Famed historian and giant in the North Korea-watchers’ community Andrei Lankov recently published a commentary on Radio Free Asia titled “North Korea Makes Mistake by Not Emulating China-Style Land Reform.”
He utilized China’s gradual privatization of land after the Great Leap Forward Famine and the consequent increase in agricultural output to highlight the benefits of liberalization in maximizing efficiency even with static growth in key inputs such as fertilizers and machinery.
Dr. Lankov confidently stated that
If the North Korean government had conducted a land reform along the lines of that which occurred in China during the 1990s not one single North Korean would have died from starvation.
DPRK Food Policy Blog concurs with these general conclusions. However, Dr. Lankov went on to suggest that land reforms are not being undertaken because of the misplaced belief in Pyongyang that liberalization of land tenure and other market-friendly reforms will give rise to a democratic movement and spontaneous cooperation among the people ala Arab Spring.
Dr. Lankov attempted to assuage the fears of the North Korean leadership by noting that “world history has shown us that farmers [unlike industrial laborers and intellectuals] with improved living standards do not start revolutions.”
At this time, there is no way to truly ascertain what obstructed the introduction of the June 28 Reforms last year; that said, the DPRK Food Policy blog team believes that the situation in North Korea could be pointing to a different reason for Pyongyang’s delayed reforms. In part, Dr. Lankov may have hit part of the nail. It’s always the urban laborers and intellectuals who are catalysts for upheaval. Pyongyang might have resisted land reforms not out of concern for what people in the countryside might do, but out of fear of what urban Pyongyang residents will do if their privileged economic position is eroded.
In October of last year, we observed some signs of a developmental crisis in North Korea. This was exacerbated by an extreme disparity between Pyongyang and the rest of the country – which was made more explicit recently by the opening of the Munsu Water Park and Mirim Riding Club. The chief problem is that despite the de-industrialization that has occurred since the 1990s, the country is still largely urban and their opinions matter substantially more than that of rural populations in the maintenance of the regime.
Initiating land reforms might mean that the agricultural output increases and the circulation of food is made more efficient, but it may also mean that the resources being currently allocated to affluent urbanites might be dispersed as growing demand from the country’s periphery, stimulated by the restored entitlement of the farmers, drives costly capital and investment away from Pyongyang. It is much easier to satiate the urban population with easy access to money (via inflation) and infrastructural investment than to risk having to deal with a dissatisfied socio-economic class that no longer maintains the exorbitant privilege of controlling the flow of resources to the periphery.
The policymakers in Pyongyang undoubtedly recognize that this is also a dead-end path. The peripheral population has begun to hedge against economic repression by utilizing foreign currencies, in particular the RMB, bringing instability to the North Korean market. In the recent months, the price of rice has stabilized, perhaps suggesting that the central government is cognizant of the issues at hand.
In short, there could be more here than a simple matter of the state being afraid of the rural population. It could be classic political economy in play.
On that note, keep an eye out for Andrei Lankov’s newest book “The Real North Korea,” published by Oxford University Press. It received a thumbs-up review from James Person at the NKIDP, so it’s bound to be a very informative read.