‘Daean’ System and Economic Reforms

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

When the North Korean leaders began their rather limited and controversial economic reforms in 2002, one aspect of the reform package did not attract particular attention overseas. It was declared that the CEO of a state-run factory would henceforth manage its activity directly. To Western ears, this sounded rather unremarkable, but North Koreans instantly understood that this meant the abolition of the Daean system. For decades this system was lauded as a unique invention of Kim Il-sung’s managerial genius _ and now it was over.

The system was introduced in the early 1960s, after some earlier experiments. The Daean Heavy Equipment Factory, not far from Pyongyang, served as the major testing ground, and it was the place where, in December 1961, Kim Il-sung gave his August approval to the system.

The Daean system was unusual indeed. The management of a factory was to be conducted in a collegial manner by the “factory management committee”. This committee was presided over, however, not by the company CEO, but by its party secretary. Taking into consideration that most North Korean committees are hardly anything but advisory bodies for their chairpersons, this meant that the daily management of a factory was to be done by its party secretary.

This was a break with the then established communist tradition. In fellow communist countries, the situation was different: while at the national level the party’s primacy was undisputed, it seldom bothered itself with micro-management of daily production. Typically for a communist country, a party secretary at factory level was a sort of priest-like figure, dealing with political education and moral guidance of the personnel rather than with the management of production.

Why did the North Koreans make such a break with tradition? First of all, we must not exaggerate the significance of this break: after all, it did not really matter whether a particular CEO was officially considered a “director” or a “party secretary”. Their background would be roughly the same nonetheless.

However, the introduction of the Daean system had some symbolic meaning. Since the ruling Party was meant to symbolize the “politics,” such that the promotion of its local representative was supposed to drive home the primacy of “politics” over everything else.

Indeed, the North Korean drive to industrialize in the 1950s and 1960s was achieved with a remarkable disregard for the economic incentives, and even rudimentary use of the market economy. In this regard, North Korea once again “out-Stalined” Stalin himself. In the USSR, large premiums and other material benefits were reserved for the most efficient workers. In Kim’s North Korea _ like Mao’s China _ the workers were supposed to work hard largely because of their ideological devotion. A popular slogan insisted: “We must sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the country!” People were required to work long hours, give up their days off, and ignore safety requirements for the sake of an increase in output. The party was responsible for encouraging this _ and thus its representative became the top supervisor under the Daean system.

It is easy to blame Pyongyang for its disregard of human lives and sufferings. However, did it have a choice? Perhaps, but not likely. In the impoverished North Korea of the 1950s, precious few resources were available, and these had to be saved for the most important use. Human lives were cheap and plentiful, while machinery was scarce and expensive. Thus, the choice was made, and then carefully wrapped up in fine-sounding rhetoric.

To an extent, the North Koreans themselves were ready to risk their lives in this mad rush for industrialization. They believed that a few years of frantic effort would create an affluent, successful, and powerful Korea. And many people were indeed willing to give their lives for such a goal _ a minority, perhaps, but a significant one. This enthusiasm soon worn out, but around 1960 it was quite real.

For a while it appeared as if the strategy worked. The North Korean economy in 1955-1970 was growing at the breathtaking speed of 19% a year. Then it was the North, not the South that broke the world’s records pertaining to economic growth.

However, the success proved to be short-lived. By the late 1960s the first signs of stagnation appeared, and by 1980 the Northern economy was lagging hopelessly behind that of the South. Why did it happen? That is another story altogether.


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