Assessing Kim Jong Un’s Rural Development Initiative

Source: Rodong Sinmun

The project to redevelop Samjiyon City and its satellite towns, which came to a close at the end of 2021, is generally viewed as heralding a resurgence of rural construction in North Korea. At a plenary meeting of the Workers Party of Korea in December 2021, Kim Jong Un listed “socialist rural construction” as a priority task and set Samjiyon as an example of rural construction, saying: “It is the policy of rural construction of our Party to turn all rural villages in the country into rich and cultured socialist ideal villages at the level similar to those in Samjiyon City in the near future.” According to North Korean media, numerous houses have since been built across farming villages, ushering in a new era of rural development in the country.

This article is the first in a series to assess the status, implications, and challenges of North Korea’s ongoing rural construction. It examines the significance and possible limitations of the rural development initiative launched in December 2021. Although the stated goal of the new rural development initiative is to increase agricultural production and improve farmers’ livelihoods, its emphasis on greater central control could be disincentivizing in the long run and, therefore, an impediment to the project’s ultimate success.

“New Program” for Rural Development

In his report to the party plenum in December 2021, Kim Jong Un dedicated a significant level of attention to agricultural issues—approximately 43 percent—based on the vernacular version of the North Korean plenum readout.[1] Such heavy focus on agriculture in one meeting was unusual but unsurprising given the times: It followed North Korea’s extremely rare acknowledgment at a party plenary meeting six months earlier of a “food crisis” due to the previous year’s inclement weather conditions.[2] Additionally, the country’s economic conditions apparently were affected by ongoing international sanctions and the self-imposed border lockdown to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

At that same meeting, the party adopted a “new program for socialist rural construction,” which it described as “a further development of the great ‘Theses on the Socialist Rural Question,’” proclaimed by Kim Il Sung in 1964. This new program, which was renamed as a “new program for rural revolution” at a year-end party plenary meeting in 2022, centered on agricultural production and rural development.

The dual focus on agricultural production and rural development has its roots in the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021, when rural construction was addressed alongside agricultural production, a notable contrast to the Seventh Party Congress in May 2016, when farming was the sole focus under agriculture.

The key points of Kim Jong Un’s “new program” may be summarized as:

  • Raising the level of farmers’ “ideological awareness”;
  • “Changing the grain production structure of the country” to rice and wheat (previously it was rice and corn);
  • Systematically increasing the state’s investment in agriculture; and
  • Modeling all rural villages on Samjiyon City.

Notably, Kim Jong Un also acknowledged the “difficult condition” of the “general financial situation” of cooperative farms and declared that the state would “completely release cooperative farms from the arrears of state loans.”

North Korea has prioritized farming and rural development since the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021, as evidenced by the launch of the “new program” in December 2021, the convening of a party plenary meeting in February 2023 to discuss the progress of the “new program,” as well as the enactment of a string of farming- and rural development-related laws in recent years. These include the “law on development of city and county” (2021); the “law on supplying cement to the construction of cities and counties” (2022); the “law of the DPRK on socialist rural development” (2022); the “law of the DPRK on agriculture” (2023); the “law of the DPRK on farm” (2023); and the “law of the DPRK on irrigation” (2023).

In addition to its rural development initiative, North Korea launched a “regional development 20×10 policy” in January 2024, which mandates the establishment of local industrial factories in 20 counties per year for the next 10 years. While explaining the details of this new policy, Kim emphasized the importance of “bridging the gaps between urban and rural areas, and central and local areas in all domains.”[3]

Potential Roadblock: Central Control

One notable takeaway from Kim’s “new program” is the mention of “our style agricultural guidance system,” which is designed to strengthen the state’s control over agricultural production. According to the readout of the December 2021 party plenary meeting:

The report stressed the importance and principled requirement of improving guidance and management in achieving the sustained development of agricultural production in socialist society and advanced realistic ways for strengthening the unified, planned and scientific and technological guidance over the overall agricultural production of the country and displaying the advantages of our style agricultural guidance system centered on the county co-op farm management committees.

Kim Jong Un’s “new program” also emphasized strengthening the party’s role in rural development:

The historic report also set it forth as an important task to strengthen the Party guidance over the socialist rural construction.

The rural ri-Party organizations and provincial, city and county Party committees should correctly carry out the planning and designing for promoting the rural development, local development in accordance with the Party’s policy of rural construction, the Party’s policy of local construction and should dynamically organize and mobilize officials, Party members and other working people to its implementation.

Kim Jong Un’s “our style agricultural guidance system,” in effect, appears to be a revival of Kim Il Sung’s “new agricultural guidance system,” which he introduced in December 1961 during a visit to Sukchon County, with the aim of bolstering the party’s and the state’s control over agriculture. A 1995 article in Kyongje Yongu, a key North Korean economic journal, explained Kim Il Sung’s “new agricultural guidance system” as follows:

The creation of the new agricultural guidance system has served as a firm guarantee for enabling the party to decisively strengthen its leadership over the socialist rural economy and the state of its guidance.

In the new agricultural guidance system, it has become possible to manage and operate the rural economy scientifically and technologically based on objective economic laws and accurate economic calculations by accurately setting the direction and goal of rural economic development under the party’s political guidance and strengthening state economic institutions’ economic and technical guidance.[4]

The emphasis on the county co-op farm management committees’ “unified, planned” guidance over agricultural production and the party’s guidance over rural development runs counter to Kim Jong Un’s reform initiatives across the agricultural and industrial fields, the essence of which is meant to give greater latitude to individual economic units in planning, production, and management of resources and profits.[5] It is almost certainly no coincidence that since early 2022, in the wake of the launch of the “new program,” North Korean media have significantly scaled back on the use of, and did not mention at authoritative levels, the “plot responsibility system within the sub-workteam management system.”[6] The same has been observed since April 2022 for the “socialist enterprise responsibility management system (SERMS),” the industrial counterpart to the “plot responsibility system.”

Centralization has been one clear trend in North Korean policies across the political, economic, social, and cultural spectrums since the collapse of the second US-North Korea summit in Hanoi in early 2019. As reviewed above, a closer reading of Kim’s “new program” launched in December 2021, and subsequent North Korean media handling of the leader’s key market-oriented initiatives, indicate that the North remains on a path of centralization and reform-oriented measures remain stalled at best.

Giving greater management rights to smaller farming units and individual farmers reportedly had some impact in increasing productivity. This suggests that further tightening the noose on smaller farming units and individual farmers could have negative consequences for morale and productivity. That is why North Korea’s centralization policies need to be tracked carefully for their implications for the country’s agriculture and rural development campaign, despite its official goal of increasing production and improving farmers’ livelihoods.

Looking Ahead

North Korean state media frequently publish articles and statements announcing new development initiatives and the completion of new housing units, namely those around agricultural areas. With this information, satellite imagery can be used to monitor progress and gain further insights into strategic decisions on the placement of these projects.

Forthcoming installments will identify and unpack trends in the locations of new rural developments since 2021; showcase similarities and differences between the types of housing and other previous North Korean housing initiatives, such as in Samjiyon and the Komdok Mining Region; explore how efforts align with the rural development plan and the “regional development 20×10 policy”; and seek to understand the benefits and potential risks associated with the North’s ambitious rural development goals.

  1. [1]

    This readout did not offer the full text of Kim’s report but was a summary of the meeting’s proceedings and Kim’s remarks. The summary provides a picture of what was presented but makes it difficult to accurately assess Pyongyang’s intentions regarding the issues discussed.

  2. [2]

    Rachel Minyoung Lee, “Pro-North Korea Paper Acknowledges ‘Food Crisis,’” 38 North, July 8, 2021,

  3. [3]

    For more details about the 20×10 policy, see Eul-Chul Lim, “Kim Jong Un’s Confidence, and How It Factors Into His Economic Plan,” 38 North, March 1, 2024,

  4. [4]

    Translated from Song In-taek, “새로운 농업지도체계는 사회주의경제관리 원칙들을 철저히 구현한 가장 우월한 사회주의농업지도체계,” [New Agricultural Guidance System Is the Most Superior Socialist Agricultural Guidance System That Thoroughly Materializes Socialist Economic Management Principles] Kyongje Yongu 1, (1995).

  5. [5]

    For more, see Robert Carlin and Rachel Minyoung Lee, “Understanding Kim Jong Un’s Economic Policymaking: Management System Discourse,” 38 North, February 16, 2022,

  6. [6]

    The “plot responsibility system” is smaller-scale farming aimed at incentivizing farmers, and it is the hallmark of North Korea’s agricultural reform under Kim Jong Un.

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