September 6, 2015:
In North Korea the growing food shortages have created some strange situations. This can be seen, literally, around the Mount Baekdu Songun Youth Power Plant in the northeast (near the Chinese border). Satellite photos show farms being abandoned within about ten kilometers (six miles) of the construction site. Work on this hydroelectric plant have been going on, slowly, since 2001. Much of the work is done by civilian “volunteers” and soldiers who normally do civilian type work for at least a few months each year. The problem is that the government is supposed to supply food for these workers and since 2010 those rations have been shrinking. In response hungry soldiers began to go out at night and steal food, usually immature grain or vegetable crops from nearby farms. It got so bad that farmers tried posting volunteers, armed with clubs or sharp farm implements, to guard the fields. The troops would evade the guards or threaten them if they did not back off.
Then things got complicated in 2012 when economic reforms (market rules) were extended to farmers. A growing number of collective farms (there is no privately owned farmland) just left the area around the power plant construction site and moved to less productive land at least ten kilometers away, which seemed to be far enough to escape raids by hungry soldiers. This drastic move was made because farmers complained to the government about the thefts but were ignored.
All this is another side effect of the worsening food shortages. These began after the Cold War ended in 1991 and Russia cut off its subsidies (and China would not replace the Russian aid). That promptly led to the massive famines of the 1990s (that killed about ten percent of the population). The food situation got better for a while but that did not last. Mismanagement by the government led to a gradual return of the food shortages and by 2010 reached the military and lower ranking members of the secret police, who are more frequently reported stealing food and complaining of not getting as much food as they used to. For example, most North Korea troops stationed near the border responded by seizing or stealing from local farms. This causes growing tension between civilian and local police and officials.
It gets even worse in the cold weather because many soldiers were now, for the first time, victims of electricity and fuel shortages. This led to troops going to areas around their bases, often to places where soldiers were rarely seen and stole food from civilians and cut down what few trees left for fuel. This sort of thing is increasingly common and North Koreans have come to regard their troops as bandits not defenders. Many of the worst stories of misbehavior come from the reservists who are mobilized for these exercises. In some years so many reservists ware called up that many companies have to shut down. A growing number of reservists are simply not showing up when ordered, despite threats of punishment. When reservists return there will be more stories of shortages and misbehavior in the military. Not all the soldier scams are against civilians. More soldiers are selling fuel from their vehicles to black market fuel merchants. This has been going on for years but there is a lot more of it this year.