If one mark of a good reporter is that you can’t tell how he really feels about his subject matter, then I haven’t much to say for Yonhap reporter Chang Jae-Soon, who cites a post at 38 North by Randall Ireson to declare that North Korean agricultural reforms are working. That’s a daring declaration for anyone to offer in the barren dead of January after so many more optimistic analyses have come to nothing, including those of Randall Ireson. That may be why Ireson doesn’t offer one this time–indeed, he climbs down gently from the more optimistic analysis he offered a year ago. Chang still seizes on Ireson’s piece, and wrings so much of the caution and balance out of it (or buries it) that it’s hardly a true reflection of the original. Here is what Ireson did say:
* North Korea has a “history of [ag reform] policies that have not been fully implemented” going all the way back to 2002. The background to them was the growth of North Korean markets despite regime efforts to limit them.
* Ag reforms announced in 2012 reduced the size of work units and (proportionally) their quotas. Farmers were allowed to sell the surplus (as they’d been doing for years, through pilferage). Ireson thinks these measures were “widely if perhaps not universally implemented during 2014,” although even this is a more optimistic assessment than most of the reports he cites in his footnotes.
* It’s not certain that the regime intends to continue in this same direction. Ireson concedes that key details of the reforms “are scarce” and that implementation at the local level appears to be spotty. With respect to the key element of the reforms–an enlightened concept they used to call “sharecropping” during the Reconstruction era–Ireson cites Radio Free Asia and Daily NK reports suggesting that “that not all local officials were willing to allow farmers to keep their full share.”
* The announced reforms coincide with reports of a better harvest in 2013, but Ireson admits that he can only infer a connection, and that the methodologies for measuring harvests are imprecise and contradictory in any event. The regime continued to import far less grain than its shortfall (to which I add—spent many times that amount importing other stuff you can’t eat, and also exported quite a bit of food, too).
Here is how Ireson closes:
But let’s not be overly ebullient: the actions to date do not constitute a Chinese- or Vietnamese-style economic reform, and the DPRK will remain food-insecure for the immediate future. Rollbacks and opposition to other recent changes in farm policy argue for a wait-and-see approach. The 5.30 policies appear to implicitly accept the inevitability of a strong market for distributing foodstuffs, and the need for farmers to capture a much larger share of their production than has been allowed in the past. However, they do not eliminate production quotas or state supply of primary farming supplies. Changes in other sectors of the economy suggest that perhaps a gradual liberalization process is both foreseen and underway—with an emphasis on “gradual.” At the farm level, the coming year will be instructive, both in terms of whether the 6.28 and 5.30 policies are fully implemented, and whether farmers can take advantage of this new autonomy to increase production. We can be hopeful.
Ireson’s piece gains much credibility from its caution, but at the sacrifice of its persuasiveness that anything of significance is happening here. There isn’t much point in speculating; we’ll know by November, but for now, let’s just say the evidence is mixed–at best.
For a slightly less cautious view, you can always read what Andrei Lankov has been writing lately. Here’s the latest example of that, via The New York Times. We don’t have to wait quite so long to validate all of Andrei’s hypotheses, however, as he makes much of wage increases at coal mines near the Chinese border. By the time his op-ed went to print, a series of reports had already told us that North Korea had levied prison labor to keep its coal mines running, that its coal exports to China had “dropped off dramatically” due to raised air-quality standards in China, and that the Musan iron ore mine, which feeds the same steel mills as North Korea’s coal mines, had also stopped exporting to China. One report said that it had ground to a halt due to power shortages and was laying off 10,000 workers. Another said that a price dispute with China was to blame–understandable in light of Jang Song Thaek’s fate, and worth watching amid increasingly believable signs that Kim Jong Un may be trying to switch, in part, from China to Russia as his great-power sponsor. A step forward seems less significant in the context of three steps backward.
Lankov offers an important caution of his own, when he concedes that it’s unlikely that His Porcine Majesty “will allow economic liberalization to lead the way for political and social change.” That is the closest thing there is to unanimity in this mostly factless debate.
~ ~ ~
Which raises the question that’s been on my mind recently: So what? There’s no hard evidence that these reforms are leading to lower food prices or greater food availability, given the concurrent crackdown on cross-border trade. They may not be reforms at all, so much as another case of regime policies catching up to what the people have been doing for years. If there are policy changes, it would be hard to distinguish their effects from those of spontaneous market-driven changes.
More importantly, to anyone who’s watching the bigger picture and has a sense of perspective, this whole discussion is being overtaken like a roller derby on a NASCAR track. Time will tell whether ag reform is for real this time, but what does seem apparent is that Kim Jong Un is determined to (1) miniaturize his nuclear weapons; (2) build ICBMs to carry them; (3) perfect the range and accuracy of his missiles and rocket artillery aimed at South Korea, Japan, and USFK; (4) run the world’s most oppressive, democidal system of government and lie to the whole world about it; (4) sell any weapon to any terrorist or terror-sponsor willing to pay the price; and (5) expand the reach of his thought control to your local cineplex.
I don’t know about you, but I find those differences to be existential ones. They all loom larger than grain production quotas in my calculation of whether Kim Jong Un is a man we can do business with. The debate about ag reform is interesting, but increasingly academic in light of Kim Jong Un’s other policies.
I realize that the faith of some people that North Korea is turning toward free-trade capitalism is as impervious to evidence, experience, and disappointment as faith in the Ghost Dance once was. (I’ve occasionally found that the people who believe this aren’t all that fond of free-trade capitalism to begin with.) But again, so what? Contrary to the popular theory that many people don’t bother to question, I’ve never accepted the premise that a capitalist (or fascist) North Korea would be less dangerous than a socialist one. Hitler and Mussolini were significantly more capitalist then Kim Jong Un. Would we prefer him to be more like them?* However belatedly, even Barack Obama seems to have concluded that this jar isn’t big enough for both scorpions.
But let’s assume, against our better judgment, that eventually, “reform” will lead to marginal improvements in North Korean living standards. That would be a good thing in some ways, but it wouldn’t mean that happy days are there again. Like Lankov and Ireson, I doubt that Pyongyang will ever allow its people any degree of economic freedom, and without economic freedom, there won’t be political freedom, a truly sufficient food supply, or real reform. The capitalism that will change North Korea isn’t being driven by Pyongyang; it’s being driven by people in the alleys and roadsides of the outer provinces. Want to change North Korea through engagement? Find a way to engage those people. Those are the people who have an interest in change. Their escape from squalor, and perhaps their lives, may depend on it.
~ ~ ~
* A reader points out that if Kim Jong Un became more like Mussolini, it would actually be an improvement. On reflection, it’s hard to argue with that, although I could probably find a few Ethiopians and Libyans who’d disagree.