Toughest job in North Korea? Meet its most famous farmer

It’s a perfect fall day as our van makes the 30-minute drive from central Pyongyang to Jang Chon Cooperative farm. We ask if our photographer can film out of the window as we pass the rolling fields that will soon be ready to harvest. “Not yet,” one official tells us. “We’re almost there.”

When it comes to farming in North Korea, September and October are typically the most abundant months. From what we’re seeing, farms are busy. Winter is coming and North Koreans will soon stock up on Korean cabbage used to make kimchi, the delicious fermented side dish that is a staple of the Korean diet year-round, but especially during the winter months. Some will use hundreds of heads of cabbage in the annual kimchi making ritual, which is supposed to last through winter into spring. For many, a weak harvest means less food, especially in May just before barley season.

As we pull into the co-op farm, we spot the rows of greenhouses that North Korea hopes will reduce and eliminate seasonal food shortages that continue to affect large portions of the population. We spot a large, colorful mural of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, a man whose portrait is omnipresent in every home and public building.

Kim, who still holds the title of eternal president more than 20 years after his death, is portrayed on the mural wearing his trademark suit standing in a cabbage field amongst smiling farmers.

The mural is almost the only recognizable feature of the original cooperative farming village, which recently underwent a dramatic transformation. The project was completed on the orders of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un — the current Kim — who envisioned a farm of the future.

An average of 4,000 workers per day, including troops from the Korean People’s Army, worked around the clock, even during the harsh winter months, to complete the project at “Chollima Speed,” a reference to the mythical winged horse that symbolizes the rapid advance of Korean society.

Model village

North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, and his son Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, are surrounded by beaming children in this popular painting. The supreme leaders visited the Jang Chon cooperative farm on multiple occasions -- the founder himself made 16 trips.

With all those resources poured into it, the improvements go far beyond the sprawling, irrigated fields and the sea of 665 greenhouses. There are rows of brand new housing units, complete with spacious apartments with new kitchens, patios, and private bathrooms. Cooking is done outside using propane gas in the warmer months, and inside on burners built into the floor during the cold season.

Like most North Korean homes today, there are numerous solar panels to reduce the drain on the nation’s power grid and provide backup power during frequent electricity shortages.

We visit a newly built nursery school that has a medical clinic, spring water bathing room, indoor and outdoor wading pools, music instruction and playrooms full of stuffed animals and toy missile launchers, mini-versions of the larger military hardware that will roll through the streets of Pyongyang for the upcoming October 10 Party Foundation Day celebrations.

We visit classrooms full of costumed, singing children preparing their own performances for the event. There is a roller-skating rink, a fishing pond they tell us is stocked with up to 56,000 fish, a medical clinic, and even a beauty parlor. There is also a 646-seat auditorium — the stage adorned with two large portraits of the late founder and his son Kim Jong Il. The “farmers’ theater” is used for ideological studies and performances.

Ms. Kim

As we tour the village, a woman with a booming voice and even louder laugh approaches our crew with a smile. Her name is Kim Myong Yon and I’m told she’s been the manager of this farm for 47-years, and has lived in the farming village for 51 years. At 69, she shows no signs of slowing down.

With her commanding presence and all-consuming enthusiasm for the North Korean leaders, she quickly takes control of our tour from the public relations officer assigned to show us around. I congratulate her on the newly constructed village. “It’s all because of the leader!” she says enthusiastically.

She takes us to one of North Korea’s very first greenhouses, first visited by Kim Il Sung more than three decades ago and again recently by his grandson. This greenhouse was a model for the indoor farming that allows North Korea to grow some vegetables year-round. North Korea’s humid continental climate of warm summers and cold, dry winters and mostly mountainous terrain is more suitable for industry than agriculture, she explains.

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Food shortages

Supplying enough food to feed the country’s 24 million people has long been a struggle. Kim remembers when they barely had seeds to plant, first after the Korean War and again during the great famine of the 1990s when hundreds of thousands died of starvation.

The famine was caused by a “perfect storm” of natural disaster, economic crisis attributed to a U.S.-led economic blockade and North Korean financial mismanagement, and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, that dramatically slashed the amount of aid entering the country.

“We had no fertilizer, no electricity, we had to eat grass porridge,” Kim says. “We really struggled to survive.”

Kim says poverty was a way of life at the farm village. But she proudly proclaims the struggles are over, and invites us to return next fall when she promises to throw us a party.

“Our dream has been achieved by the leader,” Kim says. “In the old days, we were so poor, so barren. We never imagined we’d grow this many vegetables.”

The co-op is considered a model for North Korea’s 2,000 other farms, whose managers were brought here to tour the facilities and attempt to duplicate the system back in their home provinces. Jang Chon is leaps and bounds ahead of the majority of North Korean farms. The farm’s senior managers say the new village will be used a prototype for other farming communities.

Despite recent gains, the U.N. World Food Programme says North Korea still struggles to produce enough food for its 24-million people. According to an April 2015, U.N. Humanitarian Needs and Priorities report, 70% of the population is “food insecure and highly vulnerable to shortages in food production.”

New ‘free markets’

In an apparent effort to boost productivity, North Korean farmers are now allowed to keep any surplus food to sell or trade on the growing network of free markets, which allow expats living in country and North Korea’s small but growing middle class to purchase additional food beyond government-provided rations. Previously, any surplus was turned over to the state. The changes give farmers an incentive to grow more food than the state quota, which is similar to China’s market-based agricultural reforms that began in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Jang Chon, complete with a fully stocked fishing pond, is just minutes from the capital Pyongyang — home to many of North Korea’s most privileged, and some might say well-fed citizens.

Kim has also earned a prominent position in North Korea’s agricultural community. She is something of a national celebrity. Pictures in the farm museum show many of her 44 meetings over the years — with all three North Korean leaders. Her face is highly recognizable to North Koreans, who have regularly seen her in newspapers and on television for years as a shining example for the nation’s agricultural workers

“The condition of my uniform and my appearance in the photos shows how we were doing during those years,” she says.

Older photos show a slim young woman in simple work clothes, standing beside Kim Il Sung as he toured the farm 16 times. Kim appointed her farm manager at age 23, when she says she gave him honest feedback about the abysmal condition of the farm at the time.

She says the story made the leader sad and he “smoked constantly” while touring the grounds. His decorative ashtray is still on display at the museum. In a separate room, the chair his grandson sat on when he toured the farm.

“If we only eat a few grains of rice, without many vegetables, we’re still satisfied as long as we have our leader,” Kim says.

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