North Korea’ Crappy Way to Feed People

North Korea, as recounted in these pages many times over, is unlike most of the rest of the world, and not in a good way. The problems range from the serious to the absurd: the nation lacks the infrastructure you’ll find common in its neighboring nations, the cult of personality around its former leader extended to its calendar, and the government once banned chocolate snack pies. And in one very important case, the problems are both serious and absurd — and, also, gross. The issue? North Korea’s food shortages.

The “solution”? Well, it isn’t much of one, hence the scare quotes, but: human feces.

In 2021, Amnesty International issued a 41-page report (pdf here) outlining the extent and impact of food shortages in North Korea. Per the report, North Korea’s food crisis is driven, in large part, by a lack of fertilizer: “since 1995, fertilizer production has dropped to below 100,000 tons per year, and is now less than 12 percent of pre-1990 levels. By 2000 agriculture operated at 20 to 30 percent of normal levels of soil nutrient inputs. This shortfall was said to be the largest single contributor to reduced soil yields and to food shortage.” The problem was bad before COVID-19, but the pandemic made things worse; as the BBC reported, “the country is not self-sufficient in fertilizer production, and according to Nikkei Asia in February [2021], one of its major factories producing (among other things) fertilizer had to shut down due to a lack of spare parts. That has been blamed on the closure of the border with its largest trading partner China in January 2020, because of the Covid pandemic.”

So for about a decade, it’s been the official policy of North Korea is that people should look for fertilizer wherever it may be found. The above-linked BBC story explains:

A letter from Kim Jong-un in 2014 reminded leaders of the agricultural sector that they should find alternative easily-available sources of fertilizer.

“Use all sources of manure such as domestic animal excrement, night soil [human excrement], compost, and ditch-bed soil [extracted from below the surface]” he wrote in the letter published by state news agency KCNA.

And to be clear, the “agricultural section” isn’t factory farms — quite often, that phrase refers to everyday people with a few animals and a small plot of land to their name. Many North Koreans are expected to do their part to collect manure — including their own. And often, letters from the dear leader aren’t always enough to get action. So, as Yahoo! News reported, the government issued quotas. For the 2021-22 year, “each household had to produce 200kg of excrement, while factories and enterprises had to provide 500kg of manure per person.” Failure to meet that quota meant being barred from the market where you buy and sell most of your food, so people took the quota seriously — and by any means necessary. And there are a lot of reasons to think that human feces were commonly part of the solution. To start, as the Daily Beast reported, “how people are to contribute so much manure in a country where animals are in short supply is not clear, but the term ‘homemade’ comes up frequently in reports in the North Korean media.”

In any event, setting quotas that encourage people to collect human waste has caused all sorts of problems. As one anonymous North Korean explained to Radio Free Asia, as the deadline to reach the quota approaches, people literally fight over poop: “It’s so pathetic that disputes break out over this, but they do this every year at about this time of year. Each family in the neighborhood has been organized into shifts to guard the communal toilet to keep the supply of human waste secure. Residents lament that they have to stand guard at a public toilet at night, then go to work the next day.” But it’s better than an all-out brawl over the contents of a toilet, which, unfortunately, is a real problem for North Koreans subject to the quota.

And even when the manure collection occurs peacefully, the results aren’t great. For example, in 2017, Reuters reported that many North Koreans are believed to be infected with parasites, and those bugs are most likely coming from the use of human feces are fertilizer. 

Bonus fact: It’s possible, but unknowable, that “night soil” (again, that’s human feces used as fertilizer) may have caused or contributed to the death of multiple U.S. presidents, and even their kids. As the Saturday Evening Post explains, in early Washington D.C, “the lack of a sewer system caused early residents to leave their so-called ‘night soil’ in the streets. It would then be collected and deposited in a sparsely populated section of the near north side of the city.” Unfortunately, when engineers began piping water into the White House starting in 1833, they didn’t take these depositories into consideration, and there’s a good chance that contaminated water entered the cups of the presidents and their families. And it has had little impact on the food shortages, too.

From the Archives: A Tree Falls in North Korea: Another North Korea story.