Mirage of the Miracle Harvest Exposed
North Korea's Propaganda Conceals National Farmer Debt Crisis
Despite North Korean propaganda touting a "miracle harvest" this year, farmers are under increasing pressure to repay debts incurred during the planting season. The propaganda, released at the beginning of October, featured images of rice bags piled high and credited the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, for ensuring farms got the necessary resources to boost food production.
However, residents have told Radio Free Asia that most of the harvest hasn’t yet been processed, suggesting farmers are currently unable to repay their debts. This situation underscores the gap between the regime's propaganda and the reality faced by farmers on the ground.
Earlier this year, western media reports also stated that North Korea was experiencing a "food crisis," and that, despite this, Kim had amplified his stance as a strong national leader with displays of military prowess.
The need to borrow money from wealthy elites, known as donju, has become a common practice for North Korean farmers. Each planting season, these farmers rely on loans from the donju (Korean meaning "masters of money) to pay for seeds and other supplies.
“A majority of farm work crew leaders in Chungsan county are currently hiding from their sponsoring donju,” a resident of South Pyongan province, north of Pyongyang, told RFA Korean anonymously for security reasons. “The donju are demanding they repay their debts.”
This debt cycle started after the devastating 1994-1998 famine, when North Korea’s impoverished government halted subsidies to collective farms, instructing them to secure their funding. As a result, farm managers begin each planting season by taking out loans, promising to repay them with harvested crops after the harvest season.
While the farms are still obliged to meet state quotas under this system, if the harvest is abundant, there would be sufficient produce to repay both the donju and the state.
RFA sources reveal that the harvested crops collected by the donju must typically be worth double what the farm borrowed. If the amount to be repaid is a fifth of the total harvest, this is typically manageable. However, if circumstances do not go according to plan, the situation can quickly become untenable, as seems to be the case this year.
The pressure on North Korean farmers highlights the stark contrast between the regime's propaganda and the reality faced by its citizens and underlines the ongoing challenges North Korea's agricultural sector faces.