The impoverished countryside is the site of a major effort to open up the farming economy. My talks with North Korean refugees and migrant workers in China, as well as nongovernmental organization personnel on the ground, confirm what has been reported in South Korean media over the last few years: An agricultural system apparently implemented in 2013 allows farmers — who have always worked for a token payment and fixed rations — to register their households as “work teams.” Such teams are now allowed to keep a larger portion of their harvest, some reports say more than 30 percent. Moreover, for the foreseeable future these family-based groups will toil in the same fields, year after year, giving them an incentive to take better care of the land. Before the change, farmers had worked on land that belonged to state-managed farms and were often moved from one field to another.
A new set of market-oriented reforms adopted by the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party and by the cabinet of ministers on May 30, 2014, appears to aim to liberalize the economy as a whole. The content of this classified economic policy document was first partially leaked to the South Korean daily Segye Ilbo in June. Later it was confirmed by many sources and is now widely discussed by Pyongyang watchers.
The “May 30 Measures,” as they’ve come to be known, envision the significant reduction of state control of the economy and a dismantling of central planning. Managers of state enterprises will be allowed to purchase items on a free market, making deals with other enterprises or even private businesses. They will be given the right to fire and hire workers, and pay them as much as they want.