began to appear as early as March.

Farm managers instructed each subgroup to investigate the extent of the lack of food and provide food to those that needed it. In past years, subgroups have survived these types of difficulties by stockpiling grains for the spring plight and prioritizing the distribution of this food to poor households during the fall harvest.

◆ The number of people living with one meal or less per day is increasing

However, this year, the government didn’t allow the farm to stockpile grain for its reserves. As a result, the grain was added to the production of crops handed over to the state, leaving no reserves at all. Therefore, in mid-March, each subgroup at the farm decided to collect 1.5 kg of corn per farmer and distribute this corn to food-insecure households.

In mid-April, when an ASIAPRESS collaborator revisited Farm A, the situation was even worse than before. The collaborator explained:

“In every subgroup, at least three of the (subgroup) members can only eat less than one meal a day. It's hard for people who are new to farms and are not used to life in rural areas or who are sick. It has become worse than it was in March.”

At the cooperative farms, "labor man-hours" are calculated based on the number of working days and the weight of work, and the distribution amount increases or decreases according to it. However, most households with fewer points due to illness, injury, and accidents eat up all the food that is distributed early.

Map of North Korea ( ASIAPRESS)

◆ The government’s intensifying controls deliver a death blow

In addition, the three controls strongly promoted by the Kim Jong-un administration are adding to the challenge faced by food-insecure households.

The first measure implemented by the government has been to thoroughly prevent grains from leaving farming areas. Starting in the past, the government - wary of losing food that should be given to the state – has been preventing grains from leaving farm areas by setting up checkpoints on roads heading from farm areas to cities until officials collect the quotas of crops for the military and the state.

This checkpoint system is now in place all the time, meaning that armed guards are stationed around the farm warehouses to monitor theft and the siphoning off of grains. As a result, farmers can no longer sell their own cache of grains to merchants in urban areas while urban sellers are no longer able to come and buy grain in rural areas. In short, farmers have lost their way to earn cash.

Secondly, the government has prohibited the cultivation of hill and mountain slopes and other non-agricultural land, collectively known as “sotoji.” The Kim Jong-un administration is cracking down on farmers' cultivation of mountain slopes in the name of forest protection. Those who violate this rule are subject to having their crops taken away without mercy.

The third measure implemented by the government is the prohibition on "selling on credit." Many rich people in urban areas and farm managers had been lending grain, cash, and daily necessities at high interest rates to farmers who couldn't eat during the "barley hump” period on the condition that the farmers would pay the lenders back after the fall harvest. In North Korean parlance, money or goods lent out this way are called “tegeori” or “yijadon.”

This business is terrible because it takes advantage of poor farmers; however, but for hungry farmers, the lending makes it possible for them to overcome hunger for the time being. Starting two years ago, “selling on credit” has been a focus of government crackdowns as a “non-socialist act.” The authorities say that such bad behavior was created by the “exploiter class” in the past.

"They have taken the forceful approach of writing-off past debt, , so no one 'sells on credit' to hungry farmers anymore," says the collaborator.

◆ Prospects for North Korea’s future grain production

Farm A, having exhausted all possible ways to improve the situation, finally sent a petition to the central government in April asking for food supplies from the state. However, the government has taken absolutely no measures to supply food as of mid-April.

The collaborator who provided the information for this article concluded his report as follows:

"Currently, Farm A still possesses about 20% of the harvested grain that must be handed over to the state. Farmers are hoping that the state will return the grain to the poor.

Farmers themselves are starving, and agricultural machinery such as tractors, fertilizers, fuel are prioritized for the country’s grainbasket of (North and South ) Hwanghae provinces. As a result, many areas of the country will face difficulties in agricultural production this year.”

* ASIAPRESS sends Chinese phones into North Korea to stay in touch with its collaborators.