North Korea pushes bold agrarian reform program

[The following article appeared 0n the website of the Japanese news agency The Asahi Shimbun, dated 2 August 2012. It was compiled from reports by Koichiro Ishida in Shenyang, China, and Tetsuya Hakoda in Seoul. –CanKor]

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un tours the Ryugyong Health Complex in Pyongyang that is nearing completion. (Photo by KCNA)

To fend off starvation, North Korea will introduce bold agrarian reforms that will allow farmers to dispose of part of their harvests as they see fit.The initiative was authorized by new leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean government and military sources said.The planned reforms, the first in roughly 10 years, are intended to enhance yields and help mitigate chronic food shortages that plague the country.

The nation’s ability to feed itself has fallen short by about 1 million tons a year. But this year, a major drought has exacerbated the problem.

Under North Korea’s system of collective labor in farming villages, harvests are collected by the state and redistributed to households according to their size.

The new system will allow farmers to do what they want with their harvests after they have handed over statutory amounts to the state. This means they can consume the produce or sell it in markets, the sources said.

China introduced a similar “responsible production system” under its reform and door-opening policy that started in the late 1970s, whereupon yields increased rapidly. North Korea has tried to follow China’s model since the 1990s, but none of the reforms has taken root.

Under the new agrarian system, basic units of collective labor, called “punjo,” will be downsized nationwide to comprise only 6 to 10 persons. The measure is intended to reflect the individual efforts of farmers in the yields, the sources said.

The reform policy was decided in mid-June during a meeting of senior leaders and has already been conveyed to provincial officials. However, the steps have yet to be announced to the North Korean public, and no decision has been made on when they will be implemented, the sources said.

“The planting season is over, so yields would not rise drastically even if the reforms were proclaimed now,” said one North Korean government source. “The measures could be announced during the autumn harvest season and introduced from next year to minimize farmers’ disgruntlement.”

“Agrarian reforms require changes to a number of relevant institutional systems,” said one diplomatic source in China. “It would by no means be easy to reform the agrarian system without modifying the current military-first policy setup. It remains uncertain if the reforms can be implemented in their entirety.”

It is significant that the youthful Kim Jong Un is being credited with coming with the vision for agrarian reform and suggests he is beginning to come up with policies on his own. Kim Jong Un was elevated to the nation’s leader after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December. He has already reshuffled senior positions in the military.

Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, on April 19 published a speech Kim Jong Un gave for the first time to senior WPK officials.

“We should satisfactorily solve the food problem of the people,” Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying.

“The whole country is filled with enthusiasm for making a fresh start under a youthful leader,” said one source who visited North Korea around the time the speech was published. “And that enthusiasm is more intense the closer you get to Pyongyang.”

South Korean government officials say Kim Jong Un must have realized that he will not be able to maintain his regime unless he squarely faces the food issue. But many in the South remain skeptical about the North’s ability to make the reforms work.

Pyongyang’s attempts at this have been frustrated more than once in the past by the need to preserve the country’s unique socialist ideology. In 1994, immediately prior to the death of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Pyongyang granted cultivation rights to farmers in areas close to the Chinese border and elsewhere.

When North Korea implemented economic reform measures in July 2002–considered to be the boldest in the country’s history–it tried to eliminate chronic food shortages by sharply expanding the land areas that individuals were allowed to cultivate. This led to an immediate increase in the quantity of farm produce that farmers could dispose of as they liked. But the North Korean leadership quickly got cold feet, and the reforms lasted only slightly over three years.

It feared that the growth of a market economy, coupled with inter-Korean exchanges that were on the rise at the time, might usher in an “air of freedom” that could compromise the country’s socialist regime. It canceled the reforms and began cracking down on markets.

“Farmers in the North do not believe with any certainty that reform will materialize,” said one defector from North Korea from a farming community. “Long-lasting reform would undermine North Korea’s identity.”

Still, a number of North Korea watchers see positive signs of change in society as a whole, including a more open attitude toward Western culture, since Kim Jong Un took power.

“The reshuffling of personnel in the party and the military has consolidated Kim Jong Un’s grip on power,” said one expert in China who studies China-North Korea relations. “It makes sense to now start reforming the farming sector.”

Allowing farmers to reserve part of their own harvests will help enhance their willingness to work and increase overall food output, making it easier for the regime to show that its reforms have produced tangible results, the expert said.

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