PYONGYANG, North Korea — They said it was a model cooperative farm. There were vegetables, to be sure, but there was barely a farmer in sight, barely any activity. And it was surprisingly spotless given that farming usually entails dirt.
“This is a very beautiful place. All the citizens of Pyongyang are envious of this farm,” said Park Myong Shil, a state-
appointed guide who proudly showed a group of reporters around the Jangchon cooperative farm southeast of the capital on Wednesday morning.
Usually reclusive North Korea has allowed some international media into its capital in the week before the much-
anticipated Workers’ Party congress, due to open Friday, and the regime is eager to show off improvements in how the country is run since Kim Jong Un took over as its leader, almost five years ago.
The farm, which Kim visited in June, was deemed to be a shining example of progress, given that it is apparently used as a model for other agricultural cooperatives across the country. So reporters were taken down roads bustling with people to the conspicuously deserted complex.
A central square had a mural of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s “eternal president,” standing in a cabbage patch. All around the square were paths, with not so much as a speck of dirt, that led to identical houses with identical solar panels and identical water heaters on their roofs. Loudspeakers blared revolutionary music and messages to work harder — for whose ears was unclear.
“So kind of them to get rid of all the people so we don’t have to worry about them getting in our shot,” one cameraman quipped.
First stop: a huge and spotless auditorium with portraits of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the backdrop on the stage. This was a space that the residents could use for entertainment, as a communal karaoke space or to celebrate mother’s day, the director of the farm said, even though it had the atmosphere of a reeducation center.
Second stop: a kindergarten where the entrance featured a painting of happy children under the slogan “We are happy.” Sure enough, the halls were filled with the sound of children singing happy songs, as if they knew the reporters were coming. When one journalist entered the room, the children, ages 4 or 5, turned around with rictus grins and bowed, singing all the while.
The hallways were decorated with cartoon animals — one, a squirrel, was holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher — and the toys on classroom shelves included tanks. In another room, a teacher helped a 2-year-old display a toy assault rifle to reporters, while the other toddlers stood almost entirely emotionless, not a smile nor a tear, as Western journalists, some pointing big cameras, went through.
Then it was off — with the minders — to wander around the houses, which sat in rows like tombstones.
Apparently, a total of 3,000 people live in this cooperative. But apart from a few people working in greenhouses and a handful more repairing roofs or painting lampposts, almost no one was around. Inside a science building, lab equipment sat like museum pieces.
Where were all the people? One minder told a reporter that they were all out working in the fields. Another told his charge that they were in meetings.
What about these garden plots in front of the houses? They were household gardens, the minders said. Never mind that one house had a garden of only cabbages, another of only cucumbers, the next entirely squash.
Agriculture has been one of the areas where there has been significant change in recent years. Kim Jong Un’s regime has changed the quota system to allow farmers to keep between 30 and 60 percent of their crops, either to eat or to sell for profit in the markets. Economic analysts have been watching these changes keenly, part of a broader, if tentative, move toward marketization.
But here, the farmers kept 10 percent of their production, said Ri Seung Il, deputy director of the farm, although he also bandied about the numbers 30 and 70. The answer was never clear.
The minders then took the reporters, with all their equipment, into a house occupied by Hong Son Suk, a former teacher who had lived here for a year, with her husband, son and grandson. The house had a traditional kitchen — ovens in the ground — and two other rooms, one of which had the obligatory portraits of the country’s leaders on the wall.
“We have no worries,” Hong said. “We are living a warm and happy life.”
A reporter peeked into Hong’s fridge and found strawberries and a fish — so it did look as if she really lived there. Outside, a mangy-looking puppy was tied up. Its name? Prosperity.