Mid-May frost damages crops in northern North Korea

A government directive to rush planting left farms especially vulnerable, residents said.
By Moon Sung Hui for RFA Korean
2024.05.17
Mid-May frost damages crops in northern North Korea Farmers are dwarfed against a hill as they work in a corn field in South Hwanghae, North Korea, June 24, 2015.
Wong Maye-E/AP

A late-spring frost, combined with a severe lack of manpower in rural parts of North Korea, is a major setback this year in a country with yearly chronic food shortages, residents in the country told Radio Free Asia.

Temperatures in northeast Asia had been higher than usual this spring, which prompted Pyongyang to try to get a jumpstart on planting, freeing up labor for maintenance, construction and other state initiatives. 

But the early planting left crops more vulnerable to a late frost, and entire fields of soybeans, corn and potatoes have been severely damaged or lost, residents said.

“The temperatures began to drop sharply during the day yesterday,” a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang who works in the agricultural sector told RFA Korean Thursday on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “There was a strong frost at night, and the damage … was reported to the city’s Rural Economic Management Committee.”

The temperatures got as low as minus 5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), causing puddles of standing water to freeze, he said. 

Large collective farms that followed the government directives suffered the worst. Small gardens tended by individuals were fine because most followed more typical planting schedules, the resident said.

Another Ryanggang resident confirmed that the large farms were the worst hit, and the small private farms emerged almost unscathed. 

“Farm fields had sprouts big enough for weeding, but private fields had only just begun to sprout and suffered little damage,” she said. 

ENG_KOR_FROST DAMAGE_05172024.2.jpg
Women farm workers shovel fertilizer at Migok Cooperative Farm near Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province, North Korea, Jan. 23, 2017. (AP)

The second source said government officials are “obsessed with increasing grain production.” But that decision is likely to reduce yields, the source said.

“Potatoes and corn are generally frost-resistant, but their growth is greatly reduced,” the second resident said. “Damaged soybeans from the frost must be completely plowed.”

Farms also continue to suffer from a lack of available labor, despite a government directive to state institutions to send a portion of their workforce to the fields.

“The Cabinet Agricultural Commission announced a general mobilization order for rural support titled, ‘Let the whole country join forces to finish planting seeds and weeding as early as possible,’” another  resident in the agricultural sector said. “Office workers at local institutions and factories, the Socialist Women's Union of Korea, youth students and People’s Army units around rural areas were designated as rural supporters.” 

Even middle school students were being mobilized, another resident of the province said. 

“But there is still not enough manpower to meet the urgent farming schedule,” he said. “Farming is a race against time, so once you start getting pushed around, you can’t control it.”       

A major problem is that there is not enough food, so the rural residents cannot do such hard work, he said. 

May is a particularly difficult month, because the autumn harvest is now a distant memory and reserves are running low. Meanwhile the first crop that can be harvested, spinach, is not ready until the end of the month, he said.

Despite the farming mobilization order, much of the labor force is tied up elsewhere on state construction and maintenance projects.

“There are too many things going on at once in this country,” he said. “There is no manpower left in the city. The young people currently remaining in the city are university and community college students.”

The lack of agricultural manpower is a serious problem that can have dire consequences, he said.

“ If we do not solve the urgent problem of rural areas immediately, the farming schedule may be disrupted, and this year’s crop may be ruined.”

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Jim Snyder.

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