North Korea’s supreme leader is a very powerful man in his own country, and his words should be taken very seriously. His words, indeed, are law, and while economic systems have a habit of not simply obeying the law, when something is legal, it makes it less worrisome to be caught doing it.
That’s why the rather innocuously titled ‘Let’s hold aloft the values of the Socialist Rural Theses and innovate in agricultural production’ is, like all of Kim Jong Un’s speeches, worth a read.
The Sub-Work Team and the legacy of the 1960s
The speech (available here) was not delivered by Kim Jong Un in person, but was sent to a Nationwide Conference of Sub-Work Team Leaders. The Sub-Work Team Leader is the line manager on North Korea’s collective farms.
The new system of sub-work team management, the “Field Responsibility System,” is ostensibly rooted in, and a new part of, the “Sub-work Team Management System” created by Kim Il Sung in the mid-1960s.
As the title implies, the speech is about this system, or rather, the “Rural Theses” that were presented by Kim Il Sung around the same time. The program that Kim Il Sung presented for the countryside was primarily about overcoming production issues through the use of technology, political education, and state control.
Kim Jong Un’s speech does not overtly overturn the old system, but a creative and rather radical reinterpretation is offered.
Under the old system, farmers were given fixed rations, linked to the number of workdays they had done in the fields. The quality and intensity of their work was not well measured, because the sub-work teams were large and sub-work team leaders did not have the means or motive to measure work quality.
In addition, there was a limit on the rations that farmers could obtain from working hard.
The Sub-Work Team Leader, a paragon of virtue
Under the system that Kim Jong Un introduced in 2014, the sub-work team leader remains the line manager in charge of day-to-day operations. However, their team now usually consists of 15-20 people, though can sometimes be smaller where the land is better and farm more mechanized.
Kim emphasizes the sub-work team leader’s core role as a conduit for Party agricultural policy and the so-called “Juche Agricultural method.” The sub-work team leader must extol such methods and ensure that production tasks given to them by the party are carried out.
In Kim’s vision, the sub-work team leader is akin to an entrepreneur in charge of their staff: tasked with overcoming issues and implementing party directives in a creative and dynamic fashion in line with circumstances. The sub-work team manager is supposed to lead from the front – “up first in the morning and to bed latest at night.”
North Korean farmers are extolled to learn how to become better at their jobs
Linked to this, the sub-work team leader is also must understand modern agricultural methods and tools, ready for the future.
Finally, the sub-work team leader must know what his/her team members like, what they need, and treat them with respect. The sub-work team leader, as the model socialist entrepreneur, must treat their charge as being part of the socialist family, inculcating collectivist values, but also ensuring that everyone works with the “attitude of a master.”
The sub-work team leader is thus the focal point in the new system, as they were in the old. But their role has substantially changed, as the state has ceded some control to farmers over the actual allocation of the harvests.
Science and state support
North Korean farmers are extolled to learn how to become better at their jobs, learning new, scientific farming methods as part of the general “making all the people into scientifically able people” policy. The country’s scientists are also supposed to look for potential technical breakthroughs in the area of seed development, machinery, and technical methods.
Among other things, this includes an active encouragement of organic farming.
At the same time, while there are major changes in incentives discussed further below, the state is still supposed to be the main provider of farming supplies – machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, needed labor power at harvest etc.
Hence, at least in the farming of cereals, the central plan is still very important, but the incentive structure that farmers face has been altered substantially.
The same ideological packaging, revolutionary content
The “Field Responsibility System” marks a dramatic shift in North Korean agricultural policy. Kim’s speech includes direct reference to it, though in highly political-correct packaging and with few details.
The rhetoric itself is actually not new, but the system is
One point that Kim makes that is revolutionary however, is that the state will take “a certain portion of grain [produced],” leaving “the rest to farmers whose distribution will be decided by the number of days they have worked – the amount they have earned.” This is the essence of the new system: farmers keep anything they harvest beyond their mandatory state quota (planning indicator), the state no longer just takes everything before providing a fixed ration.
So farmers have a lot more to work for – and can sometimes potentially make real gains under the new system, where as previously they were likely to just get the same beyond a certain point regardless of how much effort they put in.
Kim stresses that the new system is designed to make farmers responsible in agricultural production. The rhetoric itself is actually not new, but the system is. Such rhetoric continues to be used in North Korea’s official media when the new system is discussed.
Indeed, in a recent article, cadres on a particular farm are praised for how quotas were decided on the basis of estimated harvests, and farmers told ahead of time what they should expect to receive – in order to ensure they were sufficiently motivated.
As in all things in the North Korean system, a direct endorsement in the leader in the form of a speech means a great deal. The details of the system in practice are not well-known, because the government is not inclined to release details on regulatory changes and detailed reports actual implementation.
But Kim’s endorsement of the introduction of real material incentives into agriculture is clear.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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