North Koreans scour farms for burnable waste to cope with fuel shortage

Poor citizens struggle to stay warm amid a firewood shortage and rising fuel prices.
By Jieun Kim
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North Koreans scour farms for burnable waste to cope with fuel shortage In this file photo, a man walks on a road between snow-covered farm fields in Ryongbyon county, North Pyongan, North Korea.

A severe firewood shortage and rising fuel costs in North Korea have left citizens scrounging harvested cornfields for anything burnable to keep warm this winter, sources in the country told RFA.

North Korea is typically able to import charcoal or heating fuel to make up for a lack of wood, but with the border closed this year as a protection against the coronavirus pandemic, poorer citizens are scrambling to dig up the roots of harvested crops.

“Every year in late autumn, the people are busy buying things to burn like firewood and coal to get through the winter,” a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Dec. 3.

“This year the price of charcoal and firewood has risen astronomically, so people without money are unable to afford it. So, they are flocking to the corn fields to dig up the roots, dry them, and use them as firewood.”

Beijing and Pyongyang closed the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade in January 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. As domestic supplies dwindled, prices shot up.

“Until a month ago, people who have a personal connection with the farm were competing with each other to get the corn cobs left over from threshing. Now the cobs have run out, so people are out in the fields digging up the roots,” the source said.

“When the public learned that corn roots can be used as a substitute for firewood, the farm began stopping ordinary people from coming to the fields to dig for roots. If you want to get into the fields now you must bribe the head of the farm’s working group or the leader of the work team,” the source said.

In years past, the government often had to force citizens to clear the fields of roots and then burn them as waste in preparation for next year’s crop, the source said.

Now those roots are “a precious commodity,” the source said.

Even though there are widespread food shortages in North Korea, people in the eastern province of South Hamgyong are more interested in corn for its burnable roots, a resident there told RFA.

“A few days ago, I got mobilized to work on road restoration about 5 miles away from my house, and I almost couldn’t have my lunch that day. I asked a local resident to cook some rice with the food I brought for lunch, but I was rejected because there was no firewood,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“So now, when the neighborhood watch unit puts you on road restoration, you have to bring firewood with you to have lunch. The lack of food is a problem, but the lack of firewood to cook it is also a serious problem,” the second source said.

Two sacks of corn roots will provide enough heat to cook rice for 10 mobilized workers, according to the second source.

“The person in charge of the mobilized workers was only able to get two sacks of corn roots after promising to deliver two kilograms of corn later on,” the source said. “But at least the residents who toil all morning digging up the mountains and carrying soil were finally able to eat their lunches.”

RFA reported in October that coal prices have doubled from last year, while the price of firewood has increased between two and threefold.

Plastic shortage

Another strategy for keeping out winter cold is to seal drafty doors and windows with plastic film, normally used in agriculture, but plastic is also in short supply this year.

“Residents without adequate heating insulate their homes with plastic film… but the price has risen sharply over the last few days,” a resident from North Hamgyong province in the northeast told RFA.

The source said the price of plastic film almost doubled between November and December, and that the plastic film available this year is of poor quality.

“Most of the plastic film on the market these days is not really transparent and has an uneven thickness. The price is soaring even though it’s not farming season,” the source said. 

“In fact, if you want to add plastic film to the door, window, or balcony of a house for wind protection and heat insulation, you need at least 5 to 10 square meters, depending on the size of the house. Ordinary residents who have difficulty finding food every day cannot afford that,” the source added. 

Electricity shortages have made even the relatively privileged residents of the capital Pyongyang scramble to get their hands on plastic film.

“In the apartments in Sosong district, they only get electricity for one or two hours a day during the mealtimes, so the residents maintain temperature with plastic film,” a resident of Pyongyang told RFA.

“Except for the apartments where the elite live in the central district of the city, most houses here in Pyongyang do not have heating this winter, so they need to use plastic film, said the Pyongyang resident.

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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Jan 03, 2022 10:25 PM

And we sit over here in America complaining about every thing that is wrong with prices, food chains, grocery stores, etc. We do have our problems, but nothing like what these people are going through. No heat, and it is reported that China is having extremely low temperatures. I fear many won't make it. I also wonder if many are forced to eat the corn roots due to lack of anything else to eat in some areas.