Food Crisis Dampens Reforms

Critical food shortages may be hampering planned economic changes in North Korea, sources say.
2012-11-09
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A tractor on a farm along the Pyongyang-North Pyongan province railway line in North Korea's western coast, April 8, 2012.
AFP

Impoverished North Korea’s much touted economic reform plans have been pushed back until early next year due to food shortages and other hardships, sources in the country say.

Unconfirmed reports had circulated since July that the secretive regime’s new leader Kim Jong Un planned to test out economic reforms this year, beginning with a new agricultural plan allowing farmers to keep a greater percentage of their crops.

But so far no changes in agricultural policy have been announced, and any plans for reforms have been put off until after North Korea commemorates the death of Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il at the end of the year, sources said.

A source in Yanggang province, along North Korea’s border with China, said the reforms had been expected by Oct. 1 but were delayed until after a memorial in honor of the one-year anniversary of Kim’s death on Dec. 17.

“Economic reform was put off … until after the ceremony for the first anniversary of the leader Kim Jong Il’s death,” the source told RFA’s Korean service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The reforms had been postponed because most of the country’s factories could not survive a transition to a capitalistic market system amid critical food shortages, the source said.

“It is known the economic reforms will be started with the agricultural sector so [since this has not happened yet] it is unclear when [other] economic reforms will start,” he said.

Expected move

He said that Kim Jong Un had on June 28 announced new plans to enable capitalistic commerce and industry from Oct. 1.

North Korea experts had believed that the young Kim, who has hinted at a more open leadership style than his father, would announce reforms at a rare second annual session of parliament in September.

The expected moves were thought to be aimed at giving factories and farms greater incentives to improve their productivity and eventually replacing the country’s dysfunctional state rationing system—some of the boldest changes since a failed attempt at economic reform a decade ago.

But since the Supreme People’s Assembly ended Sept. 25 without any such announcement, more uncertainty about reform has abounded, both inside and outside the country.

Rising uncertainty

A separate source in North Hamgyong, the northernmost province of North Korea, said the rising uncertainty about when the reforms would come had sent the prices of goods soaring.

“It is hard to say when the economic reforms will be implemented and people are complaining about the rising prices due to the government’s unclear plan,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source also cited the authorities as saying that the planned agricultural reforms would come early next year after the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.

Some North Korea experts have cautioned against setting expectations too high for any reforms.

“The evidence for economic reform to date is scant and based on purported private statements rather than government pronouncements,” Bruce Klingner of Heritage Foundation, the Washington-based think tank, said in an October report.

“Pyongyang even responded to the speculation by denying any intent to reform,” he said.

Reported by Sung Hui Moon for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Ju Hyeon Park. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.