North Korea refuses to pay to treat pesticide-poisoned farmers

Collective farms deny responsibility, saying Chinese pesticide imports stopped during the pandemic.
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North Korea refuses to pay to treat pesticide-poisoned farmers Farmers spray fertilizer on cabbage crops at the Chilgol vegetable farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014.

North Korean farmers poisoned by a Chinese-made pesticide are resorting to folk remedies to treat life-threatening liver diseases, as the government refuses to take responsibility for forcing them to spray crops without protective equipment, sources in the country told RFA.

The cash-strapped North Korean government routinely uses its citizens as free labor for farm work, and laborers must often toil for long hours due to shortages in farming equipment and vehicles, especially at planting and harvesting time.

But when the crops are still growing, many are mobilized for bug-killing detail, spraying acre after acre of crops with pesticide for many days on end. Without proper safety gear, the sprayer can be poisoned due to prolonged, repeated exposure.

Pesticides from China have not been used since 2019, after Pyongyang and Beijing closed down their border and suspended all trade in Jan. 2020 due to coronavirus concerns. The collective farms are refusing to pay for the treatment for the sick farm workers, saying that the cause of their liver disease cannot be the Chinese pesticide because two years have passed since they last sprayed.

“Recently, at a few collective farms here in Ongjin county, the number of farm workers complaining about liver diseases is increasing. The farmers claim that pesticides were absorbed into their bodies as they sprayed it onto crops,” a resident of the county in the country’s southwest told RFA’s Korean Service on Oct. 27.

“The collective farms were supplied with ‘Delta’ brand insecticide from China until the end of 2019, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the farmers were spraying it by themselves,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“There was a warning on the container that it should be handled as carefully as possible to prevent it from being absorbed into the human body, but the farmers… sprayed it without protective equipment.”

Most North Korean farms do not even have basic items like work gloves, the source said, adding that while Delta and other Chinese pesticides have not been imported since before the pandemic, the farmers’ liver function had already begun deteriorating by that point.

“The poisoned farmers are visiting hospitals because they show symptoms of jaundice, which causes the whites of the eyes and facial skin to turn yellow, and severe swelling in the legs,” the source said.

“All the patients were diagnosed with cirrhosis by their doctors, and they were told that it was caused by spraying pesticides with their bare hands without any protective equipment.”

“The farmers then went to the farm management committee and strongly appealed that they should take responsibility for their treatment… However, the farm is ignoring their plea, saying that it is unacceptable that the pesticide sprayed several years ago is the cause of an abnormality or disease in the body right now,” the source said.

The decision of the committee has caused anger and resentment among the farmers, the source said.

“They are saying that their only reward for all their hard labor is an illness that breaks their bodies.”

Farms in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongang, also disagreed with their workers that pesticides could have caused their illnesses, a resident from the province’s Kangso county told RFA.

“Recently a farm worker visited the hospital because her menstrual cycle was irregular and her face was abnormally yellow. She was diagnosed with cirrhosis,” said the second source.

“She had the doctor re-examine her, saying that she doesn’t even drink a sip of alcohol, so there’s nothing that could affect her liver, but she was confirmed to have cirrhosis,” the second source said.

The woman was hospitalized, and her family visited several times and underwent tests and interviews in hopes of finding the cause of her cirrhosis.

“In the end, the doctor’s opinion was that her many years of mobilization for pesticide spraying duty was likely the cause of the disease, so the family appealed to the farm to come up with a treatment plan,” the second source said.

“As this became known, other farm workers who were also mobilized to spray pesticide went in to get their liver checked and many came away with a cirrhosis diagnosis,” the second source said.

“Though they each complained of different symptoms and levels, they had one thing in common. They were all made to spray pesticides in multiple years.”

Most residents believe that there is a clear link between pesticide duty and liver disease, but the farms are silent. And as many of the workers cannot afford the cirrhosis treatment, they must now rely on alternative medicine, the second source said.

“The ones with severe symptoms are struggling to detoxify their liver with folk remedies, such as eating a lot of buckwheat and mung beans. They strongly resent the farm and the authorities for their indifference.”

North Korea is in the midst of a severe food crisis due to the border closure, natural disasters, and a lack of productive capacity. The shortages, and the inability of imports to cover the deficit between domestic food production and demand, have caused food prices to skyrocket.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization projected in a recent report that the country of 25 million people would be short around 860,000 tons of food, or two months’ consumption, this year. The UN World Food Program estimates that about 40 percent of North Korea’s population is undernourished.

Starvation deaths have been reported, and the government has told the people to prepare for a situation worse than the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed millions, or 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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