North Korean Community Leaders Granted Right to Sell Sewage as Fertilizer for Farms

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nk-manure Workers shovel manure at a cooperative farm in Kaesong, North Korea.

Authorities in North Korea have declared open season on the human manure trade, granting certain community leaders the exclusive right to sell sewage, a green—or rather brown—alternative to chemical fertilizers in short supply, sources in the country told RFA.

Demand for human excrement from the septic tanks of apartment complexes has soared, as small-time local private growers operating greenhouses find it difficult to acquire manufactured fertilizers.

“Urban apartments consist of 20 to 30 households in one inminban, which is the lowest level organization in local administration,” a resident of North Pyongan province in the country’s northeast told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.

The inminban, or neighborhood watch units, are small, regimented community organizations that serve as the eyes and ears of the state to ensure the people stay in line. Membership and participation in the inminban are mandatory.

“Giving the inminban leaders the privilege to sell human manure from the apartments is like an implicit instruction to further strengthen control over residents,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Human manure is sold in sealed 500-kilogram sealed barrels brought by ox cart by the private farmers [1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds]. A barrel can go for about as much as 50 kilograms of napa cabbage,” the source said,  referring to the vegetable most commonly used to make kimchi.

Inminban leaders prefer to sell the feces to private farmers rather than state-owned farms, because they can sell it at higher prices, the source added. One barrel of human waste can fetch 50 kilograms of corn from private farmers, but only 20-30 kilograms of corn from the state-run farms.

Another source, a resident of South Pyongan province, told RFA that North Korean sewage systems are specifically designed for sewage collection, and usually the filthy fertilizer is free.

“In most cities there is a public toilet for an entire village of several single-story houses, and each apartment has a large sewage treatment facility connected with sewer pipes. The human manure is cleaned out of the public toilets and the septic tanks every six months for ‘urban beautification,’” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“The manure used to be brought to nearby farms for free, and they used it as a chemical fertilizer substitute. But now that there’s a shortage, the farms are clamoring for human manure, so the authorities have taken steps to make them go though the necessary procedures with the local inminban leaders to buy it,” the second source said.

In addition to manure, inminban leaders are also selling coal briquette ashes scavenged from apartment building trash dumps, he said.

“In our country, when fertilizer is absolutely scarce, farms and private farmers compete with each other to buy human manure and briquette ash because they can be mixed together to make compost.”

RFA previously reported that North Korea sets quotas for human manure collection at the beginning of each year in preparation for the planting season.

In January 2019, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un declared during his New Year’s address that the agricultural front would be the primary instrument for economic reconstruction.

Shortly thereafter each citizen was required to collect and turn in 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of manure per day, for a collection period of an unspecified duration.

In October that year, RFA reported that citizens were resorting to physical violence to gain exclusive control over public bathrooms so they could fill what sources said were “unreasonable quotas.”

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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