Joint conference of officials of party, state, economic and armed forces organs held

January 9th, 2017

According to KCNA (2017-1-9):

A joint conference of officials of the party, state, economic and armed forces organs took place in Pyongyang on Saturday and Sunday to discuss ways for carrying through the tasks set forth by respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in his New Year Address.

Attending it were Premier Pak Pong Ju, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and vice-chairman of the DPRK State Affairs Commission, Kim Ki Nam, Choe Thae Bok, Pak Yong Sik, Ri Man Gon, O Su Yong, Kwak Pom Gi, Choe Pu Il, Jo Yon Jun and other senior party, state and army officials, officials of party and armed forces organs, the Cabinet, working people’s organizations, ministries and national institutions, and officials of local party and power organs and major industrial establishments.

Pak Pong Ju made a report.

He said that Kim Jong Un in his historic New Year Address, full of his will to devote himself to the country and people and warm love for them, proudly reviewed the successes made last year and showed an avenue for this year’s march.

The miraculous achievements in all fields of the revolution and construction last year are precious fruition of the wise leadership of Kim Jong Un, the reporter stressed.

He put forward the goals on important items to be carried out by the sectors of the national economy this year and referred to the issues arising in attaining them.

He stressed the need to attain earlier the goals for this year, a year of important significance in implementing the five-year strategy for national economic development, and further glorify the prosperous Kim Jong Un era.

Then inter-sector meetings of the national economy were held.

The meetings worked out the realistic and scientific militant goals in all sectors of the national economy and discussed the measures for hitting them.

The meetings discussed in depth the concrete orientation and ways for implementing the militant goals of all fields and units by dynamically waging a drive for producing and economizing as much as possible upholding the slogan of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

Speakers at the meetings expressed their will to fully discharge the missions and duties as vanguard fighters in the new era of the Juche revolution in the all-out general offensive this year in order to attain the height of the five-year strategy for national economic development, true to the Party’s idea and intention.

KCTV footage of the meeting can be seen here. It took place in the new auditorium built for the premier’s office.

Here are some translation notes from the video:

Pak Pong Ju said:

-Following the 7th Party Congress, NK has strengthened its self-defensive military power and become a nuclear power in the East.

-Proud achievement on the economic front after 70-day and 200-day combats

Following sector-focused meetings:

– should find ways to normalize the production of electricity and steel

– should guarantee that coal, minerals and logs are produced at the right time

– should find ways to make sure coal mine products daily, monthly, and quarterly — in any conditions

– should make trains available for the use of power plants, mineral plants, and chemical plants first

– should improve the grain and rice industry to make people’s lives better….as well as the combat to catch plenty of fish

– regarding land management, they said that overseas economic cooperation should impove and expand

– should focus on finishing the construction of Ryo Myong street (여명거리). building Tanchon (단천) power plant and others and on modernizing Kim Jong Tae electric locomotive associated enterprise (김정태 전기기관차 연합기업소)

– as it is the season of construction booming, should increae the production of cements and localize and diversify the production of construction materials.

– should domestically produce raw materials, fuel, and equipment

 

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Real estate prices up in Pyongsong

January 7th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to DailyNK, prices of real estate are skyrocketing around the wholesale market in Pyongsong, whose trade is tightly connected to that of the richer Pyongyang:

“The price of a unit in this building near Yokchon-dong, located near the railway station and a major road leading to Pyongyang and Sinuiju, has sharply risen to 60,000 USD from 40,000 USD. Although the building is not in the center of the city, many wholesale vendors want to buy these homes, resulting in the price jump,” a source in South Pyongan told Daily NK on January 4.
“The residential property is attractive to major market heavyweights even though it wasn’t built recently. Ease of transportation seems to be the major pulling factor.”
Pyongsong City is home to Doksan Farmers’ Market (formerly Pyongsong Market),  the largest wholesale market in the nation. The market is constantly busy with merchants from other regions because it not only offers trade in commodities but also deals with the labor market, foreign currency, and the services sector.
Previously, the real estate trade was prohibited in North Korea, but the authorities have tacitly permitted it since the 1990s, with an increasing number of people now purchasing houses. Due to restrictions in North Korea that make it difficult to move about freely, merchants prefer to reside closer to the market.
“In the past, Okchon-dong was more popular because the General Market was located in it. But there were many problems because it was difficult for the wholesale merchants with big vehicles like trucks to come and go along the narrow roads. For this reason, Yokchon-dong became more popular because they can directly unload their cargo near the residential area, which is located at a major transportation hub,” an additional source based in Pyongsong said.
Full article:
Pyongsong prime real estate prices are skyrocketing
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-01-07
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More North Korean coal shipments going into China, says VOA/Yonhap

January 4th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As in the past, Chinese sanctions enforcement appears to have been a waxing and waning phenomenon. Yonhap reports, citing Voice of America:

China seems to have resumed imports of North Korean coal by lifting a temporary ban on them which it employed early last month, a U.S. broadcaster, monitored here, reported Wednesday.

On Dec. 11, China’s Commerce Ministry announced that it would ban imports of North Korean coal through the end of that month to comply with the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321 adopted on Nov. 30 to punish the North for its fifth nuclear test. Coal is the North’s single largest export item, and China accounts for nearly 40 percent of the shipments.

Three North Korean vessels — Kumreung No. 5, Kumsan and Wonsan No. 2 — are confirmed to have moored in seas about 10 kilometers off the China’s leading coal port of Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, from Sunday through Tuesday, the Voice of America said, citing MarineTraffic, which provides live ship tracking intelligence worldwide.

On top of that, North Korean ships Kumhae and Kumho No. 1 berthed at the ports of Longkou and Penglai, Shandong Province, respectively, and Susong and Jonwun No. 68 were also on standby for entry near the ports, the broadcaster said.

Eight other North Korean boats were anchored in seas near Yantai, Rizhao and Lanshan, Shandong Province.

The ships, which are believed to have left the North starting Sunday and arriving in the Chinese ports on Monday or Tuesday, are bulk carriers capable of transporting coal, the broadcaster said, citing MarineTraffic.

Satellite images show heaps of black objects at the Chinese ports without exception, it said.

The Resolution 2321 is aimed largely at significantly curtailing the North’s coal exports — a source of hard currency for its nuclear program — by putting a cap on its total export amount.

The cap, set at whichever is lower between 7.5 million tons or US$400 million, is aimed at cutting the North’s annual coal export revenue by more than 60 percent or about $700 million, a huge sum that accounts for nearly a quarter of its total exports estimated at $3 billion.

Article source:

China appears to have resumed imports of N. Korean coal: VOA
Yonhap News
2017-01-04

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Kim Jong-un’s 2017 New Year Address

January 2nd, 2017

Here is the Uriminzokkiri broadcast of Kim’s speech:

Here are links to the Rodong Sinmun text (English, Korean). I have not looked at them carefully, but they appear to be the same length (implying that the English and Korean versions are the same).

Many outlets are focusing on the security implications of the speech, but I want to focus on the economic aspects. At the Seventh Party Congress held in May of 2016, North Korea announced a “Five Year Plan“. “Plan” was not the right English word however. It was actually a “Five Year Strategy.” This translation error was corrected in the English text of Kim’s 2017 New year Address, which correctly refers to the “Five Year Strategy”.

Here is the relevant text from Rodong Sinmun:

We should concentrate our efforts on implementing the five-year strategy for national economic development.

This year is of key importance in carrying out this strategy. In order to open up fine prospects for the implementation of the strategy and develop the country’s overall economy onto a higher plane, while building on the successes gained last year, we should attain the goals for this year’s struggle without fail.

“Let us accelerate the victorious advance of socialism with the great spirit of self-reliance and self-development as the dynamic force!”–this is the militant slogan we should uphold in this new year’s march. We should wage a vigorous all-people, general offensive to hit the targets of the five-year strategy on the strength of self-reliance and self-development.

The strength of self-reliance and self-development is that of science and technology, and the shortcut to implementing the five-year strategy is to give importance and precedence to science and technology.

The sector of science and technology should concentrate efforts on solving scientific and technological problems arising in modernizing factories and enterprises and putting their production on a regular footing with the main emphasis on ensuring the domestic production of raw materials, fuel and equipment. Production units and scientific research institutes should intensify cooperation between themselves, and enterprises should build up their own technological development forces and conduct a proactive mass-based technological innovation drive, propelling economic development with valuable sci-tech achievements conducive to expanded production and the improvement of business operation and management.

The electric-power, metallurgical and chemical industries should take the lead in the efforts to hit the targets of the economic strategy.

The electric-power industry should carry out its production plan without fail by ensuring good maintenance of generating equipment and structures and stepping up its technical upgrading. It should run the nationwide integrated power control system effectively and organize alternated production scrupulously to ensure balance between power production and consumption; it should also develop the various sources of power to create a new generating capacity on a large scale.

The metallurgical industry should introduce advanced technologies to lower the iron production cost and ensure normal operation of Juche-based production lines to turn out iron and steel in larger amounts. The state should take stringent measures to supply raw materials, fuel and power to the Kim Chaek and Hwanghae iron and steel complexes and other metallurgical factories.

The chemical industry is a basis for all other industries and plays an important role in consolidating the independence of the economy and improving the people’s living standards. This sector should revitalize production at the February 8 Vinalon Complex, expand the capacity of other major chemical factories and transform their technical processes in our own way, thus increasing the output of various chemical goods. It should direct efforts to establishing a C1 chemical industry to carry out the tasks at every stage promptly and satisfactorily.

The coal-mining industry and the rail transport sector should meet the demands for coal and its transport by power stations and metallurgical and chemical factories on a top priority basis.

The machine-building industry should be rapidly developed. Machine factories should step up their modernization, perfect the processes for the serial production of new-type tractors, vehicles and multi-purpose farm machines, and produce and supply different kinds of high-performance and quality machinery and equipment.

This year light industry, agriculture and fishing industry should be radically developed to make greater progress in improving the people’s living standards.

Light industry should work out proper management strategies, regarding use of domestically available raw and other materials as their core, so as to revitalize production and bring about a turn in diversifying the range and types of consumer goods and improving their quality. It should normalize production in the mines and enterprises in the Tanchon area, so that they can prove effective in improving the people’s living standards.

The agricultural front, the major thrust in building an economic giant, should raise a strong wind of scientific farming and push forward the movement for increasing crop yield. It should widely introduce seeds of superior strains and scientific farming methods, whose advantages have been proved in practice, expand the area of land under two-crop farming, and be proactive in inventing and introducing high-performance farm machines. By doing so, it can attain the production goal of grains. It should adopt measures to run the livestock farming base in the Sepho area on a normal basis and increase the production of fruits, mushrooms and vegetables, so that the people can enjoy benefits from them.

The fishing sector should conduct a dynamic drive for catching fishes and push perseveringly ahead with aquatic farming. It should build modern fishing vessels in a greater number and lay out a comprehensive fishing equipment production base in the east coast area, so as to consolidate the material and technical foundations of the fishing industry.

The construction sector should complete the construction of Ryomyong Street at the highest level and concentrate its forces on the major construction projects including the building of the Tanchon Power Station, modernization of the Kim Jong Thae Electric Locomotive Complex and the development of the Wonsan area. It should also build more educational and cultural facilities and houses in an excellent way.

Upholding the slogan of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, every field and every unit of the national economy should launch a dynamic struggle to increase production and practise economy to the maximum, and thus carry out the plan for this year on all indices.

The whole country should turn out in land administration. We should further transform the appearance of the land of our country by building modern tree nurseries in provinces, perseveringly pressing on with the forest restoration campaign and conducting river management, road repair and environmental conservation on a planned basis.

In order to bring about a turnabout in implementing the five-year strategy for national economic development, it is imperative to carry on economic guidance and business management with clear objectives and in an innovative way. The Cabinet and other economic guidance organs should work out tactics to ensure the sustainable economic development by putting the overall national economy definitely on an upward track, and implement them with an unflinching perseverance.

The speech itself contains nothing remarkable [to me]. There are thought to be economic adjustment measures in agriculture and enterprise management that are decentralizing authority and allowing greater economic incentives to be implemented (on an uneven basis) across the country. These policies have gone by various names: 5.30 Measures (for enterprises), 6.28 Measures (for agriculture) as well as the moniker “Our Style Economic Management Methods” or “Economic Management System in Our Style”, but whatever these policies actually are, they appear to still be unworthy of Kim’s public endorsement.

The most interesting part of the speech was at the end where Kim appeared to critique (criticize?) his own performance. I can’t imagine reading such words from Kim Jong-il:

Comrades,

As I am standing here to proclaim the beginning of another year, I feel a surge of anxiety about what I should do to hold our people in greater reverence, the best people in the world who have warmly supported me with a single mind out of their firm trust in me.

My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability. I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end.

Previously, all the people used to sing the song We Are the Happiest in the World, feeling optimistic about the future with confidence in the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I will work with devotion to ensure that the past era does not remain as a moment in history but is re-presented in the present era. On this first morning of the new year I swear to become a true servant loyal to our people who faithfully supports them with a pure conscience.

And I will push the effort to set up across the Party a revolutionary climate of making selfless, devoted efforts for the good of the people.

As long as the great Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism is illuminating the road ahead of us and we have the single-hearted unity of all the service personnel and people around the Party, we are sure to emerge victorious.

Let us all march forward dynamically towards a bright future, holding up the splendid blueprint unfolded by the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea to develop ours into a powerful socialist country.

For what it is worth, here is how KCNA reports on Rodong Sinmun’s summation of  the year:

Pyongyang, January 3 (KCNA) — The last year was a year to be specially recorded in history as the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea was held, Rodong Sinmun Tuesday says in an article.

It was also a year of historic significance when all the people started a grand general advance towards the final victory of the revolution in hearty response to the programme set forth by the Congress, the article says, and goes on:

Last year a new milestone was laid in the struggle to further strengthen the Party and accomplish the revolutionary cause of Juche.

In May last year the 7th WPK Congress was held significantly amid the revolutionary enthusiasm of all the party members, service personnel and other people throughout the country and the great interest of the world.

The Conference of Chairpersons of the Party Primary Committees held last year for the first time in the history of the WPK was a meeting of significance and glory as it paved a shortcut to developing the WPK into the great Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist party and accomplishing the cause of socialism.

The congresses of the youth league and the women’s union, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea and the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea held in succession in wake of the 7th WPK Congress marked an epoch-making milestone in further consolidating the working people’s organizations, the transmission belts of the Party, and enhancing their militant role as required by the developing revolution in which the modeling of the whole society on Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism is pushed ahead in all spheres.

Last year saw a radical turn in bolstering up the defence capabilities of Juche Korea and a turning phase brought about on all fronts for building a powerful socialist country.

All the brilliant successes made by the DPRK in all fields of the revolution and construction are by no means attributable to any good conditions, nor are they a fortuitous result of any divine power.

It is thanks to the experienced and tested guidance of respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un that the year of 2016 was recorded as a year of great turn in the development of the Party and the revolution and the struggle and life of the people.

The mysterious power that brought out the epoch-making miracles and victories in the worst adversity is the result of the single-minded unity and the great self-development capability of the army and people.

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Kim Jong-un’s 2016 Acitivites

December 31st, 2016

According to Yonhap:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un carried out the fewest public activities this year since he took office in late 2011, data showed Saturday, amid toughened international scrutiny over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.

The North’s leader conducted 132 field guidances in 2016, compared to 153 cases recorded the previous year, according to Seoul’s unification ministry and analysis of North Korean media reports by Yonhap News Agency.

Since his public appearances peaked at 212 in 2013, they have been on the decline, the data showed.

According to my data (which are slightly different from Yonhap’s), here are the total number of Kim Jong-un’s guidance trips since taking power:

2012: 150
2013: 223
2014: 173
2015: 157
2016: 140

The Yonhap article speculates that the decline in activity is due to foreign observation of his activities. However I completed disagree with this assessment.

You can read the full story here:
N.K. leader’s public activities hit 5-year low in 2016: data
Yonhap
2016-12-31

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Official salaries in the DPRK

December 29th, 2016

Thae Yong-ho, the former North Korean ambassador to London, gave a press conference in which he offered some interesting information on official salaries.

According to Yonhap:

North Korean diplomats and their families who are dispatched to foreign countries live together as one group. It’s like a microcosm of North Korean society, he said. An ambassador takes home an average monthly salary of about US$900-1,100 although the amount varies depending on the country. A minister gets about $700-800.

“Many people question how one could live in London with a salary of less than $1,000 … (Because of that) All the North Korean diplomats based overseas make extra income using all means possible,” according to Thae.

Diplomats are also required to earn foreign currency and send it to the regime, a compulsory task designed to make up for North Korea’s dwindling foreign exchange income due to sanctions, which is crucial to its development of nuclear weapons.

“Diplomats affiliated with the ministries of foreign trade or finance are given specific tasks to earn foreign currency, failure of which leads to interrogation by the head office,” Thae said.

Those from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are not given a specific amount of money to earn, but they are subject to monthly performance reviews, he said. “Many people fail to live up to the task and go under tremendous psychological pressure and suffering.”

North Korean diplomats in overseas countries are also subject to close surveillance by the state. The ambassador or second-highest ranking official at a foreign mission is often designated the chief surveillance official and required to report on his embassy staff.

Wary of potential defection by diplomats, the regime keeps one member of the overseas-based diplomat’s family in North Korea as hostage, he noted.

You can read the full story here:
High-profile defector sheds light on everyday life of N. Korean diplomats
Yonhap
2016-12-29

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US tightens sanctions against DPRK’s UN diplomats

December 21st, 2016

According to Reuters:

The U.S. Treasury Department tightened sanctions against North Korean diplomats to the United Nations, requiring banks to get special permission before granting them accounts, the agency said in a notice posted online Tuesday.

The United States removed an exemption in the broad economic sanctions against Pyongyang that had allowed U.S. banks to service North Korean diplomats without getting specific permission from the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Banks will now have to obtain a special license from OFAC before opening bank accounts, processing transactions or extending credit for North Korean diplomats or their family members, OFAC said. North Korea’s U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. officials have long said North Korea uses the bank accounts of diplomats to help Pyongyang conduct business around the world, despite economic sanctions.

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said North Korea “seeks to alleviate its economic isolation” by bringing back currency from overseas “using all available avenues.”

For example, said another U.S. intelligence official, North Korea sells cigarettes and illegal drugs outside the country and use diplomatic packages to send the cash back home.

Washington has been ramping up economic sanctions against Pyongyang since a nuclear test and rocket launch this year, seen as provocations by the United States and its allies.

Under new U.N. sanctions adopted last month in response to North Korea’s fifth and largest nuclear test in September, countries are required to limit the number of bank accounts to one per North Korean diplomatic mission and one per diplomat.

Here is the official statement from OFAC:

Publication of Updated North Korea-related General License
12/20/2016

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has amended General License 1 pursuant to E.O. 13722 of March 15, 2016, “Blocking Property of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Prohibiting Certain Transactions With Respect to North Korea.” General License 1-A no longer authorizes U.S. financial institutions to open and operate accounts for the diplomatic mission of North Korea and its employees and their families. It now requires that funds transfers to or from the mission or its employees be conducted through an account at a U.S. financial institution that has been specifically licensed by OFAC.

I am generally behind on blog posts this year and plan to catch up, including coverage of sanctions, in the next.

The Reuters story can be found here:
U.S. tightens sanctions against North Korea’s U.N. diplomats
Joel Schectman; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York
Reuters
2016-12-20

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Summer trailings along the Sino-North Korean border, in search of sanctions: photo essay

December 20th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This November, just like every  time that new sanctions are levelled on North Korea, the first question tends to be: what will China do? Unsurprisingly, the same question followed after UN resolution 2270 in March this year, when the international community adopted the strongest sanctions against North Korea to date, most crucially targeting its minerals exports. This time, some believed, would be different. China was finally fed up and would take measures to hit North Korea’s economy, and official; statements and some bureaucratic action reinforced this impression. Now, some hope that the “cap” measure on imports of North Korean coal will remove the loophole created by the “humanitarian exemption” in the previous sanctions.

By now, after the THAAD, other geopolitical developments and the sheer passing of time, the question of China’s degree of sanctions enforcement has almost faded into the background. As the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield showed in a dispatch from Dandong a few weeks ago, sanctions are at most one factor among many that impact trade between China and North Korea.

This summer, I visited Dandong, Yanji and Hunchun, three Chinese cities along the border. I got a very similar impression: sure, some people involved in border trade told me, things had gotten a little more complicated, though not much. But sanctions were rarely mentioned as the reason for any added difficulties or downturns in trade.  At the time, China’s enforcement of sanctions was very much a topic of debate, and most analysts were skeptical of any squeezing going on, while some claimed trade had virtually ceased. At my visit, on the contrary, I saw fairly vigorous trading activity, and few people I spoke to thought any changes had occurred since sanctions were enacted. Posting these impressions and pictures has been a project in the pipeline for a while, so while much has happened since this summer regarding China-DPRK relations and trade, I hope that the reader will find it interesting to see how things looked at a time when some concluded that China was finally squeezing North Korea in a way that hurt. To be clear: all impressions and pictures below are from late June of 2016.

Trailing the China-DPRK border, in search of sanctions

Dandong 

Entrance to the Dandong customs inspections area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Earlier this year, the UN Security Council adopted the strongest sanctions that North Korea has faced to date. As with previous rounds of sanctions, one of the major questions is China’s degree of enforcement. Going back a few months, some suggested that major shifts had taken place, and that trade between North Korea and China had declined radically.

By the actual border, this summer, things looked very different. In contrast to the image of a desolated trading environment, I encountered bustling traffic during a visit earlier in the summer. During one morning in late June, around 85 trucks crossed the border from North Korea into China in only about one and a half hours. Virtually all trucks were registered to northern Pyongan province, the home province of Sinuiju. In addition, 19 cars and buses, one long freight train and one passenger train crossed the bridge during the same time. After this first stint of traffic, the flow reversed and a steady flow of trucks began pouring into North Korea from China. Only during the 15 minutes when I observed the traffic going from China, into North Korea, 35 trucks and 13 buses and cars crossed the bridge.

The traffic flowed in sequences, one direction at a time. And this was only the morning traffic. The flow may have continued throughout the day, as the traffic moved in intervals. Walking back to the customs area from the bridge crossing in the early afternoon, what was previously a calm intersection by Chinese inner-city standards had turned busy: trucks lined the entire street leading up to the customs office and some flowed over into the adjacent street, waiting to drive into the inspection area. All in all, more than 80 trucks lined the roads waiting to cross into North Korea. Most carried Chinese license plates.

Trucks lined up on both sides of the street at one of the main intersections in central Dandong, waiting to go into the customs inspection area to cross into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks, trucks and more trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lined up for customs inspection along the streets of Dandong before crossing into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up for customs inspection before crossing into North Korea from Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Truck driving into the Dandong customs area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another picture of the never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong from Sinuiju. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is commonly estimated that around 200 trucks go between China and North Korea on a regular day. In sheer numbers, virtually nothing seemed to have changed regarding the traffic since the latest round of sanctions. Only the trucks observed in plain sight during this morning amount to a little under 200, and this merely during the first few hours of the day. At least 10–20, probably far more, were already in the customs inspection area waiting to cross. In short, things looked very regular and busy.

Trucks waiting to cross from North Korea into Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some of the trucks going into Dandong from Sinuiju looked empty. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Of course, one must be careful not to draw too drastic conclusions from one day of observations. Things may have changed throughout the summer and surely during the fall, and channels such as ship transports are not visible from the border bridge area. Moreover, according to reports from inside North Korea, the authorities have expressed concerns about potentially shrinking trade volumes as a result of sanctions, and some traders now smuggle goods that are covered by the sanctions rather than transporting them openly, as they have in the past, according to Daily NK. In short, sanctions did appear to be having some degree of impact, even during the past summer.

Most North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong were registered to North Pyongan province ( 평안북도도, here abbreviated to 평북), the province bordering Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another truck registered to North Pyongan province. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

However, the truck traffic across the Chinese border through Dandong suggested that the picture was mixed. At the very least, observations from the border area showed that even though trade in certain goods may have gotten more difficult, North Korea was by no means economically cut off from China, and still is not. Prices for food and foreign currency on North Korean markets, too, remained relatively stable through the summer from when sanctions were put in place, indicating that the economy as a whole is not feeling any drastic impact of the sanctions.

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Most trucks transporting factory materials into North Korea appeared to be Chinese-registered. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another Chinese truck transporting factory materials into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

If the North Korean economic elite was worried about the sanctions, it certainly did not show at one hotel in central Dandong. Sinuiju in North Korea is only a few minutes drive over the Yalu River, on the bridge connecting the two countries. The hotel was packed with North Korean guests, many of whom have presumably come over for purchasing and meetings with Chinese business partners. They came and went in a steady stream, wearing luxury brand clothing, watches and carrying expensive bags and wallets.

They paid everything in cash, and at least one person per travel party spoke Chinese. One man held a car key with a logo from KIA, the South Korean car manufacturer. One woman sported a Hello Kitty handbag. As some got ready to depart, bags piled up in the lobby, seemingly filled with goods from shopping sprees around town. Some of it seemed to be meant for re-sale in North Korea. Many stores around the flood banks cater specifically to a North Korean clientele, and sell items like kitchenware that are not easily accessible across the river.

Many stores in Dandong cater specifically to North Korean consumers. The sign at the left bottom of the picture reads “조선백화점,” translating into “Korea department store.” Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Travelling to Dandong, it was particularly apparent why the Chinese government would be reluctant to clamp down too hard on border traffic, even if it would want to do so. Political reasons aside, trade between North Korea and China matters for cities such as Dandong. One can see it in the flesh: the streets are packed with companies dealing in imports and exports to and from North Korea. One company trades steel; another sells construction equipment such as tractors. Several sell cars and buses, and others deal in refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers. One, called “Pyongyang Tongshin (평양통신),” judging by its name, offers cell phone services for traders travelling into North Korea. Should trade between the two countries drastically dive, the local economy would take a hit.

Advertisements for North Korean cell phone service Koryolink in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

“Pyongyang Communications.” Sign in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One could turn these observations on their head: if so many trucks were lining up and only moving slowly into the customs area, could that not mean that inspections had gotten tighter? Was the line of trucks actually a sign that Chinese authorities did what they have promised to do?

Perhaps. But not according to people around the border crossing and customs area. I asked several individuals involved in the cross-border trade about the long lines and waiting times for border crossings. No one seemed to believe that the traffic commotion and lines were anything out of the ordinary. Both Chinese and North Koreans involved in import-export business said traffic had not changed at all during the past year or so. Overall trade had declined a bit, one person said. The trucks carried a little less than they did before, but only marginally. Coal was not traded as frequently as it was before the sanctions were put in place.

This sign lists services for one Dandong firm that offers, among other things, UPS transport services and solar-powered appliances, which have become popular in North Korea in recent years. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

But the timing of the early 2016 round of sanctions made such statements difficult to assess. China had in fact been decreasing its coal imports from North Korea at different points in time several years before the latest round of sanctions. Between 2013 and 2015, for example, the value of Chinese coal imports from North Korea shrank by almost 25 percent. Only between January and February 2014, the value of trade between the countries dropped by 46 percent. The statistics are often clouded by the fact that global market prices for commodities such as coal fluctuate heavily. There may also be a variety of seasonal factors at play. In sum, isolating sanctions as a variable is notoriously difficult, and often, numbers do not tell the full story. As of June this year, North Korean coal could still be ordered through the Chinese online shopping mall Alibaba.

Moreover, even if Chinese authorities wanted to check all goods cross with minute rigidity, one can question whether it would even be practically feasible. The customs area is not particularly large and did not appear to be overflowing with staff. Checking around 200 trucks per day for their exact goods, and determining whether its revenues could be used to fund North Korea’s weapons program – the condition stated by the latest sanctions – seems like a gargantuan task in practice.

 

Hunchun

Tourists and a truck waiting by the Hunchun-Rason border crossing (Quanhae). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Dandong-Sinuiju is the main point of trade between China and North Korea, but not the only one. An one-hour drive from the Chinese city of Hunchun, trucks and people come and go to and from the North Korean northeast. At the border crossing, most seem to be going to the special economic zone in Rajin in North Korea. On one gloomy Thursday in late June, around 40 Chinese trucks waited to cross. One Chinese-Korean waiting for the gates to open to the customs area told the present author that business is going very well these days. He runs a hotel in Rajin, catering mostly to Chinese tourists and business people. He has seen no dip in customers over the past year – rather, more people are coming than before. This single testimony may not be fully indicative of trade as a whole, but it does suggest that Chinese tourism remains an important and fairly viable source of revenue for North Korean businesses in Rason.

The Quanhae border crossing from afar. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up to go into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

More trucks at Quanhae. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks at the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists lining up to have their passports checked before heading into Rason. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This was certainly the way things looked at the border crossing. Chinese tourists came and went in great numbers, many carrying North Korean shopping bags. Trucks, too, continuously crossed the border throughout the afternoon. All in all, 80­­–100 trucks drove into North Korea during this afternoon. One was adorned with a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk. A few trucks came out of North Korea as well, many seeming to carry seafood destined for cities such as Hunchun and Yanji.

A truck adorning a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk having just crossed into North Korea from Hunchun. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In addition, a large number of buses and minivans carrying tourists and traders went in from China. Many minivans carried driving permits for Rajin clearly visible through their front windows. Given the amount of truck traffic only during the afternoon, it seems a reasonable estimate that perhaps twice the amount of traffic went through during the day as a whole. One person with good knowledge of the border area estimated that around 200 trucks go through at this crossing on a regular day, though this figure is obviously neither exact nor certain.

Customs office on the North Korean side of the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists waiting to head into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The two bridges connecting Rason to China (particularly the newly constructed one in the back). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

These observations did not fully prove that China was not enforcing sanctions on North Korea during the summer of 2016. However, they did show that trade and traffic between the countries was still very much alive. Some goods may have be traded less, but neither sanctions nor souring relations between North Korea and China seemed to have reduced trade as much as some observers have claimed. The North Korean economy may be impacted by sanctions, but it is not and rarely has been fully isolated from the rest of the world.

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Kuwait Times publishes DPRK statement on Kim Jong-il

December 20th, 2016

As the five year anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il arrives, the DPRK has taken to placing lauding articles of the former leader in affordable and cooperative news outlets across the world.

A reader in Kuwait sent along the story from the December 15, 2016 issue:

This is nothing new historically. The DPRK has been doing this for decades. This is, however, the most recent example of which I am aware.

Other stories about Kuwait here.

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Korean-Chinese business delegations visit DPRK

December 19th, 2016

Various overseas groups of Koreans are visiting the DPRK to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il. Most of them are mentioned fairly regularly in the official media, but a couple of the business groups were new to me. According to Rodong Sinmun (2016-12-19):

Delegation of Korean Business Persons in China Arrives

A delegation of the Association of Korean Business Persons in China led by Chairman Phyo Song Ryong arrived here Friday to commemorate the fifth anniversary of demise of leader Kim Jong Il.

Earlier, arriving was a delegation of the Association for Economic and Cultural Exchange of Korean Nationality in Dandong City of China headed by Chairman Kim Thaek Ryong.

UPDATE: They reportedly left on 2016-12-21.

Here is a link to a PDF of the original article.

If anyone knows anything about these groups (Chinese names, affiliated businesses, etc) please let me know.

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