How the North Korean government manages the economy

August 8th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One of the most poorly understood aspects of policy change in North Korea in the past few years is the extent to which the North Korean government manages the economy in some ways like any government would in a market economy. Consider, for example, this story by Daily NK:

Amidst signs that housing prices in North Korea are falling due to economic stagnation, the authorities are assessing the state of the housing market in order to implement measures to stabilize the situation.

“The authorities recently began a survey of housing prices and will likely intervene in transactions and setting house prices,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told Daily NK.

The authorities have also begun to set prices for land designated for urban housing plans as part of efforts to control housing transactions, the source added.

These efforts are ostensibly aimed at setting an upper limit for house prices, but the authorities have yet to announce any official numbers.

The aim appears to be to prevent price spikes and ensure that buyers and sellers can conduct transactions within a stable housing market.

In North Korea, the state traditionally owns all land and housing by law, which is supposed to mean that the government provides housing to its citizens without any monetary transactions.

After the widespread famine in the 1990s, however, residents acquired the “right to use” housing and began conducting housing transactions on the basis of market prices. Even before the economic crisis, North Koreans in the upper class engaged in housing transactions on the black market, although such transactions could typically be considered a form of housing “trade.”

These changes came about because North Koreans began proactively taking advantage of the “right to use” housing. Essentially, the authorities gave them the right to inherit and transfer the ownership of the houses they lived in, and North Koreans actively bought and sold these rights on the market.

“The authorities have invested a massive amount of money in building new housing and these efforts have led to an increase in ‘donju’ who have made money out of the projects,” said the source. “The authorities probably thought they needed to step in and control the housing market because of the sheer number of new apartments.”

Full article and source:
Government conducts survey on housing prices in North Korea
Jang Seul Gi
2019-08-05

Now, we still know very little about how these market interventions may come to work. The state just stepping in and fixing prices may be it, but measures like that tend not to work for long.

Consider, also, this story about how the government may come to lower market stall operations fees on some markets. The reason cited is the general economic downturn (presumably following sanctions). In lowering fees, the North Korean government is doing what most governments would do in that situation: launching a fiscal stimulus, of sorts. By lowering taxes (because that’s essentially what these fees are), the government is hoping to stimulate economic activity.

Whatever language it may use to describe how the economy works, this is market management, albeit not of a very sophisticated kind.

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Daily NK on foreign currency shortages

August 8th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This is an interesting article by Daily NK. It highlights how little we actually understand about how the exchange rate works in North Korea. Basically, their sources say that foreign currency is available in increasingly short supply, but confirm that despite reports to the contrary, exchange rates haven’t moved noticeably:

Sources report that sanctions have reduced the flow of foreign currency into and out of the country, while the amount in circulation has further fallen because residents are hoarding it. While foreign currency is still being used to pay for major transactions, residents are increasingly using local currency to pay for daily items in the local markets.

“North Koreans are using local currency more often to buy things at the market. They’d prefer Chinese yuan or US dollars, but there’s just not enough of it in circulation to use,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

“There are concerns that the situation could lead to an increase in counterfeit bills circulating in the country.”

“International sanctions have definitely led to a fall in circulating foreign currency,” added a North Hamgyong Province-based merchant in his 40s. “The authorities implement measures to entice people to use foreign currency at particular shops and restaurants, or demand that the wealthy make donations to the regime’s loyalty fund, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the circulation of foreign currency has fallen compared to a couple of years ago.”

“There are rumors that the Arduous March [widespread famine of the mid-1990s] is returning, so people are trying to save up and not spend anymore,” he said, adding that broader forces are at play.

Despite the developments, the exchange rate remains relatively stable. Generally, a fall in foreign currency in the market would lead to an increase in the value of foreign bills and a rise in the exchange rate. But the exchange rate between the US dollar and North Korean won has fluctuated only slightly at 1 USD to 8,000 North Korean won, while the exchange rate between the Chinese yuan and North Korean won has remained at 1:1200.

However, if there is an increase in the use of foreign currency in the markets while the overall circulation of foreign bills continues to fall, it could lead to a significant impact on exchange rates.

Article source:
North Koreans turn to local currency due to foreign currency shortages
Ha Yoon Ah
Daily NK
2019-08-06

I’ve written quite a few times about how all this is possible. Logically, it is. That doesn’t make it less of a mystery.

If current conditions continue, I’d be very surprised if we don’t see a sharp fall in the won soon enough. But then again, the market has defied a lot of reasonable, logical expectations already…

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Chinese tourism to North Korea rising

August 6th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap:

In the report on North Korea published by the state-run Korea Development Institute, Kim Han-gyu, a deputy director at the Korea Tourism Organization, estimated that the number of Chinese tourists to North Korea hit a record high last year, and the trend is likely to persist for the time being.

“This is a probable scenario if current relations between North Korea and China, and the international political situation either persist or improve,” Kim said.

In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited North Korea for the first time since he came to power in 2012, a trip that suggested that bilateral relations are back on track after being strained over Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in recent years.

The bilateral ties — once described as being as close as “lips and teeth” — had been soured over the North’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.

North Korea has stepped up efforts to attract more tourists in an apparent bid to earn hard currency in the face of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear tests and its long-range rocket launches.

In 2002, 121,000 Chinese visited North Korea, accounting for 62.4 percent of all foreign tourists to the North that year.

The number of Chinese tourists fell sharply to 24,000 in 2009, when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test in May that year.

Source:
Chinese tourists to N. Korea on rise: official
Yonhap News
2019-07-31

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Rice prices up in North Korea, market price data says. How bad is it?

August 2nd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Asia Press reports that rice prices have “skyrocketed” in North Korea this month:

The price of domestic rice, which stood at roughly 4,500 won (about 0.53 USD) per kilogram for most of the year, began to rise in July, surpassing 5,500 won (about 0.65 USD) per kilogram by the end of the month.

Multiple reporting partners living in the northern regions of the country were asked to investigate the reason behind the rise in the price of rice.

A reporting partner living in a city in Hamgyong Province explained, “The rice merchants say that, ‘domestic rice is scarce, so it is only a matter of time before it runs out’. The rise in price will likely continue from after the next harvest until the end of the year.”

Still, rice is not disappearing from the markets. Imported Chinese rice is sold at stable prices across all markets.

Most of this Chinese rice, however, is old and was harvested some time ago. The North Korean government, though, continues to import the low-quality, cheap Chinese rice, favoring ‘quantity over quality’.

Domestically produced North Korean rice, on the other hand, is not old and sticky. Due to its higher popularity, it is generally 5% more expensive than Chinese rice. This slight price difference was very stable and had remained unchanged over the last 20 years.

The cause of the domestic rice’s scarcity and subsequent rise in price is presumed to be the effects of last year’s heat wave and drought on production.

A rise from 4,500 won to 5,500 in only a few weeks is indeed quite noteworthy and potentially alarming. But what does context tell us?

I know very little about where in the country Asia Press sources its price data from, but I suspect it’s primarily or perhaps even only North Hamgyong province. It does seem like this steep price rise may be a somewhat localized phenomenon. Looking at the Daily NK price data gives us a little bit of a clue. It hasn’t been updated since July 23rd, so it may be that it will catch up and register similar shifts later on. But looking at the numbers for the past few weeks, prices in Hyesan have increased much more than in Pyongyang and Sinuiju.

So this might, for various reasons, be a localized phenomenon.

It should also be noted that prices usually rise during the summer months, as the next harvest draws closer, and storage runs lower and lower. Prices last summer around this time were much lower than present, but in 2017, they were significantly higher. So I would caution against drawing any hard conclusions as of now, and hopefully the next report by Daily NK will tell us more.

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Market fees may be lowered on some North Korean markets

July 30th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

“Merchants working in the markets feel that business this year is worse than last. I’m not sure if the authorities were thinking about the merchants when they made the decision, but it’s good that they have reduced the taxes in Pochon, Sinpa and Kimhyongjik County,” said the source in Ryanggang Province during a telephone interview.

According to the source, market fees in Pochon and Sinpa County are relatively low compared to other areas. The fees for industrial goods were reduced from 1000 won to 500 won. Fees charged to vendors of food and ice cream were lowered from 500 won to 300 and 200 won, respectively.

The market fees are determined based on the size of the city, the size of the stall and the type of product being sold. The rough national average fees being charged per day as of early this year was 1500-2000 KPW for meat stalls, 1000-1500 KPW for industrial products (clothes) and 500-1000 KPW for food and vegetables.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ analysis of markets in North Korea, the authorities collect over $56 million USD per year from the markets. The largest market in North Korea, Sunam Market in Chongjin, generates an estimated $840,000 USD for the government.

Before the markets were formally recognized, market fees were 3-5 won until the early to mid 1990s, before being raised ten-fold in 2001, to 30-50 won. After the regime legalized the country’s private markets in 2002 with its ‘New Economic Management Improvement Measures,’ the fees rose another ten-fold.

Source:
Market fees in North Korea set for reduction in parts of border region
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-07-30

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China’s Xi promised funding for bridge connections in North Korea, reports say

July 30th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This is quite interesting, and hardly surprising. Overall, I’ve seen very little to suggest that China regards the current sanctions pressure as anything but a temporary measure. That would fit the historical pattern well. (For more on this, feel free to check out my chapter on Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy and its impacts on the North Korean economy.) This time is very different because of the longevity and extent of the Chinese sanctions pressure, but in nature, I don’t believe China’s medium- to long-term strategy on North Korea and sanctions has changed. Talk of China “abandoning” North Korea, which used to be rife when Chinese trade data on North Korea pointed in a downward direction, has often been and remains much overblown.

The news is that Xi Jinping, during his June visit to North Korea, supposedly promised that China would fund facilities on the North Korean side of the new-ish border bridge between southwestern Dandong, as well as fund work on the Hwanggumpyong SEZ. Asahi Shimbun:

China has promised to foot the bill for the construction of related facilities for an already-completed bridge across the border between China and North Korea, sources said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made the pledge when he visited North Korea in June, they said.

During the visit, Xi also promised that China will promote construction of an economic development zone on North Korea’s Hwanggumpyong Island in the Yalu River, which forms a natural border between the two countries, the sources added.

Construction of the bridge and the economic development zone were agreed on when former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was still alive. But the projects were effectively frozen after his son and successor Kim Jong Un became the country’s leader.

Xi’s willingness to pay the costs of building an access road to the bridge on the North Korean side of the border, as well as customs-related facilities, suggest that economic relations between the two neighbors are moving to a firmer footing.

According to sources knowledgeable about trade between the two countries and those with links to North Korean authorities, Xi’s promises were conveyed to high-ranking North Korean government officials during meetings to report on the outcome of a summit meeting between the two countries.

Xi’s largesse was also shared in the North Korean military as it will be involved in the construction of bridge-related facilities as well as the economic development zone.

The New Yalu River Bridge connects Dandong in China with Sinuiju in North Korea. Although the bridge has been completed, it is not yet open to traffic.

China will provide about 2.5 billion yuan (39 billion yen, or $360 million) for the construction costs. Chinese engineers have been conducting field surveys since late June.

Since around that time, the upper parts of the bridge have been lit up at night.

In mid-July, cars carrying Chinese government officials traveled to a border gate in the middle of the bridge.

Construction of the bridge started in 2011 when Kim Jong Il was in power. China spent about 1.8 billion yuan in construction costs. The bridge was completed in 2014 under Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Source:
China to fund costs so bridge to North Korea can open to traffic
YOSHIKAZU HIRAI
Asahi Shimbun
2019-07-29

On the North Korean side, the bridge has been lacking a connection to the broader road network (or to anywhere, really) since construction began in 2011, as these pictures show:

The new Yalu river bridge, October 1st, 2011. Image from Google Earth/Digital Globe.

The new Yalu river bridge, March 2nd, 2019. Image from Google Earth/Digital Globe.

Overall, this emphasizes the reality that China really is the only country that North Korea has close, substantive and sustainable trade links with. It was truly unlikely that Xi’s visit to North Korea would occur without any promises for economic benefits or the like. Kim Jong-un’s visits to China have rendered similar benefits, though perhaps not of the same economic magnitude.

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North Korea’s economic contraction in 2018: what the BoK numbers tell us

July 26th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Bank of Korea has released its yearly estimate of North Korea’s economic trends for last year. The estimate gives a contraction of the economy by 4.1 percent. Reuters/Channel News Asia:

North Korea’s economy shrank in 2018 for a second straight year, and by the most in 21 years, hit by international sanctions to stop its nuclear programme and by severe drought, South Korea’s central bank said on Friday (Jul 26).

North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 4.1 per cent last year in real terms, the worst since 1997 and the second consecutive year of decline after a 3.5 per cent fall in 2017, the South’s Bank of Korea estimated.

North Korea does not disclose any statistics on its economy. The South Korean central bank has been publishing its estimates since 1991, based on information from various sources including the South’s foreign trading agencies.

North Korea’s international trade fell 48.4 per cent in value in 2018 as tougher international sanctions in late 2016 and 2017 cut exports by nearly 90 per cent, the Bank of Korea said.

Output in the mining sector shrank 17.8 per cent because of sanctions on exports of coal and minerals, while the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector contracted by 1.8 per cent because of drought, it said.

North Korea’s population was estimated at 25.13 million and annual income per head at S$1,298, the South Korean central bank said.

Article source:
North Korea’s economy shrinks most in 21 years in 2018: South Korea
Reuters/Channel News Asia
2019-07-26

I won’t go into much depth on the methodological issues with all this, but suffice to say that because Bank of Korea doesn’t release much information on their models, estimates, assumptions and the like, their analysis is always difficult to evaluate. That’s why it’s not particularly helpful to state that it’s the lowest growth (or largest contraction) since 1997. That may be true, but proportions aren’t necessarily all that relevant or accurate here.

That said, broadly, the estimate makes sense. In fact, it may be a slight lowball estimate. South Korean economist Kim Byung-yeon put estimated a 5-percent contraction for 2017, which sounds more reasonable to me.

The BoK estimate of the mining sector is particularly interesting. They give a contraction of 17.8 percent of the sector as a whole for 2018, after claiming in 2017 that it shrank by 11 percent. On the one hand, it’s interesting to think about how all this might look domestically. This would mean that around 70 percent of the mining sector which operated in 2016, continues to operate today. So what’s happening with all that coal, and all those minerals? Well, we get a hint of that in the estimates for electricity generation and water. This was down by -2.9 percent in the estimate for 2017.

Now, the estimate instead gives an increase of 5.7 percent. This positive effect for domestic electricity generation has been anecdotally reported by outlets such as Daily NK for quite a while. Cheaper electricity has made supply much better in parts of the country. This is a relatively minor positive, as the revenue loss from decreased exports is much greater. Nonetheless, there may be a slight impact here of cheaper electricity cushioning some of the lower demand for industrially manufactured goods.

Here’s a graph comparing the 2017-2018 estimates, based on the BoK data (which you can find here).

Bank of Korea estimates of North Korean GDP growth, by sector, 2017 and 2018. Graph by NK Econ Watch.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the baseline here was fairly high. North Korea has experienced a few years of solid economic trends, so a negative growth of four percent isn’t necessarily catastrophic. Of course, it’s very bad, but there are more nuances to these things than full stability or complete disaster.

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Daily NK: North Korean laborers reach Russian construction sites despite sanctions

July 24th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports:

“Recently, there have been many North Korean workers coming in to Russia. They are arriving at Khabarovsk Station via Tumangang Station. North Korean workers are usually dispatched to Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk and most of them are construction workers,” a source familiar with local affairs told Daily NK.

According to the source, a considerable number of new laborers are being deployed to Russian construction sites as well as some factories and logging sites.

In an interim report submitted to the United Nations in March, Russia said that the number of North Korean workers staying in Russia has declined from 30,023 at the end of 2017 to 11,490 at the end of 2018. Although the number with officially granted visas may have declined, it is believed that these new workers are entering Russia using methods other than a work visa, such as student or temporary stay visas.

It has been reported that in addition to the hard labor, those working in Russia have poor working conditions. They are cooking and sleeping at the same construction site at which they are working.

“North Korean workers are working at a building that is attached to the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok’s Russky Island, and work an average of 15 hours per day from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm or even until 11:00 pm,” he said.

“The daylight is long these days in Russia, so they are working until late in the night without lighting. North Korean workers are really angry because they are worked like dogs. And even though they are working so hard, they do not have much left after paying $1200 dollars to the North Korean company they work for.”

Even under such dire circumstances, North Korean laborers still value being sent to Russia because they can make significantly more money than they can in North Korea.

Some of the highly skilled North Korean workers who have been working in Russia for more than three years are said to be finding their own work under the condition that they pay $1000~$1300 dollars to the state enterprise as a loyalty contribution.

“Those with good skills are freelancing. Some even make $2000~$3000 dollars a month,” a separate source in Russia told Daily NK.

“Russian companies also prefer North Korean workers. Their wages are cheap and they are skilled and work very fast. That is why Russian construction companies prefer to hire them.”

Currently in Russia, there are about 23 North Korean enterprises including Rungrado, Namgyong, Cholsan Trading Company, and Number 17 Construction Company that manage North Korean workers. “A Khabarovsk-based North Korean trading company manages about 2000 North Korean workers,” said the source.

However, it has been reported that recently-dispatched North Korean workers in Russia cannot freely move or contact the outside world as they are under tighter surveillance.

Source:
North Korean laborers reach Russian construction sites despite sanctions
Jang Seul Gi
Daily NK
2019-07-24

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China-North Korea trade up in first half of 2019

July 24th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A fairly minor recovery from an already low level, one should bear in mind. SCMP reports:

China’s trade with North Korea recovered in the first half of this year after a sharp fall in 2018, Beijing said on Tuesday.

The announcement comes as ties between the countries improve, with Chinese President Xi Jinping making his first state visit to Pyongyang last month.

Total trade with North Korea reached US$1.25 billion between January and June, up 14.3 per cent compared to the same period a year earlier, Ministry of Commerce figures showed.

Exports to North Korea amounted to US$1.14 billion – a rise of 15.5 per cent – while imports rose 3.2 per cent to US$110 million.

China remains North Korea’s sole military ally and biggest trading partner. Trade in 2018 was worth US$2.7 billion, down 48.2 per cent year on year, the Seoul-funded Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency said last week.

North Korea’s trade with China fell sharply in 2018, taking its overall foreign trade to less than US$3 billion for the first time since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.

[…]

Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said China was “doing its work under the UN sanctions regime” but that North Korea might have the strength to work through its economic hardships.

“The country is always economically isolated from the rest of the world, and North Korean people are used to this situation. In fact, self-reliance has been their way of life for a very long time,” Zhang said.

Article source:

China-North Korea trade up 14.3 per cent in first half to US$1.25 billion
Lee Jeong-ho
South China Morning Post
2019-07-24

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North Korea’s (April) constitutional revision and economic change

July 12th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A quick comment on the reported change of the North Korean constitution (back in April): I don’t have access to the revised version as of now (or a working VPN from Seoul…). But judging by the reporting by outlets like Hankyoreh (here), this seems like a quite important confirmation that changes in the economic governance system of enterprises in North Korea continues and is still seen as a priority by the state:

The publication of the full text of North Korea’s constitution, which was amended back in April, reveals that language about the “Taean Work System,” its traditional party-centric method of managing the economy, has been replaced by language about the “Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations,” which increases the autonomy of managers at production sites and introduces market elements. This creates a constitutional basis for Kim Jong-un’s reform-oriented approach to the economy. The amended constitution also adds an expression about the chairperson of the State Affairs Commission “representing the state,” which effectively constitutes a formal declaration that Kim Jong-un, as chair of the State Affairs Commission, is the “head of the state.” The constitution was amended during the first session of North Korea’s 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, on Apr. 11, but the full text wasn’t released to the outside world until now.The full text of all 171 articles of North Korea’s revised “socialist constitution” was released on Naenara, a North Korean foreign propaganda outlet, on July 11.

Article 33 of the constitution says that “the state shall execute the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations in economic management while ensuring the correct use of economic spaces such as production costs, prices, and profitability.” This replaces language in the previous version of the constitution that read, “The state shall execute a self-supporting accounting system in line with the demands of the Taean Work System while ensuring the correct use of economic spaces such as production costs, prices, and profitability.” The key change here is a shift in the state’s economic management method from the Taean Work System to the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations. The constitutional amendment also adds language to Article 33 about “decisively increasing the role of the cabinet” in the management of the economy.

(Source: Hankyoreh, July 12th, 2019)

Why is this important?

In short, because these bureaucratic processes often stall. Kim Jong-un’s first few years in power saw a virtual flurry of new frameworks introduced for economic governance, most of them enshrining and institutionalizing rules and practices that had already been in place in much of the country for a while. Still, government recognition for these practices really matters, because at the very least, it indicates they won’t be curtailed or rolled back for a while. But this flurry appears to have ceased from around 2016 or so, or at least decreased in intensity and scope. Some have argued that some in the government may not have seen the results they anticipated on economic growth, and therefore turned their attention elsewhere. Including a strong reference to enterprise management autonomy may not indicate a change per se, but at the very least, it confirms that the broad strokes of the changes that have already happened seem to still be generally embraced by the government.

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