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By Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea, which has suffered chronic food shortages for decades, has had a surge in agricultural production due to a new pay-based incentive system for farmers last year, a pro-Pyongyang newspaper reported on Thursday, citing farm managers.
As North Korea threatens war with the United States and South Korea, its soldiers are being called back to farms for spring planting in a country where millions cannot find enough to eat, defectors from the North said.
In the past the hermit-state has threatened military action only to return to disarmament talks in exchange for foreign aid.
The move to liberalise agriculture was to be a key policy initiated by the North's new leader Kim Jong-un, who took over from his father who died in late 2011, who himself experimented with economic reforms that faltered.
Although there was evidence of some liberalisation in agriculture, a widely expected policy announcement last year was never made.
The agriculture report could not be independently verified but U.N. surveys for the same period have also indicated a rise in output, although people still have to cope with food shortages on a daily basis, according to the United Nations.
A rise in farm incomes has allowed many to buy appliances and mobile phones and cemented patriotism, said the report by Choson Sinbo, official publication of the Chongryon, or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.
The report from Pyongyang is the first confirmation of agricultural reforms that were believed to have been introduced last year aimed at boosting agricultural output.
It did not cite crop figures and North Korea does not acknowledge food shortages, although it does appeal for aid.
"The harvest was better last year than previous years despite the heavy rain in the spring and the typhoon in the summer," the report quoted a manager of a test farm, located in South Hwanghae province the North's main rice belt, as saying.
"In a word, motivation for production among farm workers is higher," said the manager Ri Hye-suk.
The U.N. World Food Programme assessment for North Korea in November estimated staple food production for 2012/13 had risen for the second consecutive year, reflecting improved yields, by about 10 percent, to around 5.8 million tonnes.
Farm manager Ri said there is a greater sense of responsibility and awareness among the workers for the field allocated to them under the unit management system.
"Farming is work done by people so it's important to give them a sense of responsibility as owners and encourage their role, and officials have to work hard for this," said Ri.
The incentive plan encouraged farmers to increase production by allowing them to keep and sell up to half of the harvest depending on where they were, a source with close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters last year.
At the test farm in South Hwanghae province the harvest surpassed target by 24 percent, allowing farmers to keep a considerable amount of the rice crop, even after supplying the state and army, Choson Sinbo said.
Choson Sinbo said the new production plan was in line with the policy called for by leader Kim Jong-un at the ruling Workers Party meeting in March stressing autonomy and creativity in all sectors of the economy to improve production.
Spring planting began in North Korea's southern farming regions last week, the report said. Planting will move further north through May, when many of the country's 1.2 million soldiers will take part in the vital spring sowing.
(Editing by David Chance and Michael Perry)