Tour of Pyongyang reveals massive wealth gap to North Korean farmers

The country’s best growers were rewarded with a rare visit to the capital, but they complained about inequality.
By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean
2022.12.20
Tour of Pyongyang reveals massive wealth gap to North Korean farmers A truck drives past high rise buildings in Pyongyang, September 6, 2018.
Reuters

North Korea rewarded this year’s best farmers with a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Pyongyang, but the farmers returned from their trip incensed at how they are made to live in relative squalor compared to residents of the capital, sources in the country told RFA.

Only the most privileged members of North Korean society are allowed to live in Pyongyang, and most North Koreans can only dream of ever visiting, so being selected for the tour is considered a great honor.

“The farmers who visited Pyongyang said they were envious that Pyongyang residents receive better food rations, live in good houses with bright lights, and ride around on buses and subways wearing fancy clothes, a resident of Unjon county in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The farmers were left wondering why they should work so hard to increase output only to give Pyongyangers a better life, the source said.

“Pyongyang residents enjoy all kinds of benefits that rural residents do not receive, just because they are citizens of the capital, so the farmers are angry that the authorities are emphasizing that they must support the country, but the fruits of their labor are only used to take care of Pyongyang residents,” he said.

According to the source, the farmers’ excursion to Pyongyang, hosted by the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea, has happened every year since 1985 during the agricultural off-season.

The union invites the farmers that achieved the highest yields and exemplary farmers recommended by cooperative farms. They get the honor of seeing the city’s most important museums, the zoo, the circus theater, and the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – the final resting place of national founder Kim Il Sung – the source said.

“Most of the farmers living in rural areas in the provinces have never been to Pyongyang. Everyone wants to go on a field trip to Pyongyang,” he said.

In years past, the government footed the bill for the tour, but now it is so cash-strapped that each farmer has to shell out 200,000 won (about U.S. $24), so some of the farmers who were selected for the trip refused to go.

“Authorities expect farmers to energetically innovate in farming next year, motivated by their trip to Pyongyang, but the farmers who went there ended up questioning why they’ve worked so hard all their lives,” the source said.

A resident of Hongwon county in the eastern province of South Hamgyong said that the 50 farmers selected from his county came back angry that the authorities always put Pyongyang first, to the point that the people there are “living in another world.”

“The farmers were surprised to see Pyongyang changing so rapidly with the  construction of new streets. They also marveled that the residents there get larger food rations, including bonus rations for holiday celebrations, unlike rural residents,” the second source said. “They said that the sight of Pyongyang residents riding city buses and subways wearing colorful clothes and shiny shoes was very offensive to them since they have to go out to work in the fields wearing shabby clothes all year round.”

He said the farmers work from dawn until dusk in the summer to feed the country, but don’t get enough to eat from the government’s distribution system.

“It’s simply unfair that only Pyongyang residents receive benefits like adequate food rations,” he said.  

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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