Winds of Change from an Unlikely Place
North Korea has time and again abashed its neighbor to the south and other powers in the peninsular region: in 2013, the recalcitrant player followed up on its launching of the long-range rocket Unha-3 in the preceding year with its third nuclear test and then, as if that wasn’t enough, went so far as to issue a public recantation of the 1953 Korean War armistice through its army’s Supreme Command.
Yet, in fact, winds of change were sweeping across the fields of the saber-rattling nation in that very year.
In 2013, the “June 28 Measures”, so dubbed according to the date of their introduction in the preceding year, went into full effect, altering three major aspects of the communist nation’s collective farm management system. First, the measures called for a group of 5 to 6 individuals to enlist as a “work team,” enabling household members to work together as a group, as opposed to the larger—and less personal—production teams of the past. Additionally, the allotment of land to each team is to last for a set number of years under the same hands. Equally remarkable were the provisions that changed the collection and redistribution of the harvest into a system akin to sharecropping: the teams would now keep three-tenths of the harvest, rather than handing it to the state for fixed amounts of rations.
Though the farms are still nominally collective farms under state ownership, these measures were unmistakably liberalizing. And the harvest following this modest effort at privatization appears to have paid off; as if to reward Kim Jong-Un for his break with the past, in 2013 North Korea boasted a significant increase in food production since the famine that lasted from 1994 to 1998, not to mention weathering the drought in 2014 with greater ease than anticipated.
Perhaps buoyed by this recent success story, the Central Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party and the state’s cabinet followed “June 28 Measures” up with “May 30 Measures” in 2013, which will become effective this year. Becoming bolder, the measures now endorse the production teams’ ownership of six-tenths of their produce. Emblems of private farming, the “kitchen gardens,” which haven’t been treated with favor by the state historically, are now to be allotted in greater sizes, another move towards privatization alongside the changes on the collective farms.
Yet perhaps more surprising are moves towards the general liberalization of industries. The May 30 Measures created a system of “director responsibility,” whereby state factory managers are given more leeway in deciding for themselves such issues as personnel management, wages, logistics, and sales partners.
Kim Jong-Un is astutely aware of China’s success story and his own nation’s perennially failing economy. In the long run, these and similar measures will certainly put the troubled nation on the right economic path, perhaps making the idea of reunification more fiscally viable, if still politically unthinkable. As evidenced by East and West Germany following the end of the Soviet Union, reunification places significant economic demands on both parties. The prospect of heavy taxation is one of the common reasons why South Koreans are opposed to reunification. A better-off North Korea, nurtured by continued efforts at economic reform, will make reunification a far more palatable future for South Koreans.
Politically, however, reunification remains an unlikely prospect. Andrei Lankov, Korean Studies professor at Kookmin University in Seoul who once studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, prefigures the state’s continued obdurate hold on its nuclear arsenal and the repression of its peoples. Kim Jong-Un doesn’t want the North, and his iron grip on it, to dissolve, but instead, perhaps taking inspiration from a Chinese model, to delicately balance a capitalist economy with an authoritarian political structure. But in his hands, that balancing act might very well mean coupling the internal economic reforms with increasing political repression. He knows that, the more liberalization there is in the economic sphere, the more appetite for liberalization in general will emerge. So Kim Jong-Un’s efforts will doubtlessly be channeled at repressing that appetite with the one thing his state has in abundance, force.
But economic liberalization does entail some good at least. A better economy, with the greater connections to the rest of the region a growing economy necessitates, means that now the marginalized truant will have stakes in the game of regional politics; political stability is a necessary condition for economic stability. Disruption of the regional game may now be riskier to a North Korea with a higher GDP. Perhaps North Korea’s economic growth will be a deterrent to its own saber-rattling. Time will tell.