The supposed hydrogen bomb test has come to dominate the news on North Korea over the past few days, for obvious reasons. Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address has naturally ended up in the shadow of the nuclear test, but it is worth going back for a closer look. Overall, it is a speech that appears to contain few major announcements or indications. Perhaps more surprising than what themes are there, are the themes that are absent.
Stephan Haggard pretty much sums up how economic matters are treated in the speech, as they often are in North Korean rhetoric on economics: “As usual, the economic components of the speech rely more on exhortation than any clear policy message, confusing results with the means of achieving them.”
That is, in much of the speech, Kim simply talks about what will be achieved but leaves out how to get there. Take the following paragraph, for example (my emphasis added):
The Cabinet and other state and economic organs should decisively improve their economic planning and guidance. Leading economic officials should fully equip themselves with Party policy, work out plans of the economic work in an innovative way and give a strong push to it on the principle of developing all the sectors at an exponential speed by relying on the inexhaustible creative strength of the working people and by dint of modern science and technology. They should accurately identify the main link in the whole chain of economic development and concentrate efforts on it while revitalizing the overall economy, especially when the conditions are not favourable and many difficulties arise. They should be proactive in organizing and launching the work of establishing on a full scale our style of economic management method which embodies the Juche idea, thus giving full play to its advantages and vitality.
All the sectors of the national economy should set ambitious goals and maintain regular production by tapping every possible internal reserve and potentiality.
Those who are more savvy at reading between the lines and interpreting rhetorical symbolisms can perhaps draw out meaningful signals from quotes such as these. But at face-value, they seem to give little indication of policy changes. Or of any policy at all, for that matter.
What are the areas that Kim hold up as economic priorities, then? Stephan Haggard points out heavy industry as one such theme. It is also the one mentioned first in the speech. Infrastructure and power supply also features fairly prominently (and is mentioned early on), with specific references to several power station construction projects. Kim also mentions IT and the “knowledge-driven economy” (emphasis added):
Our working class, scientists and technicians, true to the instructions of the great leaders, made a big stride in making the metallurgical industry Juche-based, built model, standard factories of the era of the knowledge-driven economy in various parts of the country and put production lines on a modern and IT footing, thus opening a new road of advance for developing the overall economy and improving the people’s standard of living.
Presumably, this is what North Korean media mean when they talk about the H-bomb test as an economic boost: that such capabilities show North Korea’s strength as a knowledge-based economy.
Domestic production capabilities are highlighted all the way through. This theme isn’t new. Kim Jong-un has often emphasized the importance of goods diversity and local production. This lies well in line with the basic economic tenets of the Juche doctrine. Here is one example of how domestic production capacity is highlighted in the speech (emphasis added):
The flames of the campaign to implement the Party’s ideas and defend its policies have unfolded a proud reality of our indigenous plane flying in the sky and our indigenous subway train running under the ground, and rich fish and fruit harvests were gathered, their socialist flavour bringing pleasure to the people.
One theme that features relatively prominently is construction. In one paragraph, Kim even states that “Construction is a yardstick and visual evidence for the strength of a country and the quality of its civilization”, and continues to urge the country to build more:
The construction sector should launch a general offensive to implement the Party’s construction policy and grand plan. By doing so, it should build important production facilities, educational and cultural institutions and dwelling houses on the highest possible level and at the fastest possible speed, so that they serve as standards and models of the times. In this way it can make sure that the great heyday of construction continues without letup.
Perhaps this is an indication that the building boom in Pyongyang of the past few years will continue. Priorities such as this one primarily benefit those political classes that live in Pyongyang. With few exceptions, as far as I’m aware, most other cities have seen little of the construction boom that the capital city has experienced.
There is also a reference to the coal mining industry. On the one hand, it may be interesting because North Korea’s main export destination for coal is China, and these trade flows have been volatile over the years, and there have been signs that North Korea isn’t getting a good deal in this trade. But on the other hand, this may be reading too much into one small reference in the speech (emphasis added):
In order to achieve breakthroughs for a turning point in building an economic giant the electric-power, coal-mining and metallurgical industries and the rail transport sector should advance dynamically in the vanguard of the general offensive.
Later, coal mining appears only in reference to the domestic power supply (emphasis added):
All sectors and all units should wage a vigorous campaign to economize on electricity and make effective use of it. The sector of coal-mining industry should raise the fierce flames of an upsurge in production to ensure enough supply of coal for the thermal power stations and several sectors of the national economy.
There are two themes that are surprisingly absent. One is agriculture. Agricultural policy is barely present, and when it is, management methods aren’t mentioned. For example:
The agricultural sector should actively adopt superior strains and scientific farming methods, speed up the comprehensive mechanization of the rural economy and take strict measures for each farming process, so as to carry out the cereals production plan without fail.
This is a little surprising, because regime sources have claimed that agricultural production has been boosted during the year, and management reforms with greater incentives for farmers have been touted as the reason. (A close look at the numbers indicates that agricultural production has declined slightly during 2015, moving it towards the average of the 2000s.) If agricultural reforms have indeed been a central tenet of Kim Jong-un’s economic policies, one could at least have expected a reference to these reforms in the speech.
The second theme that is strangely absent is forestry policy. It is only mentioned in one sentence:
The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should buckle down to the campaign to restore the forests of the country.
All in all, from an economic policy standpoint, this year’s New Year’s Address did not contain any major bombshells. The fact that economic issues appear right after the section on the upcoming party congress may be a hint that such issues will be high on the agenda, but then again, it might not mean much at all. Moreover, it is unclear how much can really read into the New Year’s Address for hints about regime policies and priorities. After all, the speech contained virtually no allusions to the H-bomb test that was to come only days later.
North Korea is encouraging “localization” of raw materials in light industry and construction from this year to improve the lives of the North Korean people.
On January 7, RodongSinmun reported that various cabinet organizations were espousing the New Year’s address of Kim Jong Un. It reported that the Ministry of Light Industry’s executives and employees are engaging in discussions to explore ways to increase localization of raw materials in light industry factories.
A rally was held in Pyongyang earlier this month at Kim Il Sung Square where people pledged to accomplish the national tasks put forward by Kim Jong Un. Tong Jong Ho, Minister of Construction and Building-Materials Industry,delivered a speech that vowed to “make an unprecedented leap in localization of building materials (cement, glass, metals, and other construction materials),” by repairing building materials factories in all provinces.
The Choson Sinbo, pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan,reported on January 2 that at the New Year meeting at the Pyongyang Socks Factory, the plant manager, Lee Sung Hui, made a speech and promised to “raise the level of socks production and localization of raw materials to a higher level in Vinalon and PP fibers (synthetic) this year.”
North Korea is promoting light industry and construction as the key sectors to improve the living standards of the people and asserting localization of raw materials as a priority to make advancements in these fields.
In his New Year message, Kim Jong Un emphasized that lighting industry must play a “major part in improving the people’s standard of living” and that the construction sector is “an important front for solidifying the foundations of a thriving country and creating bases for the people’s happy life.” He called for modernization of factories in light industry and normalization of production, placing importance on increasing the proportion of locally-available raw materials.
Many experts analyze this year’s rising emphasis on the localization of raw materials as reflecting the intentions of the North Korean authorities to focus on pragmatically achievable policy goals first. Of course, increasing the proportion of locally-available raw materials requires the construction of domestic production base, which remains complicated because of international sanctions and lack of foreign currency — issues that cannot be easily resolved– among other limitations.
From 2012, North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket and third nuclear test was accompanied with rising emphasis on the importance of localization. On December 3, 2013, Rodong Sinmun carried an article entitled, “Localization and National Pride,” that reported on the onsite inspection visits by Kim Jong Un to various economic sectors where he underscored the importance of “equipment, materials, and elements of localization” and “our strengths and technology.”
North Korea acclaimed that the launch of the long-range rocket in December 2012 was a “successful launch of a satellite based on 100 percent domestic science and technology.” Then in February last year, immediately following the nuclear test, it boasted that “Thrilling clap of independent nuclear thunder broke out based on 100 percent of our own wisdom and technology.”
A new year has begun, so most DPRK watchers are analyzing Kim Jong-un’s new year address (a return to a practice established by Kim Il-sung which was replaced by the “joint editorial” in the Kim Jong-il era). I have compiled most of the good analysis of the speech below.
First of all, you can watch the full speech here (in Korean):
North Korea is emphasizing the importance of science and technology in the agricultural sector.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), recently featured an article written by Ri Yong Gu, director of the Ministry of Agriculture, titled “Key Issues to Pay Attention for Introducing Technology Products in Farming Operations.” The article emphasized the importance of science and technology in the WPK’s policies and claimed technology products, such as farm machineries, fertilizer, pesticides, and soil conditioners must be introduced to promote agricultural production.
In addition, the article called for accurate assessment of economic benefits to be gained by introduction of technology products and for evaluation of scientists, technicians, and farmers to mobilize the public and to integrate science and technology with production in all units of the agricultural sector.
Technology products were explained as an important factor for reducing agricultural production costs, making crucial the selection of appropriate technology based on the experience and skill level of farmers and soil conditions of each farm.
Choson Sinbo, the Japan-based pro-North Korean newspaper, featured an article on February 27 that scientific farming methods were incorporated in the Samji River Collaborative Farm that linked with the Center for Agricultural and Technology Dissemination through a computer network.
It is not new for North Korea to emphasize the use of science and technology in agriculture; however, in recent years, more emphasis is being placed on this factor.
In the 2013 New Year’s speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, agricultural and light industries were named as the frontline industries for economic construction. In the speech, Kim stressed that “incorporating science and technology into agricultural production and increasing the level of integration must be accomplished in order to reach wheat production target for this year.”
In time for rice planting season in May, North Korea is hoping to increase fertilizer production and to promote agricultural technology in order to boost production countrywide.
This emphasis is in line with the successful launch of the long-range rocket launch last December, preferential atmosphere toward scientists, and promotion of science and technology in the economic sector.
Increased grain production last year may be due to improved fertilizer supply. Production is expected to improve this year as scientific farming continues to be emphasized.
Kim Jong-un ditched the new year “Joint Editorial” of the Kim Jong-il era and has personally taken on the role of reading a new year speech (appx .5 hrs)–as was done by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Here is a video of the speech (in Korean..no subtitles):
Having read it all, I can understand why Kim Jong-il did not want to give these speeches. If I had absolute power I would not want to either. Here is some analysis that others have provided:
The New York Times highlighted Kim jong-un’s softening tone towards South Korea:
“A key to ending the divide of the nation and achieving reunification is to end the situation of confrontation between the North and the South,” Mr. Kim said. “A basic precondition to improving North-South relations and advancing national reunification is to honor and implement North-South joint declarations.”
He was referring to two inter-Korean agreements, signed in 2000 and 2007, when two South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, were pursuing a “Sunshine Policy” of reconciliation and economic cooperation with North Korea and met Mr. Kim’s father in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
And on economics:
In his speech, Kim Jong-un, echoed themes of previous New Year’s messages, emphasizing that improving the living standards of North Koreans and rejuvenating the agricultural and light industries were among the country’s main priorities.
But he revealed no details of any planned economic policy changes. He mentioned only a need to “improve economic leadership and management” and “spread useful experiences created in various work units.”
According to the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, “Overall there was no new policy; they stuck to the existing line.”
In last year’s New Year’s Joint Editorial, the Kim Jong Il era equivalent of this morning’s address, a North Korean regime conscious of the risks of succession emphasized little more than the need to adhere closely to the last instructions of Kim Jong Il as a means of promoting social stability. Kim Jong Il’s name was mentioned a total of 34 times in that editorial.
This year, Kim Jong Eun focused on propagating the accomplishments of his first year, predominantly the December 12th rocket launch success, which he set up as an example for all sectors of the North Korean economy to promote growth. He even put forward a rocket-inspired slogan for 2013, calling for overall economic development based on the “spirit that conquered the universe.”
Cho Bong Hyun, a researcher with IBK’s economic research arm, told Daily NK today, “The core characteristic of this year’s New Year’s Address was emphasizing the Unha-3 launch and linking it to the economy. Kim Jong Eun seems to be planning to use the success of the rocket launch as a tool with which to vitalize the economy.”
However, the list of major achievements mentioned in the address included the military parade that marked the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, the completion of Huichon Dam and its affiliated power plant, and the construction of athletic facilities around Pyongyang. It is hard not to regard such projects as indicators of North Korea’s fundamental economic weakness rather than strength.
Kim made references to reunification and improving relations with South Korea as well, but did not appear to offer a compromise position that could spur dialogue. Indeed, he appeared also to confirm that Kim Jong Il’s military-first political line is set to continue in 2013 and on into Kim Jong Eun’s rule.
Regarding the softer tone with South Korea, the Daily NK had this to say:
The message for South Korea in North Korea’s statement for the New Year was considerably more gracious than that of last year. Kim Jong Eun stated in his address, as per the subsequent official translation, “An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the north and the south.”
Despite the fact that the “unity of the Korean people” has been a constant theme of North Korean discourse over several decades now, the reaction to Kim’s words was abnormally enthusiastic. Some experts even believe that the speech revealed Kim Jong Eun’s ardent wish to restore inter-Korean relations, and say that North Korea is sure to put more weight on dialogue with South Korea going forward. The state-run Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) concluded that North Korea has returned to a gentler South Korea policy.
Yet the reality is that North Korea has been going back and forth between dialogue and provocation over many years. This was even true under the left wing Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations. Lest we should forget, at the launch of the Lee Myung Bak administration in 2008, the first conservative administration for ten years, North Korea expressed great anticipation that progress in inter-Korean relations was impending.
At that time, North Korea called for the creation of “a new history of peaceful prosperity” and the promotion of legal and institutional mechanisms to prepare for unification. However, as inter-Korean relations went astray and Kim Jong Eun moved closer to the driving seat, North Korea embarked on a set of extreme provocations. Mind you, even then North and South were still discussing the possibility of a summit behind the scenes.
North Korea has chosen to limit its attacks on the new administration for one major reason; to test it. This happened in the 2003 and 2008 addresses (then known as the New Year’s Joint Editorial); indeed, it happens each time a new administration is launched down in Seoul.
The Daily NK also reports that the new year speech’s treatment of economic issues is nothing new:
[…] Promoting the development of light industry has been a key feature of a number of recent New Year’s Joint Editorials, the keynote editorial carried across North Korea’s three main publications; Rodong Shinmun (for the Chosun Workers’ Party), Chosun People’s Army (for the military) and Minju Chosun (for the Cabinet).
Stephan Haggard confesses to being worn down (as am I), but offers some thoughtful comments nonetheless:
The basic economic message seems to be “do everything,” which is really equivalent to not prioritizing anything at all. But it is possibly worse than that. The slogan for the year is “Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space!” This approach suggests that the regime’s thinking is still locked into the idea of leapfrogging, “100 day battles,” and monumentalism; indeed, the first reference to economics in the speech is to “Juche-oriented and modern factories and enterprises and reconstructed major production bases in key industrial sectors on the basis of advanced science and technology…”
If there is any logic to the speech—a big assumption—it sounds like heavy industry comes first. (“By adopting decisive steps to shore up the vanguard sectors of the national economy and the sectors of basic industries, we should develop coal-mining, electric-power and metallurgical industries and rail transport on a preferential basis and provide a firm springboard for the building of an economic giant.”) This is disheartening to say the least, but who knows? In the next section, the speech says the country should concentrate on people’s livelihoods, agriculture and light industry “too,” and also with the increasing emphasis seen in recent speeches on “science and technology” as a panacea.
We see three things in the speech, editorials and posters that are discouraging. The first is the ongoing confusion between ends (being a strong and prosperous nation) and the strategy of getting there (heavy industry first, technological leap-frogging, vague injunctions to focus on people’s livelihoods). Second, the emphasis on technology as a form of economic deliverance is everywhere (“Today’s era is an era of science and technology, and we should open up an epoch-making phase in building an economically powerful state with the power of science and technology. The key to crushing the sanctions and blockades by the imperialists and leaping forward into an economically powerful state lies in science and technology.”) A single-minded focus on technology can put a missile in space, and the launch has to be seen as an achievement. But a single-minded focus on technology can’t produce economic growth in the absence of policies that promote ongoing innovation and provide incentives to using technology in an efficient way.In our humble opinion, it is a greater–if more mundane–achievement to grow at 3-4 percent a year than to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a non-functioning satellite and military posturing.
Which brings us to the final problem: what we call the exhortatory approach to economic growth. The endless exhortation in important speeches is not coincidental. In the absence of meaningful incentives, the only way to squeeze more juice out of the workforce is hope that they respond to nationalist appeals by increasing effort. But a country’s workforce can work very hard and remain poor if what it is doing destroys value, as forced-march economic campaigns typically do. As we know from past socialist collapses, a surprising share of the capital stock in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was essentially worthless when the final reckoning came. Effort cannot substitute for fundamentals, if anyone is even paying attention to these campaigns any more.
Evans Revere, writing for Brookings, made some interesting observations:
Kim Jong-un’s choice of venue for the New Year’s speech was important. He delivered his remarks at the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Central Committee building, a site selected to reinforce another theme of his year-old leadership: the primacy of the Party over other institutions and the role of the KWP as the main vehicle for his rule. It was no accident that the Party flag was displayed prominently next to Kim as he spoke.
Having sought to convey that he is a leader in his grandfather’s mold, and having reminded the nation (particularly the military) that the Party under his leadership is in the driver’s seat, Kim spent much of the speech holding forth on another central theme of his reign: economic growth. Looking through this section of the speech, one is hard pressed to find details about future economic plans or concrete new ideas aimed at boosting the DPRK’s anemic economy. In fact, its hortatory calls for making new “advances,” “building an economic giant,” and “breaking through the cutting edge” resemble the timeworn, empty exhortations of past New Year’s editorials. Thin gruel indeed.
For those of you with an interest in empirical measurements, Kim Jong Il’s “Songun” only got six mentions this year. Kim Il Sung’s “Juche” got 13. But as much as the content of Kim’s speech is important, the very fact that he made a speech at all demonstrates his continuing efforts to associate himself with the pre-Songun era of his grandfather. Implicit in Kim’s style is a return to the relative stability and prosperity that Kim Il Sung oversaw.
The Institute for Far Eastern Studies issued two reports on the new year speech:
In the New Year’s address delivered by Kim Jong Un, emphasis was placed on easing the hostile inter-Korean relations and implementation of the June 15 inter-Korean joint declaration.
An intriguing point of this year’s speech was its format, as Kim Jong Un’s delivery of the New Year’s Address was televised — a rare occurrence, considering the last one to be televised was that given by Kim Il Sung in 1994, some nineteen years ago. The Korean Central News Agency and Korean Central Television broadcasted this year’s speech.
The highlight of the speech was Kim Jong Un’s declaration, “To end the state of division of the country and achieve reunification, we must remove confrontations between North and South.” He added, “Respecting and thoroughly implementing the north-south joint declarations is a basic prerequisite to promoting the inter-Korean relations and hastening the country’s reunification.”
This can be interpreted as an effort by the North as a hopeful message to the newly elected South Korean president Park Geun-hye for improved relations and to urge her administration to depart from her predecessor’s North Korea policy and implement the June 15 and October 4 Joint Declarations.
In the 2008 New Year address, North Korea made a similar statement encouraging the then Lee Myong-bak administration to fulfill the joint declarations.
As for North Korea’s foreign relations, Kim stressed that it will expand and develop relations with those countries that are friendly and cooperative to North Korea and affirmed to “strive actively to realize independence in the world and safeguard peace and stability in the region.” However, there was no mention of North Korea’s position on the nuclear issue or US-DPRK relations.
As for the economy, Kim stressed that “the entire Party, the whole country and all the people should wage an all-out struggle this year to effect a turnaround in building an economic giant and improving the people’s standard of living.” The importance of economy and the improvement of the lives of its people were reiterated and agriculture and light industry was named as frontline industries.
Similarly, last year’s New Year joint editorial called for revolution in light industry and agriculture. This year’s message stressed that economic guidance and management must be improved to reflect the realities of development. It also stressed that the North “hold fast to the socialist economic system of our own style, steadily improve and perfect the methods of economic management on the principle of encouraging the working masses to fulfill their responsibility and role befitting the masters of production, and generalize on an extensive scale the good experiences gained at several units.”
In 2012, North Korea announced its ‘June 28 policy’. There is speculation that changes are taking place in various parts of the country to pilot changes in its economic system.
The New Year address also emphasizes the military. “The military might of a country represents its national strength; only when it builds up its military might in every way can it develop into a thriving country and defend the security and happiness of its people.” Kim Jong Un also emphasized that “The sector of defense industry should develop in larger numbers sophisticated military hardware of our own style that can contribute to implementing the Party’s military strategy.”
South Korean government showed a lukewarm response to North Korea’s New Year address. While the format of the address was relatively novel in that it was televised, most North Korea watchers see the content and format of the joint editorial as similar to past addresses. Kim Jong Un placed heavy emphasis on the economic sector, but the method of improvement revealed no major changes from the current policy. Likewise, no concrete measures were suggested for the improvement of inter-Korean relations except for a general suggestion to open the doors for dialogue.
North Korea’s National Science and Technology Council calls the New Year’s Address, “A Shortcut Measure to Become an Economic Powerhouse”
In the 2013 New Year speech by Kim Jong Un, plans to strengthen the National Science and Technology Council can be noticed to serve as a driving force for the future economic construction of North Korea.
According to the Chosun Shinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, the National Science and Technology Council assessed the New Year speech to substantiate, “The teachings of our leader Kim Jong Un, to stipulate the power of science and technology in order to provide a shortcut in constructing a strong economic nation.”
The news evaluated 2012 as a year of revolutionary achievement for succeeding in the satellite launch as it was the last year of the “Third Five-Year Plan” of scientific and technological development.
According to the newspaper, the National Science and Technology Council was acclaimed as an esteemed mechanism in conducting scientific research contributing to the nation’s economic development and in creating a new foundation for various scientific research sectors to carry out its projects.
As a result, the news claimed noteworthy achievements were made in state-of-the-art scientific research, with over hundreds of studies conducted in reconstruction and modernization projects in factories and enterprises across the country.
The 2013 marks the first year of the “Fourth Five-Year Plan of Scientific and Technological Development” and the National Science and Technology Council outlined its major goals and tasks of this year: “Our scientists and technicians will carry out the tasks put forth by the New Year speech to realize the modernization of our economy and build a strong nation from advancement in science and technology.”
The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly decided last month to award the Medal of Kim Jong Il to the Korean Committee of Space Technology (KCST) for the successful launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3-2 satellite and commended it as the “paramount event and celebration in our national history of 5,000 years and of our people.”
The successful launch of the long-range rocket was lauded as a major national achievement to North Koreans, with the opportunity to embark on the building of a new satellite named “Kim Jong Un.”
In addition, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of Workers’ Party of Korea, declared that the era of President Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il should be known as the “100 Years of Juche,” while the newspaper referred to Kim Jong Un’s era as the “new 100 Years of Juche.”
For Kim Jong Un, it is critical that his regime improve the North Korean economy in order for him to fully consolidate his power and win the hearts of the North Korean people. Kim is likely to continue to push forward with economic development efforts in 2013, through promoting political stability.
In this year’s New Year’s message, the year 2012 was named as the “year of the people” while agriculture and light industry were said to be major fronts for economic construction of a kangsong taeguk, or strong and prosperous nation. Food shortage and livelihood of the people were also named as major challenges to be resolved to realize kangsong taeguk.
From this year, “June 28 Policy” is likely to continue and already, pilot measures were implemented in selected rural areas to improve economic management and expand autonomy of factories and work sites. Depending on the outcomes of the pilot measure, changes in economic policy is likely to occur this year.
Some new measures likely to take place are as follows: in the agricultural sector, the expansion of farmers’ right to dispose of grain yield; in the industrial sector, the increase of incentives via increasing the autonomy of each company.
Despite continuing food shortages in the DPRK, the 2012 New Year’s Joint Editorial and other statements related to the succession of Kim Jong Un suggest there will be no new approaches to revitalizing North Korean agriculture. The editorial labeled the food problem “a burning issue in building a thriving country,” but allocated fewer than 150 words (of 5500) to that issue, only exhorting the masses to increase yields, implement crop rotations, and increase production of farm machinery and farm inputs.
Yet agriculture could lead a revival of the DPRK economy if appropriate policy changes were implemented. The technical means of improving farm production in the DPRK have been known for years. And if farms could use income earned from increased production to purchase improved machinery and other supplies needed for modern agriculture, a virtuous circle of investment in the farms plus support to small industry could lead to the modernization of both sectors. Government investment combined with some international assistance could stimulate sustainable increases in productivity and better incomes for workers on the farms and in related industries.
A few recent projects point the way to a sustainable and highly productive agricultural sector. But without changes in the institutions and infrastructure that support agriculture, there is no hope for any substantial improvement in food security. The leadership succession offers an opportunity to continue and augment some necessary changes begun under Kim Jong Il, though not if consolidation of the new leadership is founded on a reflexive insistence on ideological orthodoxy.
Fifteen years of international aid programs to the agriculture sector have brought a very good understanding of the difficulties faced by DPRK farms as well as the means to overcome them. There are no technical obstacles to greatly increased farm productivity. Nothing exceptional is required-only the widespread application of commonplace good farming practices. A few examples will suffice:
*applying lime to the fields to offset acid soils would increase yields by 20-40%;
*rotating cereal crops (especially maize and wheat) with legumes such as soy or green manure crops would increase yields by around 10%;
*using better seeding equipment would increase yields by around 10% because of better germination and appropriate spacing between each plant;
*using the methods of SRI (system of rice intensification) in paddy fields can increase rice yields by over 20% with no other inputs; and
*conservation agriculture (low tillage farming) would reduce soil erosion, save fuel, and improve soil quality.
These practices are neither difficult nor complex, and many farms in the DPRK already know of and are beginning to adopt these methods. Yet most of these practices are still isolated exceptions because despite their clear benefit, farms lack the support infrastructure and economic resources to implement them fully. The DPRK has largely completed its demographic transition from a rural to an urban society, thus surplus rural labor is not available to offset the loss of industrial support to agriculture. Farms need machinery and fuel as well as the other inputs of modern farming. Use of lime depends on fuel to haul the crushed limestone from quarries. Lack of tractor power makes land preparation slow and difficult, thus impeding the use of off-season green manures or of double cropping. Farms mostly do not have modern seeders for maize, soybean, or wheat. Seed placement by hand is neither uniform nor at a regular depth, causing crowded plants and uneven germination. Use of SRI is impeded by the lack of inexpensive plastic trays that ease handling of the very young rice seedlings…
Pictured above (Google Earth) is Changsong Town in North Pyongan Province. This town is the home of the Changsong Joint Conference which was held in August 1962. This meeting was referenced in the DPRK’s most recent Cabinet plenary meeting on the DPRK economy.
According to KCNA (2012-1-22):
An enlarged Cabinet plenary meeting was held.
Present there were Premier Choe Yong Rim and cabinet members.
Attending the meeting as observers were senior officials of the organizations under direct control of the Cabinet, directors of management bureaus, chairpersons of provincial, city and county people’s committees, chairpersons of provincial rural economy committees, chairpersons of provincial planning committees, directors of provincial foodstuff and daily necessities management bureaus and managers of major factories and enterprises.
Prior to the meeting, the participants paid silent tribute to the memory of leader Kim Jong Il.
The meeting reviewed the fulfillment of last year’s national economic plan and discussed how to implement the decision of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, joint calls of the WPK Central Committee and the Central Military Commission and the militant task put forward in the joint New Year editorial.
Vice-Premier Ro Tu Chol made a report to be followed by speeches.
The enlarged meeting set it as a priority task for this year to direct efforts into developing light industry and agriculture to improve the people’s livelihood and successfully carrying out the WPK’s prosperity-oriented strategy in the pilot domains and basic industries of the national economy upholding the flames of South Hamgyong Province. It also indicated the tasks and ways for it.
Also discussed was an issue of raising higher the flames of great innovation of South Hamgyong Province in the light industrial and agricultural fields.
The meeting mentioned the need to produce quality consumer goods favored by the people in the field of light industry and effect a decisive turn in development of local industry this year marking the 50th anniversary of the historic Changsong joint conference.
It also stressed the need for ministries and national institutions to help Changsong County in its industrial development.
Also discussed at the meeting were such issues as fulfilling the assignments for grain production for 2012 both in lowland and mountainous areas, making the best use of modern stockbreeding and poultry bases and large fruit and fish farms as well as the tasks for ministries and national institutions to preferentially supply materials, equipment and electricity to farming processes.
The meeting drew attention to the tasks for the industrial fields of electric power, coal, metal, railways and machine and construction and building materials, etc.
The meeting tabled the tasks for all ministries, national institutions and provincial people’s committees to lay their own scientific and technological foundations for stepping up the work for turning the economy into one based on technology in a forward-looking manner as required by the industrial revolution in the new century.
It also discussed the tasks for the fields of education, literature and art, public health, sports, capital construction, land management and urban management.
The meeting stressed the need for all economic officials to preserve the socialist principle and ensure profitability in economic management, operate and manage the economic work on the basis of detailed calculation and science as well as the need for ministries, national institutions and industrial establishments to set up strict order regarding planning, financial dealings and administration.
Kim Jong-un, however, is not a member of the Cabinet, so he did not attend the meeting. To date his legitimacy is being established through his relationship to Kim Jong-il/Kim Il-sung and as a leader of the KPA—rather than as a leader in the government or even the party (at least so far).
“Changsong Joint Conference” The KCNA article prompted me to look into the “Changsong Joint Conference”, a term that did not ring a bell. The most recent reference I can find to it is this blurb from a March 2011 article in Korea Magazine:
The Changsong Joint Conference of Local Party and Economic Officials was held in August 1962.
The conference marked the beginning of developing the local industry throughout the country.
In recent years the county has made strenuous efforts to carry out the plan of the Workers’ Party of Korea for the building of a thriving nation and achieved many successes.
Hundreds of hectares of forests of raw materials and timber forests including pine-nut, wild-walnut and larch forests have been newly created.
The Changsong Foodstuff Factory gathers in scores of kinds of wild fruits including acorns, wild grapes, fruits of Actinidia arguta and Crataegus pinnatifida every year in mountains.
Recently its officials and workers have modernized all production processes including wild fruit drinks and wines as required in the IT age to produce foodstuffs in time.
Wines made from the fermented juice of wild grapes, fruits of Actinidia arguta and other wild fruits, Crataegus pinnatifida, Rubus crataegifolius, carbonated Actinidia arguta and other fruit juices, dried bracken and sliced bracken and other wild vegetables preserved in soy sauce are in great demand for their peculiar flavour.
The Changsong Textile Mill which started operation with six housewives has been turned into a modern fabric producer. As a treasure mill, it makes a great contribution to the improvement of the people’s standard of living. It produces quality fabrics, woolen knitted goods and quilts and blankets with local raw materials.
The Changsong Paper Mill produces paper from ground pulp. It has streamlined the equipment to improve the qualities of goods.
Looking round the local-industry factories in Changsong County in November last year, Kim Jong Il kindled the flame of developing the local industry throughout the country after the model of Changsong.
Changsong County stands at the head of development of local industry. Now its people work harder to change further the looks of their home village.
The great leader Comrade Kim Il Sung had made a farsighted plan for bridging the gap between town and country and between regions and raising equally the living standards of all the working people. For this Changsong County had been taken as a model.
The great leader who had long pushed preparations for rapid improvement in the livelihood of the mountain peasants, studied deeply the state of affairs in this part of the country, and through his several on-the-spot guidances, paved the shortest cut to establish a socialist paradise.
In August 1962, in order to spread the example of Changsong across the land he convened the historic Changsong Joint Conference of Local Party and Economic Functionaries. There he put forward a new policy and overall ways and means to enhance the role of the county and develop local industry and agriculture, so as to improve radically the people’s living conditions.
In 1974, our people erected in Changsong the historic monument to the on-the-spot guidance of the respected and beloved leader Comrade Kim Il Sung, out of their wish to retell throughout generations the profound care of the fatherly leader who had shown the bright future of mountain villages and transformed that area into a people’s paradise fine to live in.
But if the goal of the conference is to reduce the disparity in the DPRK’s living standards, Changsong is probably not the best place to start. Changsong is home to one of the North Korean leadership’s most well-known luxury retreats. This is because it was was extensively photographed by Kenji Fujimoto while he was working as Kim Jong-il’s personal chef. See a satellite image and Mr. Fujimoto’s pictures of the compound here. You can see the Taegwan leadership train station Kim used to visit the compound here.
Some thought it was possible that Kim Jong-un might deliver a new year’s address (as Kim Il-sung always did), but instead the leadership has chosen to follow the practice of the Kim Jong-il era by issuing a “joint editorial” by Rodong Sinmun, Joson Inmingun, and Chongnyon Jonwi.
Geoffrey See and Andray Abrahamian (both representatives of Choson Exchange) wrote an article in the Harvard International Review which asserts that economic successes are becoming more important to the political narratives that reinforce the DPRK leadership’s claims to legitimacy. Below is an excerpt from their article:
North Korea’s most important domestic policy statement comes each New Year, when the major newspapers publish a joint editorial. The editorial often signals where government priorities will be in the coming year. In 2010 the newspapers spoke of “Bring[ing] about a decisive change in the people’s lives by accelerating once again light industry and agriculture.” Similar themes were echoed in 2011. This is opposed to the joint editorials of the past few years, which have focused on the more traditional themes of military strength, revolution, and socialism.
Another public sign of a shift towards focusing on economic issues is the type of official visits and inspections carried out by Kim Jong Il. Following in the footsteps of his father, Kim uses these visits to signal emphasis or encouragement of specific industries, activities, and policies. According to a report by the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, the first six months of 2011 have seen Kim exceptionally busy, participating in 63 official activities. Unlike previous years, however, the number of military visitations has dropped off: only 14 visits were military related, the lowest number ever recorded. By contrast, 28 visits were economic related.
In terms of policy, North Korea has been haltingly experimenting with Special Economic Zones (SEZ) since the mid-nineties, but has recently built a bit more momentum in this area. Rason, an SEZ in the far northeast, is finally seeing some basic infrastructure upgrades that were long talked about but always delayed. Government investment bodies have started to promote the idea that Rason will be the “next Singapore,” an ambitious marketing claim to anyone who has been to Rason. With both Russia and China leasing port space, it seems more likely to be transformed into a regional transportation hub. Meanwhile, along the Chinese border in the northwest, the Hwanggumpyong SEZ recently held a groundbreaking ceremony, attended by high-ranking North Korean officials and Wang Qishan, China’s commerce minister.
Senior politicians in North Korea are increasingly judged by their ability to bring in foreign direct investments. These efforts appear to be competitive rather than coordinated. North Korean leaders associated with the National Defense Commission, the highest level policy body, have been meeting with visiting foreign investors. In 2009, the Daepung International Investment Group was re-purposed along the lines of a holding company model as a vehicle for attracting foreign direct investment l with “27 joint ventures planned and to be managed by the Group.” Daepung Group is backed by specific high-level individuals. Jon Il-Chun, reportedly the Director of Office 39, a murky international trade and finance organ, is definitely involved with the Daepung Group. Media reports also indicate that Kim Yang Gon, Director of an organization tasked with managing contacts with South Korea, the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party, is also behind the group.
In July of the same year, the Joint Venture & Investment Commission (JVIC) was established. Instead of a holding company model, JVIC is a government institution modeled as a “one-stop shop” for investors – that is, JVIC is meant to “seek out investments and assist investors in setting up operations in North Korea.” While multiple institutions claiming to hold such authority have always existed in North Korea, many of these institutions have been merged into JVIC and long-time investors have been directed to liaise with JVIC as their primary government contact. JVIC’s nominal and public head is Ri Chol, a high-ranking North Korean government official.
In August of 2010, we received credible reports that foreign investors were approached to help set up a group similar to Daepung that would be backed by another member of the National Defense Commission. Given this proposed initiative’s similarities to Daepung, the prior establishment of JVIC, and that all three groups do not appear to communicate with each other, we surmise that these various groups have a competitive relationship with the support of different patrons. Investment officials with whom our teammates have met confirm that the relationship between the agencies is “very competitive.” If this is the case, it is a signal that influential groups in Pyongyang sense that future power bases will require the ability to attract and deploy capital.