The November 2016 North Korea sanctions: some perspective

December 1st, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Responding to North Korea’s second nuclear test within one year in September, the United Nations adopted a new sanctions package yesterday, Wednesday November 30th. These are some of the main points:

  • By far, the most significant measure is a “cap” on imports of North Korean coal at $400 million or 7.5 million metric tons in a year, cutting its revenues by about $700 million per year. This is to supplement the current provision that coal can be imported when the proceeds go to livelihood purposes in North Korea, a provision that has proven to be a massive loophole (shocker!).
  • Four more minerals have been added to the sanctions list: copper, nickel, silver and zinc.
  • Exports of statues have been banned, targeting the somewhat peculiar North Korean practice of building statues in various African countries.
  • The resolution also limits the number of staff allowed at North Korean diplomatic missions, and forbids them from opening more than one bank account per person.

So what does this mean for the North Korean economy? Obviously, one shouldn’t speculate too much in advance. As always, China’s enforcement will be the main determinant. Here are some things worth noting:

First, while $400 million cap would certainly be a significant income loss for the North Korean regime, it might not be disastrous. It is worth remembering that North Korean government revenue from minerals exports already fluctuates heavily, since market prices do. Just for a sense of perspective, in 2015, North Korea’s export income stood at about $3 billion, and this was a decrease by 16.4 percent from the preceding year. In 2014, textile exports to China brought in around $800 million. Moreover, the $700 million revenue cut claim does not take into account the extent to which North Korea could make up for the loss through other sectors.

Second, the likelihood of full and consistent Chinese sanctions enforcement remains fairly low at best. Historically, we have seen a pattern where China will increase enforcement during certain time periods, or take single measures that receive a lot of attention (such as the Hongxiang inquiry) but where things return to normal pretty quickly. Case-in-point: the unusually strong sanctions from earlier this year, and the promises of Chinese enforcement, ending with record trade in coal. Obviously the “livelihoods” exemption provided a large enough loophole, particularly after the announcement by the US and ROK that THAAD will be deployed in South Korea. It is difficult to see why this cap would be impossible to circumvent. After all, China is (presumably) responsible for gather the data and for ringing the alarm bells when said cap is reached. (See also Adam Cathcart’s essay on the recent Sino-North Korean rapprochement at Sino-NK).

Third, and relatedly, history tells us that many, many factors other than the international sanctions regime determine Chinese imports of North Korean coal. Domestic demand is arguably far more important as a determinant than sanctions, as evident by the fact that declines in imports of North Korean coal often fluctuate much more with demand than with sanctions.

As always, we can only wait and see, but at the face of it, these new sanctions seem far from revolutionary.

(Update 2016-12-02)

Japan, South Korea and the United States have announced additional, multilateral sanctions independent from those by the U.N. Joshua Stanton over at One Free Korea argues that some of the measures potentially carry some real impact power. For example, they include North Korea’s national carrier Air Koryo. Moreover, they sanction China’s Hongxiang Industrial Development, making it the first time that a single Chinese company is directly targeted by South Korean sanctions. Yonhap:

“We have expanded the number of those subject to sanctions by adding to the list 35 entities and 36 individuals that are playing a critical role in developing weapons of mass destruction and contributing to the North Korean regime’s efforts to secure foreign currency,” Lee Suk-joon, the top official in charge of government policy coordination at the Prime Minister’s Office, told reporters.

Included in the blacklist were Choe Ryong-hae, a vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, and Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, director of the military’s general political bureau, both of whom are regarded as close aides for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The Workers’ Party and the State Affairs Commission were also added along with other entities suspected of supporting the regime’s efforts to export its coal and generate earnings.

In particular, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development and four of its executives were included on the list, marking the first time that a Chinese firm is facing South Korea’s unilateral sanctions.

The company is under investigation on suspicions that it exported aluminum oxide — a nuclear bomb ingredient — to the North at least twice in recent years. In September, the U.S. blacklisted it along with its owner and other company officials.

With the latest action by Seoul, a total of 79 individuals and 69 entities will be subject to sanctions in connection with the North’s nuclear programs. The government announced a blacklist in March as a follow-up move to the UNSC’s Resolution 2270 adopted in the wake of the North’s fourth nuclear test in January.

Any financial transactions with them will be prohibited, while their assets in South Korea will be frozen. The blacklisted people will also be banned from entering the country, which is seen as a symbolic action given that there are no exchanges between the two Koreas.

Other prohibitive measures include blacklisting the North’s state-owned airline Air Koryo on suspicions that it helps its regime transfer workers abroad, and move cash and other embargoed materials into the isolated country.

The Seoul government has also toughened its maritime sanctions by banning any ships that have traveled to the North within the past one year, an extension from the previous 180 days, from entering South Korean ports.

In addition, a watch list “tailored” to enhance the monitoring on activities related to the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missile capability will be prepared and shared with the international community, it said.

Full article:
S. Korea blacklists scores of N. Koreans, entities linked to nuke, missile program
Yonhap News
2016-12-02

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Where do North Korea’s nuclear scientists go shopping?

November 27th, 2016

yongbyon-market-2016-8-21

Pictured Above (Google Earth): A 2016-8-21 image of the general market (종합시장) at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center residential complex.

Needless to say, security at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center is tight, and not much is known (publicly anyhow) about the lives of the people who live there. However, with commercial satellite imagery (and a little know-how), we can get a glimpse of life inside the security perimeter.

No doubt the residents of the compound live in “gilded cages,” enjoying above-average standards of living but under greater control and surveillance. However, in June of 2003, the year that the DPRK legally converted decades-old “farmers’ markets” to “general markets” (a change that involved not only a change in name, but also a change in administration), the DPRK constructed a new general market for residents of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center which appears to have replaced the smaller outdoor farmers’ market.

yongbyon-market-2003-6-2

Pictured above (Google Earth: 2003-6-2): Construction of the new general market outlined in yellow. Structure of the former farmers market that was torn down in orange.

The market appears to be composed of four warehouses each with a floor-space of appx 550 square meters (2,200 square meters total). It is possible that each building specializes in some form of commerce (food, household goods, etc). In some of the historical imagery of the market we can see people outside meandering between the buildings.

It is interesting to think that there are vendors here who are probably not related to the nuclear program. No doubt these individuals would have to be granted security clearances to work in this market.

But perhaps most notably about the residential quarter, we can see 15 new apartment buildings being constructed over the last couple of years.

yongbyon-housing-2014-9-24

(Google Earth: 2014-9-24)

yongbyon-housing-2015-11-9

(Google Earth: 2015-11-9)

yongbyon-housing-2016-8-21

(Google Earth: 2016-8-21)

I do not know if these new apartments are for scientists or janitors, but their construction marks a not-so-subtle signal that employment in the area is on the increase.

Here is coverage of my work on this post in RFA and KBS (English, Korean).

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North Korean leader visits fishing station on the East Sea, emphasizes raise in catch

November 22nd, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Kim Jong Un visited a fishing station in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) area, and ordered that the catch be raised. Under leader Kim Jong Un, phrases like ‘the Golden Sea’ and ‘Socialist scent of the Sea’ have become prominent. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official wire service, reported that Kim visited the May 27 and August 1 Fishing Stations and conducted on-the-spot guidance.

The report stated that “Workers in the people’s army fishing sector and fishermen fulfilled their annual target set for them by respected comrade Kim Jong Un by November 7th by waging a fishing battle. They achieved dazzling success in catching 10,000 tons of sailfin sandfish, and continue to raise the amounts caught.”

Kim, first visiting the May 27 Fishing Station, indicated his satisfaction, saying, “I put many issues aside to come and convey this extraordinary news of success in the fishing industry to all the people. . . . Seeing the fishing station and apartments unfold before me like a picture as I was coming here was worth the trip. The East Sea area has a town in a state of ecstasy.”

The KCNA also reported that the May 27 fishing station had been built on the orders of Kim Jong Un, who also visited the site while it was under construction back last year in March. “It is another pride of the Songun era, with all the necessary and cutting edge facilities needed for the production of aquatic products and for the lives of fishermen.”

Having seen the fishing station, Kim said: “The People’s Army has shown how the Party’s policy, which states that using the mental energy of people one can create something from nothing, can be achieved. . . . The docks of the East Sea overflow with the smell of fish. I feel pleased to think of the parents who sent their children to guard the fatherland feeling happy when they smell this.”

Following this, Kim visited the August 1 Fishing Station, and said: “Seeing the fish piled high like a mountain for enough supply until next September I feel very happy, and feel all my fatigue leave me. . . . The organization at this facility is most satisfactory.” The Fishing station supplies orphanages, kindergartens, schools and nursing homes across the country with fish.

Kim Jong Un also discussed achievements in resolving the following problems: scientific fishing that enables fish to be caught regardless of the season; achieving a high standard of expertise, modernization and use of information technology in production and operations, introducing modern fishing methods, and increasing the catch; guaranteeing that fishing happens on more than 300 days, not allowing the seasons to keep the seas empty; equipping facilities with high quality refrigeration; taking a deep interest in the lives of fishermen; and stimulating energetic competition between fishing stations and individual boats.

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US-China Commission releases annual report

November 18th, 2016

The 2016 report of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission has been published.

You can read it here.

The section related to North Korea can be found here (Chapter 3, Section 4)

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Uptick in North Korea’s Renewable Energy Production

November 17th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

In North Korea, there are now three solar-powered ferries that sail the Taedong River: the Okryu 1, the Okryu 2, and the Okryu 3.

The North Korean government’s wire service, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), reported on November 4, 2016: “The ferries sail between Kim Il Sung Square and the Tower of the Juche Idea, guaranteeing that citizens can travel during the rush hour. . . . These solar powered-ferries provide ferry services both to workers and for guests from home and abroad in the form of tourist and chartered services.”

According to KCNA, the three ferries were built at Ryongnam Shipyard, each weigh 45 tons, have a maximum speed of 6 knots, and can take up to 50–60 passengers.

According to Yun Hyok, the captain of Okryu 1, “the ferry is powered by the energy of sun light . . . the driving system was created with the energy and skill of our engineers. The ship can run for around 8 hours when fully charged.”

Since the 1990s, North Korea has expressed determination to achieve energy independence, with Kim Jong Un pointing to resolving electricity difficulties as being a priority back in 2011. Subsequently, in 2013, a law was introduced to encourage research and the production of renewable energy, and at this year’s Seventh Party Congress it was announced that two hydropower stations had been opened. The importance of energy independence was also emphasized at the congress. It has also been confirmed that North Korea has been pursuing a long-term plan to raise the amount of energy produced from renewable sources to 5 million kW. In order to achieve this target, the plan envisages by 2044 that wind power will provide 15 percent of total energy demand.

This plan was discovered through internal materials on display at the Natural Energy Research Centre, formed in November 2014 as a result of an order issued by Kim Jong Un to develop energy resources that do not pollute the environment.

An overseas visitor to the Natural Energy Research Centre said that “the Centre in Pyongyang has a diagram of the 30-year plan to develop renewable energy with the title ‘The dream and ideal of Natural Energy Science development’. . . . The materials there also indicate plans to train specialists in the science of ‘natural energy’ development, and plans related to the development and trial sites for wind power, geothermal energy, and solar thermal energy.”

Such plans mean that North Korea plans to develop renewable energy, in addition to building hydroelectric power plants and/or using Chinese/Russian power to deal with energy shortages. In other words, they intend to attempt to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and develop renewable energy. Since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, a variety of measures have been put in place and investments made to broaden the use of renewable energy.

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China building new DPRK border crossing in Jian

November 17th, 2016

While the Dandong-Sinuiju “Bridge to Nowhere” gets plenty of coverage as a symbol of a growing rift between China and the DPRK, the two countries are working to improve two other vehicle crossings along their shared border. You can see map of these two border crossings below.

manpho-rason-overview

The new Rason Bridge (Quanhe-Wonjong Bridge) has finally been completed in the north-eastern most corner of the DPRK.

rason-bridge-2016-3-19

In the Google Earth image above (dated 2016-3-19) we can see the new four-lane bridge taking shape next to the older two-lane bridge it is replacing. According to more recent satellite imagery available at Planet.com, the bridge is actually completed. This new bridge was announced in June 2014.

But the border crossing that has been off most people’s radar is the new Manpho-Jian border crossing under construction right now.

jian-border-2016-9-29

Pictured above (Google Earth): Construction of the new border crossing in Jian, China. Image date 2016-9-29. The orientation has been reversed so that north is actually at the bottom of the picture.

You can read some background information of this new border crossing in an article I wrote for 38 North in May of 2015. I also just published some follow-up information in Radio Free Asia yesterday.

This border crossing is interesting because it is the reverse scenario of what is taking place in Dandong. Here the North Koreans built a new Yalu River Bridge and Customs House (completed in 2012), but the Chinese have only begun construction of reciprocal border infrastructure this year.

The Chinese also built a “Free Trade Zone” at the site of the new border crossing (similar to the Goumenwan Trade Zone in Dandong) in 2012-2013, though it has not yet opened for business. Additionally buses of Chinese tourists are crossing the border to visit Manpho in the DPRK’s Jagang Province, but it is unclear if any regular commercial traffic has already started using the route. Despite the light use of the new bridge, the new border has not officially opened (scheduled to open in the spring of 2017).

Looking at the new satellite image above we can see that a new “gate-shaped” customs house is under construction at the terminus of the new Yalu/Amnok River bridge. On either side of the customs office new buildings are under construction. Just north of the bridge we can see the completed “free trade zone” (in the center of the picture) and what appears to be a shipping warehouse nearing completion (on the right side of the picture).

UPDATE: In YTN coverage of my report in RFA, they offered recent pictures of the new Chinese border buildings in Jian:

jian-bldg-1-ytn

jian-bldg-2-ytn

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North Korea exporting sand, gravel and coal to China from Sinuiju

November 15th, 2016

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

An interesting example of how the transition from state-owned to private enterprise impacts the workings of certain firms. Daily NK:

North Korean ships from Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province are reportedly exporting in excess of 100 tons of sand and gravel into China each day.
“Shipping firms from Sinuiju are earning foreign currency through contracts with private Chinese construction businesses. The North Korean authorities are supporting the operations after receiving orders to finance the export of coal and sand to China. They are also providing wages and food for the workers,” an inside source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on November 11.
Additional sources in North Pyongan Province corroborated this information.
The source added that although the city’s shipping industry was originally a state enterprise, that is no longer the case. The industry is now run by private enterprises that deal with the domestic and Chinese markets. When the operations were state owned, there were chronic shortages of capital and sailors were forced to use sub-standard vessels. The regime’s new policy – to let the industry rehabilitate itself through benign neglect – has allowed the businesses to revitalize themselves. By exporting sand across the Yalu River into China, these businesses have earned enough capital to purchase better vessels. A number of enterprises and the associated infrastructure has grown as a result.
“As the volume of sand exported continues to rise, the shipping companies are inducing more service providers and factories to participate in the industry. The Anju Country 105 Sand Factory collects sand from the Chongchon River and transports it by way of the Yalu River to the shipping firms,” the source added.
When asked about the scale of the trade, she noted, “Sinuiju Harbor sees a daily influx of Chinese boats that carry away more than 100 tons of sand and gravel. Because exports are continuing to climb, the shipping firms are using the capital to enter new industries such as coal export.”
The North Korean enterprises see sand as an inexhaustible natural resource, the source explained, adding, “The more we sell, the better quality sand we can bring in. The enterprises are doing quite well for this reason. The factory cadres are accumulating vast sums of money, and continue to look for ways to increase their profits.”
The flourishing business has also improved prospects for workers. Laborers in the sand and gravel collection factories can earn enough money to put food on the table for a family of four – with food provided to them plus approximately 50,000 KPW per month (U.S. 6.14) for extras.
“The authorities are also using the opportunity to generate propaganda about the generosity of ruler Kim Jong Un,” the source asserted.
The revitalization of the sand collection industry is a positive development from the point of view of the authorities, as all Yalu River sand enterprises are first and foremost responsible for the supply of Kim Jong Un’s pet construction projects, such as the Ryomyong Street Project.
“The authorities can simply sit back and relax as they receive money, supplies, and credit for the success of the sand business. This reveals that the solution to North Korea’s problems is freedom of the market,” she added.
As exports continue to increase, the donju (North Korea’s nouveau riche) have expanded the scope of their interests and investments. “First, they purchase a large boat. Next, under the pretense of being a shipping business, they start to branch off into other industries to make more money. The factories give the donju the authority to do the trading and receive 30% of the profits in return,” the source concluded.
Full article:
NK exports 100 tons of sand, gravel, & coal daily from Sinuiju Harbor
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2016-11-15
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New Construction and Refurbishment of Factories Producing Consumer Necessities

November 8th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Seemingly taking an interest in the welfare of the public, Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, before his visit to a soap factory, has spent the previous month visiting a medical device factory, spring water bottling facility, a ‘sovereign’ factory, and the Ryugyong Dental Hospital. On October 29, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim Jong Un also toured the newly constructed Mount Ryongak Soap Factory. Of late, newly constructed or refurbished factories producing consumer necessities have featured prominently in the North Korean media.

According to the KCNA report, Kim Jong Un said while on his inspection tour that “our people must be provided with abundant and happy lives without envy. . . . Continuing to put much energy into areas that help in the creation of the material and technical foundations of industry that contribute to improving the lives of the people, the people must fully benefit from such efforts.” The KCNA report also stated that Kim said “in a few months that felt like just a couple of days ago I was here looking at a construction site, and now a large, modern, impressive facility has been fully built.”

Last June, Kim Jong Un visited the Mount Ryongak Soap factory construction site, gave it its name, and directed that it should be completed by the anniversary of the Worker’s Party foundation (October 10th). In addition, he visited the Mount Ryongak Spring Water Bottling Facility in September and ordered for normalizing increased production standards, delivering spring water produced at the right time, and standardizing and varying the color and shape of glass bottles. It was at the direction of Kim Jong Il that the Mount Ryongak Spring Water Bottling Facility opened in 2007, to supply the people of Pyongyang with water from the mountain, while Kim Jong Un is credited with having it refurbished and modernized.

Kim Jong Un also gave on-the-spot guidance at the Mangyongdae Revolutionary History Sovereign Factory. While there he said “I like the fact that we are using our own raw materials and products to make zippers. The Party’s directive to domesticate production has achieved great results.” Completed in December 1979, the factory’s products were praised by Kim Jong Il at the August 1984 Pyongyang Light Industrial Products Exhibit. In addition, KCNA reported that Kim had instructed that the factory be refurbished and modernized.

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Rice prices in North Korea fall due to harvest, imports

November 7th, 2016

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Says the indispensable Daily NK:

Rice prices in some regions of North Korea have reportedly fallen by approximately 1000 KPW over the last few days. The price of rice has generally hovered around 5000 KPW per kilo since Kim Jong Un took power, but recently dropped to 3500 KPW due to an increase in supply from the harvest season and rice imports.
A Daily NK source in North Hwanghae Province reported on November 3 that the price of one kilo of rice was about 4800 KPW in the middle of last month, but has now fallen to 3500 KPW over the last few days.
“People are happy about the price drop,” she said.
“Although rice prices in the markets around the northern regions (North Hamgyong Province, Ryanggang Province) are continuing to average 5000 KPW per kilo, it’s being sold at 3500 KPW per kilo in the rural areas of North and South Hwanghae Provinces. It’s believed that this was caused by a fairly good harvest in the agricultural zones of the provinces of North and South Pyongan and North and South Hwanghae, which was better than last year.”
In North Korea, rice prices fluctuate in accordance with grain production. During the harvest season, prices tend to drop when increasing volumes of rice enter the market, most of which occurs via embezzlement channels set up by officials.
“During the harvest season, officials in charge of the farms embezzle a proportion of the rice for themselves and sell it at the market, which seems to be the reason for the recent decline in rice prices,” the source said.
In addition, public sentiment towards the change in prices also has an impact on prices. Rumors have been spreading among the residents that large volumes of rice will be donated by UN agencies, prompting vendors to try and sell their own product more quickly.
There has also reportedly been an influx of imported rice into the market, further driving up competition.
Addressing this phenomenon, VOA (Voice of America) reported that since the Kim Jong regime came to power, North Korea imported the largest volume of rice from China on record (on monthly basis) in September. According to an analysis of recordings from the Chinese General Administration of Customs by Kwon Tae Jin (director of the Center for Studies on North Korea and Northeast Asia at the GS&J Institute), the volume of Chinese grain imported into North Korea in September reached a total of 18,877 tons.
“Upon seeing the imported rice being sold in the market, local merchants have dropped their prices to try and sell all of their product. The wholesale dealers and vendors in the rice trade all seem a bit confused by the rapid fluctuations in price,” added a source in South Hwanghae Province.
However, this phenomenon may only be a temporary occurrence, as rice prices in other regions remain relatively stable. As the rice influx circulates among the other regions, it is thought that prices will stabilize.
Cho Bong Hyun, the deputy director of IBK Economic Research Institute further commented that, “the regime seems to be distributing large amounts of imported rice to placate the population, but there are issues with the sustainability of this practice. Unless the total volume of incoming rice remains steady, the price declines seen will not be sustained for long.”
Full article:
Rice prices fall to 3500 KPW per kilo due to harvest season and import spike
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2016-11-07
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North Korea imports large quantities of rice in September: VOA

November 3rd, 2016

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Via Yonhap:

North Korea imported the largest-ever amount of rice from China on a monthly basis in September since the launch of the Kim Jong-un regime in 2011, in an apparent bid to stabilize prices, a U.S. broadcaster, monitored here, reported Thursday.

North Korea imported 18,477 tons of rice and other grains in September, the Voice of America said, citing an analysis of data from China’s General Administration of Customs by Kwon Tae-jin, director of East Asia research at GS&J Institute in South Korea.

The September figure was about 2.7 times higher than 6,954 tons imported in October and about six times higher than 3,158 tons imported a year ago in September, the broadcaster said.

In particular, the North purchased 16,000 tons of rice from China in September, a monthly high since the start of the Kim Jong-un regime, and higher than the 14,000 tons imported during the first eight months of this year total, the broadcaster said.

Experts opined that the step is designed to stabilize rice prices at a time when the stock has hit its bottom, the broadcaster said.

“This is the time when the harvest is around the corner, and the stock is nearly exhausted,” Kwon said.

Full article:
N. Korea imports rice on large scale in Sept.
Yonhap News
2016-11-03

Discussions such as these are always complicated by the fact that for most regions, private market supply is probably far more important than whatever the PDS supplies.

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