Grain-Short North Korea Forces Housewives to ‘Volunteer’ for Farm Work

Wives of men who lost their jobs to the pandemic must relocate to rural farms in North Korea’s breadbasket.
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Grain-Short North Korea Forces Housewives to ‘Volunteer’ for Farm Work Farmers replant rice seedlings at the Namsa Co-op Farm of Rangnang District in Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday, May 25, 2021.

North Korea is forcing nearly 14,000 housewives to move to rural areas to toil on farms as part of a project to boost food output after a bad harvest, South Korean media reported.

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Broadcasting reported that at last week’s Third Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un “ordered the nation’s capabilities to focus on agriculture and food security.”

“[General Secretary Kim Jong Un] said it is imperative to concentrate the efforts of the party and the state on agriculture despite unfavorable conditions this year, along with the lessons of last year’s farming,” the report said, referring to the country having missed production goals in 2020 due to a series of natural disasters last summer that destroyed crops.

Making the problem worse, the coronavirus pandemic caused North Korea and China to close their border and suspend all trade in January 2020, cutting off food imports that could help cover the deficit and making it hard for North Korean farmers to get fertilizer.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months of normal demand.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported June 17, citing North Korean state media, that the government is addressing the problem by transferring 13,700 housewives from all regions of the country to the southwestern coastal South Hwanghae province, considered the North’s breadbasket.

According to the report, North Korean authorities said the women are “voluntary participants” as members of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, one of the country’s four major labor organizations outside of the Workers’ Party. Membership in the union is mandatory for all full-time housewives over the age of 30.

“So-called ‘voluntary participation’ is nonsense,” a North Korean refugee who now lives in South Korea told RFA’s Korean Service.

“The North Korean authorities are forcibly mobilizing manpower to increase rice production,” said the refugee, who requested anonymity for security reasons. 

Rights activist Park Jihyun, who settled in the UK after escaping North Korea, told RFA that at one point in the 1990s, unmarried women over age 17 were forced to relocate to the northeastern province of North Hamgyong to work on farms there, then they had to marry men discharged from the military.

“Nobody wants to go,” said Park.

“They say it’s agricultural support, but it’s forced labor. It’s a system in which the authorities unconditionally relocate those people to one place for the sake of manpower,” she said.

Troy Stangarone of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute (KEI) said that sending women to the fields reflects North Korea’s “limited resources for modern farming techniques” that forces it to double down on labor.

“In order to increase output through additional planting, care, and harvesting it has to turn to additional manpower, but this is likely to have a limited impact on harvests" he told RFA by email.

Mark Barry of the International Journal on World Peace told RFA by email that North Korea was trying to compensate for last year’s poor rice harvest by mobilizing everyone it can.

“On one hand, Kim is doing this to maximize domestic production so as not to rely on food imports from China,” said Barry.

“But another reason is that forced mobilization is its own reward—people cannot dwell on being dissatisfied if they are constantly being mobilized for national economic and political tasks. More mobilization means less idle time to complain about conditions," he said.

Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank told RFA by telephone that the boost provided by mobilizing the housewives would not solve grain shortages in the long run.

“At some point they're going to have to start bringing in stuff from the outside world. The regime cannot go on indefinitely without that, and I suppose that China at some point will start exporting stuff into North Korea to keep them afloat," Gause said.

Mobilization of housewives, however, is likely a violation of human rights, according to Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).

“In North Korea, especially after the Arduous March, housewives have made great efforts and sacrifices for the survival of their families,” Scarlatoiu told RFA, using a translation of the Korean term to refer to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine which killed millions.

“Now that even these housewives are said to be forcibly mobilized so strictly like this, I think North Korean women are being subjected to human rights violations very seriously,” said Scarlatoiu.

Forcing citizens to “volunteer” as labor for government projects is very common in North Korea.

The U.S. State Department in its 2020 Trafficking in persons report classified North Korea in Tier 3, the lowest tier, made up of countries not making an effort to meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

“During the reporting period, there was a government policy or pattern of forced labor in mass mobilizations of adults and children, in prison camps as part of an established system of political repression, in labor training centers, and through its imposition of forced labor conditions on DPRK overseas contract workers,” the report said.

Reported by Albert Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun and Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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