North Korean farmers question prioritization of ‘cows over people’

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As another bitter winter grips North Korea, authorities are making sure its oxen — working cows that pull plows and do other chores — are fed, even if it doesn’t do the same for its citizens, sources in the country say .

Sources told RFA that keepers are getting enough feed for the oxen on collective farms, while annual rations for farmers have been cut in half due to a poor harvest. The move appears to be aimed at boosting crop production.

A South Pyongan province source, who declined to be named, told Radio Free Asia that winter grain distribution to collective farms in Maengsan province ended in December. “The distribution the farmers are receiving this year is only about half a year’s worth of food,” said the source.

“However, 100 kilograms of corn kernels and corn stalks were delivered to the working cows of the cooperative farm,” he said. “As a result, farmers complained that cows were treated more favorably than humans, and that cows are more important than humans.”

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Sources in North Korea say temperatures in the country have dropped well below freezing and, as food becomes scarcer, large numbers of people have gone missing, believed to be starving or freezing to death.

RFA received reports of homeless beggar children known as kotebjidying in the streets, while even the workers have left their homes to hunt and fish in remote areas because they cannot buy food.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, a farmer in the province confirmed to RFA that local executives delivered year-end feed rations for “working cows” to Kimjongsuk province’s 22 cooperative farms last week.

“I work in No. 4 team of No. 1 agricultural group in Wondong village, and our team has 5 cows,” said the farmer. “Each working cow is raised in a barn adjacent to the cow manager’s home. The cow manager gets the feed for the working cow.”

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Each cooperative farm in Kimjongsuk employs 300-400 farmers in four to six working groups. Each working group is divided into five to six teams, each raising three to six working cows, the farmer said. While the size of collective farms varies across the province, they each raise about 100 cows.

The farmer told RFA that at the end of this year the cow managers will receive 100 kilos, or 100 days of grain, on top of the year-end grain that all farmers receive for their daily work.

A poor harvest this year left ordinary farmers with only half their grain, frustrating those who say the government prioritizes the country’s cows over the people. “Due to the lack of harvest this year, farmers who went to work for 365 days… only got 200 days worth of grain,” said the farmer.

North Korea stopped providing rations for cows on collective farms during the country’s economic crisis in the 1990s. The first source told RFA that until this year cow managers were required to foot the bill for feed, in addition to medicines and shoes for hooves, forcing them to earn extra money as porters at train stations and in the market.

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“The fact that corn kernels and corn stalks were first supplied as feed to working cows [since the 1990s] appears to be an attempt to increase food production by mobilizing all working cows into farming,” said the source. “But it remains to be seen whether working cows will increase grain production as a result.”

According to the “2022 North Korean Crop Production Estimate” recently announced by the Rural Development Administration, North Korea has harvested 4.51 million tons of food this year, down 180,000 tons from 2021.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh. Edited by Josh Lipes and Malcolm Foster.