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Using farmland for mining, construction now banned in North Korea

North Korea is cracking down on government-run entities that illegally use farmland for other money-making activities, like gold mining and manufacturing, sources in the country told RFA.

For a country chronically short on food, allowing farmland to be used for anything but growing food could lead to a public backlash. Authorities are now warning collective farms and revenue-producing arms of various governmental agencies that they could be punished for doing anything except growing food on lands designated for agricultural production.

“Late last month, orders were issued from the central government to investigate the destruction and illegal use of agricultural lands meant to produce grain. Investigations are now underway,” an official from the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The order highlighted that there are a large number of land violations in the grain producing areas, and this is hindering the country’s grain production plans. Most of the country’s special organizations openly violate agricultural land policies for gold mining or construction projects. These are powerful and reputable organizations,” he said.

The special organizations are divisions within government agencies like the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of State Security and parts of the military. They include Office 39, the organization charged with procuring slush funds for the country’s leader Kim Jong Un and his family.

The government has limited capability to properly fund itself, and each ministry or agency must go into business in order to function properly.

The source said that the special organizations have been ignoring the agricultural designations for land use and “invading” them with new factories, buildings or mining operations.

“Each cooperative farm has therefore been ordered to report in detail how the special organizations are using their land, especially for goldmines and construction,” he said.

“In principle these organizations cannot do anything other than agriculture on those lands without permission from the state, but it is common for them to use threats or bribery to convince local officials to allow them to use the land for other purposes,” the source said.

Entities that legally want to repurpose farmland must go through an arduous bureaucratic process that includes permission from five different organizations: the collective farm, the province’s farm management office, the provincial government, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of National Territory Environment Protection, according to the source.

“Authorities have been taking steps to increase food production in recent years, but they are missing the most important point. The fastest way to solve the long-term food shortage is to give the farmland back to the farmers and allow them to process their own harvest,” he said.

Such a move could provide incentive for the farmers to earn a living off of the crops they grow, but it would also go against the ideas collective farming and communal land ownership.

Cooperative farms in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong are also under investigation, and authorities are punishing those implicated in bribery, a resident of the city of Hoeryong told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“With this order, the organizations that were invading the farmland as well as the officials who took bribes will not be able to sleep at night,” the second source said. “However, this order was only a loud proclamation, and it is ultimately a fruitless measure that will end in smoke.”

The Central Committee has a history of talking about strict measures but rarely enforces them, the second source said.

“For whatever reason, the organizations that are capable of invading agricultural land and using it for other purposes are powerful, and a lot of the foreign currency that they earn goes into party funds,” he said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.