About the Author
View more articles by Peter Ward
Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy, as well as a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna.
Studying North Korea’s economy is a testy business. It’s extraordinarily difficult to get any detailed information, even unverifiable information, about the either the state of the country’s economy or many of the policies pursued by the regime.
One policy that is of especial interest to people who worry about North Korea’s food situation is the Field Responsibility System (FRS). Introduced in 2014, it appears to mark a sea change in the country’s food production system.
Our major sources of knowledge are North Korean laws, the North Korean media, other official sources (including those in-country), as well as defector media.
But North Korean literature also gives some interesting clues about how the system may work in practice, albeit through extremely rose-tinted spectacles.
The first mention of the Field Responsibility System (FRS) in North Korea’s premier literary journal, Korean Literature (조선문학), was in a May 2014 story titled “Autumn Landscapes” (“가을풍경”). A story about a farm under the new system, specifically the story of an old man who refuses to go quietly into retirement because of his burning commitment to state agriculture.
The system is mentioned in passing several times, extolled for “raising the responsibility and will to produce” among farmers. The details of the system are not elaborated on, but farmers are “responsible to the state for the field with which they have been entrusted.” At one point, however, readers are reminded that “just because farmers have been entrusted with fields, it doesn’t mean the fields for which they are responsible are ‘their fields.’” Rather, “every field must do well” to strengthen the base that “honors the strong state.”
The story ends with a successful harvest and the lead character deciding to donate a part of it to the state as ‘patriotic rice.’ His dedication to the cause is singled out by Marshal Kim Jong Un himself who sends the main character a letter of thanks. Even as the new system is complemented, patriotic self-sacrifice remains the main moral of this story.
“Evidence” (“증명”) is another story from North Korea’s major literary journal from September 2014. The story also deals with a collective farm in the present day. The main character is a recent graduate from an agricultural university who has been assigned a job at a collective farm. The story is the typical, rather turgid story of how to serve the party and people with more gusto, but the new system is referred to as follows:
“The Field Responsibility System is being introduced this year, so sub-work team members must know about the land that they are responsible for and farm it well.”
This appears to be further evidence that the system was indeed implemented in 2014, but this is already widely known. The point is that the system is not discussed much, and that rather, science and scientific experimentation are considered to be the major avenues for improving agricultural performance, rather than through institutional reform.
The Sub-Work Team Head’s New Appearance
North Korea is a rather unique place. Very few countries in the world publish poetry about the lowest rungs of agricultural and farm management in literary journals.
The Sub-Work Team is actually one of the major areas in which agricultural reforms have thus far been targeted. Indeed, a component of the reforms are changes to the ‘Sub-Work Team Management System.’
The October issue of Korean Literature includes a poem called “I am a Sub-Work Team Head” (“나는 분조장이다”) about the Sub-Work Team Head’s new appearance. The protagonist of this poem is a middle-aged man and head of a sub-work team who has rediscovered his mojo under the new Field Responsibility System. Literally, he is reawakened by it into enthusiasm which propels him to the National Agricultural Sub-Work Team Congress, where Kim Jong Un is also in attendance. This seems to be a poetic embellishment (Kim didn’t actually attend this Congress).
The market incentives in the new system left undiscussed, the Sub-Work Team Head is extolled for his newfound patriotic zeal and productive enthusiasm.
The final piece this author was able to find that made direct reference to the FRS was a short story published in the October 2015 issue of Korean Literature titled “Cotton Bedding” (“목화솜이불”). The story opens on a day off for the farm, but we are told that one particular farmer no longer knows the meaning of rest under the new system.
“Old man Tuman had no separate work or rest days, he set his own schedule.” With such a description, one certainly gets the impression that the FRS involves the center surrendering daily management of the farm to the farmers themselves.
What’s more, the new system has “raised the rate of land use,” with farmers now using their “private plots as test plots” to try out new planting methods and seed varieties. Indeed, the story extols the value of experience and experimentation. It is also clear from the story that farm land has been further subdivided among sub-work teams, with previously commonly-held land being apportioned to specific sub-teams.
There is a scene in the story where one of the main characters extols the importance of collectivist agriculture over individual ownership. Clearly, the new system is still supposed to appear and sound very collectivistic and fit within the socialist economic system.
Wither the Field Responsibility System?
The FRS remains in effect, and was mentioned on North Korean TV earlier this year. However, it remains rather obscure, and it is not considered to be a major enough achievement to feature that frequently in Rodong Sinmun (24 mentions since the start of the year). Nonetheless, the system remains in place.
Agriculture continues to be extolled in North Korean literature, yet the author has not been able to find any references to the FRS after 2015, with the most recent issue of Korean Literature featuring two poems on agriculture (including one entitled “I am a Sub-Work Team Head”). The emphasis even in the poetry at present is on the utilization of scientific methods and mechanization, not on further institutional change.
Interestingly, it was Kim Jong Un himself who is reported to have launched the FRS in a speech allegedly given on June 28, 2012. Excerpts of that speech have found their way into the South Korean media, yet it remains unpublished and most details of the system seemingly remain semi-secret.
Edited by Colin Zwirko