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INTERVIEWExpert pitches Laotian rural reform to solve NK's chronic food shortages

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Cho Chung-hui, the director of Good Farmers Research Institute, speaks about a development assistance project in Uganda during an interview with his office in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, March 14. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk
Cho Chung-hui, the director of Good Farmers Research Institute, speaks about a development assistance project in Uganda during an interview with his office in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, March 14. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

This is the second in a series of interviews with North Korean defectors and their assimilation into South Korea―ED.

Defector recalls discrimination against Zainichi Koreans, their descendants in the North

By Kang Hyun-kyung

SUWON, Gyeonggi Province ― Cho Chung-hui, the director of an in-house research institute of the development NGO Good Farmers, visited Laos recently to check with local partners on an egg farm project aimed at generating side income for local farmers.

It was an eye-opening trip, he said. In Laos, he added he was inspired to think what North Korea's future could be like. "The agriculture sectors of North Korea and Laos have several things in common," Cho said during a recent Korea Times interview in his office in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province. "Farmers of the two countries are poor. Agricultural automation has not been introduced. There is also a significant developmental gap between the urban and rural areas."

These similarities in agricultural infrastructure convinced Cho to conclude that Laos is a more realistic model for North Korea than any other Southeast Asian country, such as Vietnam or Thailand, to solve the North's chronic food shortages.

After land privatization allowed Laotian farmers to own land, he said they experienced increased income, although many are still poor. "Unlike Laos, the North Korean economy is a sort of hybrid. It's based on a planned economy but there are some capitalist elements as we've seen in markets that popped up after the mid-1990s," he said. "If North Korea opens up its economy to the outside world and introduces some reforms in the agricultural sector like Laos did in the past, the North Korean farmers will surely be better off. The problem is that the regime has no intention to let that happen as it fears the increasing influence from the grassroots."

The agriculture sector accounts for the lion's share of North Korea's GDP.

According to Bank of Korea, agricultural and fishery productivity stood for 22.3 percent of the GDP of the North in 2016. The 2014 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations data showed that 2.93 million North Koreans, 11.7 percent of its population were involved in the country's agriculture sector.

Despite the significance of the agriculture sector, North Korea has been grappling with chronic food shortages.

In a report, titled "Crop Prospects and Quarterly Global Report Food Situation," released in September last year, the FAO warned of worsening food insecurity in North Korea.

It said that "persisting economic constraints, exacerbated by expectations of a reduced 2022 harvest, may worsen the food insecurity situation, with large numbers of people suffering from low levels of food consumption and very poor dietary diversity."

Cho said agricultural reform would be inevitable for North Korea to improve its crop productivity in the years to come. The question is how it will happen.

Cho said activists and those who are concerned about North Korean residents should collaborate to facilitate a bottom-up change in the reclusive state.

"North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has no appetite for a change, because it poses a threat to his and his family's rule," he said. "Therefore, it would be realistic that a change, if it takes place, will be driven by North Korea's grassroots. There is a precedent of such bottom-up change in North Korea. Open-air markets that sprung up in the wake of the deadly famine in the mid-1990s set such an example."

Cho joined Good Farmers, an NGO designed to help farmers in developing countries through various innovative development assistance programs, in 2016 as a full-time staff member. Years later, he was promoted to the position of director of its research institute. He oversees several development assistance projects for Uganda and a number of Southeast Asian countries, including Laos.

Cho Chung-hi, second from left, poses with activists working on the human rights of North Koreans in Laos, March 6. Courtesy of Good Farmers
Cho Chung-hi, second from left, poses with activists working on the human rights of North Koreans in Laos, March 6. Courtesy of Good Farmers

Cho arrived in South Korea in 2011 with his wife and two children after escaping from the North.

Persistent discrimination fueled his family's decision to seek a better life outside of the totalitarian country.

Cho is a descendant of Zainichi Koreans or ethnic Koreans in Japan. His grandfather, who was born and raised in North Gyeongsang Province, went to Japan as a wartime forced laborer during the Japanese colonial rule and settled down in Hiroshima after World War II.

Cho's father was born there and moved to North Korea to study in the 1960s when he was 20 years old.

He was among the early waves of Zainichi Koreans who embarked on a ferry heading to North Korea following then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's calls for Koreans living in Japan to return to their socialist fatherland. The migration of Koreans from Japan to North Korea continued until the early 1980s. Some 100,000 people moved to the North.

Not long after they arrived in the North, they realized that they were deceived. However, it was too late for them to turn back.

Cho's father met his wife there and the couple started a family.

The North discriminated against the descendants of Zainichi Koreans. Some were sent to prison on accusations of spying for South Korea or Japan.

Cho's family background held him back whenever he was at a crossroads in his life.

Despite his academic excellence, he said he did not even have an opportunity to apply for his first-choice universities ― namely Kim Il-Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology.

"In North Korea, if you want to go to college, you are required to get prior approval from the educational authorities. You can apply for the university and take a test, only when you get the green light from them to go ahead with your applications," he said. "Unfortunately, I didn't get the approval."

He said a college degree is one of the three conditions to become successful in the North. The other two are the completion of military service and the acquisition of membership of the Workers' Party.

Cho was denied service in the military for the same reason.

"In North Korea, guns have a symbolic meaning. They are viewed as a weapon of class. In those days, it was unthinkable for the North Korean authorities to allow people like me who have 'dubious' family backgrounds to have a gun," he said.

Facing a sequence of obstacles, Cho chose to detour.

He labored as a construction worker for 10 years, while his peers served in the military, to prove his loyalty to the party.

A decade of physically challenging manual work became his hard-earned credential. He was granted membership of the Workers' Party and then went to Pyongsong Veterinary and Livestock University.

"In North Korea, career choices that people like me can take are limited. They can be athletes, artists, scientists or specialists of certain fields. But they are not allowed to be political elites," he said. "And there is a glass ceiling in their workplaces, and they cannot go up further once they have reached a certain position."

Cho said he and his wife agreed to escape from the North because of their children.

"I have lived a life like that and took discrimination for granted all during my life in the North. But passing those hardships on to my children was a very different story. As a parent, I thought I couldn't let that happen to my children," he said.

After arriving in South Korea, Cho worked in various sectors. He worked part-time at a convenience store and washed dishes at a restaurant afterward. To find a decent, stable job, he obtained several licenses and certificates but they did not help.

After years of trial-and-error searching for jobs, he finally joined Good Farmers in 2016. Although it is not a high-paid job, he said, he is satisfied with it as it allows him to share his expertise in agriculture to help developing countries.

In February, he obtained a Ph.D. degree from University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

"I got a doctoral degree at 60. Here in South Korea, no one can force me to do this or that. I make my own decisions without being influenced by anyone," he said.

He said South Korea is not an easy country for North Korean defectors to adapt to because almost all sectors are highly competitive.

Nevertheless, in this country, he said, people have a choice and they can succeed in their lives as long as they work hard.

Cho Chung-hui during his recent trip to Laos / Courtesy of Good Farmers
Cho Chung-hui during his recent trip to Laos / Courtesy of Good Farmers
Kang Hyun-kyung


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