It remains unclear what is driving the government to allow farmers more personal control. The North could be trying to wring more production from its farmers “out of necessity, not out of virtue,” because its centrally planned rationing system is broken, said Victor Cha, a former White House director of Asian affairs. If and when the North’s food shortages ease, he said, the country is likely to retreat.
“Having said that, the more time they have to do this and let the economy function on its own, the better off we all are,” Cha said. “You can say to farmers, ‘Okay, for six months, you can keep 30 percent,’ but the more times you do this, the harder it will be to pull back.”
Few foreign government officials or scholars on North Korea expect a big-bang economic makeover or official announcements about reform. Indeed, the country’s state media said in July that it was a “hallucination” to expect reform or an opening. But one foreign government official based in Asia who recently visited the North said he met with several senior North Korean officials who gave a “consistent message about economic policy and economic development” while never once mentioning the long-favored military.
“Obviously, they didn’t use the term ‘economic reform,’ ” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations. “Those are dangerous terms and counterproductive. But the clear message I got from senior people was: We know we need to build the economy.”
An ideological tightrope
If Kim pushes for sustained economic reform, analysts say, he invites major risks. He could alienate the senior officials around him — the elite few who profit from the current system. He could also trigger a demand among the North’s 24 million people for rapid, rather than partial, liberalization, and it’s almost inconceivable that the Kim family would keep its power in a democracy.
Kim must also walk an ideological tightrope, paying homage to his father and grandfather while encouraging new ideas. Some analysts say they have been surprised at the new leader’s willingness to criticize the status quo, most notably during a visit four months ago to an amusement park.
Although state media normally describe the North as a socialist paradise, they portrayed Kim touring the park grounds and grumbling about the state of disrepair. He spotted chipping paint, cracks in the pavement and sprouting weeds, which he plucked one by one “with an irritated look,” one media account said.
During the visit, Kim chided officials for letting the park fall into such a sorry state and for their “outdated, ideological” way of thinking. He appointed a top deputy to oversee improvements.
A follow-up report two weeks later said that “soldier-builders” were “now waging an all-out drive to turn the above-said [amusement park] into a more modern recreation ground.”
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.