More news on trade potentially resuming between North Korea and China

April 1st, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Media outlets with sources inside North Korea, such as Daily NK, have reported for some weeks that trade might be restarting between China and North Korea. Daily NK reported in February that the USD-KRW rate began to climb after the 8th Party Congress amid rumors of the border opening again. Now, Nikkei Asia reports, based on anonymous sources in the Chinese border region, that preparations are being made to restart trade:

“I heard that North Korea is planning to accept Chinese goods from mid-April,” a Chinese man in his 30s at a trading company in Dandong, a city across the Yalu River from North Korea, told Nikkei. He said the information came from the North Korean side and he was preparing to restart his business.

A number of other trading companies also confirmed that bilateral trade is expected to resume in April.

At first, goods will only travel between Dandong and Sinuiju in North Korea, by rail over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which is the main route of trade between the two countries.

In Sinuiju, COVID-19 testing sites are being prepared. All being well, transport by ship and trucks will also be resumed.

North Korea needs medicines to treat diabetes, infections and other diseases, said a person familiar with the matter. “Bilateral trade” is in fact Chinese aid to North Korea, the source said. Sources also say that North Korea is asking for chemical fertilizers as the spring seeding season approaches.

In late January 2020, North Korea suspended flight and rail services from China and Russia to prevent coronavirus contagion. Overseas visitors were banned and goods restricted.

Pyongyang partially eased transport restrictions in May last year but reimposed them in October due to another wave of infections in China. Trade by road, rail and sea have almost entirely been suspended.

Meanwhile, a new bridge over the Yalu River is about to open. On March 9, the provincial government of Liaoning in China announced invitations for the tender of safety inspections for the New Yalu River Bridge, saying in those documents that the crossing would soon be open.

(Full article and source: Shin Watanabe and Tsukasa Hadano, “China and North Korea to revive trade in April amid US tension,” Nikkei Asia, March 30th, 2021.)

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Are fears of market crackdowns in North Korea exaggerated?

March 30th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In a recent article at 38 North, North Korea economy scholars Eun-Ju Choi and Young Hui Kim argue that the rumors of the death of Kim Jong-un’s reformist policies are highly exaggerated. Their full article is available here. As someone who has written about the increasingly anti-market policy signals coming from the North Korean regime over the past two or so years, I’d like to add a couple of thoughts.

First, Choi and Kim make a very good point: we have in fact not seen much in the way of practical, tangible evidence of a market crackdown actually going on. Indeed, most of this evidence is anecdotal and small-scale: scattered news via Daily NK and other outlets. There are two things to note about this. One is that, unfortunately, this is often how the news flow from North Korea works. When we can sufficiently say what is a broad, overarching trend and what is scattered but few news reports is often only clear in hindsight. At this time of writing, I’d argue we have enough of this anecdotal evidence to confirm that something is going on, but we don’t yet know of the scale of the process. (One could of course regard the entire border closure as an anti-market policy measure, at least in part.)

Second, however, Choi and Kim’s main argument seems to be that the fruits of the first few years of Kim Jong-un’s policy experimentation still stand. That may well be true — to this date we have seen no wholesale repudiation of any of the policy changes enacted in the first few years of Kim’s tenure. At the same time, Choi and Kim seem to be banking on Kim and the North Korean government simply not implementing the policies set out at the 8th WPK congress and before. Looking at what the government has said that it’s going to do, the anti-market policy turn becomes overwhelmingly evident. Choi and Kim, I would argue, are doing a bit of cherry-picking in their reading of these policy changes, focusing disproportionately on interpreting the emphasis on, for example, the Cabinet’s role in the economy. But there are many, many more examples.

Still, I hope that Choi and Kim end up being right, and that myself and many others end up being wrong. Only time will tell.

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March 2021: North Korea’s skyrocketing corn prices

March 9th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Given the self-imposed border lockdown North Korea is under at the moment, the recent rise in food prices should come as no surprise. The precise factors are difficult to pin down, but whatever they are, there is some serious cause for concern.

The main reason is the rapid rise in the price of corn as of late. One Daily NK-source in North Korea attributes it to large-scale state purchases of corn for snacks manufacturing in honor of Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16th.

The article makes clear, however, that this is only a partial explanation. Indeed, looking at the price index, it’s clear that the rise started long before February. On November 15th last year, the average price for a kilo of corn was 1350 won. On February 23rd this year, the average price was 3137 won. That’s a rise of 135 percent in a relatively short period of time. Prices of corn have often risen in the beginning part of the year, but not by this much.

Average corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Looking at individual cities, the rise is even more staggering. In Hyesan, where food prices tend to be higher in general, corn prices rose from 1450 won/kilo on November 15th last year to 3620/kilo on February 23rd. That’s an increase of 150 percent in only a few months.

Corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Why is this a concerning development for corn prices specifically?

First, corn is, in the North Korean context, rice’s less desired sibling. Corn always makes up a significant part of the diet for a big proportion of the North Korean population. However, when food becomes more scarce, people switch over a larger portion of their diets to corn, since it gives more food for the same amount of money. So a rise in corn prices may be a signal of growing scarcity overall.

Second, even if a large proportion of the rise was indeed caused by increasing state purchases, this is also a troubling indicator for the state of the North Korean market for food. If state procurement for snacks manufacturing for one single day can impact prices so much, this suggests a market under considerable stress and volatility to begin with.

At the same time, rice prices have remained conspicuously low and stabile. Rice prices in the last observation in the price index are around their seasonal normal. I’d be careful to assume too much based on this, however. Rice prices are lower right now than around the same time last year. This may – and I want to stress how little we know for certain – indicate that they are in fact lower not because supply is stabile, but because demand is lower. More consumers switching over their consumption to cheaper foods such as corn would put downward pressure on rice prices.

Average rice prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

The current situation will only be possible to fully evaluate in a few weeks when we have more data points available. Suffice to say for now that, with all the caveats about the trappings of data from North Korea, the situation looks concerning.

Update March 16th, 2021: DailyNK recently published more info about the corn price situation, reporting that prices have stabilized in much of the country. Still, 3,000 KWP/kg, reported in “other inland regions” (than Hyesan), is high. It’s more than double the average price reported in Daily NK’s price index around one year ago.

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China delivers oil to North Korea, stabilizing fuel prices

March 2nd, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On the supply side, fuel prices in North Korea are largely a factor of deliveries from China, as I have shown in a 38 North report. Daily NK confirmed this pattern in a dispatch last month:

Oil prices in North Korea plummeted late last month after climbing at the start of the year. North Korea has reportedly been receiving supplies of oil from China as the two nations show signs of growing closer.

The price of diesel was KPW 3,500 in Pyongyang, KPW 6,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 6,300 in Hyesan as of Jan. 25. This was respectively 56%, 24% and 23% less than it was on Jan. 11, as determined by Daily NK.

The price of oil, on which North Korea completely depends on imports, fluctuates relatively wildly depending on supply. Even so, this was a 23-56% fall in just two weeks.

Particularly in the case of Pyongyang, the price of diesel fell to KPW 3,500, the first time it has done so since 2011, a decade ago.

Gasoline prices fell relatively less than diesel. Gasoline was KPW 10,000 a kilogram in Pyongyang, KPW 11,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 12,000 in Hyesan as of Jan. 11. As of Jan. 25, it was KPW 6,700 in Pyongyang, KPW 11,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 11,100 in Hyesan.

As in the case with diesel, the price drop for gasoline was most pronounced in Pyongyang, where prices fell 33% from Jan. 11.

In Hyesan, however, gasoline prices fell just 7.5% from two weeks earlier, and in Sinuiju they did not change at all.

Diesel prices fell more than gasoline prices because the new supplies from China reportedly focused on diesel.

According to a source, diesel accounted for a large share of the imports smuggled into North Korea by way of illegal transhipment in international waters from ships leaving the Chinese port of Dalian in Liaoning Province.

The source claims North Korea has smuggled oil from China “countless times” since the middle of last month.

Prices fell most precipitously in Pyongyang seemingly because the capital received not only the first supplies but also the most.

(Source and full article: Jang Seul Gi, “North Korea appears to have received supplies of oil from China,” Daily NK, February 4th, 2021.)

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Continuity and change in North Korea-China relations

February 23rd, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The recent appointment of Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s ambassador to China hints at ambitions for greater economic exchange with China, as reported here. As Ri has a strong background in institutions in North Korea related to foreign trade, not least as the country’s trade minister and, later, vice premier in the country’s cabinet.

Above all, the appointment of Ri is interesting as a sign of continuity rather than change in North Korea’s external economic relations. At the moment, cross-border trade is in its deepest lull in many, many years, as a result of the North Korean government’s self-imposed border shutdown to protect against Covid-19. This border shutdown came on top of already harsh and heavy sanctions.

But this border shutdown, like other measures around the world related to Covid-19, has an expiration date. There’s been rife speculation that the border may reopen soon. And when it does, business will likely, at some point, return to the old normal of China being North Korea’s only meaningful source of economic exchange. The appointment of Ri is one data point to suggest this, but there are many other data points that show an increasingly close relationship between China and North Korea since 2018, after a lull in the preceding years of frequent North Korean missile tests and other destabilizing action. For example, North Korea and China and started expanding 12 of its 13 road or rail crossings only in 2020, despite the pandemic.

While all this may only amount to business as usual, it is interesting and noteworthy for several reasons. For one, North Korea’s previous five-year economic strategy, launched in 2016 and subsequently abandoned, reportedly sought trade diversification away from China as one of its main objectives. North Korean publications have long lamented overt dependence on one single country for foreign trade, noting that it easily translates to political dependance as well.

At the same time, North Korea’s trade dependence on China has actually increased over the past few years. Xi Jinping has long since promised Kim Jong-un that China would fund cross-border infrastructure refurbishment and special economic zones along the border. For all the talk of the potential for economic exchange between North and South Korea back in the heyday of inter-Korean diplomacy between Moon and Kim, the fact remains that if any party is likely to expand its economic ties and influence in North Korea, it’s China.

So the recent appointment of Ri as ambassador to China should be seen as a sign of continuity, not change. Given the dire state of the economy, and the economic policy retrenchment drive as of late, North Korean policymakers are likely to stay cautious and safe in economic measures for some time to come. That is precisely the sort of move that strengthening ties and trade with China would be.

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North Korean government continues state control push

February 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I’m not able to find the original article online at the moment, but Yonhap recaps an article from yesterday’s Rodong Sinmun stressing the importance of respecting government officials in the economic sector. This sounds like a fairly clear message to actors within the economy who might cause complications as plans for increased state control over the economy are implemented in practice: 

“We must respect economic officials in the administration and establish an orderly administrative system … so that administrative orders can be delivered down and accurately implemented without hesitation,” the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, said in an editorial.

“The performance of this year’s goals depends heavily on how economic officials organize and carry out their work,” the paper added.

The paper also called on party officials to play the role of a “rudder” in economic projects, while urging them to strive to “possess expertise” in economics and technology.

North Korean state media have stressed the central role of the Cabinet in achieving the North’s economic goals since the recent party congress.

(Source: “N.K. paper stresses ‘respect for economic officials’ to achieve new objectives,” Yonhap News, February 22nd, 2021.)

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North Korean electricity supply and the coal mystery

February 17th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Kim Jong-un recently complained that North Korea’s electricity production is too low, and that goals and targets in the sector aren’t ambitious enough. On the face of it, this is puzzling. At least in the early days of “maximum pressure”, electricity supply was reportedly increasing and becoming cheaper. With less coal to export, more could be used (for cheaper) inside the country in coal-powered electrical power plants.

It seems, however, that a lack of spare parts and equipment for the country’s power plants is a major part of the problem. Moreover, the government is having a difficult time charging for electricity, since people tamper with the outdated watt-meters in their homes. Daily NK:

North Korea has apparently continued to illegally export coal even since 2017, when UN Security Council Resolution 2371 placed a complete ban on exports of North Korean coal. However, export totals have reportedly fallen compared to what they were prior to the sanctions.

Because of this, the authorities are calling for the use of “idle” coal in electricity production. However, even if they boost supplies of coal, actually increasing electricity production commensurate with that increase in supply will not be easy due to obsolete power generating equipment.

Acknowledging this problem, the authorities have also reportedly included in their electricity policy an order for the Cabinet to take responsibility for outdated equipment at the nation’s thermoelectric and hydroelectric power stations and immediately repair it.

Given that the party has issued an order to repair the equipment as quickly as possible, work on the repairs will likely begin. However, in the current situation with the border closed, the source told Daily NK it is uncertain whether North Korea can domestically produce or import the equipment it needs.

Moreover, it appears the authorities will strengthen the Cabinet’s monitoring of electricity production numbers. This is because the policy included a call for the Cabinet to start receiving quarterly reports on total electricity production – calculated based on total distribution by province.

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “North Korean authorities issue new policy for electricity generation,” Daily NK, February 16th, 2021.)

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The economy in the Central Committee Plenum (February 2021)

February 16th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

During the recent (2nd) plenary meeting of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee, several remarks were made that focus on the economy. Most seemed to follow the statements during the Party Congress, both in tone and focus. Emphasizing the role of legal measures seems to be a way to regularize and formalize the orders set out at the congress. Legal supervision, after all, is something continuously ongoing, unlike rule by decree. It’s unclear what “irrational elements” means in the KCNA summary, but my sense is that it may be about semi-legal and highly dubious (from the state’s point of view) practices of essentially private entities partnering with and using the bureaucratic cover of state-owned companies for business purposes.

Here’s an excerpt of the KCNA coverage from the third day, with my emphasis added in bold:

The General Secretary in his report suggested important tasks for firmly ensuring the implementation of the national economic plan by law and channeling all Party works into the fulfillment of this year’s economic tasks.

The report stressed the importance to strengthen the legal supervision and control over the establishment and executive process of the national economic plan, the order of the Party and the law of the state.

It called upon the legislation sector to remove irrational elements becoming stumbling blocks to the implementation of the national economic plan and enact and perfect new laws for every sector which help promote the efficiency of the production and construction.

It said that legislative bodies including the prosecution organ should increase their role to make sure the national economic plan is properly distributed and correctly executed, and in particular, stage a strong legal struggle for checking all kinds of illegal practices revealed in economic activities, adding that all sectors and units should obey them unconditionally.

Analyzing that the faults revealed in the economic work in the last period are caused by the party organizations which failed to fulfill their responsibilities and role as organizers and standard-bearers in carrying out the Party’s policies, the report proposed tasks of the party organizations for intensifying the party guidance and political guidance from the standpoint of holding full responsibility for the result from the implementation of this year’s economic task.

It referred to the ways for the party organizations at all levels to positively play the role in properly steering the implementation of the national economic plan while giving priority to the organizational and political work for arousing the masses to the accomplishment of this year’s goal.

It also suggested tasks calling upon the party organizations of ministries and national institutions to properly grasp and guide the execution of Party’s economic policy by enhancing the level of the Party work in line with the characteristics of their units in charge of important portion in the overall work of the state and to strengthen the direction of the party life of public service personnel.

Concluding his report on the first agenda item made through three consecutive days, the General Secretary said that the plenary meeting was convened in the timely and necessary period in the sense that it helped rectify mistakes from the stage of planning this year’s work and newly decided on the great work for the people and also helped find out and correct the ideological maladies including passivism and self-protectionism latent in officials.

(Source: “Third-day Sitting of 2nd Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee Held,” Korean Central News Agency February 11th, 2021.)

Here is an excerpt of the second-day coverage, again with emphasis added in bold. The bottom paragraph restates much of the language from congress a few weeks ago about increasing state control:

Saying that propping up agriculture is an important state affair that must be successful at any cost to solve the food problem for the people and successfully push ahead with the socialist construction, the General Secretary analyzed the achievements and experience gained in the agricultural field for the recent several years and set forth tasks of stably and steadily developing the agricultural production based on them.

Emphasized in the report were the issues of taking prompt state measures for supplying farming materials on which success or failure of farming for this year hinges for the present, pushing ahead with the work of providing a material and technical foundation for the agricultural production in a planned way and bringing about a decisive improvement in the Party work in the rural areas.

[…]

The General Secretary in the report evinced the militant tasks to be carried out by the People’s Army and the munitions industry this year for implementing the decisions set forth by the 8th Party Congress, and the direction of future action to be taken by the sector in charge of affairs with south Korea and the sector in charge of external affairs, before underscoring the need to thoroughly carry them out without fail.

The report noted that the success or failure in this year’s economic work depends on the capability and role of the state economic guidance organs in the main, and made clear the issue that the Cabinet and state economic guidance organs should restore the function peculiar to them as economic organizer and their controlling function to improve the guidance and management over the whole economy, the one of improving the role of non-permanent economic development committee and other important practical issues for consolidating the Cabinet-centered system, Cabinet-responsibility system.

(Source: “Second-day Sitting of 2nd Plenary Meeting of 8th WPK Central Committee Held,” Korean Central News Agency, February 10th, 2021.)

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Fertilizer factory shutdown and goods shortages

February 8th, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

KITA has a new briefing paper out about some developments relating to North Korea’s domestic economy and external trade. If true, the shutdown of the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex (청년화학연합기업소) is one of several examples of how the border shutdown due to Covid-19 is hurting basic industries through a shortage of spare parts. Goods such as cooking oil are also reportedly in short supply on the markets, and local government incomes from market stall fees are also reportedly dropping. As always with this sort of information, none of it is fully confirmed.

You can find the report here (in Korean), below is an excerpt from a summary by Nikkei:

The Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, north of Pyongyang, produces fertilizer and coal gas using anthracite mined in the area. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the site in 2013.

High-pressure valves and jet sprays at the complex have become too worn for continued use, according to reports the Korea International Trade Association received from North Korea in January. Without replacement parts, it is unclear when the plant can resume work.

The suspension hinders North Korea’s push to lift its meager agricultural output. Kim last year ordered a boost in fertilizer production and attended a completion ceremony for a separate fertilizer plant. Coal gas also serves as a valuable industrial energy source for the country, which faces an oil embargo in response to its nuclear and missile testing.

[…]

The resulting shortages also have struck North Korea’s jangmadang informal markets, which have flourished under Kim’s tenure. At one market in the city of Pyongsong, the volume of available flour and cooking oil has halved. Many stalls that used to sell Chinese-made apparel and appliances have shut down as well.

The slowdown of the jangmadang is eating into the coffers of North Korea’s regional authorities. South Pyongan Province, home of the Namhung plant, made about half as much from overseeing these markets in the last quarter of 2020 as in the year-ago period, heavily impacting provincial spending, the KITA report says.

(Source: Yosuke Onchi, “Key North Korea factory shuts down from COVID-19 parts shortage,” Nikkei Asia, February 8th, 2021.)

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The Pyongyang General Hospital delay

January 31st, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As previously reported by 38 North, neither the Pyongyang General Hospital nor the Wonsan-Kalma resort were completed on schedule. A recent report by Radio Free Asia, based on sources within North Korea, confirms that a lack of goods that need to be imported from China is what’s holding construction back (among other things). At the same time, it isn’t necessarily a lack of funds that’s being cited, but rather, the inability of imports to get through due to the border lockdown:

Work on the hospital began in March 2020, but it has been several months since construction was put on hold.

The pet project of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should have had a guaranteed supply of materials, an official of Pyongyang’s municipal government told RFA’s Korean Service Jan. 21.

“However, the interior work has not been started at all. Electric wiring, lighting, marble, other interior materials and medical equipment should have been imported from China, but they have not been brought in due to the coronavirus,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

North Korea and China shut down the Sino-Korean border in January 2020 and suspended all trade, a move that has all but closed the North Korean economy off from the rest of the world.

Though builders tapped domestic suppliers to begin construction on the hospital’s exteriors in March, work cannot continue until imports resume.

During the ruling party’s eighth congress, held Jan. 5-12, the party ordered factories and other government agencies to wean themselves off of imports so the country’s economy could be more self-sufficient.

But RFA reported last week that because the congress decided to invest heavily in North Korea’s tourism sector, government officials were scrambling to find ways to import materials for building interiors in anticipation of a building boom.

“Inpatient facilities will go in the two main high-rise buildings, so elevator installation is the core of all interior work,” the source said.

“Last year, they signed a contract to import elevators and escalators from a company in Shanghai… but the coronavirus has prevented them from being brought in,” said the source.

(Source: Hyemin Son, Leejin Jun, and Eugene Whong, “Construction Delayed on Showcase Hospital Project in North Korean Capital,” Radio Free Asia, January 26th, 2021.)

On the one hand, it would seem sensible to not prioritize prestige projects when overall funds are so low. On the other hand, Kim Jong-un did recently have his beachside manor upgraded, as reported by NK Pro. Whenever equipment really needs to get purchased or imported, there are ways of making it happen…

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