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A Visit to China Opens Doors to North Korea through Sustainable Agriculture
In August 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to China as part of a farmer-to-farmer cultural exchange program. The farmers I met there were able to sell what they grow in the open markets, and after they make their state quotas, have brokers sell the larger amounts. Wholesalers drive their trucks to the farms, buy directly from the growers, and then transport the produce to the city to sell to restaurants and stores. On several occasions, I saw vendors selling directly to the hotel where we were staying. Also, each day, local street markets sold live seafood. What they didn’t sell would be offered for dinner at restaurants.
Korean Farmer-to-Farmer Exchange with the US
While in China, as part of our tour, I was able to meet with four farm managers from North Korea. China and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK, commonly referred to as North Korea) are both Communist countries but function differently. Under the direction of the government, the North Korean farm managers are in charge of cooperative farms, which are given quotas for agriculture production. Because of the different regions where the crops are growing and infrastructure limitations, their farming operations are very diverse. The woman manager I met ran a 1,750-hectare operation with fishing boats, farmland and orchards, along with the mandatory rice and corn production. Her challenges include steep slopes, erosion of soil, and very limited infrastructure and resources. The four managers were very intelligent, and had keen eyes toward learning new technology for winter production using solar energy, soil management and conservation.
One of the main points of interest for me was the tour of the University of Shenyang’s Agriculture and Sustainability program. We went to three different research centers there. The first was focused on winter production. It had walls built from brick and pumice blocks, and there were some freestanding cold frames. The North Korean farmers were given cold-frame kits to extend their growing seasons. They were interested in growing high-value crops for their cooperatives and communities. They hoped that these crops could generate sales, which could then be reinvested into their communities.
Accompanying us was a North Korean translator by the name of Mr. O. Mr. O has apparently been one of the few North Koreans who have regularly traveled outside of their country. I believe he is one of their more progressive thinkers and has gained respect from some of his countrymen. Our group also included a chief engineer from one of the North Korean farms. He was very quiet and respectful. His main responsibility is to keep all of the equipment running. A soil scientist from the ASE, a branch of the North Korea agriculture services, was especially interested in the soil laboratory at the Chinese agriculture station where soil is tested for all the Chinese farms. Extension agents then distribute the recommended kind and amount of fertilizers needed. The seventh member of the North Korean delegation was Mr. Ling. He was the only one who actually stated that he works for the DRPK prosecutor’s office. I think he was the assigned government officer.
The whole tour was very well designed, and protocol was always followed. In some instances we were told in what order to enter rooms, and the seating arrangements were studied before the meetings. When we met with Chinese delegations, we usually had a Chinese Cultural Affairs attaché with us. I had the sense that the Chinese were watching the North Koreans, the North Koreans were watching the Chinese, and both sides were watching me, the American farmer.
The education system in China is very different. Not only do students not get to pick their education levels; they do not get a choice of their career. That is determined by several factors, by others. Another strange thing is that the professors charge for their services. First they negotiate a price for a tour and a short introduction to explain what services they offer. If more is wanted, then a contract can be entered into if the government approves. In those cases the government officials are offered a fee for their services. The season extension researcher in Shenyang was a professor at the solar greenhouse research center. He had several students working with him on design and placement. When asked by the North Korean farmers for very specific details on building, growing times and methods, he said if they wanted more information he could provide construction and materials for a fee. He has his own consultation firm.
The North Korean farmers were very interested in experiencing other methods and then taking those observations and adapting them to their needs for growing food to feed their communities and country. It was clear that both counties were withholding information from each other. And after spending time with the other farmers, I could understand why. The reasons are many, and in some instances, historical in nature.
On one of the travel days I asked the farmers what their country looked like. Immediately, all the other folks in the van were listening. I was given three publications from North Korea to look at from the government official. One of the most eye-opening things I witnessed was the first time the other folks from North Korea saw pictures and stories from their countrymen and women. My understanding is that living in their country, people are not encouraged or sometimes cannot travel inside their own country. One of the impacts of that is that there is very little farmer-to-farmer exchange, and this hinders the ability of the ASE to spread the information needed to change and improve their food system.
Recommendations for Change
These are a few of the experiences I had on what I believe was the first farmer-to-farmer exchange program between North Koreans and New Mexico farmers. I witnessed the power of regular people sharing ideas and having some of the same values of family and community. It was an effort toward building trust and learning what it is really like in each other’s countries. On this tour, I felt that some of the participants saw the North Koreans as inferior on several levels. I think more exchange programs of this sort should be developed. It will take a culturally sensitive approach, one that utilizes respect and equitable treatment.
Don Bustos is an International Agriculture and Trade Policy fellow working for American Friends Service Committee. DBustos@afsc.org
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