North Korea’s “Land Reform Law” was signed into law on March 5th 1946, and for a while it offered North Korea a way to produce enough food to feed its people.
The following are the basic contents of the law as implemented by the North Korean Provisional People’s Committee, which was led by Kim Il Sung.
Those Japanese and Korean landlords who possessed more than 50,000 square meters of land were to have it expropriated and distributed to existing tenant farmers for free, whilst the existing tenant farming system was to be abolished. The basic principles of the law were land expropriation without compensation and land distribution for free to former peasant tenants. However, those owning more than 50,000 square meters of land but without tenant peasants were excluded.
In accordance with the provisions of Article 5 of the law, the Committee granted farmers ownership, stating, “All expropriated land is to be distributed to farmers for free.” However, post-distribution use of the land was restricted; Article 10 of the law prohibited using land as collateral in lending, the selling of land or subletting to tenants. As the law itself puts it, “The distributed land cannot be given over to tenant farming and/or used as collateral.”
At the time of the law’s enacting, Korea had been liberated from Japanese colonial rule, but around 58 percent of arable land was still owned by a minority of pro-Japanese landlords constituting just four percent of the population. Meanwhile, most North Koreans in 1946 were farmers, 80 percent of all farmers were extremely poor, and they represented a majority of the total North Korean population. Naturally, the new law was very popular. It was, after all, an opportunity for the Communist Party to appeal to the masses. The political situation was especially complex; a country divided between Soviet-occupied North and American-occupied South, political factions coalescing around different parties, and factions emerging within the Party itself.
In North Korea, the North Korean Provisional People’s Committee and the Communist Party led land reform by organizing 90,697 members into 11,500 farming committees in 1946. They also organized 210,000 farmers aged 18-35 into a semi-military organization, the so-called “self-defense forces,” who supported the projects of the farming committees. During three weeks of land reform, 98 percent of confiscated land was distributed to farmers; poor farmers suddenly became the landlord of up to 13,200 square meters of land. Thereafter, they tended to farm hard and gave their allegiance to the Party.
The farming committee members were instrumental in carrying out the land reform, mostly by aiding in distribution and record keeping. Committee members subsequently became Communist party members and supported the regime at the regional and local level. Consequently, the number of party members rose from 4,530 in December 1945, to 26,000 in April 1946 and 356,000 by June 1946. The success of the land reform consolidated the authority of the North Korean Provisional People’s Committee, and resulted in successful elections for the North Korean Provisional People’s Committee in February 1947 at the local level.
However, following the birth of the North Korean state, individual ownership of land was ended by another national project. The collective farming system, implemented over the course of 1954-1958, resulted in farmers becoming employees on collective farms. The pretext for the collective farming system was communal ownership under the socialist system, but in reality it was a way to realize state control. Article 5 of the Land Reform Law was abolished and the farmers’ dreams of personal and equitable land ownership were swept away in the name of socialist modernization.
Ultimately, the inefficiency and unjust nature of the collective farming system combined with other factors resulted in the March of Tribulation in the late 1990s and the continuing hardships of the average North Korean family today.
Nowadays, farmers tend to solve their food security problems not by working hard on the collective farms, but by farming their own fields around their houses or on steep mountainsides. Their private production is, of course, relatively greater than that of the collective farms.
The way to solve the food crisis is, of course, quite simple; return the land back to the farmers. The North Korean authorities know that private ownership of land is the best way in practice to solve the food problem, but they fear what this might mean for the regime’s viability.