In 1978, villagers enduring drought in Xiaogang, in east China's Anhui Province, secretly implemented a reform which would change China’s collective system of agriculture and the history of the country. Maoist China had forbidden the allocation of farmlands to individuals or families. But the villagers who signed a contract with each other agreeing that “if any one of us is put to prison as a result, others shall be responsible for taking care of his children until they reach 18 years of age” saw private allocation as the only means by which to avoid the starvation that had wracked a previous generation of Chinese.
Practice of the so called household responsibility system soon spread. Production output in the Shannan commune tripled within a year. A report of the villagers’ activities was taken to Beijing. Its implications were clear and at first The People’s Daily and the Xinhua News Agency refused to publish its contents. The government banned the household responsibility system. However, the villagers ignored Beijing’s orders and persisted with their rudimentary free market experiment. As it happened the villagers were pushing at an open door with Deng Xiaoping, who had already used the famous “white cat, black cat” proverb in a speech to the 1962 Central Committee session attacking pure ideological implementations of Maoism.
Deng permitted the farmers of Anhui to persist with the household responsibility system. Farmers met the government’s demanded quotas and were then free to sell any surplus in the marketplace at marketplace determined prices. The era of pure collectivist agriculture was over. Initiative was rewarded and, as Deng praised and instituted the household system across the country, rural markets transformed Chinese national life literally from its grassroots.
Then there is North Korea. Lee Yun-keol, president of the North Korean Strategic Information Service Center, tells the story of a North Korean professor of engineering with an interest in inter-disciplinary research. “In 1995,”said Lee, “this well regarded electrical engineer in his mid forties presented a thesis he had been working on in the field of agriculture. This was at a time when harvests were half the size they needed to be to meet the country’s subsistence levels in food. He submitted the thesis to the relevant department and then presented it to a department committee. As per the standard academic routine in North Korea, it was sent up from the department committee to an agricultural committee. After high level peer review consideration, it was submitted to the Central Party.”
The thesis’s author was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. The man’s relatives, in accordance with North Korea’s implicative system of family punishment, were all fired from their posts and disappeared into the penal system. Even those who had reviewed the thesis and passed it over to the Central Party for consideration were removed from their posts and punished. Why?
As they did in China, he had suggested, let’s operate a system in North Korea in which land is allocated to groups of twenty to thirty individuals who are allowed to make an independent profit, so solving the country’s food provision problems. However, the division of land, the notion of organizational competition, and the ultimate goal of profit all ran counter to the principles of collective farming and jucheism, the state’s doctrinal organizing concept. In propagating a solution that resembled the Chinese family contract system of agriculture, the scientist was stigmatized as a revisionist socialist. The price was immediately paid by all those tainted with the knowledge of his reformist thoughts. Millions then died in the famine of the mid to late nineties, which, in a linguistic nod to East Asian communist lore, was dubbed the ‘arduous march’.
In the intervening years marketplaces, the “jangmadang”, have sprung up in North Korea. The regime permits them through gritted teeth. The agricultural production system has been tinkered with so as to avoid ‘unacceptable’ levels of starvation. North Korean agricultural producers are allowed to sell a little surplus at the farmers’ markets. Today, irregular shaped fields of private production plots quilt the mountains of this mountainous country. These are the ‘sotoji’, which play a crucial role in food production. But unlike in China, the regime has not disbanded the state run agricultural cooperatives which occupy most of the best arable land. And officially the sotoji don’t exist, they are on some of the worst arable land, and most of their operators make a loss. Fields, like all other spheres of organic management in North Korea, occupy a centralized role in the regime’s guerilla-minded front. Kim Jong-il retains all measures against full social mobility. In 2009 he lopped a couple of zeroes off the North Korean currency value to brutally cut at its roots the growth of any independent moneyed class.
North Korea is currently appealing for international aid in the face of what it claims are food provision problems that in essence wouldn’t be dissimilar to those facing the villagers in Xiaogang, in 1978. A logical passing thought of any observer might then be that it should do as the Chinese did at the turn of the nineteen eighties and, at the very least,more aggressively take the path to disbanding state run agricultural cooperatives to ease the problem. On July 4th, however, an announcement was made through North Korea’s official radio broadcaster.
“Our farming laborers will, with rifle in one hand and a scythe in the other like in the war for independence, make a decisive change this year in agricultural production and serve to send more rice for our military, which will strike open the head of the traitor and enemy, Lee Myung-bak.”
This report, which was later modified to omit mention of the diversion of a starving nation’s food resources to its nuclear armed military, explains the reasons for procrastination in the international response to North Korean appeals. Current South Korean leader Lee Myung-bak has sought to link donations of food aid with changes in North Korean behavior, hence Pyongyang’s chagrin. Those changes haven’t been forthcoming. They are unlikely to appear to any radical extent in the field of agriculture.
The fate of the North Korean scientist was not unique, being by no means either the first or last instance of its kind. Any kind of revisionist proposal requiring reform and opening up is the instantaneous object of punishment. Such suggestions are not welcomed by the regime but do offer it the perverse opportunity to make a clear example to the educated elites that should they stick their heads above the parapets with anti state ideology proposals the gulag awaits.
The North Korean regime is systemically bound not to give up its centralized agriculture policy lightly. It is a core regime tool in maintaining a grip on events in the country and in preventing the officially sanctioned genesis of uncontrollable daily activity which isn’t defensible in terms of “juche”. For any free independence of action includes within it an implicit threat to the regime. North Korea, in contradistinction to China, is locked into a cult of leader idolization which necessitates that it maintain the charade that everything the people has flows down beneficently from the leader. Donor nations are locked into underpinning that cult.
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