Despite the recent crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Kim Jong-Un appears intent on pushing through with the agricultural reforms adopted last year. Although the effort is likely genuine, its success is unlikely.
News of the reforms first broke in July of last year, when Daily NK first reported on the so-called “June 28 New Economic Management Measures,” known informally as the “6.28 Policy.” Later that month Daily NK sources explained the new policy in greater detail, saying that it would entail reducing the size of agricultural production units to between four and six people, and would allow farmers to keep part of their yields.
“The state will take 70 percent of the target production and the farmers will get 30 percent, but if the farmers exceed the target then they get to keep the surplus,” the sources said.
The policy, which was reportedly set to take effect last October, essentially called for reversing some of the changes made during the 1990s, when the military was given greater responsibility for managing the farming system and reduced the food available to the actual farmers themselves.
Despite the recent crisis, the proposed reforms seem to be going ahead. At the Workers’ Party of Korea’s (WPK) plenary meeting in March, for instance, Kim announced a new strategic line that called for the “parallel development of the economy and nuclear arms build-up,” a line reiterated ad nauseam by DPRK officials and state media ever since.
Then, in April, Radio Free Asia, citing sources inside the country, reported that in parts of North Korea farmers were indeed being told they will be able to keep up to 30 percent of their harvests this year.
Finally, last week government officials acknowledged in state media that economic reforms had been made, but warned that their “legal and institutional frameworks still require alteration if changes are to be expanded.”
There are at least two reasons why it makes perfect sense that Kim Jong-Un would be rolling back some of the changes made under his father, Kim Jong-Il. Not long after Kim Jong-Il came to power he adopted a Songun (military first) policy that gave priority to the military over the WPK, which had enjoyed supremacy under North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-Sung.
He did this because he recognized that it was the powerful comrades in the party who were in the best position to challenge his rule. By empowering the relatively neglected military at the expense of the WPK, Kim Jong-Il was able to create new power brokers loyal to him personally.
When Kim Jong-Un took power he faced the opposite problem; namely, it was the military officers who pose the greatest threat to his rule because of their empowerment by his father. Thus, along with purging senior officers who pose the greatest immediate threat, Kim Jong-Un has a vested interest in gradually devolving power away from the military. The economic reforms appear aimed at advancing that goal.
Reforms also make sense for Kim Jong-Un and his inner circle as a way to reduce discontent in the country, which, like the military, could potentially threaten his hold on power. It is an open secret that most North Koreans remember the reign of Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather more fondly than they do his father’s. This is partly due to Kim Il-Sung’s charisma—a trait Kim Jong-Un has tried to evoke—but also because the average North Korean’s economic lot was considerably better under Kim Il-Sung.
Indeed, although it’s difficult to imagine now, for a number of decades following the war North Korea was more prosperous and developed than its southern counterpart. As Andrei Lankov explains in his new book, “In most cases, the North Korean consumers were quite content with what they got through the PDS [Public Distribution System],” until about 1990. Many North Koreans still perceive getting food from the PDS as the norm.
Reviving some of the economic conditions that prevailed under Kim Il-Sung, like the PDS, could theoretically help bolster Kim Jong-Un’s grip on power. If agricultural productivity was greatly increased by incentivizing output, for instance, the North Korean state could potentially strive to restore the PDS.
Unfortunately for North Koreans’ sake, even the limited reforms that are being suggested are unlikely to be successful given the numerous obstacles they face. One of these obstacles, as Stephen Haggard, an expert on North Korea’s economy at the Peterson Institute of International Economics, points out:
“Reforms in a country like North Korea are bound to be incremental. But if fundamental uncertainties remain about issues such as how cooperative output will be divided and whether households will have recourse to adequate private plots, then cultivators will not respond and the reforms will not have their intended effect.”
Another issue is that the North Korean regime lacks the ability to implement long-term objectives. This is evident by its decision to close the Kaesong industrial zone, despite the fact that this area was a huge source of foreign currency, which is something the regime desperately needs if it wants to make the necessary investments (or even buy fertilizer) to improve economic conditions.
Finally, the reality is that the limited economic success of the Kim Il-Sung era was achieved using an unsustainable economic model that can’t be resurrected. Even its limited and short-lived success was largely attributable to the enormous amounts of aid and trading concessions it received from the Soviet Union and Maoist China. The problem for the North is that the Soviet Union no longer exists nor does China in its Maoist form. Sadly, neither will any sort of economic prosperity in North Korea under the current government.
Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat.