The elite eat pork and sometimes beef, while the middle classes eat rabbit. The lowest classes rarely get meat. Dog is still eaten in North Korea as it is in South Korea. Large animals are used primarily for pulling blows and carts, Chickens, rabbits and goats are raised for food. Many people keep rabbits and chickens on their balconies for meat and eggs.

Most North Korean pork is produced for the military. Beef is readily available for North Korea’s ruling elite, but is officially out of reach for the majority of North Koreans, who subsist mostly on poultry, pork, rabbits, fish or goats for their meat-sourced protein. However, beef, mainly from old, slaughtered working cattle, is available in local markets. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 29, 2016]

According to the 2013 World Almanac there were 577,000 cattle, 14.9 million , 3.6 million goats, 2.2 million pigs and 166,000 million sheep in the early 20101. In 2002 North Korea reportedly had 48,000 horses, 575,000 head of cattle, and 2.6 million goats. Livestock production, in order of volume, includes pork, eggs, cows’ milk, poultry meat, beef and veal, and goat meat. North Korea has always been faced with food shortages, but since the mid-1990s they have become more severe. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007; 2013 World Almanac]

Eric Talmadge wrote in Associated Press in the North Korean countryside “cows are few, but goats are everywhere, a reminder of the famine years and Kim Jong Il's mass goat-breeding campaign of 1996. Goats, known as the poor man's cow, were bred because they are easier to care for. But they also can eat their way into hillside shrubs, which makes the landslide problem even worse. [Source: Eric Talmadge, Associated Press, July 15, 2014]

For a while ostrich farming was a big push in North Korea. Pro-Pyongyang Korean Japanese helped finance an ostrich farm between Pyongyang and the airport. Pig farms have received some financing from the Chinese.

History of Raising Livestock in North Korea

Livestock traditionally played a minor role in Korean agriculture, especially in the North, where the steep and often barren hills are unsuitable for large-scale grazing, but since the end of the Korean War beef has become a significant component of the diet in the South but not in the North where goats and chickens are the dominant forms of livestock. Because of the general lack of livestock, human feces — and urine — are often key ingredients for fertilizer.

The post-Korean War trend of increasing the share of livestock in the total value of agricultural output continued during the 1980s, judging from the steady growth, which outpaced grain production. Cattle are raised in the mountainous parts of the two Pyongan provinces, and sheep and goats are kept in the rugged areas of the two Hamgyong provinces and in Yanggang and Kangwn provinces. Pigs and poultry, probably the most important types of livestock, are raised near Pyongyang and in North Pyongan and South Hwanghae provinces. The government is particularly proud of its large chicken farms. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

According to a 1988 agreement with the UNDP, North Korea was to receive livestock aid from the UNDP, along with assistance in modernizing vegetable farms, fruit production and storage, rice cultivation, and construction of a fish farm and soil and plant experimental stations. A rice nursery and a vegetable research institute began operation in March 1991. The Third Seven-Year Plan called for attaining an annual output of 1.7 million tons of meat, 7 billion eggs, and 2 million tons of fruit by 1993.*

In the summer of 1998, 500 head of cattle were carried across the DMZ and given to North Korea as a gift from the owner of the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai — Chung Ju Yung Chung was born in North Korea. When he was 18 he stole his father’s cow and sold it and used the money for a train ticket to Seoul to make his fortune. Later he returned 1,000 cows — 500 in 1998 and 500 at another time. to North Korea as a kind of gesture of thanks. In 1999, the initiall 500 head of cattle became sick and about half of them died. Pyongyang claimed the animals were force fed vinyl rope, large nails, magnets and other items by South Korea’s spy agency and that’s what caused them to die. The spy agency denied the allegations.

Grass-Fed Goats and Rabbits Versus Grain-Fed Pigs and Chickens in North Korea

In 2013, after being hit by food shortages, North Korea announced that it was going ahead with plans to abandon the raising of pigs and poultry, which consume badly needed grain, and rely instead on “grass-fed” livestock like rabbits and goats as sources of meat. Radio Free Asia reported: An order to “drastically reduce the number of animals eating corn and rice bran” was issued by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in early March following his review of a report on the country’s livestock industry, a source in North Hamgyeong province told RFA’s Korean Service. “The call was repeated in July, “so pig farms have been changed to goat farms, and poultry farms to rabbit farms, on a nationwide scale,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. [Source: Radio Free Asia, August 22, 2013]

“Similar schemes have been attempted in the past, with North Korean military units ordered in February 2011 to raise goats and rabbits for their food — only to see the effort fail when little grazing for the goats could be found and rabbits were consumed without leaving enough to breed. Separately, an agriculture official in North Hamgyeong confirmed Kim’s recent directive, adding, “Since March, about 7,000 pigs have been slaughtered, with only 16 pigs left to breed at pig farms in Heoryong [city]. All pig farms will likely be changed to goat farms in the next few years,” he said. “Following Kim Jong Un’s directions not to keep domestic animals that eat stock feed, most pig farms and poultry farms have been either reduced in size or closed,” a source in Jagang province said, also on condition of anonymity. “Instead of raising chickens or pigs, we will be keeping rabbits and goats,” he said.

“Though Jagang boasts dozens of poultry farms capable of raising about 20 million chickens and ducks and “well-appointed” farms capable of raising 250,000 pigs, the numbers of these animals are already in decline, RFA’s source said. “Only 420,000 chickens and ducks and 9,400 pigs were being raised in Jagang province in March 2013,” he said.

Cows 'Too Old to Work' Slaughtered for Meat in North Korea

Defying nationwide restrictions on the slaughter of cattle for food, rural agencies in North Korea are quietly killing cows too old to work for sale as beef in local markets. Radio Free Asia reported: “Beef is not publicly displayed in markets like other products, but that doesn’t mean that we hide its availability,” a source told Radio Free Asia. If beef is too openly displayed, though, police officers or market managers will seize the money earned from its sale, the source said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 29, 2016]

According to Radio Free Asia: “Only those cows deemed too old to work in the fields are selected for the unauthorized slaughter, resulting in tough and low-quality beef that sells more cheaply than beef smuggled in from neighboring China, the source said. “Chinese beef costs about 60 yuan [about US$10] per kilogram, while North Korean beef sells for about 20 yuan [about US$3.3] per kilogram,” the source said. “North Korean beef doesn’t fetch even half the price of Chinese beef,” he said.

“Also speaking to RFA, a source in North Pyongan province’s Sinuiju city, across the Yalu river from China, said that Chinese beef is easier to find than North Korean beef in area markets there. “It isn’t hard to buy Chinese beef in North Korean markets here,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named. “North Korean beef is not sold as commonly here in Sinuiju as it is in Pyongyang.” Meanwhile, in Yanggang province, also bordering China, a source in Hyesan city said that North Korean beef can be bought at local markets “to which rural agencies have secretly sent butchered cows no longer able to work on the farms.” Even at the lower prices being asked, though, not everyone who wishes can buy the meat, he said. “For the 60 yuan price per kilogram being charged, you can also buy over 15 kilograms of rice.” “Only the newly rich will be able to get their hands on the beef,” he said.

North Koreans Forced to Register Livestock to Supply Leather to the Military

In 2014, households in North Korea were required to register their livestock with the government and sell the skins from their slaughtered animals to authorities so the military had enough leather for soldiers’ belts and boots, according to sources in the country. Radio Free Asia reported: “Under a new “Domestic Animal Reporting System” to be launched across the country, North Koreans will face imprisonment or fines if they do not provide the skins to the authorities after slaughtering their cows, goats, pigs, and sheep, the sources said. [Source: Radio Free Asia, February 7, 2014]

“Households will lose out on income because they will receive lower prices for their leather from the government than they normally get from selling it on the black market, multiple sources said. Families will also be left with less meat to eat because they will be required to provide hides from animals they normally avoid skinning to preserve the amount of meat, they said. “All households must report the sort and number of their domestic animals to the village office, and the North Korean authorities will collect the leather of animals slaughtered,” a source in Chagang province in the north of the country told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Another source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities would pay the equivalent of US$0.02 per kilogram (2 pounds) for the leather, much lower than the US$9 per kilogram rate it sells at on the black market. North Korean families have complained about the low rates, the source said. “They don’t hesitate to blame the government, saying this system amounts to looting by the government,” he said. Other sources reported individuals will be fined up to the equivalent of US$50 — an amount comparable to 100 times an average workers’ monthly wage — while state farm managers who do so may be sentenced to up to three years in prison. The source in Chagang province said North Korean families do not usually skin pigs, sheep, and goats in order to preserve more of the animals’ meat, but will have to do so under the new system.

“Authorities were introducing the system to fulfill growing demand for leather from the military, the source said. The military has been in need of leather for shoes and belts issued to soldiers as part of their uniforms, according to a source in Yanggang province, also in the north of the country. The military prefers the items to be made out of leather because it trains soldiers to boil the material and eat it if they are facing starvation in emergency conditions, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In recent years, the North Korean authorities have provided the military with shoes and belts made of artificial leather, and the military has been very discontented with these artificial items which cannot be used as food in case of emergency,” the source said.

North Korean Army Builds Pig Farms to Boost Meat Supply

In 2015, military units across North Korea began setting up pig farms, after being ordered to do so by Kim Jong Un, to tackle the problem of chronic shortages of meat in the army. Radio Free Asia reported: Work on the farms began at brigade level shortly after Kim ordered their construction during a June visit to Unit 810, a supply group in Jagang province, bordering China, a source in Jagang told RFA’s Korean Service. “The 12th Army Corps of the People’s Army stationed in Gangge, the capital city of Jagang, and the 12th Brigade of the People’s Defense Guard in the city of Manpo, also in Jagang, are currently building new pig farms,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. [Source: Radio Free Asia, October 27, 2015]

“One company from each brigade has been mobilized to carry out the construction, he said. Kim gave similar orders during an inspection of Unit 350, based in North Hwanghae province bordering South Korea, ordering military units also to increase the cultivation of malt soybeans as an additional source of food, the source said.

“In response to Kim's orders, brigade-level battalions quickly began building the farms, with one farm also currently under construction in the area of Namsang-ri, a village in South Pyongan province near the Dokro River, he said.

North Korean Pig Smuggling

In 2016, Radio Free Asia reported: “North Korean military officers and other high-ranking government officials are lining their pockets as they attempt to satisfy the Chinese appetite for pork by smuggling swine across the frontier, sources tell RFA’s Korea service.Chinese-produced pork sells for about US$2.27 a pound in areas near the North Korean border, while pork on the North Korea side of the Yalu River runs about US$0.75 per pound. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 19, 2016]

“The relatively low price for North Korean pork and its higher quality are proving to be too much of a lure for smugglers looking to take advantage of Chinese tastes and the price differential, say the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. “North Korean pork is popular among Chinese consumers because North Korean pork fat is so thin and the price difference between North Korean pork and Chinese pork is big,” said a source from Yanggang province. “Our pork is mostly black pork that has a natural, juicy flavor, which makes our pork taste better compared to Chinese white pork that is raised with fodder,” added the source, who couldn’t help but boast about the quality of the home-grown meat.

“North Korean pork may be cheap and tasty, but smuggling food is a serious crime in a country that doesn’t produce enough food to feed its people. “Smuggling domestic pork into foreign countries is a severe crime because North Korea lacks food supply,” the source said. Bootlegging pork is different than other types of smuggling as it takes a large quantity to make it worthwhile. That makes it likely that high-ranking officials are involved in the illicit meat market, the sources said. “Smuggling is extremely prohibitive without getting help from powerful officials,” the source explained. “You need enough support from powerful officials to create some kind of a structure to share profit between related executives and security department employees including the border guards.”

“Most North Korean pork is destined for the military, and diverting enough to make any real profit requires at least the tacit and most likely the explicit approval of the top brass. “Pork that is ready to be smuggled into China is raised by North Korean residents, then sent to military troops for military food,” said another source from North Hamgyong Province. “Then high-ranking military officers conspire with smugglers in order to sneak the North Korean pork into China.”

“While smugglers attempt to sate the Chinese desire for pork, few North Koreans actually get a chance to eat it, unless they are rich, powerful or high-ranking military officers who are often involved in the illicit swine trade, the Hamgyong Province source said. North Korean pork is rare to see even for North Korean residents”, the source said. “It is highly likely that powerful officials, military authorities, and newly-rich North Koreans are working as a group to smuggle pork into China. Without them, smuggling is impossible.”

Giant Rabbit Breeding in North Korea

Rabbits are regarded as a middle class source of meat and an important source of income for many North Koreans. The government has urged North Koreans to raise rabbits. Teachers and people in other jobs raise rabbits on the side to sell at the market. In the cities many people keep rabbits on their balconies for meat . In 2010, several international charities raised money to send giant rabbits to North Korea to breed as a cheap source of protein, but the animals vanished amid speculation that they had been quickly seized and eaten by officials. [Source: Radio Free Asia, August 22, 2013]

On the giant rabbit feeding program, Sam Bramlett of the Borgen Project wrote: “In order to solve the widespread food shortages, Kim Jun-il began to breed giant overweight rabbits in 2007. He got this idea after seeing Karl Szmolinsky, a German rabbit breeder, breed the world’s largest rabbit. Szmolinsky sent overweight rabbits to North Korea but the experiment turned out to be a failure when it was suspected Kim was eating the rabbits himself. [Source: Sam Bramlett, Borgen Project, January 17, 2018]

Reporting from Eberswalde, Germany, where Szmolinsky lives, Craig Whitlock wrote in Washington Post: “Few people raise bigger bunny rabbits than Karl Szmolinsky, who has been producing long-eared whoppers since 1964. His favorite breed, German gray giants, are the size of a full-grown beagle and so fat they can barely hop.” In 2006, “after the retired chauffeur entered some of his monsters in an agricultural fair, word of his breeding skills spread to the North Korean Embassy in Berlin. Diplomats looked past the cute, furry faces with the twitching noses and saw a possible solution to their nation's endemic food shortage: an enormous bunny in every Korean pot. [Source: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, February 2, 2007]

“The North Koreans approached Szmolinsky and asked whether he'd advise them on how to start a rabbit breeding program to help "feed the population," the 67-year-old pensioner recalled. Sympathetic to the Koreans' plight, he agreed to sell some of his best stock at a steep discount and volunteered to travel to the hermetic nation as a consultant. "They liked what they saw, and they liked how big they were," he said, as he showed off other bunnies that he raises in weathered hutches in his back yard. "It's harder than you think to raise them. They need a varied diet, but they have to be fed like pigs, basically, to get that big."

“Szmolinsky stuffed six of his rabbits into modified dog carriers and took them to the airport in Berlin, where they boarded a flight for Pyongyang, via Frankfurt, Germany, and Beijing. Robert, a 23-pounder, was the largest of the bunch, which included four female rabbits and one other male carefully selected for their breeding potential. An official at the North Korean Embassy in Berlin, who would not give his name, confirmed that the Asian nation coveted the German bunnies for their gigantism. But he refused to answer any other questions about the breeding program.

“In the hands of a skilled butcher, a German gray giant can yield up to 15 pounds of meat, according to Szmolinsky. "There's not much fat, and it's very tender." Their gray-and-white pelts are soft and supple but are generally worthless on the European market, he said. The breeder said he was notified by an attache at the North Korean Embassy that Robert and the other rabbits from Eberswalde had arrived safely at their destination. But he allowed that he was a little concerned their new masters might not know how to care for them properly. He said he hopes to travel to North Korea in April to inspect their living conditions. "If they aren't able to feed them the way I do here, I won't send them any more," he said. "I don't want them to be half-starved."

“The Koreans' choice of rabbits has other German breeders scratching their heads. Karl-Heinz Heitz, chairman of the State Association of Rabbit Breeders in Berlin-Brandenburg, said that German gray giants are hard to beat for size but that they aren't cheap to fatten up. It takes wheelbarrow-loads of hay, vegetables and rabbit chow to bring them to maturity. "Let me say this: There are certainly breeds that are more economically profitable; I do not know why the North Koreans wanted this one," said Heitz, who introduced the Korean officials to Szmolinsky. Breeds such as New Zealand red or big light silver or Vienna blue are only half as big but are more cost-effective to raise. "You do not have to put in as much to get out a fair amount of meat," Heitz said.

“For whatever reason, the German gray giants appear to hold a special allure in Asia. A North Korean television crew visited Eberswalde last year to film Szmolinsky's rabbits for a children's program. And a couple of Chinese visitors showed up unannounced at his doorstep the other day, asking if they could buy some of his critters. "I had to get rid of them," he said of the Chinese. He's not parting with any of his 14 remaining adult rabbits until he can breed some more.

Ostrich Farming in North Korea

Ostrich farming was introduced to North Korea as a way to bring more meat and protein to the North Korean diet and as a possible solution to the nation’s chronic food shortages. Reporting Sunan, North Korea, Jean H. Lee of Associated Press wrote: “It’s an unlikely sight: hundreds of ostriches, a bird native to sunny Africa, squatting and squabbling in the morning chill on a sprawling farm in North Korea. Even stranger: In winter, some wear quilted vests. [Source: Jean H. Lee, Associated Press, July 26, 2011]

The showcase farm is an idiosyncratic approach to one of the biggest issues confronting North Korea — food shortages.“Built on the heels of a 1990s famine, the ostrich farm was a bold, expensive investment that the state hoped would help feed its people and provide goods to export. Years later, ostrich meat is the specialty at some of Pyongyang’s finest restaurants, but appears out of the reach of millions of hungry North Koreans.

“Immaculate and organized, the ostrich farm in the Pyongyang suburb of Sunan sits on rolling hills with verdant landscaping, thanks to the 560,000 trees planted on what was once bare ground. Kim Jong Il ordered the gawky birds imported from Africa at US$10,000 a pop in the late 1990s, said guide Kim Jin Ok, giving The Associated Press a private tour. But ostriches are native to warm climates, and North Korea is brutally cold in winter. They’re also still wild at heart, temperamental, feisty and sensitive to noise, she said. “When we brought them from Africa, it was winter and so cold, so we made vests for them to wear,” Kim recalled with an embarrassed laugh.

“Today [2010], 10,000 ostriches are grouped in pens that line a long road dubbed Ostrich Alley. State-of-the-art equipment, including a gleaming US$1.2 million dismembering machine and sausage maker, were imported from France and Italy. Leader Kim so loves to stroll around the farm, surveying Ostrich Alley from a hilltop perch, that he has made more than 70 visits over the years, the guide said.

“Why ostriches? “The appeal of ostriches is that nothing is wasted,” guide Kim said. She showed off goods for sale and on display in a small shop on the farm grounds: sausages lined up like cigars, high heels and men’s loafers, wallets and purses, feather dusters and painted eggs on carved wooden stands. A South Korean professor who studies the North’s agriculture dismissed the farm as a “show” and said ostriches are no real solution to hunger in North Korea. “Ostriches are rich in protein. Ostrich farms have nothing to do with improving the people’s lives,” Kim Kyung-ryang of Kangwon National University said. “Vegetables are what matter. Food other than staples are a luxury.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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