This article is the first in a series by Natalia Matveeva on North Korea’s early economic history.
Organizing the agricultural sector into collective farms, or collectivization, is often viewed as one of the characterizing features of the Soviet economic model, and of those countries that followed and emulated it.
In carrying out its collectivization campaign, North Korea did not simply learn from the Soviet Union, but in some aspects managed to, paraphrasing Lenin’s words, “catch up and outdo” it, often going against Soviet advice and suggestions.
The idea to introduce centralized management to the agricultural sector preceded the Korean War. After the land reform of 1946, 1948-49 saw 36 state farms created, with complete state ownership of the means of production and the farms under state control.
Kim Il Sung personally declared them “agricultural enterprises of an advanced form of economy.” During the war, the number of state farms rose to more than 200; yet it was not feasible to put the whole agricultural sector of a still more agrarian-than-industrial country (even in the mid-1950s two-thirds of the population were peasants) under direct state control. The next best thing, then, was collectivization.
The idea to introduce centralized management to the agricultural sector preceded the Korean War
Talks about the necessity of collectivizing agriculture began around 1952, when the end of the war was in sight and it was time to start looking for funds for the rehabilitation of the economy and, especially, of heavy industry and machinery.
The Soviet experience of rapid industrialization in the 1930s, to the North Koreans, had proven collectivization to be an effective means of extracting resources from the agricultural sector while at the same time lowering the government spending on it.
Kim Il Sung was inspired and impressed by that experience and considered it fully applicable to North Korea. On August 5, 1953, not even a month after the armistice was signed, he reported to the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) that in order to speedily rehabilitate and develop the national economy individual peasant farms should be cooperative.
The first trial stage of collectivization started right afterward. Like in the Soviet Union in 1929, there were three types of cooperative organizations originally proposed that the peasants could choose from, ranging from mutual-aid teams to complete communal ownership of the land, animals, and equipment.
In reality, the first option was practically non-existent from the start; in 1954 already 30% of peasant farms were collectivized, and of them, almost 80 percent belonged to the third type.
Seeing the success of the trial period, in early November 1954, the WPK CC decided to speed up the collectivization campaign. The press, including the Rodong Sinmun, proclaimed intensive collectivization as the Party’s new course in rural policies.
However, things were not going as smoothly as desired. Just like during the Soviet collectivization, there were cases of peasant unrest, of sabotage against the collective farms, such as arson and cattle slaughter, and, according to the Soviet sources, many members of the new cooperative farms were disinterested in cooperative farming or even hostile to the concept.
Kim Il Sung was inspired and impressed by the Soviet experience and considered it fully applicable to North Korea
In early 1955 the disruptions to the rural economy caused by enforced collectivization, combined with adverse weather conditions the previous year and overtaxing due to the overestimation of the harvest, resulted in a full-on famine, with over one-third of farmers being unable to feed themselves.
To overcome the famine, North Korea had to ask for help from the Soviet Union and other “fraternal countries.”
Against all expectations, the Soviet Union did not approve of the form and pace of the collectivization campaign in North Korea. The same people who had carried out collectivization in the Soviet Union, including Vyacheslav Molotov and Nikita Khrushchev, actually cautioned North Korea against forcing it.
Having experienced the aftermath of enforced collectivization in the 1930s, the Soviet leadership from the very beginning warned North Korea that the hasty organization of cooperatives would not provide an increase in the agricultural production, but rather would require large expenditures from the state and create tensions in the countryside.
The Soviet advice, then, was to give priority not to further enforcing collectivization, but to strengthening the ideological background and organizational structure of the existing farms, to slow down the creation of the third-type collective farms and to increase the overall investments into the rural sector.
Faced with both the famine and Soviet disapproval, in spring 1955 the Ministry of Agriculture formally announced that no more collective farms had been established after January 1.
Yet a de facto the campaign continued. A Soviet advisor to the Minister of Agriculture noted that while the directive had been passed down to the provinces and counties, the provincial and county heads, encouraged by the press, continued to promote collectivization, persisted in pushing forward and enforcing the campaign, viewing it as a great success and disregarding all the shortcomings.
When the Soviets confronted Kim Il Sung about the press, he merely replied that the articles were published without his approval and did not reflect the WPK CC’s views and intentions, however improbable that might seem.
Soviet advice had only limited results
Kim Il Sung held tight to the idea that both the decision to collectivize the agriculture and its general implementation were correct, since that had worked out well in the 1930s Soviet Union, and that any “excesses” resulted simply from the overzealousness of local functionaries.
Thus, Soviet advice had only limited results. After Kim’s visit to Moscow in 1955, during which he had lengthy discussions with Soviet officials and economists, the ban on grain trade, previously introduced in 1954 together with the full-scale collectivization campaign, was lifted.
Yet one of the causes of the famine, the system of state procurements and tax-in-kind where the peasants more than a quarter of their production to the state, stayed in place.
Collectivization continued. Kim Il Sung explained to the Soviet Union that it was voluntary, and that its pace was fast only because the peasants themselves asked to join the collective farms, and the government did not feel it reasonable to turn away the peasants who wanted to be part of existing or organize new collective farms.
That explanation, admittedly, was familiar to the Soviet officials, as it was often used in the USSR itself, especially back in the 1930s.
In 1955 collective farms incorporated almost half of the total number of peasant households, and the next year that figure rose to 80 percent.
Since by 1957 reportedly “only” one-tenth of the collective farms did not have enough of their own grain for two to three months, as compared to 36 percent the year before, the agricultural sector was deemed sufficiently recovered from the crisis of 1955 and a ban on grain trade was reintroduced against the Soviet advice.
In 1957, reviewing the draft of North Korea’s first Five-Year Plan, the Soviet Union made another attempt to influence the agricultural policies.
By then the days when the USSR could outright dictate North Korea’s internal economic policies were long gone, and it had to acquiesce that collectivization itself was a fait accompli.
The Soviet suggestion was to essentially emulate what the Soviet Union itself was doing in agricultural management at that time, to once again abolish the state monopoly on grain trade and, while retaining the tax-in-kind on grain, not to lower the purchase prices, ensuring that the peasants retained the stimulus to produce and sell to the state.
The North Korean side agreed to lower the tax by half, but refused on all other counts, saying that the collectivization campaign would be carried to completion and that the grain ban was necessary as it allowed the state to cut down on grain speculation.
The USSR… had to acquiesce that collectivization itself was a fait accompli
For the first time, North Korea openly stated to the Soviets that the conditions in the DPRK countryside differed from those of the Soviet Union and thus required a different approach, and that the Soviet Union did not possess enough information necessary to objectively judge the situation in North Korea.
By the end of 1957 more than 95 percent of peasant farms were collectivized. The collectivization, despite all the Soviet objections, was declared completed in August 1958.
It had taken five years, from 1953 to 1958, and its pace and intensity was much higher than in the Soviet Union, even accounting for the difference in size and population.
By then in the DPRK there were 13,290 collective farms, all of them involving full communal ownership of the means of production, incorporating more than one million households and 4.67 million people. The whole of the rural population and more than 99 percent of arable land was collectivized.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
This article is the first in a series by Natalia Matveeva on North Korea's early economic history. Organizing the agricultural sector into collective farms, or collectivization, is often viewed as one of the characterizing features of the Soviet economic model, and of those countries that followed and emulated it.In carrying out its collectivization campaign, North Korea did not simply
Natalia Matveeva is a Ph.D. student at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), focusing on the economic and political development of North and South Korea in the late 1950s-early 1960.