No Rest for the Weary

Recent changes in North Korea, from Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho’s “early retirement” to the official announcement of Kim Jong-un’s marriage, there have been wide speculations about the possibility of North Korea showing a new face to the world.

In response to this outburst of optimism, spokesman for North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea stated that such interpretation “is the height of ignorance – to expect policy change and reform and opening from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream, just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”

Despite such rhetoric, Pyongyang is making big changes under Kim Jong-Un – most significantly in the farming sector where the agrarian reform plan, named “June 28 Policy,” is being explicitly promoted as an economic reform. In addition, internal sources suggest that Kim Jong-un is in the process of adopting new farmland cultivation techniques from China to boost output. At the same time, North Korea is planning to borrow unused land in China’s breakbasket province of Heilongjiang to bolster food production, which was apparently negotiated under Kim Jong-il in April 2010.

According to the DailyNK

If approximately six to seven tons of rice is produced in 2.5 acres of farmland on average, then China’s 500,000 acres of idle agricultural farmland is calculated to produce about 120-140 tons of rice per year, creating one possible solution to North Korea’s chronic food shortages.

In return, North Korea will assist in China’s effort to more efficiently use and develop the Northwestern provinces. A similar deal is probably in effect between North Korea and the Russian Federation where North Korean laborers are working in logging camps in eastern Siberia.

The June 28 Policy will be providing individual farmers greater share of the yields and entitle them to do with the aggregate supply as they see fit. The hope is that the outcome of these measures will mimic the “responsible production system” that China introduced after decades of Mao’s failed policies.

North Korea seems set on doing its best to carry out these changes. According to China’s Xinhua News, Kim Jong-un stated that

Developing the economy and improving livelihoods, so that the Korean people lead happy and civilized lives, is the goal the Korean Workers’ Party is struggling towards

And his endorsement of the agrarian reform could not have come at a more dire time. Torrential rains followed the drought, leading to massive flooding, reportedly killing 88 people, injuring 134, displacing 60,000 and damaging around 46,000 hectares of crops, equivalent to 2% of North Korea’s arable land, in July alone. A UN team arrived in North Korea on Tuesday to assess the extent of the damage with a plan to develop an aid plan, but it appears even the North Koreans are not fully aware of how extensive the damage is in the food producing areas.

Flooding in North Korea not only reduces crop yield and arable land, but it also causes erosion which facilitates future flooding and, when the soil is spilled into rivers, creates problems for hydroelectric dams.

As noted in the previous post, while the principle of the policy is fine, Pyongyang must overcome serious material and administrative challenges to actually implementing these changes.

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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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