World media have written extensively in recent months about the damage caused by severe flooding in North Korea. North Korean media have even described this year’s flooding as unprecedented, a catastrophe with no parallel for decades. This may well be true, even though North Korean state media and government agencies have a record of exaggerating the scale of natural disasters—obviously in order to attract foreign aid.
However, even if this true—and the damage is indeed extensive—there are reasons why the international community should be less concerned with North Korea’s food situation now than, say, a decade ago. Had flooding on the same scale occurred, say, 15 years ago, North Korea would likely have fallen back to the famine it struggled with in the late 1990s.
Now, even though some food difficulties may be faced due to intense flooding, one should not expect a full-blown disaster to occur. Things are much less tense in the North Korean countryside nowadays, with the improvement attributable mainly to the general marketization of the country’s economy and the low-profile land reform that began in 2013.
Indeed, the land reform of 2012-13 can be described as the greatest success of Kim Jong Un’s regime. Starting in 2012-13, North Korea began to introduce the work team responsibility system. And while the new units are called teams, they actually consist of one or sometimes two households, so that in many cases these are essentially family-based units. Each team is given responsibility for a particular field, and its members work not for fixed rations but for a share of the harvest. Thus, predictably, they work with much more efficiency.
North Korean propagandists are reluctant to admit that this reform is very similar to China’s agrarian reform of the late 1970s. In China, the introduction of the policy meant that the country’s food problems were solved in a short period of time. This household-based and essentially private agriculture has enabled all Chinese to eat well for the first time in their country’s long history. In fact, this switch in China to a household-based system led to a dramatic increase in food production. Within 5-7 years, the grain harvest increased by some 30 percent.
North Korea seems to be undergoing similar positive changes now. Of course, the recent flooding has made the food situation worse. But generally speaking, the daily diet of North Koreans, including the poor, is much better now than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago, and the country is approaching food self-sufficiency.
The dramatic growth in markets is also important. Now, if floods or other natural disasters cause food shortages in some areas, traders in other parts of the country begin to move food there. Their sole purpose is to earn money in areas where prices are high. But this means that sufficient food is now likely to arrive in flood-stricken areas within weeks, while the state, when it was responsible for aid relief in the 1990s, acted with far less efficiency.
Indeed, as the tragic experience of the famine in the 1990s showed, officials are not as fast as merchants when it comes to delivering food and basic necessities to starving people. Theoretically, of course, officials are supposed to be motivated by a sense of duty and love of the people and by other admirable qualities. But in practice they are slow and inefficient, unlike merchants who care about money and can move really quickly. This can be said to be the major strength of a market economy, where the selfish behavior of individuals often benefits everyone regardless of those individuals’ personal intentions.
All of this is good, and there is only one cause for regret. It is a pity that the late Kim Jong Il did not introduce the same policies in the 1990s. Had he and his advisors done so, and had the same system of household agriculture been introduced then, a massive famine would have been averted and hundreds of thousands of people would not have died of starvation.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.