One June 10, Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim Jong-un provided field guidance at the national hydro-meteorological service, directing the institute’s staff to improve their delivery of “meteorological and climatic information required by various fields of national economy.”
Taking into account Pyongyang’s habit of passing the blame for the state’s policy failures, a Washington Post article speculated whether these climatologists and weathermen might be soon scapegoated for the drought-related difficulties in recent months.
However, meteorological difficulties have been a perennial problem in North Korea. In particular, Pyongyang recognizes that irregular weather patterns contributed to the “Arduous march” of the 1990s. Therefore, we at Rice & Iron doubt that Kim Jong-un is trying to pin the problem on any one institution or person.
At the same time, what is interesting about Kim’s recent visit to the national hydro-meteorological service is that it coincided with other signals that subtly articulated the government’s intentions for the agricultural sector.
First of these signals came on June 6 when Rodong Sinmun published an article that detailed expected temperatures and rainfall in mid-June. The piece went on to dispense several farming tips, including exactly how much urea fertilizer and water farmers should provide for the new rice crop in the paddies.
By highlighting the importance of fertilizers, Rodong Sinmun is drawing attention to the critical role that the state plays in enhancing crop output for the country. Combined with Kim’s personal visit to the national hydro-meteorological service, the message that Pyongyang wants to convey is that government has both the resources and the technocratic means to guarantee prosperity in the rural sector – a response to critics who are (rightly) skeptical of the planned economy’s ability to adequately adapt and respond to changing conditions.
Second signal came through the enforcement of the rules set by Kim Il Sung in 1964, which allowed a maximum of 30 pyeong or 99 sq meters (1065.6 square feet) per household for harvesting vegetables. Over the years and especially during the famine of the 1990s, the size of these private lots grew and became the principal means of acquiring food (through either direct consumption or trading) for many rural families. Radio Free Asia reported on June 12 that local authorities in North Hamgyeong Province are suddenly enforcing the size limits set on these private lots, forcibly expropriating any cultivated land beyond the legally sanctioned 30 pyeong.
North Korean state authorities provided two reasons for the sudden toughening of the rules:
- The private lots encroach on forests and cooperative farms, causing either environmental degradation of diminishing the output of cooperative farms
- People with large private gardens are not spending enough time on the cooperative farms, which should be the people’s primary obligation
By forcing the rural workforce back onto the cooperative farms, the government gains greater control of people’s livelihoods and provides the labor-scarce agricultural sector with more man hours of work.
These signals reveal that the central government is not simply posturing but actively moving to take decisive control over the rural sector, which has run rampant with private trade, individual farms, and other activities that make it difficult for the state to carry out its planned economic policies.
However, this will come at a great cost to Pyongyang in the long-run. Eliminating private incentive from the farmers will reduce effective transmission of information and will prevent the sector from operating optimally. Furthermore, it is only a matter of time until the people find a way to cheat the system to maximize personal returns.
With this in mind, we can expect 2014’s economic prospects for North Korea, alongside its food security, to be more on the uncertain side.