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North Korea During the Process of Change
Region: Asia
Location: Korea, North
Published May 25, 2011
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Data from 2004 show the grain harvest in North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; DPRK) consisted of a bit more than 4.4 million tons. A nationwide campaign was announced in the agricultural sector for 2005, with the slogan “hundred-day battle,” that will coincide with October 10—the 60th anniversary of the creation of the North Korean Workers’ Party (NKWP). Thus, Pyongyang sees the possibility of surpassing last year’s record harvest.

The figure of 4.4 million tons of grain symbolizes the change occurring in North Korea. In it one can see important shifts, occurring over the past few years, in not only agriculture but also the whole national economic complex of the country, and even in the general condition of North Korean society. Five or six years ago, the grain harvest in North Korea had fallen to 3 million tons, reflecting an acute food crisis in the country.

Although the country’s current achievements are still far from the North Korean record in the olden times of large-scale Soviet help, including an unrestricted flow of fertilizers that resulted in 7.5 million tons of grain, progress reached in recent years in this vitally important sphere is impressive and forces reflection about its sources and reasons.

It is essential to discount massive humanitarian food assistance that was provided by the international community during the period under review. At the same time, however, an entire complex of internal innovation in North Korean agriculture appeared, starting in the current century as a technological plan in the framework of a not unsuccessful absorption of international experience with the “green revolution” and as an institutional organization in the framework of general economic reform starting in July 2002.

Numerous skeptical observers—Nicholas Eberstadt (2002), for example—regarded DPRK innovations as little more than “tactical and opportunistic improvisations.” Members of this school of thought have preferred to answer a symbolic question, “Can North Korea reform itself?” in a pessimistic manner; and they remain pessimistic today also. Robert Dujarric and Park Young-ho (2005, 66) concluded their recent analysis with: “Therefore, despite the current attention paid much to North Korea economic reform, we may not expect systemwide transformation in the country’s economy in the foreseeable future, not to mention its political system.”

The number of skeptics seems to have diminished, though. For example, at the 2004 international conference dealing with North Korea hosted by the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, the topic of North Korea’s economic reform was addressed only in the framework of discussion. But the 2005 conference included a special session devoted to the subject (Lim 2005). Professor Moon Chung-in (2005, 20) stated, “More importantly, the July 1, 2002 administrative reform measures on price, wages, incentives, and the market began to produce erratic but profound and far-reaching changes in North Korea economy,” and today this view is more representative.

Even though U.S.–North Korean problems are escalating at the present time, economic rapprochement between North Korea and South Korea (Republic of Korea; ROK) is progressing. The development of inter-Korean cooperation, even under today’s difficult conditions, will allow North Korea to continue to transform its economic model to a transitional or mixed type of economy. Attempts by the United States to apply pressure on the DPRK and isolate the country economically have not been welcomed by the ROK, China, and the Russian Federation. To understand the evolution of the modern North Korean domestic situation, we need to review recent years’ developments.

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