The five- to six-year period from the mid- to late 1990s may have been the most difficult period of time in North Korean history. The North Korean government uses the expression “Arduous March” in its propaganda to promote the period as a time of heroic struggle.
The expression “Arduous March” does not correctly explain the period’s situation, however. It would be far more accurate to refer to the period as a “time of great famine.” The reason for this great famine was not, as North Korea’s state media argues, because of investment for nuclear weapons development or severe flood damage. Rather, it was due to the North Korean government’s wrong-headed policies.
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.
In the late 1970s, China divvied up all land owned by the state to the farmers and dissolved all state-run farms, which, incidentally, were similar to North Korea’s cooperative farms. Ultimately, when Chinese farmers began to work on land they owned themselves the country’s agriculture yield skyrocketed. Within five to six years of implementing the land reform, China’s food production increased 1.3 times.
During this period, China did not bring in new machinery nor did it introduce some new kind of manure. This increase in food production was done with the same tools and machinery the farmers had been using long before.
The Chinese case was not an anomaly. As world history has shown us, farmers have no incentive to work hard on land owned by others. It is hard to deny the underlying fact that farmers feel no need to work hard when they are forced to give away their hard-earned harvest to landowners or the state.
Fears of loss of control
The transformation that occurred in China has been witnessed in other countries as well. Russia was a major importer of grains during its communist days but has now become one of the biggest exporters of grains in the world. Vietnam suffered from famines up until even the late 1980s but has now developed into one of the top three producers of rice on the planet.
North Korea’s food situation would also improve greatly if the country’s leaders decided to divvy up state-owned land to the farmers and allow them to sell their harvest on the market however they wish. North Korean authorities think that such reforms are very dangerous, however. They are fearful that these reforms could lead to the rise of a democracy movement and spontaneous cooperation among the North Korean people.
The North Korean government believes that watching over and controlling the people is essential to maintaining the life of the regime.
I believe that such fears on the part of the North Korean leadership are unfounded. World history has shown us that farmers with improved living standards do not start revolutions. History is scattered with cases where intellectuals and laborers support revolutions even when living conditions are good because they want to improve their own political participation or individual freedoms.
Farmers are different, however. Most farmers give no thought to starting a revolution if they receive 100% of their hard-earned harvests.
Ultimately, I believe that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made a mistake by not implementing land reform like China did in the late 1990s. Unlike other types of reform, a land reform would provide major benefits without incurring a threat to the regime.
I think that Kim Jong Un would do well to understand this fact.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.
Translated by Robert Lauler.