North Korea’s parliament – the Supreme People’s Assembly – closed its session on Tuesday without passing a much-anticipated agricultural reform measure, according to the Yonhap news agency of South Korea.
On Monday, reports circulated that Pyongyang was planning to allow farmers to keep more of their crops in order to encourage increased food production and reduce escalating prices in a country scarred by chronic food shortages and starvation. Such a step would have marked a new shift in North Korean affairs under new leader Kim Jong un – a move away from the rigid state control espoused by his father, Kim Jong. Il
The North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) merely reported that the Assembly approved a compulsory 12-year education system (extending the existing 11-year program).
A South Korean government official told Yonhap that the North could still embark on a new farming policy, but likely refrained from publicizing it in the event the program fails to raise food production.
"The North could possibly announce the results [of the reforms] later after completing its overall assessment," the Seoul official said.
Aidan Foster-Carter, an honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in Britain, commented to the Daily Telegraph newspaper: "They [North Korea] have surprised us again, but then when they do these big [policy] things, they never announce them.”
North Korea has long had difficulties in feeding its people. A devastating famine in the mid-1990s is estimated to have killed anywhere between 600,000 and 3.5 million people (with most experts placing the figure at between 1- to 2 million).
The United Nations estimated that North Korea needs about 5 million tons of potatoes and grain each year to feed its population, but local farmers cannot possibly meet this demand.
In April, Kim Jong un openly admitted the country faces severe economic hardships and vowed to alleviate such problems.
Foreign observers speculated that Pyongyang might follow the examples of China and Vietnam, which long ago eased state control on the farming sector, resulting in a boost to their local economies.
Foster-Carter cautioned however, that, "If they [North Korea] mean this [agricultural] reform, then it is not clear that the state will be able to requisition enough to feed what is still a mostly urban society. The difference between North Korea and China and Vietnam is that it [North Korea] does not have many people left on the land.”
Indeed, more than 60 percent of North Korea’s population lives in cities and very little of the rural regions are even arable.
Foster-Carter explained that in the past what little prosperity North Korea enjoyed was largely the result of cheap oil, fertilizer, electricity and tractors supplied by their allies in Moscow.
"When Russia cut them off, there was this extraordinary paralysis and within a decade there was famine," he added.
Sung-Yoon Lee, assistant professor of Korean Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, said that any alleged changes in North Korea’s agricultural policy would not represent “significant signals of meaningful policy shift, but a reflection of the new regime's push to shape public opinion in its favor.”
Lee noted that in the past, attempts at reform in North Korea failed to usher in any substantial changes.
For example, in the early 1970s, Kim Il Sung, the state’s founder, allowed for individual farming households to cultivate "garden plots,” including fruit trees, and to raise farm animals like pigs and chicken for individual consumption as well as for sale at peasant markets. These measures coincided with public plans to anoint Kim Jong Il, the current leader's father, as the heir.
During Kim Jong Il’s reign, there were a number of apparent policy “reforms” that led nowhere, including an alleged plan to attract foreign joint ventures in the early 1980s, and vague “economic reforms” in the early 2000s.
“Such measures -- all half-hearted -- all reflected the regime's desire to appease the public and win cash in the short term,” Lee stated.
Real reform, Lee proposed, would entail such steps as establishing normal transparent trade relations with other countries, downsizing the grossly inflated military, closing down a prison camp or two, allowing some sort of freedom of expression, among other measures.