North Korea has ordered its farmers to begin planting crops, but many farms in the country have yet to be plowed due to a severe lack of adequate farming machinery, sources told RFA.
During January’s Eighth Party Congress, the central government said that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, North Korea had been too reliant on China for covering its food shortages, and that too much of its economy was dependent on cross-border trade.
When Beijing and Pyongyang closed their border and suspended all trade in January 2020, the North Korean economy came to a near halt. International organizations warned that the country of 23 million people could suffer a severe food crisis.
The central government set lofty goals for agricultural production during the congress, preaching that the country should depend on its founding Juche philosophy of self-reliance to get through its economic difficulties.
But most collective farms do not have enough tractors to finish plowing in time for the optimal sowing period. The Soviet-made tractors they have were built in the 1970s—they require too much fuel and break often due to a lack of available replacement parts.
Farmers are hoping that they will be able to fulfill their quotas after hearing rumors that China would provide modern cultivator machines that are more efficient, but until then they must either wait their turn on the old tractors or try to plow with animal power, another problem since North Korean oxen are underfed and too frail to work.
An agricultural official in the northeastern North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service on April 21 that the rural operations committee of the province told the farms to increase their efforts.
“They said the future of the country depends on farming. They continue to demand that farming preparations be made on time to carry out the decision of the Eighth Party Congress,” said the source.
“Some of the farms in Chongjin’s Chongam district are not expected to be able to finish sowing because they have not finished plowing yet. The biggest reason they failed to reach their plowing goals is because the farm-owned cattle are too lean and not strong enough because they aren’t eating enough,” said the source.
The source said that the people are aware that farms in other countries have the benefit of modern technology like fertilizers spread by machines and pesticides sprayed by helicopter.
“The farmers who know this are releasing a collective sigh. Some farm workers complain about their lives. They say that if these stories of other countries are true, they wonder why North Korea has not caught up with the 21st century,” said the source.
“The Central Party is pushing them every day to finish plowing in time for the scheduled sowing period, but the farm officials are in a situation where they can’t just rush the farm workers. The tractors owned by the farms are so old that they are useless. Even if they are operable, they are so old, so they are still unusable because they guzzle fuel. Meanwhile the cattle do not have enough energy to work, and it is impossible to plow the fields on manpower,” said the source.
The source said that one of the local farms is using a tractor manufactured in the Soviet Union, North Korea’s historic patron, in the 1970s.
“It’s literally rusting away. Meanwhile more than half of all the tractors are broken. Due to a lack of parts and their poor fuel economy, they are never repaired and are left in storage like they are junk,” said the source.
“The authorities are aware of the serious situation on the cooperative farms, so they are trying to bring in agricultural machinery from China. Farming machines from China are these small multi-purpose cultivator tractors, so the farmers hope to get their hands on them soon,” the source said.
Another source, from North Hamgyong’s Kyongsong county, told RFA that plowing there hadn’t started in some places.
“More than half of the fields have yet to be plowed, so some farms will miss the right time to sow, though others are nearly ready to sow. The farmers are at a loss,” the second source said.
“They failed to finish plowing because the tractors are inoperable because they are so old and break down frequently. They are just piles of scrap metal. The one or two tractors that work can’t be used because they guzzle too much diesel fuel,” said the second source.
News of farm assistance from China in the form of pesticides and plastic film was welcome to the ears of many of the farmers according to the second source.
“But they still hope to get machinery so they can complete the plowing on time,” the second source said.
“The small cultivator machine that China will provide takes about a quarter of the fuel compared to our large tractor, and it performs well with a variety of different functions. I hope that the news about the Chinese machinery is more than just a rumor,” said the second source.
The local farm management committee is pushing unrealistic grain production quotas set by the central committee, according to the second source.
“But how can farms that have not yet even finished plowing achieve such lofty goals? Everyone is putting their hopes on these small Chinese cultivators,” said the second source.
A third source, from northern Ryanggang province, told RFA April 23 that one of the farms there is equipped with newer farming equipment thanks to a visit 18 years ago by then leader Kim Jong Il.
“The Highest Dignity visited in 2003, so the Sindok cooperative farm was designated as a ‘guidance farm.’ They have various modern farming machines, including the North Korean-made Chollima tractor, several Belarusian and Russian tractors, harvesting machines for wheat, barley and soybeans, and of course the old tractors from the ‘70s,” the third source said, using an honorific to refer to the country’s leaders.
“But the Samso and 6-gok farms were never visited by anyone important, so they are using 40-to-50-year-old tractors with parts that are difficult to find. Since they require too much fuel, the farmers don’t know what to do. They are facing a major crisis.”
The division of Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War left the North without enough farmland to feed itself, as the peninsula’s breadbasket is in the southwest. But the North was able to get by on aid from the Soviet Union, which provided inexpensive fuel and petrochemical fertilizers to increase farm yields.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the aid stopped flowing in, and the country’s centralized and closed economy was not prepared to adapt. This resulted in the 1994-1998 North Korean famine which killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the country by some estimates. North Korean farms to this day still struggle with a lack of fuel and the people are often mobilized to provide human waste as fertilizer. The result is that the country has yearly food production deficits.
According to estimates in a Dec. 2020 report by the South Korean agricultural ministry’s Rural Development Administration, North Korea in 2021 would grow only 80 percent of the 5.5 million tons of food that it needs each year.