North Korea Orders Farmers to Collect Urine for Fertilizer Amid Shortage

Farmers laugh after being told to fight a “compost battle” in their toilets.
North Korea Orders Farmers to Collect Urine for Fertilizer Amid Shortage This handout photo taken on September 19, 2019 and released on October 24 by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) shows farmer Ri Jong Gi, 50, working in a rice field in North Korea's South Hamgyong province.
Finnish Red Cross / AFP

North Korea regularly demands a lot from its citizens, from free labor at building sites to food donations for troops. But the latest order to farmers has them wetting themselves with scornful laughter: Each farmer must donate two liters of their urine daily to make fertilizer, sources in the country told RFA.

North Korea normally imports huge amounts of fertilizer from its largest trading partner China, but the northeast Asian neighbors closed their border and suspended all trade at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020.

As the country prepares to enter the crucial planting season, those in charge of the agricultural sector have had to come up with innovative strategies to produce compost to ensure that they can meet this year’s grain production goals.

“These days, farms in North Hamgyong province have been ordered to produce compost so that the farms will have a supply of fertilizers,” a source from the agricultural industry from the northeastern border province told RFA’s Korean Service May 5.

“The provincial rural management commission ordered the farms to produce the compost from humus, and then instructed the farmers to donate their urine to be mixed into the compost,” the source said.

Farms in North Hamgyong had been complaining about fertilizer shortages ahead of the busy planting season, but the authorities left the solution to the problem to the farm workers themselves, according to the source.

“In some of the cooperative farms, the workers are forced to bring two liters of urine per person per day to mix into the compost pile until the production goal is achieved,” the source said.  Two liters is about four-tenths of a gallon.

“They have to keep track of their donated urine in a record book, so if they do not donate enough, they will be criticized by their work group,” added the source.

“The Farm Management Committee is urging the farmers to produce the compost to carry out the plans laid out during the Eighth Party Congress in January, calling it a compost battle,” the source said, referring to the rare meeting of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, during which leader Kim Jong Un leaned hard into the country’s founding Juche self-reliance ideology.

But as much as authorities try to frame the project as a revolutionary struggle, the farmers think the situation is ridiculous.

“Some farm workers say that they live in a reality where they cannot help but laugh because they are criticized for not offering enough urine,” the source said.

Another source, from the northern province of Ryanggang, confirmed to RFA on May 6 that farmers there also faced urine quotas.

“At the Eighth Party Congress in January, the Highest Dignity emphasized that the core goal for the agricultural sector was to achieve food self-sufficiency,” the second source said, using an honorific term to refer to Kim Jong Un.

“So the farms are engaged in a battle to produce compost to be used instead of scarce supplies of chemical fertilizers,” the second source said.

The source confirmed that the farmers were directed to mix their own urine and feces with humus to make the compost.

“Each farm is to set aside two liters of urine per farm worker per day, and farm workers must keep record of their donations in a ledger,” the second source said.

“One of the new tasks of the Cabinet Project Report that was announced through the Rodong Sinmun in March was to strengthen national support in rural areas. Farmers are expressing their resentment at the authorities for forcing them to produce more body waste during the farming season,” said the second source.

Forcing citizens to contribute their waste to the farming sector has become increasingly common in recent years.

RFA reported in Oct. 2019 that after authorities ordered each able-bodied citizen to collect an unreasonable 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of feces for the year, they began stealing from each other’s outhouses and fighting to control public toilets. The more well-off citizens were able to contribute money instead.

While doing almost nothing for the farmers, the authorities are framing it as if they are supporting rural areas, saying the agricultural sector is the pillar of socialist economic construction according to the second source.

“Missing the sowing season would be ruinous for the farming sector, so farmers here in Ryanggang did their best to make the compost with their own feces and urine mixed with humus. As a result, they met their production goals at the end of last month,” the second source said.

But the situation is very difficult for the hardworking farmers according to the second source.

“The authorities are ordering that the farmers achieve grain production goals, and the farmers have suffered all kinds of troubles this year, as they have had to endure all kinds of weird requirements like reporting to work with collected urine every day.”

U.N Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report in March that the closure of the Sino-Korean border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.”

“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” said the report.

A lack of artificial fertilizer contributed to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea’s access to cheap fuel imports suddenly evaporated.

Domestic fertilizer production came to an abrupt stop and crop yields nosedived, resulting in mass starvation of millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.

Reported by Jeong Yon Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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