Whatever happened to North Korea’s agricultural reforms? Just what I expected.

Starting around 2012, with a boost from an AP Pyongyang guided tour and some optimistic (but thinly sourced) analysis from Randall Ireson, Andrei Lankov, and others, a consensus formed among the pro-engagement school of North Korea watchers that Pyongyang was finally striking out on a bold new course of reform in an area of obvious need — its agriculture sector. In practice, the “reform” amounted to breaking up big collectives into smaller ones, and allowing collective farmers to keep and sell in the markets a portion of the crops they grew, a model that hardly evokes historical memories of social justice in the context of the Reconstruction-era South. It also looked suspiciously like a case of Pyongyang again trying to adjust to an economic reality that its people had imposed by necessity.

Although Pyongyang appears to have changed the way it taxed farmers starting in 2012, this blog has taken a consistently skeptical view of any analysis characterizing this as “reform.” Engagement advocates tend to view North Korea’s economic policies as socialism rather than economic totalitarianism with ideological decorations, which helps them characterize un-socialist policies as economic reforms. This, in turn, is a platform from which they leap to predictions that political reform will inevitably follow. But in addition to the paucity of evidence of what the changes to North Korea’s agricultural policies really meant in practice, there were reasons to doubt their implementation and question their significance. Indeed, there was evidence to support skepticism about them almost from the very beginning. By 2015, North Korean farmers “no longer believe[d]” that the changes would benefit them given state’s confiscation of their surpluses for the military and other expenses.

To their credit, both Ireson and Lankov eventually retreated from their optimistic predictions when they didn’t pan out, and most talk of agrarian perestroika has since died away. Even so, it’s still useful to follow just how Pyongyang’s experiment with sharecropping worked out. This analysis from last September, citing a recent defector from Ryanggang Province, gives us some evidence of the results.

A defector who goes by Mrs. Han offered invaluable insight to the problems pervading the new system at a recent event hosted by the North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) in Seoul. “When the pojeon system was first introduced, rural residents were singing its praises, thinking to themselves, ‘We’re finally going to be able to make a living.’ But when the system was actually implemented, the vast majority of the yield went to the state, leaving very little behind for the farmers who worked the land. That turn of events was deeply dispiriting for the workers,” said Mrs. Han, formerly the manager of the TaeHong Country Cooperative Farm in Ryanggang Province before she defected last October.

NKIS President Kim Heung Kwang added that if the pojeon family unit system was truly implemented, the degree of autonomy and living standard of agricultural workers should have improved. “But that is simply not what has happened,” he pointed out. [Daily NK]

According to Ms. Han, the state’s unsustainably high production quotas and its practice of charging farmers for fertilizer and pesticides mean that farmers seldom have a surplus to sell. According to a second report, where the state collected surplus crops and promised to redistribute them, that redistribution didn’t happen. Other reports note that regime officials tend to confiscate and divert the surplus that farmers were told they could keep and sell.

“Our provinces are known as the breadbasket, but the rice we’ve harvested has all been sent to the army, leaving us with nothing. Furthermore, the public distribution system is dispensing nothing. So people from this province haven’t been able to even taste the very rice they grew. They have to go as far as Ryanggang Province when they want to buy rice,” a source in North Hwanghae Province reported to Daily NK on August 5.

The extent of the problem is severe, she added, noting that “even as recent as ten years ago, our living standard wasn’t this low. These days, there are more and more people who have been forced to live as kotjebi [homeless orphans]. We’ll starve if we’re forced to endure another year or two of this.” [….]

“People around here are forced to watch the rice they’ve harvested being sent to Pyongyang. Far from receiving public distribution rations, they haven’t even seen that system in action. It’s ironic that this province produces the largest rice yield in the country, and yet its residents are forced to purchase smuggled Chinese rice in Ryanggang Province at above market price.”

This is in stark contrast to the cities, where markets are always open and bursting with a diverse array of goods. In the agricultural villages, however, product selection is scant and the markets operate on an irregular schedule (e.g. only on the 1, 11, and 21 of each month). Moreover, a poor logistics and distribution framework means few products are available to rural dwellers, most of whom live hand to mouth. [Daily NK]

The plight of African-Americans in the American South continues to be a useful historical parallel. As then, sharecropping in North Korea is contributing to a Great Migration of the rural poor to the cities. Historically, Pyongyang has controlled the movements of its population with a system of travel passes. It has been particularly careful to control who is allowed to live in Pyongyang. Surely it knows that rapid urbanization that concentrates large numbers of rural poor in the cities is a potential threat to the stability of the state.

1 Comment

  1. This is good analysis. It adds to the piling, yet slowly forming, evidence that the people are more and more aware of the failures of the state. One of the main problems is that despite being aware of these failures and lack of faith in the state, there is not a lot of awareness on what can be done to rectify it. Alternatives are in very short supply in the North. This is what I was told by a former high-level defector.