A new defector survey about market trade in North Korea, and what it says (maybe) about Kim Jong-un

August 28th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

In Wall Street Journal, Jeyup Kwaak reports on a new defector survey by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (08-26-2015) (added emphasis):

The Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies annually surveys more than 100 North Koreans who defected in the prior calendar year. The results provide firsthand insight into developments in the isolated state, though its researchers said they shouldn’t be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.

[…]

The latest survey, of 146 North Koreans who escaped in 2014, shows significant growth from the previous year in the number of people saying they conducted private business activities and paid bribes to enable them. A little more than half said they received no money from the state, down from last year’s survey but up from the one released in 2013.

Experts say between half and three-quarters of North Koreans’ income comes from quasi-illegal market activities, such as trade of basic goods smuggled in from China, but sporadic crackdowns by national or regional security officials lead to irregular business and bribery. Defectors say officials often collect fees when they set up a booth at a market.

The results themselves do not present a new trend. Several previous defector studies indicate that markets are perhaps the most important source of income and sustenance for many (if not most) North Koreans. However, a few things are interesting to note.

The links may not be entirely clear, but it is at least symbolic that the current survey, albeit with a very small number of interviewees, suggests that support for Kim Jong-un and the leadership may not be waning, at the same time as market activity continues unabated. This at least calls into question an assumption that sometimes occurs that market trade would lead people to become more critical of the regime.

Again, too much shouldn’t be read too much into a small study with participants that probably are not geographically or socially representative of North Korea as a whole. Defectors as a group rarely are. But perhaps one could imagine that market trade being so institutionalized and regulated by the regime would make it more synonymous with the regime itself. I.e., if market trading is seen as something positive, maybe this reflects positively on the regime as well — perhaps the market has been co-opted.

The article also reminds us of the rather peculiar combination of dynamics seen under Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, market trade seems to continue unabated domestically, and initiatives like the new special economic zones and the agricultural reforms show that there is at the very minimum some new thinking going on.

But on the other hand, border controls have been tightened to a degree rarely seen since the mid-1990s, according to defector reports. Just today, DailyNK reports (in Korean) that resident in the Sino-Korean borderlands have seen their access to the Amnok river, often used for laundry by locals, increasingly restricted as of late. As the WSJ writes,

Just 614 North Koreans made it to the South in the first half of this year, compared with 2,706 in the 2011 calendar year, according to the most recent ministry data.

The drop in North Koreans who visited China on legal visas so far this year should perhaps also be seen in this context.

Taken together, the tightened border controls on the one hand, and the seemingly changing (one could say “progressive”) rhetoric on economic matters on the other, paint a mixed picture.

In the early days of Kim Jong-un, the question was whether he was a reformer or a hardliner. A few years into his rule, it seems he might be neither and both at the same time.

Share

How the North Korean media describes a market

August 25th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A recent brief from IFES (08-07-2015) details how an article in the North Korean newspaper Tongil Ilbo describes sales at Kwangbok market in Pyongyang (emphasis added):

According to the Tongil Ilbo, there are now a number of local products sold at Pyongyang’s Kwangbok Area Supermarket, which was built in October 1991. “By achieving the informatization and computerization of all business activities, from warehousing to the sale of goods, the Kwangbok Area Supermarket guarantees accuracy and speed in its service. It is a commercial service center managed to guarantee the maximum convenience of its customers,” North Korea’s independent newspaper reported on July 11, 2015.

It explained that the Kwangbok Area Supermarket, which has a total floor area of 12,700 m2, sells household products, electronics, general textile products, and grocery products such as confectioneries on every floor. In addition, each North Korean brand is sold in the relevant department, including brands such as ‘Ryongmasan,’ ‘Kuryonggang,’ ‘Kumkop,’ ‘Hwawon,’ ‘Mirae,’ ‘Songchon,’ and ‘Bommaji.’

Located on the first floor, the grocery department displays local products produced by factories like the Pyongyang Flour Processing Factory, the Kumsong Food Factory, and the Kumkop General Foodstuff Factory for Sportspersons. “People like to purchase locally-produced products […] In the future public service networks like the Kwangbok Area Supermarket will emerge in other places as well,” the newspaper reported.

Kim Song Won, manager of the Kwangbok Area Supermarket, commented, “With the unprecedented growth of the country’s self-sustaining economic foundation, there is greater demand among the people for variety and quality in their products […] Accordingly, we are bringing in many domestic products and are working to provide services so that customers can purchase products that they like.”

Several things in this report are interesting to note. For example, while I am not sure that the market-oriented language is itself anything new in North Korean media lingo, the emphasis is striking. It is consumer preference that matters. Variety is considered important, not just the quality of the products. Again, Kim Il-sung too I believe talked about the importance of quality, but here it’s a matter of producing what people like, rather than what they need.

Read the full text:

IFES Kyungnam

Surge in Local Product Sales at Kwangbok Area Supermarket

08-07-2015

Share

The Kaesong Industrial Complex and inter-Korean tensions

August 20th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-8-24): The North and South Koreans have agreed to a solution to the situation. According to KCNA via Yonhap:

1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.

2. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side’s area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.

3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.

4. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.

5. The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day this year and continue to hold such reunions in the future, too and to have a Red Cross working contact for it early in September.

6. The north and the south agreed to vitalize NGO exchanges in various fields.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-8-20): The two Korea’s literally just finished hammering out a new agreement on “wages” for North Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. However, with the ink barely dried, a new round of escalating conflict between the Koreas is affecting operations at the KIC…

According to Yonhap:

South Korea said Friday it will limit the entry of its nationals into a joint industrial park in North Korea following the exchange of artillery fire between the two sides.

The Unification Ministry said it will only permit South Korean businessmen directly involved in the operation of factories at the Kaesong Industrial Park to enter the complex.

But other South Koreans, including those working at subcontractors, will not be allowed to move in and out of the complex in the North’s border city of the same name, the ministry said.

South Korea fired back at North Korea on Thursday following the North’s firing of shells at a South Korean front-line military unit in the western area of the heavily fortified border. No damage was reported.

A total of 124 South Korean small and medium-size enterprises operate factories at the industrial park, the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation. About 54,000 North Koreans work there.

South Korean businessmen safely returned to the South from the complex on Thursday despite the North’s provocation.

The ministry said it has taken measures to ensure the safety of South Koreans who are temporarily staying in the North.

Read the full story here:
S. Korea to partially ban entry into joint industrial park
Yonhap
2015-8-20

Share

DPRK visitors to China drops in H1 2015

August 20th, 2015

According to the Daily NK:

The number of North Koreans who visited China through legal means has dipped this year.

Data on the number of foreigners who went to China in the first half of this year indicate roughly 89,700 North Koreans crossed into the country, according to figures from China’s National Tourist Office cited by the Voice of America [VOA] on Wednesday.

This a 2.2 percent drop from the 91,800 visitors who were there during the same period last year, indicating the numbers are heading toward a two-year decline, it reported.

The figures from this report are only limited to those who visit through legal means and do not reflect illicit trips or defectors who enter the country.

Roughly 52 percent of North Koreans traveling to China reportedly went looking for jobs at restaurants or factories. The number of job-seekers inched up by 3,300 on-year, according to the VOA.

Men outweighed the number of women from the North, making up roughly 85 percent at 76,500. Only 13,200 were female visitors.

The total number of foreigners who went to China in the first six months of the year was at roughly 12.3 million. The greatest number of travelers came from South Korea at slightly over 2.1 million, while North Korea placed 20th on the list.

Read the full story here:
N. Koreans on visas to China drops
Da
Lee Dong Hyuk
2015-8-20

Share

In Pyongyang, it’s “out with the old, in with the TBD”…

August 18th, 2015

Pyongyang’s construction boom is taking its toll on some of the city’s most historic landmarks. Recently while perusing on Google Earth I noticed one of central Pyongyang’s most unique (and old) buildings had been torn down.

Pyongyang-apartment-2014-9-21

Pyongayang-apartment-2015-5-20

Here is what the building looked like before it was torn down (Source: Kernbeisser):

Apartment-building-Kernbeisser

At the time it was torn down, it housed the Taedongmun Restaurant (대동문식당), Student Library (학생도서관), Fishing Tackle Shop (낚시도구전문상점), and allegedly some kind of driving offenses office.

This was one of the first buildings to be constructed in Pyongyang following the Korean War. Images of the new building can be found in North Korea Caught in Time by Chris Springer (p80):

11807281_10206041463728383_1474674465549001891_o

11794217_10206041467288472_9218262147638546058

It appears to have been built even before most of the buildings on Kim Il-sung Square.

A fellow North Korea enthusiast was able to provide some (actual) rare images of the building being torn down:

11247083_10152924178411507_88925032327597937_o 11754585_10152924183201507_4773798076994450175_o

I was also able to dig up a declassified CIA report published on 1959-5-14 (Slightly edited to improve reading experience) that contained some information on the building when it was constructed:

11755823_10206056133095108_412057655502746669_n

Obviously the “D” wing was torn down sometime between 1959 and 2000. After the elimination of the original “D” wing, newer construction gave the building a distinct “L” shape.

Many apartment buildings in Pyongyang are being torn down. To see what will replace them, we will have to wait and see.

Share

A closer look at Kim Jong-un’s forestry speech

August 18th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Vice-premier Choe Yong-gon was reportedly executed because he criticized Kim Jong-un’s reforestation policy initiative. It is interesting to look in more depth at what these policies actually are.

The forestry issue is tightly connected and reinforced both to the lack of food and energy, and to flooding damage. (I have laid out some of these connections in an earlier post.) There can be little doubt that Kim Jong-un is justified in focusing attention to the forestry issue.

The best (and only?) official guide I have seen so far to the policies underlying the reforestation drive of the past few months – which, again, Choe was reportedly executing for criticizing – is a speech delivered by Kim Jong-un to “senior officials of the party, the army and the state economic organs on February 26, Juche 104 (2015).” To understand the reforestation policies and their pitfalls, this speech is an interesting piece of information. Here are a few interesting things to note from the speech:

First, Kim is quite frank about describing the core problem. In the beginning of the speech, he talks openly about how the “arduous march” (the famine of the 1990s) has led people to cut down trees on a large scale across the country. He also mentions the reasons: to “obtain cereals and firewood”, and talks about how this causes landslides and flooding. Perhaps this is part of an overall pattern in recent years where North Korean authorities are less prone to deny the extent of problems and sometimes even exaggerate them, as may have been the case with the drought impact warnings of the early summer.

But it is also interesting to speculate about whether this says something about the way that information is treated in the uppermost echelons of North Korea. Some have claimed that Kim Il-sung might not have been informed of the extent of the country’s economic problems in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that this might have been the case for Kim Jong-il as well. In this context, the frank way in which Kim Jong-un describes the results of the lack of food and fuel is striking.

Earlier official narratives of the impacts of natural disasters, like those in the mid-1990s, have often blamed the impacts on nature rather than on politics. Kim Jong-un seems to see it the other way around (which of course makes all the sense in the world).

Second, Kim seems to criticize politicized forestry management. In one sentence, he says that trees shouldn’t just be planted on official days and ceremonial “tree-planting days” (my emphasis):

Forest planting should not be done in such a way as planting some trees ceremoniously on tree­-planting days or transplanting fully­ grown trees, as was done in the past. It should be done in the way of raising young trees in large numbers and enlisting all the people in transplanting and cultivating them.

Maybe I am reading too much into this, but this can be read as a criticism of the North Korean practice of honoring various occasions by economic measures, like doling out extra rations on the leader’s birthdays et cetera. At least in forestry, Kim seems to be advocating pragmatism at the expense of ideological rigour. He also gives an anti-formalism shoutout later on, saying that

The plan for forest restoration should not remain in figures or charts on a piece of paper.

Third, Kim indicates that tree-felling will become more severely punished. He calls unauthorized felling of trees an act of “treachery” (my emphasis):

Random felling of trees in mountains must be prohibited. Now some people climb mountains and cut down trees to obtain firewood or timber without permission as they do not care a bit about the country’s forests. Unauthorized felling of trees is tantamount to treachery. All the people on this land should treasure and protect even a blade of grass and a tree of their country.

Later on, he says that

Random felling should be made a serious issue of whatever the unit concerned is and whoever the person concerned is.

This might speak against the sense of pragmatism mentioned above. Of course, people aren’t cutting down trees for fun or to ruin things for the state. It’s part of the coping-behavior that has been developed since the famine, where people do what they can to get by.

The state has expanded the scope for what is allowed in other areas, such as private market trade, in order to better align with the reality on the ground. Here, in contrast, Kim seems to suggest that cutting down trees must be punished more harshly, even though the core reasons why people cut down trees to begin with – lack of fuel and food – remain. Implementing harsher punishments would probably be a difficult task for local authorities.

Kim does mention that the fuel problem needs to be solved that that trees should be planted specifically for firewood. But almost in passing: he basically says that the fuel problem should be solved and moves on (I don’t imagine that most North Korean localities have the resources necessary to replace firewood with biogas at the moment):

In order to conserve forest resources, we should solve the people’s problem of fuel. Positive measures should be taken to solve this problem, including creating forests for firewood in every place and increasing the production and supply of coal for the people’s living. There are several units which have solved the fuel problem with biogas, fly ash or ultraanthracite. By actively popularizing their experience, we should ensure that all regions solve the fuel problem on any account by their own effort.

The strategy outlined isn’t all that impressive, and the forestry issue highlights politics as a battle for scarce resources: on the one hand, the state needs to prevent the floods and landslides that keep coming back every summer. On the other hand, people on the ground need a way to access firewood and space to grow food as the state isn’t providing these things. The problem won’t be solved by just saying that everyone should have access to fuel and all will be well. Nevertheless, it’ll be interesting to follow how this all plays out, and how the policies that Kim has outlined will be implemented (or not implemented) on the ground.

Share

DPRK insurance market updates

August 17th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-8-20): The Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) reports on developments in the DPRK’s insurance market:

New Insurance Products Appearing in North Korea

All sorts of insurance products, such as cell phone insurance and insurance against damage to fruit farms, are starting to appear in North Korea.

The Korea National Insurance Corporation (the state insurance company representing North Korea), revealed on its website on August 12, 2015 that the issue of cell phone insurance was discussed at the annual general meeting of provincial governors held in Pyongyang in February 2015.

“At last year’s meeting, provincial governors from all over, including Pyongyang, North Hamgyong Province, Yanggang Province, and Jagang Province, met and introduced new areas of business such as cell phone insurance. They discussed increasing the number of insurance policy holders and expanding coverage to raise insurance premium revenue,” the insurance company reported.

Recently, as the number of cell phone owners shoots up, the instances of lost or damaged phones have also risen. It appears that this new form of insurance is being offered against this backdrop to compensate cell phone owners for such incidents. As in South Korea, it is not yet mandatory for North Korean cell phone owners to purchase cell phone insurance.

Currently, North Korea’s primary mobile carrier, the Egyptian firm Orascom, owns a 75% share in North Korea’s mobile communications company Koryo Link. As of the end of June 2014, the company had 2.4 million cell phone subscribers in North Korea.

The Korea National Insurance Corporation is also preparing to offer insurance for fruit trees in order to compensate owners of fruit farms for damage caused by natural disasters or other events.

The company explained the background behind offering this insurance product on their homepage. According to the website, since Kim Jong Un came to power, a lot of effort has been put into the development of agriculture and fruit farms, but due to recent abnormal climate phenomena like El Niño, these fields have experienced a lot of difficulties.

The website reveals, “Based on experience accumulated in the testing phase, we plan on offering insurance coverage within several years for modern, large-scale fruit farms like Taedong River Integrated Fruit Farm and Kangwon Province’s Kosan Fruit Farm.”

In order to do this, the company has been performing risk appraisals since 2013 with international damage appraisers for each of the fruit farms. This suggests that it is keeping foreign reinsurance companies and contracts in mind.

The company offers fruit farms insurance coverage for a variety of calamities and natural disasters. It covers fruit trees in the event of drought, landslides, or fire; fruit in the event of hail, drought, excessive moisture, extreme heat, or fire; and the quality of fruit in the event of hail, heavy rain, or storms.

The provision of insurance for fruit farms is seen as an extension of North Korea’s ongoing efforts to earn foreign currency through insurance companies.

The fact that various insurance products are appearing in North Korea has attracted attention in the context of North Korea’s recent economic developments. Since Kim Jong Un came to power, the regime has tried to recognize and protect private property as the market economy has expanded through the growth of companies’ independent management rights and the expansion of private profits. Especially in the case of insurance companies, it is believed that the regime is trying to maximize profits by generating additional income through insurance premiums.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-8-17): Elizabeth Shim reports the following at UPI:

On Tuesday, Pyongyang’s Korea National Insurance Corp. posted on its website information on annual meetings held in each province. Issues of mobile phone insurance were discussed during the meetings, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

The North Korean insurance firm said in statement that new businesses were being introduced to meet the increased demand for mobile phone insurance in Pyongyang and the provinces, South Korean television network SBS reported.

The mobile phone is becoming a central component of everyday life for many North Koreans, particularly for merchants who are on the road to sell wares around the country – but damage or loss of phones are raising the demand for insurance in the country.

Egyptian firm Orascom owns a 75 percent stake in North Korea’s main network, Koryolink, and offers services to 2.4 million North Koreans.

Other insurance mentioned include new policies for agriculture and protection plans for large-scale fruit farms by the Taedong River and in Kangwon province are being assembled, according to North Korea. The plans would provide protection against weather effects like “El Nino,” that is resulting in increased drought, torrential rain, high temperatures and other factors that are hurting crops.

The Korea National Insurance Corporation web page is here. Here are the two specific reports mentioned in the article:

Annual conference of provincial KNIC branches held

The annual conference of provincial branches of Korea National Insurance Corporation was held in Pyongyang on February 25th and 26th.

It was attended by head-office officials concerned and branch managers, and accountants thereof, of different provinces.

Its agenda involved review of last year’s insurance operations conducted by the provincial branches, and determination of their goals to be reached this year.

Great appreciation was shown in the conference for the branches including the ones in Pyongyang, North Hamgyong Province, Ryanggang and Jagang Provinces, all of which, last year, introduced new insurance products, like mobile phone insurance, into sale, and brought an increase in the number of the insureds and objects to result a rise in premium income, and made prompt indemnifications on a scientific basis thus contributing to the stabilization of operation, production of the insureds concerned and people’s lives, as well.

Stress was laid on adoption and development of effective business strategies plus further improvement and intensification of insurance operation upholding the slogan reading “ Let us all turn out in the general offensive to hasten final victory in the revolutionary spirit of Paektu!”, thus enhancing the role of insurance in line with the development of national economy and improvement of the livelihood of the people as befitting the significance of the year marking the 70th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Lectures were given on business practices involving accountancy and some insurance accounts during the conference.

Fruit Crop Insurance to be introduced in future

According to a far-reaching plan of Chairman Kim Jong Il and supreme leader Kim Jong Un to supply the people with fresh fruit in and out of season, Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm had been built as the best integrated base for fruit production, keeping production going on a high level, and furthermore, Kosan Fruit Farm has been expanded as a large-scale fruit farm with the introduction of scientific, intensive and modernized methods into fruit production.

At present, the farms have boosted production by applying the densely planting method of dwarf fruit trees following the world-wide trend of fruit farming development and growing several kinds of fruit trees including high-grade apple, pear and peach as befits the specific conditions of our country.

They grow apple trees of Korean original varieties such as Hwangju, Pukchong and Unryul together with dwarf apple trees of more than a hundred of varieties including Granny Smith, Fuji and Golden Delicious,and meet their own demand for young saplings by growing them on their own.

However, there have frequently occurred abnormal weather phenomena due to El Nino in recent years, causing negative effects on agriculture and fruit farming in our country and its surrounding countries.

As far as fruit farming is so greatly influenced by the nature and terrain and weather conditions as agriculture, Korea National Insurance Corporation (KNIC) has intention of newly underwriting insurance contracts with fruit farms in our country so as to put production on a normal basis under the adverse weather conditions recently occurred.

The subject matter insured under Fruit Crop Insurance shall be fruit and fruit trees cultivated by fruit farms in DPRK, and the covered risks are as follows;

– Yield Loss Coverage

Drought, freezing, landslide, fire,

– Fruit Tree Loss Coverage

Hail, drought, excessive moisture, extreme heat, fire,

– Quality Loss Coverage

Hail, torrential rainfall and windstorm.

In 2013, KNIC conducted a risk survey on some fruit farms in our country in cooperation with international loss adjusters, and since then KNIC has underwritten insurance contracts with those farms.

KNIC, on the basis of practical experience gained at that pilot stage, shall cover against the risks mentioned above modernized and large-scale fruit farms including Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm and Kosan Fruit Farm within a few years to come.

Although KNIC has a dubious history, today the group still posts regular financial information which (if accurate) would make it one of the most financially transparent organizations in the DPRK (Congrats to them for at least trying). See tables here, here, and here.

Previous posts on the Korean National Insurance Corporation here.

Once they figure out crop insurance, the next step should be a commodity futures market!

Read the full UPI story here:
North Korea to provide insurance for drought, lost phones
UPI
Elizabeth Shim
2015-8-12

Share

Wonsan Kalma Airport imagery (UPDATED)

August 17th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-8-17): Kim Jong-un visited the Wonsan Airport (Kalma Airport) for an air force demonstration reported in Rodong Sinmun on July 30. You can see a video of that event here. A second official video claims that the demonstration took place on July 28. A satellite image of the facility was taken just the day before (July 27) and we can see some of the new facilities and preparation for Kim Jong-un’s arrival. I have already reported on most of this material at Radio Free Asia (새단장 갈마비행장…활주로에 광고도).

First, Google Earth imagery shows thousands of soldiers on the new runway practicing for Kim Jong-un’s arrival at the observation building. They can also be seen in the official images:

Wonsan-runway-soldiers-2015-7-27

wonsan-runway-soldiers-2015-7-30

We can also see the completed (on the outside) Wonsan Airport terminal building:

Wonsan-terminal-2015-7-27

Also unveiled is the new logo for the airport which reminds visitors that (despite the heavy military presence) the new airport welcomes civilian vacation travelers. We can see this design at both ends of the runway:

Wonsan-Kalma-airport-logo

We can also see what appears to be a (fifth!) runway for Kim Jong-un. This runway contains similar facilities to the new Kim Jong-il runway built in Taesong District for use of the individuals that live in the Kim Family’s Ryongsong Complex:

Kalma-kim-jong-un-runway

Pictured above: The probable Kim Jong-un light aircraft runway at the Wonsan Kalma Airport

Taesong-Kim-Jong-un-runway

Pictured above: Kim Jong-un’s runway in Taesong district of Pyongyang which bears a close resemblance to the facilities at the Wonsan Kalma Airport.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-5-1): New Google Earth imagery shows continued development of the new civilian airport in Wonsan. The airport is presumably intended to support the Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang International Tourist Zone.

2015-3-26 (Google Earth)

Wonsan-Airport-2015-3-26

2015-2-10 (Google Earth)

Wonsan-Airport-2015-2-10

2014-12-25 (Google Earth)

Wonsan-Airport-2014-12-25

Share

It all comes together: North Korea’s floods, forests and the rumored execution

August 15th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Two of the main news stories on North Korea right now – the rumored execution of Choe Yong-gon and the summer floods that have washed away thousands of hectares of farmland, and thus far killed 21 people (as reported on August 5th) – have something in common. They both show the politically sensitive and dire nature of North Korea’s forestry problem.

For decades, North Korea has had a big problem with its trees being cut down at a large scale.

There are two main reasons for this: 1) trees being cleared for farmland, and 2) wood becoming an increasingly important source of energy as other ones have waned. (I recall reading about cutting down trees for hillside farming as an edict from Kim Il-sung, which could explain why it’s taken so long for the policy to become openly questioned, but I cannot find the source for this at the moment.)

According to research by the World Resources Institute, forests about 18 times the size of Manhattan have been destroyed in the country for over ten years. Another institute has concluded that forest cover in the country dropped by 17 percent between 1970 and the late 1990s. Presumably it has become even worse since private hillside farming has increased.

The effect of this is visible for anyone who visits North Korea’s border either from South Korea or China. While North Korea’s hills are barren, the landscape is usually lush and green on the other side.

This is visible on Google Earth as well. Below is a picture showing Ganghwa island on the South Korean side. Its landscape is significantly more green than that in North Korea, north of the light yellow line.

Screen Shot 2015-08-15 at 14.15.30

Image credit: Google Earth

As has long been known, this creates immense problems when the summer rains come. Without tree roots to soak  up the water, hills become too heavy and collapse, taking down much of the crops with them. So far, this year’s rains do not seem to have had as bad of an impact on the crops as in previous years, but the rainy season still isn’t over.

As Curtis has previously pointed out on this blog, this is a classical example of the tragedy of the commons. Since the state owns the forests, people have no direct incentive to treat them in a long-run beneficial way.

This is where the recently reported execution comes in. According to news reports, Choe Yong-gon was executed because he criticized Kim Jong-un’s forestry policies. What were these policies, and why was Choe supposedly critical of them?

It was in a speech on February 26th this year that Kim Jong-un outlined new plans for reforestation of the country. In the speech that was later printed in full in Rodong SinmunKim laid out the problem in a relatively frank way (emphasis added):

However, as people have felled trees at randomsince the days of the Arduous March on the plea of obtaining cereals and firewood and, worse still, as no proper measures have been taken to prevent forest fire, the precious forest resources of the country have decreased to a great extent. As the mountains are sparsely wooded, even a slightly heavy rain in the rainy season causes flooding and landslides and rivers dry up in the dry season; this greatly hinders conducting economic construction and improving people’s standard of living. Despite this, our officials have confined themselves to reconstructing roads or buildings damaged by flooding, failing to take measures for eliminating the cause of flood damage by planting a large number of trees on the mountains.

I haven’t been able to find information on the specific nature of Choe’s supposed criticism, but one can make some reasonable inferences. As is often the case with central bureaucracies, not least with that of North Korea, management and command at the central level seems out of touch with the reality on the ground. While forestry management authorities, according to news reports, have said that the tree species required to suit local conditions would take up to three years to produce, they have come under strong pressure to meet the planning goals and time frame stipulated by the central government. This problem is classical to planned economies. North Korea, of course, is by no means an exception.

Maybe Choe had pointed out the obvious: fundamentally, Kim’s forestry initiative makes little sense. When Kim says that “Unauthorized felling of trees is tantamount to treachery”, it almost sounds like people continuing to cut down trees to cope and muddle through, as has been done for decades, will be punished much harder in the past.

North Korea’s forest issues embodies many of its other problems. As long as other sources of energy don’t grow drastically, and as long as the leadership doesn’t find a way to better manage its food supply, forests will continue to be destroyed. The forestry policy does not seem feasible in practice, and the policy sequencing is problematic to say the least.

Share

Friday fun: It’s “out with the old” at some Kim family residencies

August 14th, 2015

This story has already gotten some traction in the media, but some things end up getting cut–and this is why we have blogs. As reported in the media, a residential component of the Kim Family’s Ryongsong Housing Compound has been renovated.

Ryongsong-2014-9-21

Image date: 2014-9-21

Ryongsong-2014-10-27

Image date: 2014-10-27

Ryongsong-2014-4-28

Image date: 2015-4-28

I am unsure who now lives here or how much the project cost, but it was completed in about seven months (on the outside). It is hard to say if work is continuing on the inside because, unlike other construction sites in the DPRK, the workers are being bused in to work for the day and then bused out. There are no barracks or equipment next to the construction site. So security was pretty tight for this particular project.

Another interesting change is the destruction of the compound pool and water-slide:

Ryongsong-Pool-2013-2-22

Image date: 2013-2-22

Ryongsong-Pool-2013-3-5

Image date: 2013-3-5

Ryongsong-Pool-2013-5-3

Image date: 2013-5-3

It is unclear when this water-slide and pool were built (pre-2000), but it is highly probable that Kim Jong-un used to enjoy it when he was younger. We all grow up, however. Now he has nicer toys to play with.

But the compound did not go without a pool. Just before the above pool was destroyed, somebody in the Kim family built the most phallic-looking pool/pool house I have ever seen (admittedly a small sample size). This large mansion in the Ryongsong Family Compound underwent significant renovations in the spring of 2012 (Just a few months after the death of Kim Jong-il).

Ryongsong-house-2012-4-4

Image date: 2012-4-4

Ryongsong-house-2013-2-22

Image date: 2013-2-22

Renovations, at least on the outside, appear to have been completed by 2013-2-22. The new phallic-looking pool cover/pool house can be seen in front of the house. At the risk of ruining my career by pandering to an adolescent sense of humor, here it is (the world should know):

Ryongsong-phallus

No doubt the revolutionary new “our-style” pool cover is very functional. It offers the bather coverage from both the sun and imperialist-controlled spy satellites–all while maintaining exposure to the invigorating forces of the outdoors.

I would like to say that this is Kim Jong-un’s pool, but I cannot. However, I am confident that is belongs to someone very close to him. Not many people in North Korea get to enjoy homes like this.

Share