Friday, December 22, 2023

Farming on the Frontier

North Korea shares 1,369.3 km of border with China and Russia. Predominately demarcated by the Yalu and Tumen rivers, the border regions are mountainous, with the available farmland often squeezed into thin strips or even onto islands that completely flood every few years.

With a few exceptions, such as the plains around Taehongdan and Onsong, farming in this region doesn't contribute significant amounts to the national food supply. However, they are important locally as are the forests which harbor herbs, mushrooms, and other plants used for food and in traditional medicines, and access to these lands provides additional income to local farmers and foragers. 

But, the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has placed that access at risk.

Through the construction of two layers of border fence, the land in between has become subjected to additional checkpoints, and many of the forests have become completely off limits. 

Farmer and ox cart at the Migok Collective Farm (2008). Image source: Stephan (Flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0.

North Korea has attempted to secure the full border in the past but never succeeded in doing so until COVID-19. Using the pandemic as justification, even the most impassable parts of the border are now fenced off with over 1,000 km of new fencing and thousands of additional guard posts having been constructed.

Even in this mountainous region of North Pyongan Province, where the Yalu swells to over two kilometers wide in some spots, electrified fencing has been erected to prevent anyone from fleeing the country.

As seen in the next image, the double row of fencing cuts through not only mountainous regions but also through farmland, disrupting the typical flow of human activity in those areas.

Detail of the border fence. Location: 42.967323° 129.999220°

Sometimes those fences are separated by only a few meters but in other areas it can be as much as a kilometer. In total, over 260 sq. km. of farmland and forest lies between the two fences, cut off from easy access. 

In this area, 17 sq. km. of land (highlighted in green) have been cut off by the two rows of fencing. 

In other areas, the fences run much closer together. At the narrowest point in this image, they are only 60 meters apart.

The land that has always belonged to official farms continues to be cultivated, even in places where the fences are close together, but the secondary fence prevents farmers from easily accessing that land, placing an additional hardship on them. Furthermore, parts of the border are alleged to hold landmines and the placement of those mines could further complicate the farmers' relationship with the lands they're required to work.

Checkpoint example #1 at 42.540183° 130.443553°.

Checkpoint example #2 at 42.544376° 130.477298°.

Positioned along roads that pass through the secondary fence are small checkpoints to verify the identification of everyone that tries to enter the border region. Not all of the existing road network remains open, however, with the fence just cutting across the road, and closing it. By limiting the number of access points, North Korea can funnel activity through a more manageable number of fence crossings, increasing overall security.

However, the fence doesn't only impact official farms. Illegal plots of farmland (sotoji) have been an integral part of North Korea's black market economy for decades, and they play an important role in supporting local economies and supplementing local food supplies, with corn, cabbage, potatoes, and soybeans being common crops.

Although the land in between the fences (and the illegal farms it holds) no longer appear to be openly accessible, entry to the sotoji could still be possible by bribing checkpoint officers as bribery and corruption is already rife in North Korea. If bribes are required, however, that is yet one more slice of income taken away from farmers (who, in the case of sotoji, could be anyone from professional farmers, teachers, and miners, to retired persons). 

If, however, access to the land has been permanently blocked and many or most of the fields are no longer cultivated, then that will have a direct impact on the many small villages and hamlets that can be found along the border region.

Examples of sotoji found within the fenced area. Location: 40.622524° 125.280157° 

In this area (imaged above) northeast of Pyoktong, North Pyongan Province, sotoji comprise roughly half of the land with forests occupying the other half.

Nationwide, an estimated 550,000 hectares are suspected of being sotoji, and DailyNK estimated that some 20% of all grain grown in the country in 2007 came from these irregular farms. Of course, land use patterns evolve over time, but as Andrei Lankov wrote in 2011, "the percentage of land under the cultivation of sotoji owners roughly equals that under cultivation by state-run farms" in some counties that border China. And, indeed, numerous of these illegal plots can be found within the new border fence area.

Crop yields nationwide have struggled in the last few years, but there haven't been any studies yet that focus on the border area that might tell us how the sotoji have fared with the construction of the border fence.

Whether it's a border blockade cutting off cross-border trade and impacting the lives of thousands living in the villages and hamlets of the area, or whether it's the construction of scores of additional checkpoints between towns and counties, and even surrounding Pyongyang, the government has used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on human movement in ways greater than ever before.

Unfortunately, the difficulties imposed by the dual-layer border fence system on local populations aren't likely to lessen as authorities continue to extend the state's power over the economy and the freedom of movement. 

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters who help make all of this possible: Alex Kleinman, Amanda Oh, Donald Pierce, Dylan D, Joe Bishop-Henchman, Jonathan J, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and Squadfan.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/22/2023