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North Korean officials order residents to battle against drought

[As Heard in North Korea]
Seol Song Ah  |  2017-07-06 14:22

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting North Korean citizens.

Unification Media Group (UMG): The North Korean authorities are appealing to residents to join the battle against drought, and ordering farmers to build pumping stations and waterways on their own. Reporter Seol Song Ah will report on how the directors of state-run farms are acquiring construction materials and how ordinary farmers are coping with the situation.

Seol Song Ah (Seol): The farms in North Korea are suffering from drought. The situation is serious because farm reservoirs have dried up and farmers have been unable to draw water to the rice fields, let alone to the corn fields. The North Korean authorities are forcing residents to build pumping stations without support, claiming that the battle against drought is a defensive battle for socialism, and not just a means to secure water. The state-run farms have no choice but to try and solve the water problem without support from the state budget or the provision of construction materials. Let's find out more by hearing about Pyongwon County farm in South Pyongan Province.

UMG: Last week, you reported on the situation in Mundok County. Can you explain why you are reporting on the agricultural conditions in Pyongwon County this week?

Seol: The granary zones in North Korea are concentrated in the Jaeryong Plains in South Hwanghae Province and Mundok, Sukchon, and Pyongwon of South Pyongan Province. Mundok, Sukchon, and Pyongwon are adjacent to each other. Wonhwa Collective Farm (Pyongwon County) has been held up as a sort of model farm as Kim Il Sung inspected the site in person. Therefore, it is important for the farms in Pyongwon to increase their yield, as they are the focus of scrutiny.

Also, they have to reduce the damage from drought at all costs because food shortages can cause instability. The cadres in charge of state-run farms are desperate to increase crop yield as it can influence regime security.

UMG: It seems that the attention of Kim Jong Un is causing difficulty for the farms. How are the state-run farms coping with the drought?

Seol: On June 27, the Rodong Sinmun (North Koreas state-run publication) announced that Pyongwon County has built a large pumping station without central government support, claiming it as a miracle that has occurred in the spirit of self-reliance and self-development. It means that the local authorities built the station with a local budget. The question is, where did the local government acquire the funds? To build a pumping station, tons of steel plates are needed, and installing a new pumping machine and electric motor also costs a lot of money. 

Of course, such a large amount of money could not have been paid for by the cadres. This is where the market plays its role. The local government seems to have collaborated with the local donju merchants (newly-affluent middle class) to purchase the pumping machines on credit. The military cadres in charge of monitoring such activities are showing leniency toward such practices. Water is provided to the farms that contribute bribe money and they are given leniency on such illegal deals. 

This phenomenon takes place every year. In the springtime, the farm directors buy fuel and equipment on credit every year. They repay the money during the harvest season with rice for double or sometimes triple the amount of value that they borrowed.

UMG: So the farm cadres are using the drought battle as an opportunity to earn money for themselves.

Yes. I  met several North Korean defectors from Pyongwon County and asked them for more details. The more the authorities appeal for the residents to take action against the drought, the more the farm managers make bigger deals with the merchants. To produce the steel plates needed for construction of the pumping station, iron must first be acquired. Fortunately, Pyongwon County is relatively close to Pyongsong City, which is located 25 km away, making it easier to acquire. The thing is, to make the transaction fast and smooth, the farm cadres must make the deal themselves, which gives them the opportunity to request bribes.

It is also a good opportunity for them to receive secret payments. According to a defector who escaped from Sukchon County in 2014, a chairman of the Union of Agricultural Working People [UAWP] issues orders for tax collection, and then the technical instructor of the working teams takes the additional position of the primary level chairman of the UAWP who can collect the taxes personally. The executives are quick to order those who cannot afford to pay the tax on time to pay later in the autumn in the form of a deduction from their crop harvest.

UMG: It gives me the impression that the executives are above the central authorities in extorting money. During the last broadcast, you described the so-called field management system (pojon) of the residents. Can residents within the system avoid the tax burden?

Seol: Pojon is applied differently depending on the region and specific farm in question. In the case of Pyongwon County, it is said that the system was launched but fizzled out in 2015. A source in North Pyongan Province told me a few days ago that its no longer in force there either.

It is said that there were lots of negative effects when the working team system was implemented as an experiment on some farms. In Pyongwon County, there was reportedly a farmer who stole grains from the farm because he was angry when he saw the authorities taking most of the crops in the autumn. He made a scene on the threshing floor, saying, "Its not stealing, because I grew the crops myself."

UMG: So the authorities are imposing various taxes on the residents while prohibiting them from selling privately grown crops. The farmers belonging to the Pyongwon County farm must be finding it tough.

Seol: In fact, farmers belonging to the Wonhwa Collective Farm are in a worse situation compared to those in Mundeok and Pyongwon Counties because they are living in an apartment built for farm residents, which means that they dont have enough private land to grow crops effectively, with only 30 pyeong (1 pyeong is approximately 3.3m2).

So the farmers of Pyongwon County set out on a business trip to sell salt in Eunsan County, North Pyongan Province. "The farmers in Pyongwon, Sukchon, and Mundok Counties have no food after the rice-planting, so they receive salt from the Namyang saltern (in Sukchon County) and walk hundreds of miles to exchange the salt for potatoes. The bartering ratio for salt and potato is 3 to 1," a source in North Pyongan Province said.

UMG: It is regrettable that the farmers belonging to the state-run farms have to walk hundreds of miles and sell salt to get food.

Seol: While I was gathering news, I was upset when I heard the story of a mother and her son. She was a farmer in Pyongwon County who visited the farms near Pyongsong City to sell rice straw with her 13-year-old son. And people say that they were wearing a pair of shoes without soles.

I felt sorry to hear that the child was so small due to malnutrition that he looked barely ten years old. Fortunately, Pyongsong citizens bought the rice straw from her and provided a meal and shoes to her and her son, and their generosity made her cry.

The farmers in Mundok, Sukchon, and Pyongwon Counties collect the rice straw and sell it in April and May to nearby farms. It is said that 10 kg of rice straw can be exchanged for 1.5 kg of sweet potatoes. Now, the rice straw business has also come to an end, so the Pyongwon County farmers are reportedly collecting shellfish in the nearby Yellow Sea.

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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