As North Korea debates and experiments in economic strategies, it’s always interesting to go back and look at older debates of a similar nature. While reading vol. 14 of Kim Jong-il’s Collected Works (Sonjib) I stumbled upon an interesting speech attributed to Kim from 1995.* Whether it was foresight or just common logic of political economy, Kim actually warned of the risks of North Korea becoming a mere natural resource exporter to other countries, without reaping the full benefits of trade. Recall that one of the charges against Jang Song-taek was selling out the country’s natural resources for his own benefit. The issue itself, of course, is much older.
In the speech, given to an audience of Central Committee functionaries, Kim attacks cadres that have a faulty understanding of foreign trade under socialism, and think only about how their own “units” (단위) can make foreign currency profits (p. 8). He also emphasizes the need to calculate all the costs involved with foreign trade, including production costs at home, to calculate actual profit.
The most interesting part, in my opinion, however, is where Kim gets to the natural resource question. Kim states that natural resources shouldn’t just be sold to other countries, but processed (가공) domestically to the greatest extent possible (p. 10). He says that “now, capitalists are buying natural resources at a cheap price from our country, processing them and selling them to a higher price.”
Kim complains that it’s a grave crime that capitalists are pocketing their own wallets by selling off North Korea’s own resources by processing them, and that North Korea could become mere suppliers to monopoly capitalism if it doesn’t start processing their natural resources itself. He also states that those who just sell off natural resources without processing are just like slaves to foreign countries.
Kim also warns people about thinking that foreign currency can be earned “for free.” “The imperialists and capitalists never give anything to anyone for free,” Kim states, and says that if capitalists say they have anything to give, it is because they have their own desires” (p. 11).
This speech is a reminder that North Korea has grappled with how to handle its natural resources for a long time, and it suggests that controversies abounded in the 1990s as well.
*These works are sometimes edited after the fact, sometimes several times over, but this edition is from 2000, published by the Worker’s Party Publisher (N’odongd’ang chulpan’sa). All translations are my own, and if anyone has any corrections to offer, please get in touch.
Commemorating the third anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s announcement of the byungjin line — the parallel pursuit of nuclear weapons development and economic growth — North Korea emphasized the policy as a “milestone to the ultimate victory.”
On March 30, 2016 the North Korean state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) self-evaluated the country’s three years of byungjin policy, claiming that it has “raised the DPRK to a prosperous country of the people with almighty nuclear power.”
The media then listed recent weapons-related tests — such as that of a hydrogen bomb (forth nuclear test), submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), new-type large-caliber multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), simulation of an atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, and solid-fueled engine that boosts the power of ballistic missiles — saying that the country “has both nominally and virtually shown its status as a world nuclear power.”
In regards to progress on the economic front, the media mentioned Wisong Scientists Residential District, Unha Scientists’ Street, Yonphung Scientists Rest Home, Mirae Scientists Street, Sci-Tech Complex, Munsu Water Park, and Masikryong Ski Resort, among others, claiming that “the plan has achieved three consecutive years of economic development and surprised the world.”
The report also emphasized that “the party’s byungjin line is not a temporary policy to confront the current stern situation, but the party’s revolutionary strategy and milestone to the ultimate victory, which will provide the greatest advantages in the revolution and the bright future for our nation.”
The media also noted that “the bright future awaits us upon our strong military and economic development by the nuclear program,” saying that “with the speed of Choson we will move forward to reach the top of strong prosperity.”
At the Party’s Central Committee plenary meeting on March 31, 2013, leader Kim Jong Un stated that “against the imperialists and their worshippers’ indiscreet nuclear threats and possible invasion talks, the party’s byungjin line will enable us to hold the nuclear power to build an economically strong country.”
In a new North Korean book publication, Looking at Today’s Choson from 100 Questions 100 Answers (in Korean), the byungjin policy is described as follows: “by relying on the nuclear energy industry, it will develop the nuclear capability and solve the energy shortage as well, thus strengthening the defense capacity and build the economy to better the living standards of the people.”
Meanwhile, to commemorate and signify the importance of the byungjin policy, on March 31, 2016 various North Korean run websites released photos of Kim Jong Un giving on-site instruction at military and economic-related facilities.
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What better way to start off the weekend than to go through North Korea’s latest batch of political slogans (“Joint calls/공동구호”)? These were issued collectively by the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission on Wednesday February 17th, and printed on the frontpage of Rodong Sinmun, as part of the run-up to the 7th Party Congress to be held later this year.
Below I have gathered those that relate to the economy, and a few other interesting ones, with brief annotation:
The calls underlined the need to make hurrah for the WPK and socialism resound far more loudly this year when the Seventh Congress of the WPK is to be held by staging an all-out death-defying struggle for building a thriving nation and improving the people’s living standard.
The Byungjin line is alive and well.
Let’s dynamically wage this year’s general advance in the same spirit as shown in succeeding in the H-bomb test!
Let’s build an economic giant as early as possible with the strength and the spirit of Korea and at the Korean speed!
Send more satellites of Juche Korea into space!
As often before, the satellite launch and the hydrogen bomb test are tied into the theme of economic development: both are technological advancements, showing the overall progress of the economy.
Produce more new-generation electric locomotives and passenger cars!
Put the manufacture of Korean-style world-class underground trains on a serial basis!
The domestically manufactured subway cars haven’t been forgotten. One wonders if people living outside Pyongyang feel as strongly about them.
Step up the modernization of the mining industry and keep the production of nonferrous metal and non-metallic minerals going at a high rate!
Provide more resources for building an economic giant by channeling effort into prospecting underground resources!
At least now Jang Song-taek can’t touch them anymore.
Make the foreign trade multilateral and diverse!
This is interesting, and a clear statement about an important rationale for the SEZs: North Korea will remain politically and economically vulnerable as long as China continues to be its single largest trading partner by a large margin.
Let’s greet the 7th Party Congress with proud achievements in the improvement of the people’s living standard!
The people “will never have to tighten their belts again”, as Kim Jong-un said in his first public speech in 2012.
Achieve a great victory on the front of agriculture this year!
Which the regime has already claimed it did last year. The UN doesn’t agree.
Let’s give a decisive solution to the problem of consumer goods!
Let’s produce more world-competitive famous products and goods!
North Korean media has highlighted strides in consumer goods production several times this year.
Make Wonsan area an icon of city layout and build it into a world-level tourist city!
Establish Korean-style economic management method guided by the Juche idea in a comprehensive manner!
Sounds like the management reforms, with greater autonomy for enterprises, are still on the table.
Let the entire party and army and all the people turn out in the forest restoration campaign!
And make sure they “properly conduct fertilizer management“. This is the only reference among the slogans to the forestry campaign, where the regime has publically acknowledged some crucial and systemic problems, but is yet to find a credible solution.
The Korean People’s Internal Security Forces should sharpen the sword for defending their leader, system and people!
Note that “people” comes after both “leader” and “system”.
Let us thoroughly implement our Party’s policy of putting all the people under arms and turning the whole country into a fortress!
Enhance the fighting capacity of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards by intensifying their drills as the anti-Japanese guerillas did in Mt. Paektu!
Develop and produce a greater number of various means of military strike of our own style that are capable of overwhelming the enemy!
Enhance the fighting capacity of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards by intensifying their drills as the anti-Japanese guerillas did in Mt. Paektu!
These four slogans seem to be saying that the Four Military Guidelines, adopted in 1962 by the Central Committee, are still very much in play: 1) arming the population, 2) fortifying the country, 3) establishing a cadre-based army, and 4) modernizing military equipment. Mao would probably have been happy to know that his People’s War Doctrine lives on in North Korea.
The whole list of slogans is very long, and saying that policy areas need to improve, or that production in a certain area needs to go up, isn’t much of a policy line. Still, it’s interesting to see what areas are highlighted.
The government has set new regulations to control tourism in the economic development zones.
Tourism regulations were adopted by decision No. 90 of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly on December 23 2015.
The regulations containing 32 articles in five chapters are applicable to EDZs established for tourism.
The DPRK citizens, overseas Koreans and foreigners can tour EDZs in various styles and methods including visit, sightseeing, vacation, amusement, sports, experiencing and medical treatment.
Personal safety, human rights and property of tourists in EDZs are protected by the law of the DPRK.
Management of tourism is undertaken by the managing authorities of EDZs.
The zones encourage planned development and protection of tourism resources such as scenic attractions, historic relics and remains and natural monuments.
Investors can invest, establish and run businesses in such fields of travel, lodging, restaurant, amusement, welfare services, production and sale of souvenirs and development of tourism resources in the zones with the approval of the management authorities of EDZs.
In case of establishing a travel company in the zones, license of the central tourism guidance organ should be gained through the management authorities. After receiving the license, the travel company should register its business with the management authorities and receive business registration certificate.
When an investor wants to set up and run a tourism service business in EDZs, he or she should obtain the approval of the management authorities following relevant regulations.
Tourists who want to travel EDZs should apply for tourism directly or via local and foreign travel companies outside relevant EDZs.
Anyone, who did any harm to personal safety, health and property of tourists, failed to provide proper service obliged by contracts, destroyed tourism resources or caused any damage to businesses and individuals, bears such civil liabilities as to restore them to their original state, or pay compensation, penalty and arrears.
Who decides what in Pyongyang? Do fierce political battles rage between hardliners and reformers, where the former group struggles to replace nuclear belligerence with liberal market economics and trade? Whenever a purge or suspicious death occurs in Pyongyang, speculations come alive about potential policy changes by the regime.
It is a fool’s errand to make guesses about how North Korea’s claimed (but unlikely) hydrogen bomb test fits into the speculative dichotomy of modernizers versus conservatives. After all, such simple divisions are rare in the political life of any country. But looking at the test in the context of the past year makes it clear that Pyongyang is pursuing a messy mix of policies that are mutually exclusive.
At the same time as one “hand” of the regime attempts to draw foreign investment, diversify its investor base to include other countries than China, and take its industrial zones from plans to reality, the other “hand” is actively working against economic progress by nuclear tests and diplomatic belligerence. Either the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, or it does, but just doesn’t want it to succeed.
Perhaps this is the way that Byungjin – Kim Jong-un’s strategy of parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy – was intended to work. (If so, the regime seems to be dedicating much more resources and energy to the nuclear part, while the economic one still mostly consists of words.) In any case, Pyongyang is trying to achieve two goals at the same time, and it isn’t working.
For example, in 2013, the North Korean regime announced the creation of over ten special economic zones, with more added in both 2014 and 2015. Progress has been uneven. Still, the North Korean regime has continuously indicated that the zones are a priority and will continue to be improved. Just in November last year, new regulations were announced for the special economic zones. Visitors and analysts report that elite businesses have been doing better and better in North Korea, and that the economic environment has become increasingly freer.
Whatever the list of Pyongyang’s priorities may look like, January 6th was not a good day for those North Koreans tasked with planning, building and administering the country’s special economic zones and projects. North Korea is already an unlikely destination for most foreign investors. Many low-wage competitors already sit relatively close by the country, such as Vietnam and Cambodia. North Korea’s comparative advantages are really quite few. Things are already difficult and the claimed H-bomb test certainly won’t help.
The international sanctions are just one part of the problem. Even with knowledge of what the current sanctions regime permits investors to do, the test is a stark reminder that legal hurdles will keep being added as nuclear and missile tests continue. This should deter any investor without special connections, political motives or a financial death wish. Not to mention the terrible PR and public criticism that would follow any (at least western) company deciding to invest in North Korea.
And then, there is of course the China factor. Sure, Beijing doesn’t comply with sanctions the way it is obligated to do. Moreover, as the Choson Exchange blog points out, North Korean and Chinese businesses tend to find a way to get around the sanctions. Last but not least, to a large extent, Chinese investment and cooperation with North Korea is a regional issue, with much of it driven by the northeastern border regions that depend on trade and exchange with the country.
But this doesn’t mean that Beijing won’t ever take concrete action felt by Pyongyang. China’s worries about North Korea’s nuclear tests are arguably more warranted than those of any other country. Residents in Yanji, a Chinese city on the North Korean border, even felt tremors from the bomb test, and teachers and students were reportedly evacuated from schools near the border. A trend is only a trend until it is no more. At the very least, events like the nuclear test don’t exactly make Chinese officials more prone to want to facilitate economic cooperation and infrastructure investments for North Korea.
It’s almost painful to think of all those hours spent in the North Korean administration, drawing up plans for new economic development zones and projects, new laws for investments and other institutional changes to improve the economy, only to see their colleagues in another part of government work in the opposite direction. If (and this is a big “if”) there are indeed policy factions in the government, with modernizers and conservatives, the latter have scored a victory on January 6th, at the expense of the former.
UPDATE 2015-01-07: James Pearson and Ju-Min Park at Reuters have done a very interesting overview (with Michael Madden of NK Leadership Watch) of the people behind North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s an important illustration of the fact that interest groups are not just a thing of business, but also of politics and ideas. Read it here.
Agricultural reforms in North Korea became a hot topic of discussion almost right away when Kim Jong-un took power in 2011. Only a number of months into his tenure, news began to come out of the country about attempts at agricultural reforms. It is unclear when (or even if) the June 28th Measures were finally extended to the whole country.
At the very least, three years in, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that North Korean agriculture has undergone major changes. These have been aimed at boosting production by creating better incentives for farmers to produce and sell more of their output to the state rather than diverting it to the market. The most important aspects of these reforms are the decreased size of work teams and new rules that let farmers keep 30 percent of their production plus any surplus above production targets, while the state takes the remaining 70.
These changes have been met with optimism among some. However, no one really knows exactly what impact these reforms have had. North Korean agriculture may be faring better than it used to – although this is also doubtful – but even so, it is too simplistic to assume that government reforms in agricultural management are doing all the work. As long as North Korea’s agriculture continues to be centrally planned by the state, there will be limits to how much better it can get no matter what reforms the state implements.
To see why, consider some of the news that have been coming out of North Korea in the past few months, as reported by Daily NK. In late November, the online daily reported that in despite by multilateral aid organizations, North Korea had seen relatively good harvests this year. However, the increased harvests, according to people inside the country, were not caused by changes in the agricultural management system of state-operated collective farms.
Rather, the North Koreans interviewed for the story claimed that private plot farmers had been better able to protect their crops from adverse weather impacts by using water pumps and other equipment. Even though trends like these alone probably have a limited impact, this shows that many circumstances other than state management matter.
A few weeks later, Daily NK published another interview carrying a similar message. According to sources inside the country, harvests from collective farms have declined, while private plot production has gone up (author’s emphasis added):
The amount of food harvested this year from the collective farms has “once again fallen short of expectations,” he said, adding that the farmers who work on them have criticized the orders coming down from the authorities, saying that “if we do things the way they want us to, it’s not going to work.”
Although the regime has forced people to mobilize, the source asserted that farm yields are not increasing. So, then, “the best thing to do would be to further divide the land up among individuals,” he posited.
Our source wondered if individual farms were not more successful because each person tending them personally grew and watered their plants. Currently, farmers must follow directives regarding the amount of water they can use on collective farms. He warned that if the system is not completely overhauled, crop yields will fail to improve.
In other words: as is so often the case, management orders from above often do not align with the reality on the ground.
One should be careful not to draw too many general conclusions based on individual interviews, but this is a well known general problem in all planned economies. Even with the best intentions, the state can never be fully informed about conditions and resources on the ground in an entire society.
This is one of the many reasons why economic central planning falters. We have seen this, too, with Kim Jong-un’s forestry policies. The state gives orders that have unintended consequences on the ground, because information is lacking. No central planning team can be fully informed about the reality prevailing throughout the system. The information problem becomes particularly dire in authoritarian dictatorships like North Korea, where people at the lower end of hierarchies often have strong incentives not to speak up about implementation problems when orders come from the top.
Ultimately, no matter what management reforms the North Korean regime implements, the country’s economic system remains the basic stumbling block. As long as central planning continues to be the ambition of economic and agricultural policies, there will be a limit to the success that agricultural policies can reach. We may expect to see agricultural reforms continuing, but as long as the system remains, they can hardly be revolutionary.
UPDATE 35 (2015-12-14): Hopes fading on June 28 Measures. According to the Daily NK:
In contrast to the increasing amount of crops being grown on small plots of land by individuals, the harvests from collective farms in North Korea are said to be declining.
A source from South Pyongan Province who recently spoke with our Daily NK reporter expressed the viewpoint that attempts by the regime to pass farming policy that would increase the amount of food harvested and distributed to individuals from collective farms have had “no substantive effect.”
Sources in North Pyongan Province and North Hamgyong Province corroborated this news.
The amount of food harvested this year from the collective farms has “once again fallen short of expectations,” he said, adding that the farmers who work on them have criticized the orders coming down from the authorities, saying that “if we do things the way they want us to, it’s not going to work.”
Although the regime has forced people to mobilize, the source asserted that farm yields are not increasing. So, then, “the best thing to do would be to further divide the land up among individuals,” he posited.
Our source wondered if individual farms were not more successful because each person tending them personally grew and watered their plants. Currently, farmers must follow directives regarding the amount of water they can use on collective farms. He warned that if the system is not completely overhauled, crop yields will fail to improve.
In 2012, the North Korean government passed the ‘June 28th Measures,’ part of a “new economic management system in our own style.” This reduced production units on cooperative farms from groups of 10-25, to smaller factions of 4-6 members. as part of the reforms stipulated in the ‘June 28th Measures.’ On paper, the state receives 70% of the target production, with farmers receiving 30% and any surplus if targets are exceeded.
In practice, however, things appear to be different. After its implementation in a number of regions, “the production rate on collective farms remained low and the policy was unable to achieve meaningful results,” the source said, adding that many worry these reforms will take the same path as the ‘July 1st Economic Management Reform Measures of 2002,’ which fizzled out after approximately three years.
“Although the the North’s official propaganda contends that the measures taken regarding the collective farms are scientifically based, in actuality, it’s just working the mobilized even harder,” the source alleged.
“Each time a policy stumbles a bit, the people immediately think back to the last time a similar policy was implemented and anticipate yet another failure. We cannot believe in these policies that just sound good on paper anymore, and people are speaking out in favor of actual scientific and technical farming strategies.”
Two years have passed since Kim Jong Un’s announcement that the people would no longer have to tighten their belts, yet “the people have yet to see a policy directive issued that is related in any way to this promise,” he said.
“In fact, it is common for people to say among themselves that Kim Jong Un ‘should know what he’s doing by now.'”
UPDATE 34 (2015-7-16): A new IFES report indicates that the DPRK has made progress in reducing the size of sub-workteam units, but they are experiencing secondary problems related to the transition:
North Korea Seeks Supplementary Measures for the Field Responsibility System
North Korea has been promoting the “field management system” as a part of its agricultural reform. Nevertheless, drawbacks exist, and it is trying to overcome shortcomings in the process by blending the new system with the advantages of collectivism.
In the past, farmers were able to follow the technical guidance of skilled workers. But since the implementation of the “field management system,” many are struggling to keep up with the advanced modern technology and agricultural methods.
As a result, North Korea is engaging in training and education programs for farmers to raise their skill level to that of skilled workers by encouraging the collective farming method of communal sharing of labor.
North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun reported on July 10 that, “in the current reality with the implementation of the ‘field management system’, it is impossible to farm with limited technical capabilities.”
The field management system under the bunjo management system (or the subworkteam management system) divides the work unit consisting of 10–25 people into smaller units of 3–5 people, responsible for farming a smaller field. This is virtually a preliminary stage which could lead toward private farm ownership.
The field management system expanded countrywide after Kim Jong Un’s rise to power. It is considered to have contributed in part to the increase of agricultural production.
The newspaper cited pesticide as one example of the problem. In the past, spraying pesticides were for skilled workers; but in recent years, ordinary farmers are responsible for spraying pesticides on their own. However, from lack of experience, many farmers struggled with proper handling of pesticides and ended up wasting them or damaging their crops.
The newspaper, however, also introduced the story of jujube cooperative farms in Anak County of Hwanghae Province, praising one farm’s success in planting rice seven days earlier than planned, despite the adverse weather conditions.
Reportedly, the farmers at this cooperative farm underwent training in modern agricultural technology for 30 minutes every morning.
Another problem pointed out is that because the skill level of every farmer differs, some farmers may mistime rice planting during the planting season. In the past, task teams were formed based on skill level and could eliminate the discrepancies between farms; under the new system, problems are inevitable. Accordingly, it is reported that Anak County jujube cooperative farms are collectively helping each other to overcome this shortcoming.
The newspaper stressed that “when all farmers claim ownership of their field and subworkteam, one can create innovation in the farming operations.” Thus, the North Korean authorities are encouraging “collectivism” to overcome the limitations of the “field management system.”
Despite Drought Last Year, Food Production Increased Due to Field Responsibility System
North Korea experienced its biggest drought in 100 years last year. However, North Korea claims that this did not affect its food production. North Korean authorities are claiming the main factor behind the increased food production is the will of farmers to produce more after the expansion of the “field management system,” or pojon tamdangje.
In an interview with the weekly newspaper, Tongil Sinbo, Chi Myong Su, director of the Agricultural Research Institute of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the DPRK commented, “the effectiveness of field management system (pojon) from cooperative farm production unit system (bunjo) is noticeable and succeeded in increasing grain production despite the adverse weather conditions.”
The field management system under the bunjo management system or the subworkteam management system divides the work unit consisting of 10-25 people into smaller units of 3-5 people, responsible for farming a smaller unit of a field. This is a measure to increase the “responsibility and ownership of farmers.”
From the July 1st Economic Management Improvement Measures enforced in 2002, the autonomy of cooperative farms and enterprises expanded. The “field management system” was piloted from early 2004 in Suan, North Hwanghae Province and Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, but was suspended soon afterward. However, this system is reported to have been implemented widely after the first National Conference of Subworkteam Leaders in the Agricultural Sector was held in Pyongyang in February 2014.
Economic principles behind the field responsibility system are stated as, “under the sub-work team structure, a smaller subworkteam consisting of 2 to 3 families or 3 to 4 people depending on the scale and means of production, is responsible for a specific field or plot (pojon) from planting to harvest stage to inspire farmers with enthusiasm for production by distributing the shares of production in accordance with the output of production planning.”
The newspaper added, “Despite the adverse weather conditions last year, the high grain yield was possible due to implementation of scientific farming methods and field management system to increase enthusiasm of farmers,” and “based on this experience, many cooperative farms across the country will expand subworkteam management system to field management system.”
Director Chi stated, “Since the field management system was implemented, farmers’ labor capacity increased to 95 percent. The planting time for corn and rice that took 20 to 30 days in the past is shortened to 10 to 15 days. In the autumn season, grain threshing that took 50 days is now only taking 10 days. This is changing the farming landscape.”
In addition, the distribution shares for farmers increased as well as the state’s procurement last year. This is attributed to “socialist distribution principles that distributed grains produced to farmers in-kind based on their efforts after excluding a specified amount of grain procured by the state.”
He added, “There are quite a number of farming households that received several decades worth of distribution after a year of farming. There is an increasing number of families with growing patriotism to increase the amount of grain procurement to the state.”
From 2012 onward, a number of sources both outside and inside of North Korea have reported a gradual implementation of agricultural reforms not dissimilar to those adopted by China in the late 1970s. Supposedly, farmers now get to keep a larger share of their harvests—perhaps as much as 60 percent—and agricultural work teams have been reduced in size to increase their production incentives. Seasoned North Korea watcher Andrei Lankov buoyed the rumors last November, when he claimed that the country had not only implemented such reforms, but had done so with considerable success. He wrote that North Korea had increased its food production in 2013 to such an extent that could nearly “feed itself” that year without international assistance.
First, international estimates of North Korea’s food production showed that it did not suddenly increase in 2013, the year after the reforms were supposedly introduced.
The World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) typically send experts into the country each year to survey conditions for food production and to estimate its food needs. While Pyongyang did not admit a surveying team in 2014, WFP/FAO Food and Crop Assessments from previous years show a clear pattern: North Korea’s food production was increasing well before rumors of economic reforms began to pour out from its borders. According to the assessments of the past few years, food production began to increase in 2010, going up by approximately 3 percent. In 2011 it continued to climb by about 8 percent. The growth trend continued in 2012, when food production was estimated to have increased by another 10 percent. Likewise, in an estimate for 2013, the WFP/FAO noted an increase for the third year in a row, a development that had been unprecedented for many years, and concluded that the gap between North Korea’s food need and its production was the smallest in many years.
However, harvest yields in North Korea now appear to have stalled after getting better for some time. According to a recent analysis by the FAO, food production stagnated in 2014, putting an end to the trend of the three preceding years. If Pyongyang has in fact reformed its approach to agriculture, the reported changes do not seem to be doing that much good. Lankov recently admitted in a new piece that the alleged reforms have now stalled or were perhaps reversed, but he has not backtracked on his claim that they worked when they were being implemented.
UPDATE 31 (2015-5-27): According to Cao Shigong a member of the Korean Peninsula Research Society, Chinese Association of Asia-Pacific Studies, in the PRC’s Global Times:
A series of proactive measures to adjust economic policies and expand exchanges with foreign countries recently adopted by North Korea have drawn widespread attention. The moves aim to help the country escape the long-lasting economic woes, improve the nation’s political and social stability, and promote economic cooperation within the region. Therefore, they deserve welcome and encouragement. However, it is inappropriate to regard these measures as a signal of overall reforms or a starting point of further opening-up.
North Korea is always reluctant to label its measures for economic development as “reform and opening-up.”
To begin with, China’s implement of reform and opening-up is based on absolute disapproval of the mistaken route that deemed class struggle as the guiding principle. Yet North Korea, as a hereditary regime, does not allow any doubt or modification of its former leaders’ ideologies and political lines such as juche (“self-reliance”) and songun (“military-first”).
Besides, China’s reform has broken the traditional planned economy and set up a market-oriented socialist economy with the coexistence of other diverse forms of ownership, especially allowing the development of private business. But North Korea still cleaves to its old beliefs that planned economy and the public ownership of the means of production are the key characteristics of socialism, and that if they are changed, socialism will be lost.
In addition, as a big country, China enjoys strong tolerance and endurance. Even it is wide open to the world, under the pressure over intruding foreign cultures and values, it can still safeguard its political and social stability. North Korea, however, will find it hard to do the same if it opens up like China, against the backdrop of US hostility, the north-south divide, and fierce competition over systems.
Consequently, North Korea took the measures of “our-style (North Korea-style) socialism” and corresponding “reforms,” including the 7.1 Economic Management Improvement Measures, 6.28 Economic Reform Measures and 5.30 Measures. Though similar to the reform and opening-up of China, they have their own distinguished features.
For instance, the country initiated “land contracts,” yet did not end cooperative farms; it encourages its business to be flexible, yet without changing the way their property is held; it established special economic zones and economic development zones, but with focusing on advantageous areas and corridors.
The basic features of North Korean “reform” measures are improving the policy flexibility, introducing new management styles, and bringing the function of the market into full play, without changing its fundamental system. The country also introduces and utilizes foreign capital under the control of the government. Apparently, these practices stem from the nation’s domestic conditions.
It is generally acknowledged that North Korea’s reform measures have achieved initial success. North Korean economy has recorded positive growth for three consecutive years, with its domestic markets and consumption becoming more active and the strain on food and living supplies eased.
On the other hand, confrontation between North and South Korea is rumbling on, and the arrangements around the only industrial complex between the two sides, the Kaesong Industrial Region, is constantly encountering conflict, which has made business people skeptical about economic collaboration with North Korea. Especially as North Korea keeps conducting nuclear tests, it remains hard for it to break the sanctions and isolation from the international community.
All these factors prove the uncertainty of North Korea’s economic reforms. Hence, media and scholars should be reminded to deliver accurate and comprehensive information over North Korea to the world, in order to prevent giving misleading impression or weakening the risk awareness of investors, causing irreparable losses as a result.
Read the full story here:
North Korean economic reforms tightly tied to domestic conditions Global Times
Among some of the experimental farms in North Korea operating under policies implemented from the “June 28th Measures,” announced by the state in 2012, Daily NK has learned that some failing to reach the state-mandated output goal, even if for reasons out of their control, are subject to incur a hefty debt as a result.
“From the beginning of last year, in Kim Jong Suk County [formerly Sinpa County], Yangkang Province, the Sinsang-ri cooperative farm production unit [bunjo] system began operating on a trial basis,” a source in Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on December 4th. “One family–or three, four close farm workers–operating as a group, receive 3000 pyeong [1 square meter is equal to 0.3025 pyeong] of land to work.”
North Korea, through the establishment of a “new economic management system in our own style”, reduced production units on cooperative farms from groups of 10-25, to smaller factions of 4-6 members as part of the reforms stipulated in the “June 28th Measures.” The state receives 70% of the target production, with farmers receiving 30% and any surplus if targets are exceeded.
Most residents were eager, albeit cautious, about the policy’s implementation, as the amount of production going to farmers would rise. The Chosun People’s Army took direct responsibility for the management of food procurement and distribution during the food insecurity and famine of the 1990s, and this invariably left the farmers themselves with a vastly reduced share.
In the case of Kim Jong Suk County, production units have been divided into subdivisions tasked with handling one area: vegetables, husbandry, grains, etc. Naturally, grains fall under the remit of the largest number of workers, given their place as staples in the Korean diet. One cooperative farm production unit is given 1000 pyeong of paddies for rice and corn, and 2000 pyeong of fields to cultivate, earmarked for specific production output based on three tiers of soil quality.
However, the system is contingent on the vicissitudes of domestic conditions. “Because there was no drought last year and a steady supply of fertilizer, fulfilling the 70% requirement was relatively easy, the state’s food supply stabilized for the year, and those involved in the units were pleased,” the source explained.
This year, however, she noted that the devastatingly protracted drought, combined with a dearth of fertilizer, caused the crop yield per pyeong to plummet. Cooperative farms, instead of calibrating required allotments to reflect the changes, are demanding many of the production units to hand over 70% of the harvest, roughly 1.8t in the source’s region. If these units fall short of the target, they take on a debt to be rectified the following year.
Turning over 70% of the harvest in a year rife with natural disasters and lack of fertilizer has many of the residents involved overtaxed and without a viable solution. Many point out among themselves that this situation makes it implausible to work large plots of land when working even a small, individual plot proves burdensome.
Despite complaints and the poor conditions, most still maintain a fairly sanguine outlook on the system and hope it can progressively evolve. “Opinions on the bunjo system are somewhat mixed, but most just hope it continually shifts to a more autonomous structure,” she asserted.
Meanwhile, factories and enterprises rent land from collective farms and farm it as a sideline, then divide a proportion of the yield between workers. In this case, unlike the cooperative farm system, there is no predetermined output expectancy relative to pyeong; rather, based on production, the crop output is distributed under the 70:30 split.
UPDATE 29 (2014-11-30): Andrei Lankov, writing in Al Jazeera, informs us that the 6.28 Measures have been rolled out and resulted in significant gains in agricultural production:
The contents are revolutionary. It seems that, at long last, North Korea has decided to begin Chinese-style reforms. Marshal Kim Jong-un is obviously inclined to do what his late father, Generalissimo Kim Jong Il, was too afraid to, that is, to attempt to transform his country into a developmental dictatorship, largely similar to present-day Vietnam or China.
This decision did not come out of the blue. Indeed, it agrees very well with what Kim Jong Un and his advisers have quietly been doing over the last three years – albeit the slow-motion transformation of the country has attracted little attention from outside world.
The first significant step was the introduction of the so-called “June 28th Measures”. These measures were introduced in 2012, but only became fully into force in 2013. While on paper, they did not look that ground-breaking, they represent a sweeping reform of agricultural management in the North.
The “June 28th Measures” allowed North Korean farmers to create their own production teams of five or six people. It was not explicitly stated, but it was a signal that individual households should register as “production teams”. Such teams were given a plot of land, the assumption being that they would toil the same area for several consecutive years. The land technically remained under the jurisdiction of the state-owned and state-managed “collective farm”, but the produce would henceforth be split 70:30 between the state and the production team (ie the family). Up until then, North Korean production teams had been much larger, and all produce had to be submitted to the state in exchange for a fixed daily grain ration that was allocated to every farmer.
In essence, this reform marked a seismic shift: It marked the first step towards the reprivatisation of agriculture.
The “June 28th Measures” have worked out even better than North Korea’s leaders might have expected. The year 2013 (the first year that the reforms were fully in force) brought the best harvest that North Korea has seen in decades. The world media, predictably enough, missed the entire story, but in 2013, North Korea, for the first time since the late 1980s, produced almost enough food to feed itself. Even though there was a severe drought this year, the new system has seemingly proved its resilience, and initial reports about the harvest are also quite positive.
UPDATE 28 (2013-7-5): The Daily NK reports that the roll-out of the 6.28 Measures is causing some problems for local farmers:
Experimental farm policy changes are set to fail in the Hyesan region of Yangkang Province, Daily NK has learned, after totally unsuitable areas were designated for the experimental farming and some new tenets of agricultural policy stalled on the drawing board.
A source from Hyesan in Yangkang Province told Daily NK on the 5th, “Some areas of Hyesan were designated as places to implement the farm management improvement policy on an experimental basis, and additional manpower was brought in for those areas. However, the areas are on steep slopes or in places where the soil is full of rocks, so farming there is impossible.”
“Soldiers and shock troops are mobilized daily to do the farming work, but tractors and agricultural equipment can’t be used on the experimental fields, so it is just making everyone angry.”
“Despite the fact that things are like this, the [authorities] just keep going on about nothing being impossible if we attain the Marshal [Kim Jong Eun]’s ‘masikryeong speed’ and how we must fulfill the annual plan,” the source went on.
Sources say that the authorities have set in place the basis of a new agricultural management method, one that involves smaller work units (from 10-25 people down to 4-6 people) and a 70-30 split with the state in the distribution of output. Creating experimental areas for the implementation of the plan can be seen as marking the launch of the so-called ‘June 28th Policy.’ However, while farmers were excited by the plan in the beginning and harbored great expectations, the passing of time has undermined their interest.
The source said, “Initially, farm workers welcomed the fact that they would get paid out of production by the cooperative farm. They wanted to work hard. However, now everything has returned to how it used to be. The number of people losing hope for this cooperative farm is growing with the passing of time.”
Meanwhile, the idea of leasing land to non-farmers to cultivate has also fallen by the wayside. According to the source, “They don’t even mention that any more. Some cadres claim, ‘We’re going to do that from next year for sure,’ but nobody believes a word of it.”
UPDATE 27(2013-6-5): The Daily NK reports that the DPRK’s 6.28 Measures have been implemented (at least as they pertain to agriculture):
Inside North Korean sources have confirmed that collective farms are now offering part of their land to non-farmers in exchange for 30% of production derived from it, in effect renting farmland to private individuals.
A source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on the 5th, “Farms in Shinuiju have started authorizing private individuals to cultivate land owned by the farms. There’s a whole queue of people wanting to rent land and till it.”
“There is no limit on the amount of land that people can borrow from the farms,” the source went on. “The amount of land leased is decided according to the amount of labor that it is possible to commit to it. They have made it clear that if the harvest is worth a total of ten, then seven goes to the individual and three to the farm itself.”
It is easy to see why people are keen to get involved in this tenant farming method of agriculture; it appears to be more favourable to the farmer than the existing system. Currently, factories and enterprises rent land from collective farms and farm it as a sideline, then divide a proportion of the yield up between workers. However, by farming land individually, people can realize greater benefits from increased effort, providing an incentive to work harder and longer.
A source from North Hamkyung Province corroborated the story, saying, “Cooperative farms here are renting land to individuals and factories at 70-30. There are more individuals doing it than enterprises, and the amounts of land taken range from a few tens of pyeong at the smallest all the way up to half a jeongbo (1500 pyeong; one square meter is equal to 0.3025 pyeong).”
According to the source, people currently view this as one of their best chances to ease food insecurity problems in the absence of state distribution.
It is still unclear how much change has been made at state owned enterprises and within the party and state management bodies.
UPDATE 26 (2013-5-31):Associated Pressquotes DPRK economic official on new economic measures following the KWP/SPA meetings. Nothing, however, has appeared in the DPRK’s official domestic media:
“Last year, we studied reasonable economic management methods in different fields of economic work, and introduced it to some units on a trial basis,” Ri Ki Song, an economist from North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences, told AP this week.
North Korea formally announced the policy, and its expansion to include factories and other enterprises, a day after holding a plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Rodong Sinmun, the party newspaper, called it part of a “new strategic line.”
Ri, however, dismissed characterizations of the changes as reform.
What’s new, he said, is allowing managers to dole out goods and cash as incentives. In addition, after paying back investments provided by the state, managers can set their employees’ salaries and offer raises to those who help drive up production, he said.
The main goal: to encourage “greater profits” and solve North Korea’s chronic food shortage, Ri said.
He said North Koreans work hard, but the new incentives give them motivation to work even harder. “They are saying that higher salaries and shares will improve their life.”
Political and military expert Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii, noted that North Korea has rolled back past attempts at economic reform.
“The North Koreans have played reform games before and then just sort of pulled the rug out from under it,” he said. Cossa cited international aid groups as saying the military is pressuring farmers to donate their portion to the army.
This year, things are being managed differently, said Kim Jong Jin, deputy chairman of the farm’s managing committee.
He said the state provided the farm with the rice seedlings, which farmers are now transplanting to paddies by hand. Farmers are on smaller teams that have direct responsibility over their plots.
After the rice is harvested, farmers must “repay” the state for the seeds. At Tongbong that means giving the state about 193 kilograms of rice as payback for every 140 kilograms of seedlings they received.
But any surplus can be kept by the team to sell, barter or distribute – a change from past policies that required farmers to turn all harvests over to the state.
“This encourages enthusiasm for production and we get more of what’s produced,” Kim said.
Read the full story here:
NKorean farmers planting rice with profits in mind Associated Press
UPDATE 25 (2013-5-13): Choson Sinbo reports official acknowledgement of economic adjustment measures. According to the Daily NK:
North Korean officials have formally acknowledged that some factories, enterprises and cooperative farms in the country have been experimenting with new economic management methods since last year. The comments, published in the Chongryon publication Choson Sinbo on May 10th, appear to partially confirm the existence of the “June 28th Policy,” which Daily NK reported on exclusively in summer last year.
Cabinet official Kim Ki Cheol and State Planning Commission Vice-director Ri Young Min note in the piece that some new economic measures have been adopted, but add that legal and institutional frameworks still require alteration if changes are to be expanded. However, their comments serve as official acknowledgement of experimental economic change.
According to the piece, Kim Jong Eun issued instructions to the Party Central Committee in April 2012 decreeing that the roles and responsibilities of lower economic officials should be expanded. However, Kim also said that changes must conform to socialist principles, raising questions about how far North Korea is willing to go in pursuing economic improvement.
The Choson Sinbo piece also confirms that the state is working to concentrate economic activities under the auspices of the Cabinet, which has been run since April this year by Pak Pong Ju, an official who played a key role in implementing the economic changes of July 2002.
“All problems that arise in the course of economic activities are focused on the Cabinet, and rules and regulations are being comprehensively established under the Cabinet’s unified leadership,” it states.
Read the full story here:
Cabinet Acknowledges June 28th News
Kim So Yeol
UPDATE 24 (2013-4-23):Radio Free Asia reports that implementation of the 6.28 measures is underway in South Hamgyong Province:
The new system has been implemented from the beginning of this year, a source in South Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.
Under the reforms, as part of agricultural liberalization in North Korea’s rigidly planned economy, farm workers may keep up to 30 percent of their unit’s produce and are allowed to sell them at market prices, sources said.
Authorities have divided up the traditional collective farms and allocated fields to smaller group units.
“The North Korean government has been dividing collective farmland up into small units since [the beginning of] 2013,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some workers are hopeful that the changes could help ease the impoverished country’s food shortages, but others are unsure how much they will benefit, a source from South Pyongan province said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Some people are excited, expecting there will be enough rice in North Korea,” he said, adding that there was “optimism” that the system will help boost food production.
“But some are skeptical, with a strong distrust in the government which has been conducting everything unsuccessfully,” the source added.
Management structure unchanged
The move to liberalize the agriculture sector is believed to be a policy initiative of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011 after initiating some economic reforms that failed to take off.
No major public announcement of the new policy has been made so far.
Sources said that a key stumbling block to the farm reforms is the management structures of the collective farms which remain unchanged since the policy was implemented.
The lack of change in the leadership system leaves farm workers “uncertain” how much of that 30 percent will go into their own pockets, they said.
For example, it remains unclear whether farm managers will receive their share of harvests from the 70 percent allocated to the state or the up to 30 percent portion that goes to workers, they said.
One source in China, which is North Korea’s main diplomatic and trading partner, said the system would make little difference to workers without a guarantee on the division of profits.
“It seems like the North Korean government wants to boost the motivation to work, but there is not much difference between the previous system and the new system unless they guarantee the autonomy of workers,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Read the full story here:
North Koreans ‘Skeptical’ of Collective Farm Reforms Radio Free Asia
Joon Ho Kim
UPDATE 23 (2013-1-30): A recent story from the Daily NK offers a downside to possible agricultural policy adjustments:
The North Korean authorities are apparently proposing to reduce the size of hillside plots farmed privately from thirty pyeong down to ten (1 square meter is equal to 0.3025 pyeong), while all remaining acreage is meant to be handed over to existing cooperative farms.
A source from Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK on the 29th, “A cadre from the county Party Committee just told a packed meeting of the Union of Democratic Women that ‘the policy is that from this year all private plots of land are to be limited to ten pyeong, and the other twenty will be taken away and assigned to cooperative farms. That which is in the mountains will be used for planting trees’.”
The source continued, “We must also pay fifty won per pyeong in order to farm the ten pyeong that is allowed, and there will be severe penalties for transgressors,” before reiterating a common refrain in conversation with North Korean civilians: “The rations only last for three to four months anyway, so people have to live off their plots of land. Taking away their land is the same as taking away their food.”
From a state policy perspective, the step appears designed to refocus energies on cooperative farming activities, in the hope that this will increase the productive capacity of the official farming sector in an effort to attain the sort of production levels required for the implementation of the June 28th Policy of farming reforms announced domestically in July 2012. However, it is thought unlikely that this will come about, and, conversely, the source predicted that the measure, if widely implemented, would have a detrimental effect on overall output and decrease the amounts of grain entering markets.
Partly this is because, while people are not technically meant to hold more than 30 pyeong of private land, in reality many are cultivating more even than this; in many cases, more even than their formal work unit is responsible for. This is because only by farming soybeans, cabbage, radish and other agricultural goods are many able to eek out a secure living.
Read the full story here:
Farmers in a Muddle over Private Land Order Daily NK
UPDATE 22 (2012-11-15): Writing in 38 North, Randall Ireson offers a succinct, comprehensive assessment of the DPRK agriculture system and offers policy advice moving forward. See the full article here.
UPDATE 20 (2012-11-12):Chris Green at the Daily NK points out anecdotal evidence that economic policy changes are still underway in the DPRK:
As noted by Yonhap in an article yesterday, recent days have seen multiple uses of phrases including “new management method” in the North Korean media, lending weight to the suggestion that a number of new economic measures have already been put into practice.
For example, last week on the 7th, state domestic and international radio broadcaster Chosun Central Broadcast ran a recording of a meeting of forestry workers at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang.
During the event, which was attended by high regime officials including Cabinet Prime Minister Choi Young Rim, the manager of a wooden goods manufacturer in Hamheung declared, “I will keep updating our industrial strategy and tactics in accordance with the demands of the new economic management method and give our management substance in order that we may secure the greatest possible profit and raise the productivity of investment.”
The words raise the question of whether factories such as that of the manager in question are actually acting autonomously in terms of management decisions, rather than simply taking orders from agencies higher up the food chain. If so, it would imply the implementation of new economic rules.
On a similar note, a November 9th article carried as part of a series by the Chongryon publication Choson Shinbo under the title ‘The Road to Our-style Economic Revival’ noted the introduction of a “new management method” in a piece on how Pyongyang’s No.1 Department Store has been changing in order to improve customer service.
Choson Shinbo has a history of reporting North Korean economic changes first, including the July 1st Economic Management Improvement Measures of 2001, making it one outlet for North Korea news worth keeping an eye on.
Reviewing the anecdotal evidence for the introduction of new measures, Cho Bong Hyun of Industrial Bank of Korea’s research arm told Yonhap, “The phrase ‘new economic management method’ shows that the new economic management measures that they never officially revealed have already been implemented. If their confidence in the new economic system grows, they will doubtless begin to present them as the achievements of Kim Jong Eun.”
UPDATE 19 (2012-10-19): Contrary to other claims (below), CCTV (China) reports that the agriculture policy changes have been implemented:
North Korea’s new economic policy, otherwise known as the ‘June 28 Measure,’ was to go into effect from October 1, 2012 but it is reported that enforcement of various educational and action plans related to the new economic management measure was halted.
According to the Internet news agency, Daily NK, its sources inside North Korea informed that, “From this month, the authorities in charge of implementing various plans preparing for the new economic measures, suddenly stopped educational and other related programs without any notice.”
Starting this July, North Korea began to make announcement through the Third Broadcast, to educate and inform specific plans related to the new economic measure to the North Korean residents. The Third Broadcast is an internal cable broadcasting system usually used to deliver important message to its residents.
The main objectives for the new economic management improvement measures are to improve autonomy in the factories and cooperative farms and the food distribution system. However, speculations began to surface that the new economic policy will be postponed after the Supreme People’s Assembly was convened on September 25, with no mentioning of economic measures or laws, contrary to expectations.
Since the plans for the new economic policy was announced to the public, exchange rates and market prices began to soar, creating hyperinflation phenomenon.
If North Korea continues to postpone the economic improvement plan, is likely to lead to adverse consequences as it can amplify the anxiety amongst the residents and the market, as many were already skeptical of the new economic measures.
On the other hand, production units reveal of its preparatory actions toward the new economic policy. Each factories and companies are submitting production indexes to the senior departments under the Cabinet and receiving evaluations according to its reports. Some factories are switching operations after obtaining outside capital, while other insolvent companies were closed down.
One example is Chongjin chemical factory. After forming a joint venture company with China, it was renamed to Chongjin Paper Production Factory. With over 3,000 employees, it will become one of the top three companies in the Chongjin area — after Chongjin Steel Works and Kim Chaek Iron Works.
UPDATE 17 (2012-10-15): The Daily NK offers a scenario for why an adjustment in agricultural production incentives have not been implemented: a bad harvest has forced policy makers to reconsider allowing the cooperative farms to keep so much of their produce. According to the article:
A Hyesan-based source explained today, “Cooperative farm cadres are saying that none of the experimental farms will be given 30% of their production this year because it has become difficult to meet the target. They are saying that the harvest is not good and they need to feed the military as a matter of priority, so first they’ll guarantee the military rice then give the rest to the farmers.”
A Shinuiju source corroborated the story, saying that the authorities “haven’t said they are going to take all the production from the farms, but nobody actually thinks they are going to get very much. People who trusted the official words are feeling quite stupid, and nobody is working very hard.”
Back in July, each province designated a number of ‘model farms’ that were to be used to test the policy. These farms were supposed to receive their initial inputs of fertilizer and machinery from the state, and then be given 30% of their production in return.
“They are saying that the state does not have enough rice right now and that there is no choice but to give it to the military, so please try to understand,” the source said. “Farm workers, many of whom had been buoyed by talk of food distribution, are really disappointed, especially since prices are sky high in the market these days.”
However, the Hyesan source also said that a lot of people are prepared to wait and see until at least mid December, when harvest processing concludes and distribution can be finalized. “People assume that Kim Jong Eun won’t want to disappoint the people in his first year in power,” he explained.
UPDATE 16 (2012-10-9): The Daily NK reports that North Koreans are confused about what has happened to the new economic policies that were under discussion:
The North Korean authorities originally began to announce news of the new economic system domestically in July, outlining increasing managerial autonomy, changes to payment systems and new farm procurement regulations. There were even some less detailed announcements on North Korea’s fixed line ‘3rd Broadcast’ system, which is used to disseminate propaganda handed down from the very top of the Party.
However, late last month signs of abnormality began to appear. Although few local people thought the measures would be publicly adopted at the extraordinary session of the Supreme People’s Assembly on September 25th, the source said they didn’t expect all references to the policy to disappear.
According to the source, cadres suspect that the authorities are not yet prepared to roll out the policy in practice. Many are not surprised; they say it was impractical to expect the policy to be executed in just three months, given that the July 1st Economic Management Improvement Measures of 2002 took nine months to come to fruition after a policy statement was first issued by Kim Jong Il on October 4th, 2001.
The surrounding economic conditions are far from ideal, also. Since the announcement of the new economic measures, North Korea’s markets have been facing hyperinflation conditions rooted in a sky-high Chinese Yuan exchange rate.
However, it is still considered unlikely that the policy has been cancelled altogether, since that would carry heavy consequences for regime legitimacy. Also, the authorities have advertised the policy to the international community in a number of stories (though not in the state media), and it would not serve the regime’s purposes to lie openly about this particular issue.
In addition, it is actually extremely rare for the authorities to cancel a policy after it has been announced under any circumstances; in any case, sources continue to report that those agencies charged with preparing the implementation of the new economic measures are still operational. The current status of factories is being assessed by units dispatched by the Party and the Cabinet is issuing new production targets. Some factories are pursuing outside capital, and work to consolidate under-performing enterprises is ongoing.
One example is Chongjin Chemical Works. Recently, the factory entered a partnership with a Chinese firm and changed its name to Chongjin Paper Factory. The factory is one of Chongjin’s three major Level 1 enterprises, and has a workforce of 3,000. However, it had actually been offline since the 1980s.
If history is any guide, a session of the SPA is not a place where new economic policies are declared. Even though there have been some exceptions to this rule, like for instance the promulgation of the 1984 Joint Venture Law. Admittedly, at that time, the SPA was more important because had the job of approving the economic plans of the state. Such plans are a thing of the past now, and economic pronouncements have become significantly less common at SPA sessions.
Over the last three decades, nearly all important economic measures were not introduced at SPA sessions, and as a matter of fact were usually not mentioned at all.
Good examples are provided by what were arguably the two most important economic measures introduced by the North Korean government since the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 – the economic reforms of 2002, and the currency reform of 2009.
The ‘First of July Economic Management Improvement Measures’ of 2002 were much overrated in the foreign media at the time, but nonetheless constituted the most radical attempt ever undertaken to reform the North Korean economy by Kim Jong Il and his advisors. The reforms legalized many market activities, provided industrial managers with significant autonomy in decision making, and also increased state procurement and consumer prices to levels comparable to the black market at the time (for example, one kilo of rice before the reform was officially priced at 0.08 won, after the reforms the price had been raised to 44 won – a near 500-fold increase).
The 2002 reforms were soon rolled back, but what is important here is the fact that the world was to learn about the reforms not when they were first introduced in July, but some two months later, when some mentions of the reforms began appearing in official publications. This might sound strange to a Western reader, but measures that significantly changed the economic life of the country remained unreported by the official media for a significant amount of time (and indeed were never fully explained).
The currency reform of 2009 presents us with an even more striking example of a well-arranged complete media blackout. The reform itself produced the greatest economic and social upheaval in North Korea since the famine of the 1990s. The North Korean populace was suddenly told that the currency they held was now null and void, and could be exchanged for new notes in limited amounts (usually only to the equivalent of few months of official salaries). At the same time, the use of foreign currencies was banned, and markets and state-run shops were closed. For a few months in early 2010, even members of the Pyongyang elite experienced difficulties in getting their daily rice. According to foreign observers in Pyongyang, popular discontent was palpable and for a brief while, a violent collapse of law and order appeared possible.
This dramatic upheaval of course was completely ignored by the North Korean media; TV, radio and newspapers failed to mention the fact that retail trade was at a complete standstill and the fact that a currency reform was underway. All information was provided to the average North Korea through the cable radio network – officially known as ‘radio number 3’, as well as through confidential letters sent to petty officials and bank clerks. North Korean media outlets also sometimes mentioned the currency reform – of course whilst extolling its alleged virtues – but in the domestic media references to the reform were a complete taboo.
UPDATE 14 (2012-9-28): The Daily NK reports that in addition to agriculture and industrial policy adjustments, it appears that the DPRK is planning to reorganize, “rationalize”, and possibly close, many state owned enterprises:
The central authorities are planning to merge uncompetitive factories and enterprises with stronger ones as North Korea prepares to embark on the full implementation of the so-called ‘June 28th Policy’, Daily NK has learned.
This process is being undertaken to give those enterprises that remain the best chance of competing under the new rules that are due to enter force in the coming days.
An overseas Chinese trader explained the situation to Daily NK on the 27th, saying, “A whole bunch of traders who were in China on business trips started rushing back to North Korea. They had heard that the authorities planned to rationalize the number of small and medium size enterprises so they headed back in a hurry to investigate for themselves.”
“The word is that they are going to get rid of those enterprises that don’t turn a profit for the people and aren’t helpful to the development of the country. A lot of these workers are getting calls from their companies and going back,” the source went on. “It’s meant to be about getting rid of weak and loss-making enterprises in advance of bringing in the new economic improvement measures.”
The latest moves form part of a process that began in mid-July, when Central Party teams made up of personnel from the department of the State Planning Commission responsible for production facilities, their provincial equivalents and the Central Prosecutors Office were dispatched to the regions to assess the state of existing production facilities. At that time, Daily NK reported that “Because it’s an inspection of production facilities, managers in charge of those facilities have also been called in [by the inspection teams].”
According to a second source, employees from companies slated for elimination are to be reassigned to the company merging with them. He explained, “Rather than simply get rid of enterprises and factories, they are trying to either merge them with bigger companies or with companies in the same sector.”
Although workers assigned to unproductive enterprises are understandably keen to move to a company with even a modest amount of potential, the state of the broader North Korean economy has nevertheless put most in a state of ‘50% anticipation, 50% fear’ over what will come next. At the time of writing, the price of rice has reached an outlandish 6700 won/kg even in Pyongyang itself, while also arriving at 7000 won in Onsung County and 6500 won in Hyesan, putting those people without foreign currency in a very difficult situation.
Another major problem is that while the official aim of the policy is to retain only those enterprises that are capable of implementing the tenets of the June 28th Policy effectively, only around 30% of North Korean enterprises are fully functioning, which means that there are around 70% in an uncompetitive condition. Therefore, it seems inevitable that some uncompetitive enterprises will have to be kept, and these are likely to be a drain on the economy in the short to medium term.
Not only that. In the words of the source, “For the workers from weak companies the opportunity to work for a bigger company in a better atmosphere is pleasing, but they also know that economic changes have never succeeded in North Korea, and in fact have periodically made things worse.”
UPDATE 13 (2012-9-23): The Associated Press (via Washington Post) offers on-the-record accounts by farmers in the DPRK talking about agriculture reforms:
North Korean farmers who have long been required to turn most of their crops over to the state may now be allowed to keep their surplus food to sell or barter in what could be the most significant economic change enacted by young leader Kim Jong Un since he came to power nine months ago.
The proposed directive appears aimed at boosting productivity at collective farms that have struggled for decades to provide for the country’s 24 million people. By giving farmers such an incentive to grow more food, North Korea could be starting down the same path as China when it first began experimenting with a market-based economy.
Two workers at a farm south of Pyongyang told The Associated Press about the new rules on Sunday, saying they were informed of the proposed changes during meetings last month and that they should take effect with this year’s upcoming fall harvest. The Ministry of Agriculture has not announced the changes, some of which have been widely rumored abroad but never previously made public outside North Korea’s farms.
Farmers currently must turn everything over to the state beyond what they are allowed to keep for their families. Under the new rules, they would be able to keep any surplus after they have fulfilled state-mandated quotas — improving morale and giving farmers more of a chance to manage their plots and use the crops as a commodity.
“We expect a good harvest this year,” said O Yong Ae, who works at Migok Cooperative Farm, one of the largest and most productive farms in South Hwanghae Province in southwestern North Korea. “I’m happy because we can keep the crops we worked so hard to grow.”
At cooperative farms across the country, the government doles out fuel, seeds and fertilizer, and farmers pay the government back for the supplies, said Kang Su Ik, a professor at Wonsan Agricultural University.
The farmers’ crops go into the Public Distribution System, which aims to provide North Koreans with 600 to 700 grams of rice or cornmeal a day. However, a persistent shortfall of more than 400,000 tons a year in staple grains has meant lower rations all around, according to the United Nations, which has appealed for donations to help North Korea make up for the shortage.
Under the previous system, each farmer could keep as much as 360 kilos of corn or rice a year to consume or sell at the market, in addition to what they grow in their own courtyards. The rest was turned over to the state to distribute as rations, Kang said.
The proposed changes would reverse the equation, challenging farmers to meet a state quota and then allowing them to do as they wish with the rest, including saving it for themselves, selling it at the local farmer’s market or bartering it for other goods.
Farmers also would have more control over tending their plots. At Migok, 1,780 farmers work in teams of about 100. In the future, sub-teams of about 20 to 30 farmers are expected to have more say in how to tend their crops, said Kim Yong Ae, who oversees the visitor’s center at Migok, where a patchwork of rice paddies stretches as far as the eye can see.
O, who lives with her rice farmer husband and two young sons in Migok’s Apricot Village, brightened up when she said the family expects a surplus this year. Migok was unaffected by the summer rains that destroyed farmland elsewhere in the country, and their private garden is bursting with fruit trees, vegetables and marigolds.
Still, she said they would probably donate their extra rice to the state anyway — an offering known in North Korea as “patriotic rice.”
UPDATE 12 (2012-9-19): The Korea Herald reports that Pyongyang is planning to loosen its control over some state-owned enterprises.
North Korea is moving to introduce a full-scale cash-payment system for transactions among light-industry state firms in the latest apparent move to revamp its planned economy, a source in the communist state said.
The measure, seen as aimed at boosting industrial efficiency by ensuring greater autonomy for non-backbone businesses, could pose risks by loosening the long-standing state control, analysts say.
The adoption of cash transactions marks a departure from the long-held “scriptural-money” system in which each firm uses an account in the central bank when it transacts with others to secure raw materials, electricity, machines and other means of production.
Cashless transactions were a useful tool for the authoritarian regime to keep track of the currency flow and companies’ business activities. Cash payments risk weakening state oversight, experts noted.
In its economic reform of July 2002, Pyongyang partially introduced cash transactions among companies in a controlled production-material exchange market. But the new measure seeks a full-scale adoption of cash payments, the source said.
“The change means a collapse of the long-held system in which the authorities provide all means of production to each firm. Kim Jong-un has no other option but to push for the urgent task of reviving the economy.”
The North is expected to apply the cash-payment system mostly to provincial firms that produce consumer goods, while keeping the old system for military, heavy-industry and chemical firms to keep its control over the strategically vital ones, the source said.
News reports suggest that the North will offer to each firm an “initial investment” to cover their production costs and allow each to determine its production items, price and selling methods.
The seemingly greater autonomy, however, reflects the degree of the North Korean authorities’ inability to sustain the planned economic mechanism with sources of external assistance seriously limited amid deepening isolation.
Experts are skeptical of the measures to give more autonomy to companies whose overall operation rate is said to stand at around 20-30 percent because of the regime’s failure to provide necessary means of production.
“At any rate, companies in the North are suffering with their operation almost at a standstill. The North, through the measure, aims to normalize their production function by offering more autonomy in their management,” said Kwon Young-kyong, professor at the state-run Institute for Unification Education.
“But the state has little cash (for the initial provision of capital to kick-start the firms). We still have to wait and see how the measure will unfold.”
Kim Joong-ho, senior researcher at the Export-Import Bank of Korea, also painted a negative outlook for the cash-payment scheme, underscoring that the North should first establish the necessary financial and monetary infrastructure.
“North Korea’s currency is now seen as a scrap of paper (due to a poorly managed currency value). Using cash is workable when there is trustable, stable financial, currency management apparatus. Thus there remain problems of practicality and efficiency,” he said.
“As evidenced in the 2009 devaluation of its currency, North Korea’s cash has lost its function to store fiduciary value. Meanwhile, people have also experienced the benefit and power of foreign currency, particularly Chinese yuan.”
The devastating currency reform three years ago was aimed at stemming the spread of marketplaces, which became rampant as the food rationing system failed to function following the severe famine, dubbed the “Arduous March,” in the mid-1990s.
Like other socialist states, North Korea has maintained a dual payment system ― cash in the form of monthly wage for regular people and scriptural money for inter-company transactions.
Scriptural money is aimed at preventing the state’s non-cash resources allotted for each firm from turning into cash, flowing into the household sector and complicating its control of the currency and overall economic activities.
The dual system has been crumbling as more firms use cash to secure means of production while the overall economic system is on the verge of collapse with the regime running out of monetary and material resources to maintain the planned mechanism.
What is crucial for its economic reestablishment, experts say, is that the North first establish a banking system, through which people can confidently store their wealth, with companies benefitting from the financial system through stable investment and other methods.
The North is set to hold a rare session of the rubber-stamp Supreme People’s Assembly next Tuesday during which some observers expect Pyongyang to announce new laws for its overall economic reform.
The level of the North’s possible reform is hard to predict, experts say, stressing that Pyongyang has repeated a pattern of employing what appear to be reform measures only to retract them when they were deemed to pose a threat to the dynastic regime.
Pyongyang’s desire for economic reform has been detected in a flurry of recent media reports and academic documents.
The front page of the Tuesday edition of the Rodong Sinmun, the daily of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, was filled with economy-related articles while pushing the article on Kim Jong-un, first secretary of the party, to the second page ― an exceptionally unusual article arrangement.
Last month, the North introduced a set of research papers by its scholars concerning topics ranging from the state control over the financial sector to the importance of currency circulation. They raised the prospect for possible financial reform.
The paper by Kim Un-chol, professor at Kim Il-sung University, said, “The country should strengthen state control over the financial sector to achieve a more stable economic development.”
One of a number of sources inside North Korea confirmed to Daily NK over the weekend, “We have been told by the authorities that the economic management improvement measures known as the ‘6.28 Policy’ will be implemented from October 1st. They said in lectures delivered in enterprises and people’s units that the policy will be implemented along fixed legal and systemic lines.”
Given that the new measures will be implemented on October 1st, it is likely that the June 28th Policy will come to be known as the ‘October 1st New Economic Management Reform Measures’ in the same way as the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measures of 2002, which were branded the ‘October 3rd Policy’ until their implementation because October 3rd was the date upon which Kim Jong Il delivered his first statement on the issue to the Party.
The ‘June 28th Policy’ is seen by many analysts as an extension of the 2002 measures. Among its key tenets, agricultural producers are to receive 30% of production under the state plan plus any overproduction, while workers in small and medium-sized enterprises are to no longer receive state distribution, instead being paid entirely in cash.
However, the people of North Korea are concerned, the source explained, saying, “The truth is that they shut down the July 1st Measures after just 3 years, so people are feeling pretty anxious now.” Therefore, he added, “They are backing it up with legal measures to show that it will be applied consistently.”
The source explained that he assumes the authorities are using both education targeting all levels of the adult population and the application of legal and systemic modifications to try and ensure that the tentatively titled ‘October 1st New Economic Management Reform Measures’ succeed. However, if they are not followed by significant opening to the outside world and/or massive levels of external support, the source added that the chances of success will significantly diminish.
UPDATE 10 (2012-9-8):Andre Lankov argues that Pyongayng will take a stab at currency reform:
In late August, Kim Eun-chol, professor of economics at Kim Il Sung University, the country’s leading school, published a paper in which he emphasized the government’s duty to keep money supply under control. In July, North Korea’s major economic journal also stated that the amount of cash in circulation should be controlled by the state-run banks – for the sake of “further improvement of people’s living standards”, of course.
Taking into consideration how North Korean society is arranged (and the highly sensitive nature of the topic), one can be certain that neither publication reflects intellectuals’ pursuit of free, inquisitive minds, but rather hints at the ideas of Pyongyang decision-makers.
So, should we be prepared for another currency reform? It is too early to say, since there are valid argument both for and against such a dramatic action.
Like most communist countries, North Korea has an illustrious history of confiscatory currency reforms, the most recent of which occurred just three years ago. Currency reforms with “socialist characteristics” usually follow a similar pattern: One day, the lucky residents of the country where the reform is to take place are informed that their legal tender will, in a couple of days or weeks, become worthless and that only a limited amount of what they hold will be changeable into the new currency. Deposits in state banks are usually treated more leniently, but the exchange period is short and the average citizen finds himself facing numerous problems even when trying to exchange cash within the established tight limits.
In essence, such reforms lead to the nearly complete annihilation of privately held cash deposits and the dramatic decrease of money supply in the economy. Legal and semi-legal businesses within the private sector suffer most – many of them face bankruptcy. But such reforms help to curb inflation and reinforce the state’s leading role in the economy.
The last time the North Korean government implemented such a reform was in late 2009 (previous reforms took place in 1992, 1978 and 1959). However, the 2009 reform seemed to fail spectacularly to achieve its main putative objectives.
There were good reasons for this failure. Driven by rather obscure logic, North Korea’s state bankers decided that employees of state enterprises (that is, the vast majority of workers, at least on paper) would receive exactly the same nominal amount for their work. In other words, if say a steel worker received 3,000 won before the currency reform (a price of 1 kilogram of rice at the time), he would receive 3,000 won in the new currency as well. At the same time, the exchange rate of old to new currency was 100:1, so the plan was that the new wage would suffice to buy 100 kilos of rice. This amounted to an overnight 10,000% increase in wages and in effect a 10,000% increase in the money supply.
This policy unleashed an outbreak of rapid inflation and predictably, within less than a year, prices had returned to pre-reform levels. One can only wonder why reform planners failed to anticipate such a turn of events.
At the same time, the 2009 reform led to dramatic confrontations within North Korean society. Many private businesses were indeed hit hard, but the turmoil of late 2009 and early 2010 produced popular dissatisfaction on a scale unseen in North Korea since the late 1940s.
For a brief while, in January and February 2010, a major outbreak of public discontent seemed to be within the limits of possibility. It took special efforts to pacify the public (according to unconfirmed rumors, some top officials were made scapegoats and executed). It seems in fact that the authorities realized their mistake and for a brief while decided to leave the market and its traders alone.
But recent publications emanating from the North Korean propaganda apparatus seem to suggest that the idea of a currency reform has become a politically attractive policy measure once again. One should not be misled by the ostensibly “academic” credentials of the journals in which the articles on currency reform appeared: There is no such thing as independent academic research in North Korea when political economy is involved. This as an indication that reform is being prepared, or at least seriously discussed, in some quarters of the elite.
It seems that North Korea’s elite is worried about inflation, which has over the past two years been increasing steadily. Last summer, the average exchange rate was 2,500-3,000 won to the US dollar, while a kilo of rice would cost about 2,100-2,400 won. By last month, the exchange rate had topped 7,000 won to the dollar and the price of a kilo of rice was 6,000 won. In other words, within a year, prices nearly doubled while the won lost half of its value.
For North Korea’s decision-makers, this is clearly a worrisome trend. It might be even more dangerous because policymakers seem to considering economic reorganization, maybe even genuine economic reform. But an annualized inflation rate of 100% is not a great place to start a transformation, and something has to be done to curb this dangerous trend.
Since currency reform is a staple of government policy in North Korea, it has become a well-known and well-tested economic control measure. Therefore it is only natural that the top managers of the state economy are keen to launch a currency reform.
That said though, currency reform is a very risky thing. In 2010, in the aftermath of the 2009 reform, even North Korean officials sometimes spoke critically about the reform when talking to Western diplomats. Foreign students studying in Pyongyang were approached by North Korean students who expressed their angst about the currency reform. A military attache of one Western country (not exactly friendly from the North Korean point of view) told me that his opposite number said Pyongyang “doesn’t quite understand what it’s doing”. One can imagine how angry a military intelligence officer in one of the world’s most controlled societies has to be to share his frustration with an imperialist outsider.
The level of annoyance was truly unprecedented. For a brief while, in January and February 2010, a public disturbance, if not a revolution, appeared to be possible. It is not incidental that immediately after the reform, the Chinese – hitherto very careful when it came to North Korean issues – began to speculate almost openly about the possibility, probability and even inevitability of regime collapse in North Korea.
Therefore North Korea’s decision-makers are now facing a difficult choice: If inflation is left unchecked, it may well undermine their efforts to stabilize and transform the economy while also leading to popular discontent. On the other hand, another currency reform might provoke an outbreak of popular discontent on a hitherto unthinkable scale.
Reform clearly constitutes clear political risks, but judging by recent news, some people in the top leadership are desperate enough to consider the option again. It remains to see whether they will follow through on their words, and whether they will survive their experience.
UPDATE 9 (2012-9-4): Andrei Lankov, long a skeptic of the viability and possibility economic “reform” in the DPRK, wrote this article in the Washington Post and sent out these comments via email:
As some of you might know, I have recently published a piece at the ‘Washington Post’ where I outlined what seems to be going on in and around North Korea. However, stylistic requirements and various conventions precluded me from being quite as blunt as I would be in person.
Yesterday, when participating at an online discussion, I wrote a rather lengthy paper where the (essentially) same points were spelled out more bluntly. After some considerations I decided to send this letter to you, highly esteemed friend and colleagues.
• It seems almost certain that Kim Jong Un (and some people around him) really want to change things. There are too many signals, coming from too many directions to deny the fact that North Korea has begun to change, and as a matter of fact, with almost alarming speed. None of these signals in isolation are conclusive, but when taken together they little room for doubt.
• The ideal destination for Kim Jong Un, Chang Song Taek and co. is of course a Chinese-style ‘developmental dictatorship’. They want to build a North Korea which will combine an authoritarian political structure (presided over by them, needless to say) with a market economy (where the commanding heights will belong largely to the scions of the elite).
• For the outside world and for the average North Korean, the emergence of such a regime is clearly a welcome development. It will keep its nuclear weapons, but will be less willing to engage in provocative behaviour – like proliferation. North Koreans will still live under a dictatorship. But this dictatorship will necessarily be less repressive, giving people more individual freedom. And last, but not least, such a regime will deliver a dramatic improvement of living standards for almost everyone in the country
• Currently, the reforms are reversible. Kim Jong Un can change his mind or be overwhelmed by the conservatives. Nonetheless, I personally do not believe that backlash is very likely. The boy badly wants to make everybody happy.
• At the same, the above mentioned outcome – the emergence of a relatively stable, and economically successful developmental dictatorship in North Korea – is possible, and desirable, but not particularly likely to happen. As I have written countless times, Kim Jong Il did not council reforms because he always understood: in a divided country with such a huge economic divide between North and South, reforms are likely to become destabilizing. South Korea’s existence is the major reason why a developmental dictatorship in North Korea could not remain stable. These fears are seemingly not shared by Kim Jong Un and his advisors, but this does not mean these fears are unfounded.
• The probability of the success of reforms (‘success’ as defined as a stable and growing developmental dictatorship) appears even more problematic if we look at Kim Jong Un’s personality and his actions over the last few months. To cut to the chase, the fat boy is stupid. He does many things which are completely unnecessary and are potentially destabilizing. He should not endorse the American pop culture, and Micky ‘The Imperialist Rodent’ Mouse; he absolutely should not turn the front page of Rodong Shinmun into his wedding album (section on honey moon).
• Therefore, we should be ready for trouble. A reforming North Korea will likely be very unstable and might collapse. Worse still, collapse is likely to come with little to no prior warning. Media reports about reform are likely to produce the false and dangerous idea that North Korea is solving itself as a problem. This may just be the case, but it is much more likely not to.
• The coming crisis is likely to be violent and is fraught with many potential dangers. Among other things, it may provoke unnecessary confrontation between the US and China, it might also increase the possibility of proliferation. In short then, it is not going to be nice. Probably, the North Korean problem has never had a nice quick solution. The story was going to end badly anyway, however in light of recent changes, the ugly end seems to be closer than we expected…
Those are my politically incorrect and undiplomatic remarks.
UPDATE 8 (2012-9-4): This Daily NK article points out how past reforms led to improving economic conditions…which led the state to move in and expropriate the assets and dissuade individuals from partaking an .anti-socialist activities”. This would imply that any economic reform will not immediately bear fruit because people will not believe the policy is durable and investor horizons will be short.
UPDATE 7 (2012-9-4): The Asahi Shimbun reports that the 70/30 split in output that the state will offer collective farms (see below) will also apply to industrial organizations:
“(State-run enterprises and shops) will be allowed to reserve 70 percent of their profits, and 30 percent will go to the state,” said one North Korean government source.
“The authorities plan to start with (reforming) small enterprises this time to avoid a recurrence of the problems encountered [in 2002],” the researcher said.
UPDATE 6 (2012-8-31): The Daily NK reports that worries about the new 6.28 policies are causing a depreciation of the North Korean won and a rise in inflation:
The Chinese Yuan-North Korean Won exchange rate is exceedingly volatile these days even by North Korean standards.
Having struck a high point of 1,300 North Korean Won on the 27th, a 44% rise over the rate the previous week, by the afternoon of the 30th the exchange rate had lost some of that value, falling back to 1,100 won. Nevertheless, 1,100 won is still extremely high; the price of Yuan only topped 1,000 won on the 27th, though it subsequently fell back.
In line with the rising exchange rate, rice is currently selling at very high prices; approximately 6,500 Won in Hyesan, Yangkang Province yesterday. This is a huge increase; from 3,000 won/kg at the beginning of June to 4,000 won/kg at the beginning of August.
According to a source from the city, people cite the introduction of new economic management measures as the cause.
“People know that when new economic measures get announced, the prices of goods skyrocket,” she explained. “Among the economic measures there is both a dramatic rise in wages and the raising of prices to realistic levels, and as people are now learning about those so rice keeps going up.”
As a result of the rising price of rice, sellers are concerned at losing out even if they do sell, while buyers are leery about buying, preferring to fall back upon corn, which is 50% cheaper on average. As a result, sales of rice are flat.
The reason why news about new economic measures is able to inspire such volatility is that high rates of inflation also occurred on previous occasions when economic measures were implemented, noticeably the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure of 2002 and the currency redenomination of November 2009. At this point, the source noted, people’s fears about the ‘June 28th Policy’ are greater than their expectations.
UPDATE 5 (2012-8-28): North Korea Intellectual Solidarity reports that monetary and financial institutions and organizations are being shaken up. According to Yonhap:
“North Korea is reinforcing the status of its central bank, while working on weakening the power of banks controlled by the military and the Workers’ Party of Korea,” a source familiar with the North told Yonhap News.
NK Intellectual Solidarity, a Seoul-based defectors’ group, last week reported Pyongyang is preparing a new economic organization with finance and accountant experts driven by the Cabinet, from earlier this month.
UPDATE 4 (2012-8-22): The Korea Herald reports on recent leadership changes:
Reports from state media show that the regime has promoted or reinstated in recent months the four technocrats who played a key role in an unsuccessful economic reform a decade ago ― Park Bong-ju [Pak Pong-ju], Ro Do-chul, Kwak Pom-ki and Chon Sung-hun.
Most significantly, Kim in July dismissed Ri Yong-ho, the military’s powerful general staff chief and one of Kim Jong-il’s closest aides. The National Intelligence Service ascribed the removal to his “uncooperativeness” toward the young Kim’s tighter reins over the military.
“Seizing control of the military, Kim is forecast to pursue a drastic economic reform and openness such as permitting private profit making in trade and commerce, expanding autonomy for businesses and reducing the basic unit of production in cooperative farms,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute.
In July 2002, the so-called Big Four tried to relax the rigid command economy by dissolving the rationing scheme, allowing street markets, raising wages and prices and adopting incentives and graded compensation.
But the regime rolled back the ambitious program in the mid-2000s as it hiked prices and magnified the pains of the populace, instead of buoying markets and improving productivity. The technocrats were consequently demoted or disappeared from sight.
The North’s Supreme People’s Assembly last week reinstated Chon Sung-hun as a deputy premier. He was dismissed from the post in April 2009 but reportedly put back as metal industry minister in January this year.
Park Bong-ju, a symbol of economic reform, returned to the government in August 2010 and was elevated to light industry minister in April 2012. He served as prime minister from September 2003 to April 2007.
Ro Do-chul is one of the 11 vice premiers and has been serving Kim since he was designated as successor in April 2009. He also accompanied Premier Choe Yong-rim on his trip to China in November 2010, which was aimed at expanding bilateral economic cooperation.
Kwak Pom-ki is a former machine-building industry minister and maintained the deputy prime minister position for more than 11 years until June 2010. He became the Workers’ Party’s chief secretary of South Hamgyeong Province in April this year.
With the grand comeback, the four officials are expected to steer economic policymaking in line with Kim’s fresh guidelines unveiled on June 28.
Some observers even say that their reinstatement may help thaw frozen cross-border ties given their experience in inter-Korean projects. Chon visited Seoul in 2007 as head of the North’s delegation for a joint committee on economic cooperation, while Park led an inspection team that toured the South in 2002.
But the fundamental question is: Will it be different this time?
“It seems that a change is in sight from North Korea’s inner part,” said Chin Hee-gwan, a unification professor at Inje University in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province.
“I’d call it Kim Jong-un’s cultural revolution ― Kim is heavily focusing on the people’s livelihoods; and he is apparently interested in musical performances and public and cultural facilities among others.
“I was shocked and surprised watching Choe Ryong-hae, director of the General Political Bureau, walk around and inspect a theme park. Though things like Kim’s ‘musical politics’ or the June 28 measures are not entirely new and have been tolerated under the surface, it’s notable to see them institutionalized and nurtured.”
The regime appears to be phasing out its decades-old rationing system in favor of the so-called June 28 measures, which promise greater autonomy to farmers and businesses.
While acknowledging positive signals, experts caution against overanalyzing every move made by the unpredictable country.
“Both this personnel reshuffle as well as some other bureaucratic developments suggest a renewed interest in economic development as a policy goal,” said Marcus Noland, a deputy director and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, via email.
“One can make up reasons why things might be different this time: Kim Jong-un is more willing to pursue reforms than his father was; the people involved in the 2002 reforms learned lessons of at least what not to do; after 10 years of frustration, China will be more willing to help if North Korea shows some willingness toward change. (But) the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
Brian Myers, an associate professor and chair of the international studies department at Dongseo University in Busan, pointed out that the hints have yet to bring about a fundamental policy shift toward economic reform.
“A lot of what Kim Jong-un is now being credited with was started under Kim Jong-il,” he told The Korea Herald via email.
“For fifteen years now the regime has been trying desperately to reconcile economic change with political changelessness. And the virtual impossibility of that task means we will continue seeing people get purged and reinstated, policies stopping and starting.”
UPDATE 3 (2012-8-16): Kim Kwang-jin writes in the Daily NK that certain state-owned enterprises will be ending certain forms of non-cash compensation for employees and moving towards purely monetary wages. According to the article:
A source from North Hamkyung Province revealed the news on the 15th, saying, “According to a Central Party policy that was conveyed to us on the 8th, the system of food distribution for the workers in some factories and enterprises is going to be abolished, and all distribution to them will then be made in the form of wages. The system of distribution for those work units under the state plan will be retained as-is, while only those units that are self-sustaining will move to a system of wages only.”
“Those units that are losing their food distribution system will receive big wage increases,” the source added. “However, it seems that there will be differences from factory to factory and even from job to job.”
North Korean enterprises are divided into eight levels, ranging from level one to level eight with a class of ‘special level’ enterprises as well. Each enterprise receives this designation based on an assessment of things including its role in the economy, productive capacity and size of workforce. Larger enterprises all fall between ‘special level’ and ‘level 3’, and are affiliated with the central authorities.
Those operating outside production plans ordered by the center have had the authority to deal with production and distribution autonomously since the 1970s. This self-sustaining system was designed to provide an incentive to produce, but also allowed the state to forgo responsibility for providing food and daily necessities by passing it on to provincial level entities.
This includes smaller light industrial enterprises with between 50 and approximately 500 employees between level 4 and level 7, and some workers in larger enterprises who are employed solely in the pursuit of tasks that are designed to earn money for the factory itself.
The fact that only ‘self-sustaining system’ factories or individuals within larger enterprises will move to this ‘all-wage system’ presents a threat to hopes of significant reform in North Korea. Indeed, the plan appears only to strengthen measures that first appeared as part of the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure in 2002.
One defector who previously worked in one of North Korea’s ‘special level’ enterprises told Daily NK, “Take away military factories and most workers in major state enterprises, then the number of people working under the self-sustaining system is not large. Looked at as a percentage of the total production of all North Korean enterprises it cannot be more than 10% and it can’t be more than 20% of all workers, either.”
The source further reported that news of the measure is not impressing workers on the ground.
“I spoke to someone in Onsung County, and he told me that they are reviewing a 600% pay rise to replace food distribution. So, someone previously getting 2000 won would get 12,000 won, but that is still less than the price of 3kg of rice,” the source pointed out.
Another problem facing the new policy is the disharmony likely to be caused in enterprises where both types of employee is present, meaning that some will get food distribution while others will not.
UPDATE 2 (2012-7-24): Kim Kwang-jin writes in the Daily NK that the DPRK is carrying out inspections of complex enterprises (련학기업소) in preparation of the 6.28 Policy (described below):
The North Korean authorities have dispatched Central Party inspection teams to assess the state of production facilities at each factory enterprise in North Korea prior to the implementation of the ‘6.28 Policy’, the name for planned economic reform measures set to go into effect in October
A source from North Hamkyung Province revealed the information to Daily NK on the 23rd, explaining that the teams are made up of officials from the department of the State Planning Commission responsible for production facilities, their provincial equivalents and the Central Prosecutors Office. They are now in the process of assessing the production facilities at each factory enterprise.
The source said, “It’s a Central Party investigation of each factory enterprise before they bring in the new economic measures,” adding, “Because it’s an inspection of production facilities, managers in charge of those facilities have also been called in [by the inspection teams].”
Daily NK has obtained confirmation from other sources that the same types of assessment inspections are ongoing in both Hyesan in Yangkang Province and Shinuiju in North Pyongan Province.
The Central Party inspection teams are expected to follow-up their assessments by deciding what needs to be scrapped and what can be salvaged and reactivated, then reporting it all back to the State Planning Commission in order for decisions to be made on state investment.
The 6.28 Policy, or ‘On the establishing of a new economic management system in our own style’, should see the state making initial investments in industrial and agricultural facilities and inputs, then procuring production at market prices according to pre-set targets while allowing a percentage of target production plus any over-fulfillment to remain with the production unit for distribution and/or sale.
UPDATE 1 (2012-7-20): Writing at the Daily NK, Kim Kwang-jin writes about the implementation of a trial of the 6.28 policy:
A source from Yangkang Province told Daily NK today, “They have handed down the new policy to cooperative farms in Daehongdan, Kim Hyung Jik County [formerly Huchang County] and Kim Jong Suk County [formerly Sinpa County). They are providing new seed varieties, fertilizer, weeding implements and what-have-you, and say they will give 30% of the grain to the farmers.
“The state will take 70% of the target production and the farmers will get 30%, but if the farmers exceed the target then they get to keep the surplus,” the source then clarified, before adding a caveat, “Obviously, the key is the standard according to which the authorities set those targets.”
“The farmers in the three counties are excited about it now that they have heard that they will be able to get 30% of the production and even the surplus as well. So much so that they think some people who left for the cities will come back to the area,” he noted, adding that in Kim Jong Suk County they are already bringing in new agricultural machinery, which is being described as coming from Kim Jong Eun.
If the policy is implemented as stated, then the amount of production going to farmers should rise. This will be a welcome change for most; the Chosun People’s Army took direct responsibility for the management of food procurement and distribution during the food insecurity and famine of the 1990s, and this invariably left the farmers themselves with a vastly reduced share.
However, it is not just internationally that concerns over the viability of the measures being implemented are being raised.
Local people are not yet prepared to trust the authorities either, following a history of disappointments such as the 2009 currency redenomination. In consequence, many are reportedly looking upon the latest policy with skepticism; many expect the authorities to break their promises in one way or another, for example by taking more than 30% of production in order to feed the military.
“In 1985 I went to Kim Jong Suk County and tested some changes like this for myself,” Lee Min Bok, who was once an agricultural researcher in North Korea, explained, before emphasizing, “For as long as they don’t move to a fully private farming model it is very hard to imagine that they will improve production or obtain a significant surplus.”
ORIGINAL POST (2012-7-20): In the article below the Daily NK does a great job of explaining the purpose of the rumored new “6.28 Policy” on agriculture as well as the problems the state continues to face in trying to maintain a state-controlled collective agriculture and rationing system in concurrence with a growing “private”-market infrastructure. According to the article:
According to an inside source, the authorities recently notified local organs of the so-called ‘6.28 Policy’, which is entitled, ‘On the establishing of a new economic management system in our own style’.
The agricultural element of the policy, which is to be implemented in October, will reduce the size of the basic farming unit and bring state agricultural procurement prices up to ‘realistic’ levels.
In more detail, the plan will see the following measures implemented: ▲ the so-called “bunjo danwei” (the basic farming unit on a cooperative farm) will come down from its current scale of 10-25 members down to 3-4 members; and ▲ the state will procure its quota of production at market prices and deduct the cost of inputs; then, as is nominally true now, ▲ the unit which produced it will be free to deal with the remainder as it sees fit. Land and other inputs will be provided by the state.
According to Kwon Tae Jin of the Korea Agricultural and Rural Research Institute, the North Korean authorities are hoping that, “[The unit downsizing and realistic procurement pricing structure] will give each agricultural unit the motivation to produce and will cause overall state food production to rise, all while not destroying the fundamental cooperative agricultural method.”
Under the existing agricultural management system, provincial Agricultural Management Committees set output targets then submit them to the Ministry of Agriculture for approval. Once they have been approved, each production unit is handed down a quota. Thereafter, the value of inputs, land usage fees and other non-tax payments such as “military support” are deducted from production, and the producing unit is given the right to distribute the remainder as it wishes.
However, according to defectors with farm management experience, because the state sets prices for the inputs too high and procures unrealistic amounts at nominal fees, the leftover for the farmers themselves is usually highly inadequate.
Although realistic procurement pricing therefore sounds good for farmers, there are many seemingly insurmountable problems, If procurement starts happening at market prices rather than the minimal prices at which it occurs now, then distribution also has to happen at market prices or the state will not be able to cover its costs. But if wages for urban industrial workers are not raised to realistic levels then they won’t be able to afford the food, and the system will not work.
Conversely, if the food were to be sold at a subsidized price by the state, then the system wouldn’t last long because the state would be unable to sustain the budget deficits that this would entail.
The system will ultimately drive inflation, which will undermine the procurement pricing structure, forcing the authorities to either pay more for everything or to pay less than market prices. The latter would then drive producers to hide production from the state in order to get higher prices on the open market.
One defector who was a cadre with a farming management committee in North Korea pointed out to Daily NK that this was what happened before, when “in the mid- to late-2000s when the government was buying food at above state prices, farming regions lived more comfortably than urban areas. However, after a couple of years the state stopped being able to pay, and the measure fizzled out.”
One important aspect of the 6.28 policy that is unexplored in the article is the reduction of farm labor units to 3-4 people. This is tantamount to reducing work team units to single families. If individual families know that financial remuneration for their efforts on the cooperative farms will be captured entirely by the family unit (rather than by being split up among 2-4 families in the same work unit) they may be less inclined to shirk their labor responsibilities on cooperative farms.
One aspect of the DPRK’s agriculture “reforms” that I am interest to know more about is the effect of land rezoning on collective farm output. Access to enough data to do a scientifically rigorous regression is of course not possible, so those of you who have regular access to defectors and family members in the DPRK, please ask about the effects of land rezoning to village production in the DPRK. We should be able to get some good anecdotes on this anyhow.
The market is a common topic for debate in history. How did it impact the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the US and the UK? What impact did economic conditions have in the French Revolution? These questions are, and should be, asked in the current debate about North Korea’s socioeconomic development as well.
But despite the hope of many, the market might not simply be a story of growing individualism and disconnect from the power of the state. While such a trend may well be at work, it could also be the other way around.
This was recently illuminated through an interesting story by Reuters. In a visit to Pyongyang, they took a look at how markets and everyday business transaction function in North Korea at the moment. As they note, it is telling that a reporter from an international news agency can make transactions in the open, with a government minder by his side, at the black market rate. Business that previously had to be done in the shadows now happens in the open:
Shoppers openly slapped down large stacks of U.S. dollars at the cashier’s counter. They received change in dollars, Chinese yuan or North Korean won – at the black market rate. The same was true elsewhere in the capital: taxi drivers offered change for fares at black market rates, as did other shops and street stalls that Reuters visited.
The most obvious conclusion is that the state is adapting itself to the bottom-up development of the market. Indeed, this is the way the story is often told. In this narrative, the government is only reacting to developments and has long lost the economic policy initiative.
But one could also see a government that is confident enough to relax the rules. It just isn’t a certain fact that the state and the market are two opposing entities.
First, connections to the state still seem to be good for those wanting to trade on the market. For example, according to the surveys conducted by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that laid the foundation for Witness to Transformation(2011), party membership is still considered one of the best ways to get ahead in North Korea (or at least it was at the time when the surveys were conducted). A somewhat similar trend can be discerned in survey results presented by Byung-Yeon Kim of Seoul National University at a conference at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late September this year. Kim’s results also indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between party membership and participation in both the formal and informal economy.
Second, the government is making money off of the market. DailyNK recently reported that the fees charged by state authorities for market stalls was raised. They also noted that regulations of the markets seemed to have gotten more detailed over the years. As noted in this report published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, the space that the government allocates to markets has consistently increased in the past few years. Not only have official markets grown, many of them have also been renovated and given better building structures.
All in all, this paints a picture of a government that controls markets while allowing them more space to function. It is not clear that formerly black market activity happening in the open means that the market is gaining ground at the expense of the state. They may well be moving together. That is good news for those hoping for stability, but bad news for those banking on a market-induced revolution. Despite the hope of many that the market will cause the demise of the regime, the role of the market force in North Korea’s history is far from clear.
This certainly has been the season of contradictory information on North Korea’s food supply. The North Korean government is celebrating and claiming success of their agricultural reforms, while the FAO reports that things have gotten worse. Let us recap what has happened:
First there was the drought. North Korean state media described it as the worst one in 100 years. UN agencies predicted large-scale crop failures and appealed for food aid, warning that large shares of the population would be at great risk if aid did not come. The UN’s emergency response fund (CERF) allocated $6.3 million to counter the impacts of the drought. The rains came, however, and the drought alarms seemed to have been exaggerated.
Next, the North Korean media – assuming you can even talk about it as a single, coordinated entity – went the other direction. In July, the weekly Tongil Sinbo claimed that thanks to agricultural reforms, this year’s harvest had actually increased “despite adverse weather conditions”.
And recently, reports turned the other way again. In early September, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN declared that the cereal production forecast for the main season of 2015 had declined drastically from last year due to a “prolonged dry spell”.
The rain that eventually came in July and August, causing flooding in the northern parts of the country and leading to an estimated loss of one percent of all planted areas. The FAO rice production forecast for 2015 is 12 percent below that of last year. State food rations, the importance of which can be debated, declined drastically, according to the agency.
In the midst of all of this, North Korean propaganda is still claiming success for the reforms. Earlier this month, the state news agency KCNA reported that a “dance party” had been held in South Hwanghae, part of the country’s rice bowl, celebrating improving conditions on the countryside:
The performers presented cheerful dances depicting the happy agricultural workers who work and live in the rural areas now turning into a good place to work and live thanks to the successful embodiment of the socialist rural theses under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
The picture gets even more complicated if one assigns meaning to the fact that cereal imports from China were reportedly lower in July this year compared to 2014. Figures from just one month might not indicate a trend, but given that July was a particularly dire month, these figures are still significant. If imports are being decreased because the official line is that agricultural conditions have improved, no matter the reality, that might be bad news for those in the North Korean public that rely on the public distribution system for any significant part of their consumption.
Either the FAO is right and the North Korean government wrong, or the other way around. Harvests this season cannot have been improving and getting worse at the same time. The FAO is probably far more likely than the North Korean government to have made a correct assessment here. Even if North Korean authorities aren’t claiming success of the reforms for propaganda reasons – which they may well be doing – it is hard to see why their statistical and monitoring capabilities would be better than those of the FAO.
So, the North Korean government is claiming that agricultural reforms are leading to better harvests and food conditions, even when they probably aren’t. Why would they do that? There are lots of possible reasons and one can only speculate.
One possible reason is that the agricultural reforms have become a prestige project. North Korean propaganda channels and news outlets have publically claimed that reforms are being implemented and leading to good results, even though some adjustment problems have been admitted. The same pattern, by the way, can be seen with regards to forestry policies – state media has publicized them with a bang and claimed that they just aren’t being implemented well enough by people on the ground when they don’t seem to be working as intended.
This could be an indication that agricultural reforms are indeed, like many have assumed, a major policy project of Kim Jong-un and the top strata.
That could be good news. After all, North Korea is in dire need of changes in agricultural structures, production methods, ownership and responsibility.
But it could also be bad news. When policies are strongly sanctioned and pushed by the top, their flexibility is likely to be inhibited. In other words, if the top leadership says that something should get done, it has to get done regardless of whether it works well or not.
Again, look at the forestry policies. According to reports from inside the country, those tasked with putting the new policies into practice on the ground say that doing what the central government asks isn’t smart or possible. Nevertheless, such orders are hard and risky to question.
At this stage it is only speculation, which is always a risky endeavor when it comes to North Korea. It may well later turn out to be wrong.
But if the state is placing enough prestige in the agricultural reforms to claim that conditions are improving even if they aren’t, that may lead to limited flexibility in how they are implemented and changed in the future. In other words, if the leadership thinks they are important enough to claim success even when things are getting worse, they may not be prone to changing their orders to fix what isn’t working.
Yonhap reports about a seemingly interesting forum that has taken place in Beijing, sourcing Global Times reporting. The article is an interesting illustration of the divergent ways in which Chinese and North Korean scholars/analysts seem to view North Korea’s economic situation and business environment (my emphasis):
Scholars from North Korea and China recently held a forum where they remain at odds over whether the isolated North could attract foreign investors and protect them, according to state-run Chinese media.
North Korean scholars insisted that their country offer a raft of legal and financial incentives for foreign investors, but Chinese scholars raised doubts over the North’s efforts, as it is under U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.
The three-day forum, held in the Chinese border city of Yanji, ended on Sunday, state-run Global Times newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Paik Il-sung, a legal professor at North Korea’s Kim Il-sung University, said that the North’s laws protect the property rights of foreign investors. Even if the rights of foreign investors undermine North Korea’s national interests, an “unavoidable confiscation” of their property would be carried out in accordance to laws, Paik said.
Choe Su-gwang, an economics professor at the North Korean university, said that North Korea allows foreign investors to arbitrate conflicts with the state throughout an arbitration panel.
Besides geopolitical risks, poor infrastructure was cited by Chinese scholars as one of main reasons for deterring foreign investment in North Korea.
Lin Jinshu, a professor from China’s Yanbian University, said China intends to build infrastructure in the North’s Rason special economic zone, but a lack of relevant accords prevents Chinese investors from doing so.
Rason was designated by North Korea as a free trade zone in 1991, but efforts by the North to bring life to the zone have failed amid geopolitical concerns.
A monthly usage fee for the Internet in the Rason economic zone is 7,000 yuan (about US$1,089), but the Internet there is slow as a “turtle’s pace,” Lin told the forum.
Zhang Huizhi, a professor at China’s Jilin University, also raised the question how North Korea could protect property rights of foreign investors in the event of a war.
Aside from the comment about an arbitration panel, it is notable that the emphasis by the North Korean side of the discussion, at least as reported in this piece, lies very heavily on legal text. It’s enough if written laws are good, seems to be the attitude, which is of course not the way most potential investors see things.