Anna Louise Strong

In North Korea: First Eye-Witness Report

Land for the Farmers

FOR THE FIRST TIME in many decades North Korea grows all its own food. It has to. It is shut off from its natural source of food in South Korea by the American-versus-Russian occupation and the 38th parallel.

North Korea is mountainous country where the Japanese developed mines, water - power and war industries, feeding them from the farm areas of South Korea and Manchuria. But Manchuria is today cut off by the Chinese civil war - while the Americans refuse rice from South Korea. So North Korea has to feed itself. And does!

It was not easy the first year. The harvest of 1946 was a poor one, so North Korea tried to get food from South Korea in payment for half a billion kilowatt hours of electric power they had supplied by that time from their great power plant on the Yalu River. (It has grown to more than a billion kilowatt hours now in 1948.) They also tried to get rice in payment for irrigation water which the north sent into the south to water some 60,000 acres. If both of these efforts they failed. So the North Koreans ate scantily on about one pound of grain per person per day, and many people - chiefly city folk without land who couldn't get on the ration list - went south in search of cheaper food.

By summer of 1947, the time of my visit, the land reform was well established, the cultivated area bad been increased some 17.5 per cent over that of 1945 and the fields were better fertilized and better worked. So the big news in autumn of 1947 was that North Korea could feed itself properly on a harvest of two million metric tons, which was about a pound and a quarter of grain per person per day. The farmers incidentally had profited handsomely from the land reform and the high food prices. And hundreds of thousands oŁ people were moving from South Korea into the north.

It began with the land reform. This threw the landlords out in twenty-three days and relieved three-fourths of the North Korean farmers from a crushing burden of rent. This was followed by the "production drive," with a Farmers' Bank making cheap loans for seed and fertilizer. These two factors, together with the incentive of a pretty good price for food in the open market, stimulated the expansion of the farms. The cultivated area in the three northernmost provinces (whose boundaries have not changed and whose figures are therefore comparable with those of Japanese days) show an increase in the cultivated area from 3,015,500 acres in 1945 to 3,549,250 acres in 1947, a growth of 17.5 per cent in two years, which would be remarkable in any land. Even more striking was the increase in the farmers' standard of living, now that they no longer pay rent.

In the days of Japan's rule, by official figures of 1943, there were some three and a half million farming families in all Korea, owning some 8,750,000 acres of cultivated land. That's less than three acres per family. But they didn't have it equally. Some 62 per cent of the land was in the hands of landlords. Most of the soil tillers were share-croppers, and their rent was from 50 to 80 per cent of their crop.

To be precise, of all those three and a half million farming families, some 17.3 per cent owned all the land that they tilled. Some 52 per cent were fully sharecroppers, 21 per cent owned small bits of land but share-cropped additional land to keep going, while 4 per cent were farmhands.

Landlordism grew worse in the decades of Japanese rule. The Japanese took for themselves the land of Korean feudal lords; they put in irrigation systems and charged the farmers more than they could pay; then the Japanese-owned banks took over the lands on mortgages. Japan used Korea as her granary. Of a total rice harvest of 18 million "koku" in 1938, 11 million, or 60 per cent, went to Japan. The Japanese ate seven times as much rice per capita as the Koreans, condemning the latter to eat rice huskings and cheaper grains such as kaoliang.

Under the Japanese rule there were many farmers' uprisings. According to Japanese sources, 15,000 insurgents were killed and 10,000 jailed in uprisings between 1905 and 1907. Several hundred thousand Koreans took part in the Great Uprising on March 1, 1919, led by the religious pacifist sect, the Chendoguo. Of these 300,000 were arrested, beaten up or killed by the Japanese police. Yet farmers' uprisings again took place in 1930 and 1933, and were again suppressed.

The Japanese overlords knew that they were sitting on a volcano in the Korean rural areas. So they quickly and ruthlessly jailed anyone who spoke a word of discontent or freedom. Almost everyone of influence in North Korea today has thus a prison past.

Lee Shun Kin, present minister of agriculture, came from a prosperous farming family which was able to give him an education in Tokyo University. Nonetheless he landed in jail twice, a total of seven years. His record is just an average one among Korean patriots.


The real jail-bird hero of Korea's farmers is Kang Chin-kuan. He is president today of the Farmers' Union of North Korea, elected in tribute to his heroic past. From Kang's story one gains a picture of the Korean farmers' struggle through the years.

Kang and Minister Lee came to see me, to tell me the tale of Korea's farmers. The two men were an interesting contrast. Minister Lee had the quick brain of the educated man, the graduate in political economy, the statistician. Sixty-two year old Kang said little; he listened, considered and nodded. He has had little chance for education. But he knows and voices the needs and hopes of the farmers. His dark oval face expressed not only his own unusual endurance, but the suffering tenacity of generations of Korean share-croppers.

Old Kang was born in 1885 in a share-cropper family. He was a share-cropper all his life. He never went to school. At the age of fifteen he married. "My grandfather wanted to see my bride before he died, so they got me a wife," he said. "There was no ceremony. They just got her for nothing from a family that couldn't feed her." The short and bitter bridal of the poor!

Kang took part in the great 1919 uprising. When the uprising was crushed, he fled to Manchuria and continued to organize farmers. The soldiers of the warlord Chang Tso-lin caught him and gave him to the Japanese in 1921. He was in jail till 1940. "In a tiny cell," he said, "with a high-up grated window." Sometimes they took him under a guard to work.

"Could you ever talk to anyone?"

"Of course not," Kang laughed.

In 1940 they let him out as a man who was broken, no longer a danger to Japan. For Kang's limbs had grown atrophied in jail, and he could no longer walk nor even stand but only crawl. He was carried to his village home and dumped there. After a year he was walking a little. But even before he could walk he was doing illegal propaganda among the share-croppers again.


One of the first acts of the newly formed provisional government was the Land Reform Law. The rapid organization of "People's Committees," described in the previous section, went hand in hand with the organization of Farmers' Unions. Farmers formed some 60 per cent of the citizenry in North Korea, and they were also 60 per cent of the membership of the governing "People's Committees." The Provisional People's Committee for North Korea, under Kim Il Sung as president, took power on February 8, 1946, stating that its chief task was "to fulfill the farmers' demands."

At once the Farmers' Union of North Korea, which had grown by that time to 1,500,000 members, held a congress at Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and demanded land reform on the basis of "land to the tiller." Two days later, on March 5, in the midst of a storm of letters and resolutions from farmers, the provisional government passed the Land Reform Law. It was announced on March 7 over the radio. Some 197,000 organizers were sent at once to the rural districts, where some 11,500 local committees were elected by landless farmers to apportion the newly acquired lands. The distribution was completed in twentythree days, by April 1, 1946. The farmers, who demanded land in the first week in March, began their spring plowing in April on their newly acquired lands.

Probably no land reform in all history has been accomplished so swiftly and with so little turmoil.

The Land Reform Law was sweeping. It confiscated all Japanese lands, whether public or private, all landlords' lands, if the landlord owned more than twelve acres, or if, owning less, he systematically rented the land and did not work it himself, all lands of churches and monasteries that exceeded twelve acres. The lands were given to village committees to distribute on the basis of the number of people in each farm family, and also with reference to the number of adult workers. Landlords also might get land to till but not more than twelve acres, and this must be in another county where they would have no traditional influence. Of the 70,000 landlords in North Korea, 3,500 took advantage of this permission.

Some 724,522 farming families got land, 72 per cent of all the farmers of North Korea. Of these 442,975, or more than half, had been landless share-croppers or farmhands, while the rest had possessed small bits of land supplemented by share-cropping. Of the 4,950,000 arable acres in North Korea, some 2,625,000more than half-was thus distributed.

Before the land reform the average holding of poor farmers was half an acre; after the reform it was five acres. Before the land reform over half a million farming families could not feed themselves till the next harvest, but were forced to borrow food at usurious rates. After the reform, every farming family could feed itself. Even though 1946 was a bad crop year because of excessive rains, the farmers had much more food than formerly. They now gave 25 per cent of their crop to the government in tax, instead of the former 50 to 80 per cent to the landlords in rent.


Nothing could keep the news of this land reform from seeping into the rural areas of South Korea, where, under the American occupation, the landlords still held the lands. This was why the general strike in South Korea in autumn of 1946, which began with the city workers, spread swiftly into the rural areas, until there were farmers and workers demonstrations and uprisings in eighty centers, put down bloodily by the South Korean police, with the help of the American military.

An air of success spread over North Korea in autumn of 1947. It was especially noticeable on the farms. Almost every village had extended its sown area and had worked its fields better - with government loans for seed and fertilizer. The weather had been favorable and there was a good crop.

My trip from coast to coast across the peninsula showed every inch of arable land well sown. Fields came so close to the railroad that a casual glance through the window gave the illusion that we were riding over the crops. Rice fields were thick with sharp blades of that dark blue-green color that shows wellfertilized soil. One heard that the fields in South Korea had gone yellow for want of the fertilizer, which comes from a chemical works in North Korea. This fertilizer plant once supplied South Korea and sent fertilizer to Manchuria and Japan as well. At any time in the past two years North Korea would gladly have exchanged fertilizer with the South for food. Something always got in the way. Perhaps the Americans needed the surplus South Korean rice for Japan, or perhaps there wasn't any surplus. North Koreans wouldn't know. Anyway, unable to trade it to the South, they put all the fertilizer on their own fields, with good result.


Let us take two sample villages that I visited, one near the east coast and one near the west coast, not far four Pyongyang. Driving out from Wonsen on the east coast, with a Korean farm inspector, I came to the village Shinchunghi, a cluster of thatched-room clay houses buried under green vegetation. We took off our shoes to enter the village committee-room, for the floor was of soft mats. We talked here with Pak I Ho, village chairman, a man in his early thirties who was "head of a family of twelve." These were not all his own children, but included his parents, brothers and brothers' wives, as Oriental families do.

This village, said Pak, had 150 households, with 278 acres of "wet field" suitable for rice and 310 acres of "dry field" suitable for wheat. It thus averaged about four acres per family. Before the land reform, only twelve families could live from their own land. Fifteen were part-tenants, owning in all fifty acres, but renting more. Thirteen were landless laborers. One hundred and ten families were share-croppers. All of the landlords lived outside the village, some in the county town, some in the provincial capital. "There had been many small revolts by tenants against landlords," said Pak. "Usually these took the form of a demand by the tenants of a given landlord for easier terms of rent. No real irnprovement occurred until after the liberation. Then the real 'Farmers' Unions' began.

"We saw what was happening in the county so we organized here too. Nobody really opposed the organization, but the young folks were more energetic in it than the old. We sent letters to Kim Il Sung and asked for the land. There was no resistance of landlords here. Some of them were small landlords who said: 'I am ready to give up my land, if only Korea can thus be strong, independent and free: Such landlords still live in the next townshop where they have orchards and grow fruit. Big landlords ran away to the south but our village had none of these.

"When the government gave the law, we called a Farmers' Meeting and had the law explained. Then we elected a Committee of Seven from experienced farmers and from all political parties, to divide the lands. The Farmers' Meeting itself fixed. the method of division. We had a system of points: one point for every able-bodied worker in the family and fractions of a point for younger or older members of the family who could not do so much work. The land went according to the number of points in the family.

"Some farmers have less land to work than formerly. There was no quarrel about this, for they formerly had to pay high rent for this land but now all the land that they work is theirs. Some farmers living in other villages had land in this village and we traded with them, so that each man may work nearer home. By all of these means our farm-work became better, and we have been able to add fifty acres of cultivated land that were formerly unworked, while we have changed twenty acres of 'dry field' to irrigated 'wet field' so that we get more rice."

Eight of the thirteen former farmhands had been able to marry, since they now have land of their own. Fifteen new houses had been built, while eight other families had bought material for houses, and would build them as soon as the harvest work was done.

"There is also electricity in all houses now," said Chairman Pak, "while formerly it was only in the homes of the rich."


An even more striking success story was told me in Kwangyi village, on the west coast near Pyongyang.

Kwangyi village is a cluster of ninety-seven families buried in green gardens, crops and trees. They possess in all some 343 acres - not quite four per family - of which most is sown in millet, corn and kaoliang, with twenty-one irrigated acres in rice.

The village chairman, a lean, sinewy man in his forties, squatted on a mat in the high summer pavilion he had built above the roof-tops, and told his tale. Only five of the ninety-seven families, he told me, had owned any land before the land reform. These five had owned fifty acres, an average of ten acres per family, and this land was still theirs. All the rest of the villagers had formerly rented the land that they tilled. Five landlords had lived in the village and one of them had been the "gugen" or village chief, appointed from above. Part of the land had been owned in small pieces by people who lived in the town.

"Before freedom came there was hate against the landlords," said the chairman, "but nobody dared speak out, not even when they took 70 and 80 per cent of the crop. After the freeing of our country, we began to demand the land. The government listened to us and the government gave us the land. That was the biggest happiness I ever knew. Nobody in our village was against it except those five landlords. They just went away and we don't want to remember them any more."

Prosperity had come to Kwangyi village with its new land ownership and with the high prices the farmers got for their crops. Ten families had built new houses in the past two years, six had replaced straw roofs with slate, six more had built those pleasant summer pavilions, high platforms with a roof but open on all sides, raised above the foliage to catch the breeze on summer nights and give the luxury of good sleep. There were twenty new radios and forty sewing-machines in the village. Electricity, paid for by the villagers, was now in every home.

Many, many new things had come since the liberation, the chairman assured me, while a group of villagers, gathering around, nodded as he mentioned each of the new things in turn. There was the land reform, and the teaching of children and illiterates – "Formerly only the rich studied but now we have forty children and sixty grown-ups going to school." There was the electricity and the radios. And taxes were of many kinds formerly but now are only three: for the government, for the province and for the school. Then there are the secret elections and the right of everyone to be elected. "We have a People's Committee of five elected by the villagers, instead of the former 'gugen' appointed from the county. Then there is this Women's Union that is getting equality."

"Of all these new things which is the most important?" I asked, while a dozen villagers clustered close to hear.

The chairman considered for a moment and then answered with decision: "The land reform-and the free speech."

Such are the changes in land ownership and in daily living that have made the farmers of North Korea a solid bulwark of the new regime.

Next: 5. With the Factory Workers