North Koreans ‘Skeptical’ of Collective Farm Reforms

2013-04-23
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Farmers in a field on North Korea's west coast, April 8, 2012.
AFP

North Korean farmers are excited about agricultural reforms that allow them to keep up to a third of their harvests, but are unsure whether they will reap the new policy’s benefits which they fear could be siphoned off by farm managers, according to sources in the country.

The new system has been implemented from the beginning of this year, a source in South Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.

Under the reforms, as part of agricultural liberalization in North Korea’s rigidly planned economy, farm workers may keep up to 30 percent of their unit’s produce and are allowed to sell them at market prices, sources said.

Authorities have divided up the traditional collective farms and allocated fields to smaller group units.

“The North Korean government has been dividing collective farmland up into small units since [the beginning of] 2013,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some workers are hopeful that the changes could help ease the impoverished country’s food shortages, but others are unsure how much they will benefit, a source from South Pyongan province said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some people are excited, expecting there will be enough rice in North Korea,” he said, adding that there was “optimism” that the system will help boost food production.

“But some are skeptical, with a strong distrust in the government which has been conducting everything unsuccessfully,” the source added.

Management structure unchanged

The move to liberalize the agriculture sector is believed to be a policy initiative of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un, who took over after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December 2011 after initiating some economic reforms that failed to take off.

No major public announcement of the new policy has been made so far.

Sources said that a key stumbling block to the farm reforms is the management structures of the collective farms which remain unchanged since the policy was implemented.

The lack of change in the leadership system leaves farm workers “uncertain” how much of that 30 percent will go into their own pockets, they said.

For example, it remains unclear whether farm managers will receive their share of harvests from the 70 percent allocated to the state or the up to 30 percent portion that goes to workers, they said.

One source in China, which is North Korea’s main diplomatic and trading partner, said the system would make little difference to workers without a guarantee on the division of profits.

“It seems like the North Korean government wants to boost the motivation to work, but there is not much difference between the previous system and the new system unless they guarantee the autonomy of workers,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

'Appropriate' distribution

A recent report in the Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s official newspaper, urged farm managers to set the amount allocated to members according to what they see as “appropriate.”

“A leader of a group is the same as a mother,” according to the April 18 article on “Building a Small Unit Cultivation System.”

“Leaders should run the system according to what is appropriate for their local situation and should accurately evaluate every day the proper amount to be distributed to the unit members,” it said.

North Korea, which suffered a devastating famine in the 1990s, relies on food aid from foreign countries to feed its people.

This year, the country is having its lowest staple food deficit in many years thanks to an increase in food production, a report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said.

Reported by Joon Ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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