By Kim Soobok (Translation and edits by Hyun Lee)

Continued from Part 1


During Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, the colonial government extracted all of Korea’s rice to Japan and left very little for Koreans. Having rice with meat broth was a luxury that everyone longed for in that period. Immediately after liberation, increasing rice production became North Korea’s top agricultural priority.

According to Jo Byeong-heon, a South Korean expert on North Korea, North Korea built 40,000 kilometers of irrigation canals, as well as some 1700 reservoirs and 25,000 pumping stations in the period after liberation. In the early 1960s, the country built an additional 50,000 pumping stations in the agricultural areas and completely irrigated all of its farmland.

According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, North Korea consistently produced 3.5 million to 4.3 million tons of grain each year throughout the 1960s, and 5 million to 6.5 million tons a year in the 1970s and 1980s. That number steadily rose to 9 million tons a year by 1993 but plummeted to 2.6 million in 1996, the height of the Arduous March.

When the sudden halt in fuel imports and scarcity of electricity in the early 1990’s paralyzed the country’s pumping stations and water could no longer reach its farmlands, North Korea turned to science for answers. It sought ways to irrigate its farms without reliance on electricity and came up with a simple but radical idea. The idea was based on the principle of gravity, which directs water from high to low elevation. 80% of North Korea’s land is mountains and uplands where rainwater naturally accumulates. So, its scientists reasoned, if one can guide the water from the tops of mountains to flow downhill to the agricultural areas in the lowlands, one no longer needs the pumping stations that consume so much electricity.

North Korea began to construct dams high in the mountains and dig hundreds of miles of waterways to guide water to the plains. Without fuel to run heavy equipment, the construction, mostly in rugged mountainous terrain, was all done by human labor. Volunteer units of tens of thousands of workers, farmers, youth and women from various provinces and cities across the country came together to participate in the massive construction project.

Construction began in 1999, and a new waterway project was completed on average of every three years. Transporting concrete and equipment hundreds of miles to the construction site on shoddy roads and in inclement weather was no easy feat. And feeding, clothing and housing tens of thousands of volunteers required a remarkable level of organization.

The construction crews, mostly young men and women, endured punishing conditions in the mountains, where temperatures easily dropped to negative forty degrees celsius in the coldest months of the winter. They dug tunnels, inch by inch, to guide water through the mountains. They pushed wagons filled with dirt and rocks through long and narrow paths, often uphill, and hauled heavy materials in waist-deep water. North Korean video footage of recent construction sites show people who look sturdy and well-equipped, but in earlier videos, most workers appeared gaunt and were bare-handed. Far away from their families, they cared for each other when they fell ill.

The state takes care of the children of men and women who volunteer for the waterway construction in its many children’s homes throughout the country and childcare centers near the construction sites. It also established rest and recreation areas for the work crews to take time off. Songs dedicated to the waterway construction crews depict them as national heroes, and the central government dignifies those who died while working on the waterway as revolutionary martyrs and gives the highest honor to their families.

If we truly understand what it took for the people of North Korea to build the “natural flow waterways” under the bitterest conditions during the Arduous March, then we may understand the resilience that undergirds North Korean society today.

The following are some of the waterways that North Korea has completed in the past two decades or is currently in the process of constructing:

Gaechon-Lake Taesong Waterway

Construction of the Gaechon-Lake Taesong Waterway began in November, 1999 and was completed in October, 2002. It extends 100 miles and consists of 90 waterway tunnels and 21 reservoirs. (See Figure 1)

Thousands of volunteer workers built a massive dam in Daegak-ri in Gaechon City and carved waterways through Sunchon, Pyongwon, Daedong, and Jeungsan to Lake Taesong in Nampo City. The dam in Daegak-ri raises the water level of the Daedong River, and this way, the water can flow naturally downstream to various regions in South Pyongan Province through the man-made waterways without the use of electric power.

Figure 1: Gaechon-Lake Taesong Waterway; Baekma-Cholsan Waterway; Chongchon River-South Pyongan Waterway. The exact routes of the waterways are unknown. The approximate areas irrigated by the waterways are highlighted in yellow.

The waterway irrigates 245,000 acres of land. The province no longer needs the 380 pumping stations and 530 water pumps it had previously used and can thus conserve 60,000 kilowatts of electricity per year. The waterway also provides drinking water and helps the province to meet its overall water management goals, including flood prevention in the Jaeryong River basin. The province also built numerous small and medium hydropower plants along the waterway to generate electricity.

Kim Soobok overlooking part of the Gaechon-Lake Taesong Waterway
Guidepost at a monument dedicated to the completion of the Gaechon-Lake Taesong Waterway

Baekma-Cholsan Waterway

The Baekma-Cholsan Waterway is composed of a dam in Baekma in Pihyun County, Sinuiju and 174 miles of waterways. (See Figure 1) Construction began in May, 2003 and was completed in May, 2005. The waterway irrigates approximately 112,000 acres and increased annual grain production by 100,000 tons. Hydroelectric dams along the waterway generate 6000 kilowatts of electricity per year.

Chongchon River-South Pyongan Waterway

Construction began in February, 2016 and is still ongoing. It begins at Lake Yeonpung, widely known as a resort area for the country’s scientists, near Gaechon City, 65 miles north of Pyongyang. It will guide water from the upper region of the Chongchon River to regions not reached by the Gaechon-Lake Taesong waterway: Gaechon, Sonam, Dokchon, etc. (See Figure 1)

Mirubol Waterway

The Mirubol region used to pump water from Namgang River, a tributary of the Daedong River, and Ryesong River. But the land in this region is said to have been so infertile that its villagers were always putting off tilling the land. So the place is called Mirubol, which means to “put off.” That has changed now with the construction of the Mirubol Waterway, a formidable 137 mile waterway constructed by redirecting the flow of the legendary Rimjin River in its upper region and creating waterway tunnels through the vast and rugged Ahobiryong Mountains. It guides water to the Risang Reservoir, from where it flows to various regions to irrigate 63,000 acres in three counties–Goksan, Singye and Suan. (See Figure 2) 80 of the 106 water pumps previously used to irrigate the region have been torn down, and the waterway conserves 27 million kilowatts of electricity per year.

Figure 2: Mirubol Waterway. The exact route of the waterway is unknown. The approximate area irrigated by the waterway is highlighted in yellow.

South Hwanghae Province Waterway 1

The waterway starts from Lake Jangsu and flows through Haeju, Gangryong and Byoksong, then ends in Ongjin. (See Figure 3) Construction began in January, 2012 and was completed in November, 2016. The waterway extends 76 miles and consists of 30 water tunnels and more than 400 structures, such as bridges and underground ducts. It irrigates more than 24,000 acres.

Figure 3: South Hwanghae Province Waterway 1; and South Hwanghae Province Waterway 2. The exact routes of the waterways are unknown. The approximate areas irrigated by the waterways are highlighted in yellow.

South Hwanghae Province Waterway 2

Currently under construction, the South Hwanghae Province Waterway 2 begins in Cheongdan and will end in Yonan. (See Figure 3)


Other Water Management Projects

Water veins flow underground between layers of rock. North Korea’s National Academy of Science has developed a machine that can detect water veins 300 meters underground. By locating these water sources deep underground, North Korea has built hundreds of cisterns across the country to store the water in preparation for droughts.

North Korean scientists are also developing agricultural methods that consume less water: for example, using dry seedbeds for rice; planting fewer plants spaced farther apart per seed bed–which actually yields more grains; and turning paddies where water is inaccessible into fields for dry crops. In addition to water management, North Korea is also reorganizing farmlands with the goal of mechanizing agriculture.

Thanks to these efforts, North Korea has decidedly recovered from its food crisis of the 1990’s and is progressing closer toward its goal of food self-sufficiency each year. The country has now turned its attention to improving the quality of the people’s diet by diversifying sources of protein, fresh vegetables and dairy.

In part 3, I will introduce North Korea’s progress in fertilizer production and its direct correlation to increasing food production.

To be continued in Part 3: Enriching the Soil — Producing Beyond Subsistence

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