PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - Deep in the North Korean countryside, in remote villages that outsiders seldom reach, farmers are now said to be given nearly one-third of their harvests to sell at market prices. Collective farms are reportedly being reorganized into something closer to family farms. State propagandists are expounding the glories of change under the country's new young leader.
In the rigidly planned economy of this Stalinist state, could this be the first flicker of reform?
A string of long-doubtful observers have become increasingly convinced that economic change is afoot, akin to China's first flirtations with market reforms 30 years ago.
But, they also warn, exactly what is happening remains a mystery.
No outsiders are known to have been to the villages, in Ryanggang province, since the new policies reportedly took effect. No outsiders have seen the details of the June 28 government order - "On the Establishing of a New Economic Management System in Our Own Style" - that supposedly launched the program. Other reported reforms, from shifts in investment laws to new industrial profit- sharing regulations, are even more opaque.
Still, there are undeniable signs that the world's most closed- off society may be toying with change, from a carefully scripted campaign to soften the image of the country's young leader, Kim Jong Un, to the apparent purging of a hardline general and a series of often-cryptic official statements hinting that Pyongyang is serious about liberalizing its economy.
"My gut sense is that something is changing," said Marcus Noland of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics and a leading scholar on the North Korean economy. …