A Roll of the Dice: North Korea's Economic Reform Gamble
Image Credit: Flickr (John Pavelka)

A Roll of the Dice: North Korea's Economic Reform Gamble


For years, farm collectives across North Korea have been required to hand over almost all of their produce – well below the minimum needed to feed the country’s 24 million people – to the state.

In recent months though a growing number of reports have suggested the world’s last planned economy is about to initiate much-needed agricultural reforms.

The heads of local Cooperative Farm People’s Committees started to pass down orders from Pyongyang telling farmers they would start to work in smaller groups, from about ten to twenty-five collectives down to four to six. More importantly, the new reforms reportedly allow farmers to keep a surplus of about 30 percent of what they produce.

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In almost every home and public building across the country, the 1984-style broadcasting systems – whose volume can be turned down but never off – started to speak of “improvements” to the economy, says Christopher Green of Daily NK, a Seoul-based news organization with sources inside North Korea.

But this week reports said farming reforms could be suspended even before they begin amid what is expected to be a disappointing harvest.

“If farmers are going to be keeping more of the harvest then the military is going to be getting less,” says Green.

With little in the way of reliable information, it remains to be seen whether North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un can go one step further than his father in implementing sustainable agrarian reform similar to China circa 1980.

Still, one thing appears to be clear. Having replaced key positions in the military and more recently the agriculture minister amid regular pronouncements on economic improvements, the young Kim appears determined to improve North Korea’s stunted economy.

But are reported reform efforts genuine? And where will much-needed investment actually come from?

“The problem for the North Koreans is that they have yet to develop a business environment that is attractive to most investors or business partners,” says Curtis Melvin, editor of North Korean Economy Watch, an online information source on the North Korean economy.

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