North Korea has embarked on agricultural reforms, reducing basic farming units in some areas from the present 10 to 25 people to family units of just four to six, and increasing cash crops the farmers can sell in the market. These and other agricultural measures announced late last month appear aimed at boosting crop output through incentives.
There are unconfirmed reports that the agricultural reforms are being carried out on a trial basis in three provinces, with 30 percent of grain output being allotted to individuals.
North Korea has no choice but to bring about fundamental changes to farming if it wants to stop turning cap-in-hand to other countries to feed its people. In 1978, China scrapped its collective farming system, which North Korea emulates, and allowed family units to profit from their crop yields depending on output. Seven years later, incomes in farming communities had risen 2.5-fold. North Korea must waste no time in walking down that path.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pledged in a speech in April this year that he would make sure his people will never starve again. "It is our party's resolute determination to let our people... not tighten their belts again and enjoy the wealth and prosperity of socialism as much as they like," he said. The state media quoted Kim as vowing to build "an economically powerful state" and strive for the "improvement of the people's livelihood." The latest measures appear to reflect these pledges.
But North Korea announced similar reforms in 1997 that were also to have cut the size of each communal farming unit to seven to eight people and lowered the quota of crops that had to be submitted to state coffers. In 2002, the North announced measures to increase the amount of land farmers could use to produce crops they could sell in the market. But the regime each time scrapped the reforms shortly afterward because they had unwelcome side effects and purged the officials in charge of them.
The regime feared that the changes would cause the communal farming units to collapse entirely and undermine the state’s far-reaching network of informants and minders that had been keeping a close watch over the populace.
North Korea's foreign policy in the coming months and years will be a good gauge of whether the latest reforms are temporary measures aimed at appeasing an increasingly disaffected population or whether they signal the start of major changes. The North will face severe limits to improving its economy as long as the international community upholds sanctions. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un must realize that he will never be able to feed his hungry people through window dressing.