North Korea is trying to combat malnutrition among its soldiers by encouraging them to raise livestock and grow enough food for themselves but the effort has met with little success.
Individual units of the Korean People’s Army have been tasked with raising animals and growing their own crops since February 2011, when current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—then vice chairman of the Central Military Commission— initiated a campaign to have them provide their own food.
The movement called for soldiers in the 1.2 million-strong army to wipe out malnutrition by breeding their own goats and rabbits.
But the program faced a stumbling block due to a lack of feed for the animals, a representative of a human rights organization that works in North Hamgyong province told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source, who keeps in regular contact with servicemen in the North Korea-China border area, said they told him that most military units have failed to raise enough animals to eat.
“They are ordered to raise animals from rabbits to goats and dogs but they say that they can’t. There’s nothing to feed the animals,” he said.
Goats and rabbits
After the units received the orders from the military’s General Political Bureau last year, each unit organized a side job team for raising animals and aimed to raise 100 goats, he said.
Units built special quarters for the job, and groups of men were given time off of work to travel to obtain goats and rabbits for the units to start breeding, he said.
But since they didn’t have any grass to graze on or other animal feed, the goats were undernourished, he said.
As for the rabbits, the soldiers’ officers ate them without leaving enough to breed, the source said.
One unit in South Hamgyong province, the communications battalion of Training Center 108 located near the mountains, lacked suitable land for the goats to graze, so they let the animals run loose in nearby cornfields.
The roaming goats caused a furor among nearby residents, prompting them to blame Kim Jong Un for the campaign, saying he showed little concern for how the animals affected nearby civilians, the source said.
Another source said soldiers had trouble finding enough seeds and fertilizer to grow crops and vegetables.
Seung-chul Baek, a North Korean defector familiar with the situations of the Army Corps 9 in North Hamgyong province, said the unit had failed to grow adequate food.
“This year, they received Kim Jong Un’s order to farm. So each unit organized a team to find new land and focused on farming. But due to lack of seeds, fertilizers and other farming materials, they had no success in farming either.”
He said another group of soldiers in Kangwon province in the southern part of the country which was unable to grow enough of their own food had turned to looting nearby residents.
“Since raising animals became a life and death struggle for these military servicemen ... residents of Kangwon Province have given up on their own animals [for them],” he said.
Unable to endure the hunger, some of the servicemen turned to thievery, he said.
“In Kangwon province, the men suddenly turned into robbers and attacked people passing by and stole animals.”
In 2010, several international charities raised money to send giant rabbits to North Korea to boost the food supply. The aim was that North Koreans would use them to breed a cheap source of protein, but what happened to the rabbits after they reached the country was unknown.
North Korea has been reeling from persistent food shortages since a famine in the mid-1990s that resulted in several million deaths, and relies on foreign aid to feed its people.
The lack of food security in the nation has led to the proliferation of an underground market economy, which authorities have largely tolerated because of the failures of the public distribution system to sufficiently provide rations for the population.
In April, the U.S. suspended planned food shipments to North Korea in following a rocket launch Washington said breached a February deal, under which Pyongyang agreed to a partial nuclear freeze and a missile and nuclear test moratorium in return for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid.
The aid package had been expected to target the neediest in North Korea, including malnourished young children and pregnant women.
Reported by Young Chung for RFA’s Korean service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.