How We Survived On The North Korean Farm

Ask a North Korean: What is life like in the North Korean countryside?
January 11th, 2013

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week, Adam P. asks:

What’s life like in the North Korean countryside? Did you help with work on the farm?

Life in the North Korean countryside was difficult compared to life in the South Korean countryside. North Korean farmers just don’t have access to good equipment or fertilizers, two things that make life considerably harder there. I lived in the countryside and people like me got used to working all year, adjusting to the seasons.

From a young age I had to help my parents with the farming and even during school days I would go to help on the fields between lessons. This was quite normal for a lot of kids, and at school there is even a one month break for farming every spring and autumn! I hated it so much that I often skipped it, pretending to be ill.

Because we lived at a relatively high altitude, we grew potatoes and corn instead of rice. In addition, we farmed beans, barley, millet and other kinds of grains, while at home, we grew various vegetables on our small plot. So at least my family did not need to pay for fresh vegetables.  And although farming takes place all year round, people can’t rely on it to sustain them, so they have to make money on the side by rearing domestic animals. As such, most homes keep pigs, rabbits, goats or dogs, but in my particular home we had dogs and rabbits.

As North Koreans do not have good equipment or much fertilizer, we got used to doing most of the work by hand rather than with the help of machinery. In spring when weeds bagan to sprout it would be time to plough the fields and this could be done by ox or with tractors. But in North Korea, in addition to fuel being too expensive, there aren’t many tractors for the farmers to use, so most of the ploughing is done by oxen. As you can probably guess, the oxen were therefore very valuable animals, and we needed to keep them healthy for the entire year’s farming work.

While oxen could help plough the fields, they were useless at dealing with weeds. So when new weeds appeared in the fields again, they had to be removed by hand because the chemicals we had were not sufficient. Between spring and autumn, we did back breaking work,  weeding the field about four times with a hoe. Not wanting to waste even the weeds, we also used a sickle to cut them down to make compost with them. This compost helped make the soil better, so every summer or autumn we made compost after doing the weeding.

I always helped my parents by sowing seeds in spring, weeding in summer and harvesting in autumn. It became a familiar rhythm to my life and before school and after school, I tended our home garden. I often took my younger brother to the fields but he would always disappear if we were weeding – it was hard to make him do any work! As he grew older though, he began to feel bad for our hard-working parents and started coming to work the field without being told to do so.

When it came to harvest time we collected the grains, made sheaves to carry them, then transported it all by oxen or tractor to the granary on the farm. After all of the grain was gathered, it was threshed and then distributed according to farmers’ recorded attendance and work attitude. As we lived at high altitude and had poor soil as well as poor equipment, we didn’t receive much crop at harvest time. And because farmers must sell crops to buy other household goods, we were always poor.

If we’d had our own private land for farming and could have engaged in market activities, things could have been different. But as you probably know, the North Korean government forbids private ownership of land, and even farming equipment may not be owned by individuals. The only land available for private use is the little bit of land that surrounds a house and all of us did all we could with this tiny plot of land.

My parents put a lot of effort into planting vegetables and tending them. Fertilizer and pesticide was supposed to be provided by the state it didn’t happen regularly. Instead, these chemicals were only to be found in the illegal market, but the government maintained tight surveillance on these kind of private activities. If you were absent from work, you had to explain yourself and submit a medical report.

Life in North Korea was very communal, you had to work all the time and the day was always long. Even on holidays or at weekends, you had to work in the garden at home. It was the only way to get by. Life in the South Korean countryside feels much easier, as here there is mechanized farming. I truly hope that agriculture will improve for North Koreans and soon they can enjoy a better life soon.

Got A Question?

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions.

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail


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About the Author

Jae Young Kim