Economic policy under a totalitarian command economy: a case of North Korea's agriculture
(a paper on North Korea's economy by Sungwoo Kim
In a socialistic command economy, economic policy is often dictated by the leader of the country, who is often a non-economist. The leader is assumed to be omnipotent in all aspects of society, and therefore, his policy must be followed regardless of its scientific merits or demerits. At the present, the only remaining command economies are North Korea and Cuba. The following example may illustrate the absurdity of economic policy dictated by a non-economist.
North Korea experienced a severe grain shortage. The leader of the country contemplated the basic cause for the shortage. Agricultural production requires four basic ingredients: labor, arable land, fertilizer, and weather. North Korea has an abundant supply of labor, as well as fertilizer. Weather is something beyond the direct control of human beings. Thus, the only shortage that needs to be improved upon is arable land. Men cannot create land but can covert it into arable land. Based on this conclusion, the leader of the country dictated a most bizarre farm policy. Because all the arable land is already fully utilized, why not convert mountains and hillsides into arable land? The fact that this had not been done previously was attributed to the ignorance of farmers.
Following, the leader instituted two mammoth projects in 1976 and 1981 known as the "Nature remaking project" that involved the mass mobilization of military personnel and students. The objective of these projects was to convert mountains and hillsides near farmland into arable land by cutting trees and bushes. This is a common and successful farming practice in countries with very mild weather. However, in North Korea, more than 90% of the yearly rainfall occurs most intensively in the two months of July and August, which coincides with the final growing period of grain. Without trees and bushes to retain water in the mountains and hillsides, even mild rain floods the crops planted in the mountains and hillsides, which, in turn, severely damages the growing crops in the farmland below. Worse yet, the rain also carries down soil and rocks, often boulders, from the mountains to the agricultural reservoirs and rivers below. Over the decades, the accumulated soil and rocks greatly raised the bottoms of the reservoirs and rivers, and significantly reduced their capacity to retain water. As a consequence, even mild rain triggers severe flooding and destroys the growing crops, and mild drought causes an acute shortage of water for farming.
This is the main reason behind the current famine in North Korea. Farmers may not have much formal education, but they know farming from centuries-old experience. The farmers had not tried to undertake the practice of terrace farming because it is not suitable to North Korea. However, the leader thought he was smarter than the farmers.
Since terrace farming was mandated by the North Korean leader, the country cannot reverse the practice, because such reversal of a policy is tantamount to an admission that the leader, who is supposed to be omnipotent, made a mistake. Because of this fear of losing face, the farm policy of North Korea remains unchanged, and the common people are experiencing totally unnecessary famine and suffering.