North Korea Plans to Liberalize Agriculture, Slightly

The communist regime will allow farmers to sell part of their produce on the market.

The Chonsam Cooperative Farm in Anbyon, North Korea, June 12, 2008
The Chonsam Cooperative Farm in Anbyon, North Korea, June 12, 2008 (fljckr)

Is North Korea coming to terms with economic reality? Officials deny it but announced agricultural reforms suggest it is.

Last week, North Korea’s state news agency denounced speculation of change in the country as “foolish” while quoting a spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, one of the North’s bodies responsible for relations with the South, who said rumors to the effect were “ridiculous rhetoric” spread with “sinister intent.”

North Korea watchers have noted changes in the way the regime presents itself to the world since Kim Jong-un took over as leader from his father Kim Jong-il in December of last year. The young Kim seems more susceptible to Western influences and has apparently curtailed the power of the army in favor of the party which would represent a shift from military to civilian rule.

Kim named himself marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea last month after the ouster of Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the former army chief of staff who was considered a Kim family ally but resigned over “illness.” The timing of Ri’s departure and Kim’s promotion suggested that the former was actually purged while party boss Choe Ryong-hae — a member of the presidium of the Workers’ Party who was promoted to vice marshal despite his lack of military experience — now appears by the leader’s side in public and probably has the upper hand.

The personnel changes at the top of the North Korean hierarchy mean very little for the average, undernourished North Korean citizen. A liberalization initiative in agriculture, sanctioned by Kim Jong-un himself, has the potential of improving their lives.

The planned reforms are intended to enhance yields and help mitigate chronic food shortages that plague the communist country. North Korea’s existing system of collective labor in farming villages collects harvests by the state and redistributes them to households according to their needs. The reforms, if implemented, will allow farmers to consume part of their produce or sell it on the market, thus giving them an incentive to produce more.

China introduced a similar “responsible production system” in the late 1970s whereupon yields increased rapidly.

In a meeting with Chinese representatives on Friday, Kim insisted that, “Developing the economy and improving livelihoods, so that the Korean people lead happy and civilized lives, is the goal the Korean Workers’ Party is struggling toward,” reported the Xinhua news agency.

For years, China has made up for North Korean food shortages with aid. It is increasingly hard pressed to defend the regime on the world stage, given its oftentimes erratic behavior. If the North follows its example of economic reform, policymakers in Beijing will sigh in relief.

In the paranoid political culture of Pyongyang, politicians who advocate change, if there are any, must tread carefully indeed or risk expulsion — or worse. But if the initiative comes from the top, there may be hope for North Koreans yet.