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Mining, fishing become deadly side jobs for cash-strapped North Korean farmers

Cash-strapped collective farms in North Korea are sending workers to the mines and fisheries to raise operating funds to meet food production targets — a policy that cost the lives of 10 farmers in a gold mine collapse last month, sources inside the country said.

Ten 10 farm workers were sent by a cooperative farm in South Hwanghae province’s Ongjin county to work as a “cash-making group” in a gold mine operated by the provincial state security department, a resident of the province told RFA.

“Even the miners are reluctant to work there because the tunnels are deep and dangerous,” she said. “Even so, the cash-making group from the cooperative farms went in there to mine gold.”

The farmers were sent to a poorly supported section of the gold mine. It collapsed, and all 10 were killed, including a man in his 30s with a newborn at home, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

The state security authorities that run the mine said it would not compensate the farmers’ families, asserting that the farm workers entered the gold mine voluntarily, she said.

State-run farms in other parts of North Korea are also forcing their laborers to go far afield to raise funds, with no money coming from the central government.

“Cooperative farms are struggling to raise agricultural funds to increase their agricultural crops, but the prospects for farming this year are not bright,” said a resident of North Hamgyong province.

“The reality is that there is no government support and measures for farming. Poor farmworkers go out of their way to earn money, and some even lose their lives.”

The Chikha cooperative farm in North Hamgyong province’s Chongam district organized a “cash-making group” and “sericulture group” to earn extra money, he said.

“This year, the money from the farm’s cash-making group is being diverted into various kinds of hard work,” said the resident, who declined to provide his name for safety reasons. “The group is jumping to take any money-making work such as gold mining and fishing.”

At the Chikha cooperative farm, an average of five farmers in each working group catch fish in the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, or gather gold from a nearby mine, he said.

‘A tragic incident’

Agricultural production in North Korea historically has been decimated by natural disasters such as floods, the lack of fertile land, and government mismanagement. As a consequence, the country has come to rely on foreign aid for food, with widespread malnutrition and starvation deaths reported.

But a border lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic preventing nearly all trade with neighboring China and international sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have exacerbated North Korea’s food shortages.

“Many cooperative farms have ‘cash-making groups’ these days,” said the resident of South Hwanghae province.

“The government does not guarantee the supply of agricultural materials that are supposed to be supplied, so the farms had to organize a ‘cash-making group’ to earn money to support [themselves],” said the source who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

Four or five workers from each working group of 35 farmers are selected to help raise money to pay for fertilizers and pesticides, and to pay bribes to gain favor with Workers’ Party of Korea officials who oversee the farm, the resident said. Each member of the group must earn an average of 500 Chinese yuan (U.S. $74).

The South Hwanghae resident said the struggle to raise cash led to the farmers’ deaths last month.

“The farmers in the cash-making group believed that the gold mines that were dug during the Japanese colonial period had the most gold, so they entered a mine with weak pillars and suffered a catastrophe all at once,” the South Hwanghae resident said. Japan ruled the Korean peninsula as a colony from 1910-45.

“This is a tragic incident,” she added. “Farm workers who had to farm in the field died instead as they were entering the mine to make money.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee and Leejin J. Chung for RFA Korean. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.