A particularly good year for North Korean harvests? Not thanks to the state, says one citizen

November 27th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The flurry of divergent messages on North Korea’s food situation continues. While multilateral agencies have warned that this year’s food deficit might be particularly bad, news from inside North Korea tell a different story. The Daily NK reports that citizens speak of a particularly good harvest this year, despite the drought:

On the 24th, a Daily NK reporter spoke with a source in Yanggang Province, who informed us that although the Rodong Sinmun has been urging citizens and the nation on a daily basis to work hard to restore the damage that resulted from the tempestuous weather earlier in the year, so far there are no reports of lower-than-average rice harvest numbers.

An additional source in North Hamgyong Province reported the same trend in his region.

Small plot farmers have been particularly attentive to ensuring that their crops received adequate water supplies, with many using hand or motorized water pumps and water turbines for irrigation. “Some people are even saying that as a result of the careful attention paid by these farmers to protect their crops from the weather, this year’s rice harvest is looking better than average,” he said.

But it isn’t economic reforms by the state that is causing the bumper harvest, the article says. It’s hardly a shocker that people don’t trust the North Korean government too much:

However, the number of people working hard to ensure the success of the rice harvests on collective farms is dropping. This is in large part due to the fact that despite reassurances from the state that farmers will receive sizable allocations of the harvest for their own use, for the past several years this has not been the case.

After “repeated failures by the authorities to fulfill stated promises,” he asserted, farmers have concluded that it makes no difference to them personally whether the collective farms do well or not.

Read the full article:
Despite Mother Nature, a bumper year for rice harvest
Lee Sang Yong


New report on North Korea’s Special Economic Zones

November 24th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Curtis Melvin and Andray Abrahamian have published a new report on the progress (and lack thereof) of North Korea’s Special Economic Zones. Overall, the message seems to be that things aren’t exactly proceeding smoothly. One of the main impediments is still that North Korea’s institutional environment isn’t showing signs of improving much. But not all hope is lost. Particularly on the local level, there seem to be a strong ambition to make the zones work:

Overall, although the Kim regime may be promoting special economic zones as a key piece of its economic development strategy, there is still a long way to go to make these zones successful. Certainly, the North’s strained political relations bring about serious financial and reputational challenges to attracting foreign investment; however, it is not the only impediment to success.

Inconsistent and unreliable communication about plans for the zones and a lack of strategic planning for attracting either domestic or international investment reflect limitations of the North’s domestic economic policymaking capacity. Despite these structural challenges, localized efforts are underway to try to make individual zones work. For instance, teams from Wonsan and Unjong have begun experimenting with outreach and marketing. They are also trying to create more comprehensive development plans and organizations. Around Sinuiju, there are at least two significant construction projects well underway, reflecting a desire for cross-border cooperation in that region.

The unfinished new Yalu Bridge, however, stands as a reminder that the success of most of these zones depends heavily on the DPRK’s relations with its neighbors. In particular, Wonsan and Rason eagerly await better days. Until they arrive, Rason will continue to putter along; domestic capital and visitors may have only a small impact on the Wonsan area; and smaller projects, like the newly announced Kyongwon Economic Zone, will likely remain largely undeveloped for the foreseeable future.

Read the full report here:
North Korea’s Special Economic Zones: Plans vs. Progress
Andray Abrahamian and Curtis Melvin


How a telecom investment in North Korea went horribly wrong

November 18th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In PC World, Martyn Williams of North Korea Tech has an interesting piece on the story of Orascom in North Korea:

An Egyptian company that launched North Korea’s first 3G cellular network and attracted as many as 3 million subscribers has revealed that it lost control of the operator despite owning a majority stake.

The plight of Orascom Telecom and Media Technology in North Korea takes place against a backdrop of rapid telecom modernization and a public eager to adopt a new technology. It’s ultimately a lesson in the perils of getting into bed with a government that’s not known for respecting international law.

When Orascom announced plans to launch the 3G service in 2008 it met with skepticism. The North Korean government severely limits its citizens’ ability to communicate and has jailed or killed anyone who speaks out against the regime. The regime has regularly threatened war against its foes and was under sanctions at the time for a 2006 nuclear test.

But Orascom Chairman Naguib Sawiris saw something else: a land that technology had forgotten. He’d successfully built cellular networks in other developing countries, and North Korea seemed a perfect candidate, especially with its low fixed-line penetration.

Read the full story:

How a telecom investment in North Korea went horribly wrong
PC World
Martyn Williams


Tumen Triangle tribulations: The unfulfilled promise of Chinese, Russian and North Korean cooperation

November 12th, 2015

Andray Abrahamian has published a report with the US-Korea Institute on developments in the Tumen Triangle.

Here is the report description:

The Tumen Triangle region-where North Korea, China and Russia meet-is, in many ways, the story of regional integration being held back by the political concerns of Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. There are long-term forces at work here, such as Moscow’s concerns over Chinese dominance in the sparsely populated Russian Far East. This legacy of mistrust frames cross-border interactions and despite recent warm relations, major cross-border cooperation remains limited.

In this USKI Special Report, Andray Abrahamian, Director of Research at Choson Exchange examines historical legacies, contemporary relations and shifting strategic priorities between the three countries. The report then focuses trade and investment in the Tumen Triangle region, particularly how the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Primorsky Krai interact with and affect Rason Special City, the center of the Rason Special Economic Zone.

You can download the report here (PDF).


Camp 16 imagery update

November 12th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-11-18): There was some follow-up media coverage of this work that claimed Camp 16 is about half the size of Pyongyang. This is not the case. Here are the actual statistics comparing the geographical sizes of Camp 16 and Pyongyang [Measures are approximate using Google Earth measuring tools]:

Pyongyang has 230 mile (371km ) perimeter and area of 679 sq miles (1758 sq km).
Camp 16 has 72 mile (115 km) perimeter and area of 212 sq miles (548 sq km).

So Camp 16 is approximately 31% the current size of Pyongyang. If we included Sungho, Sangwon, and Junghwa, which were moved into North Hwanghae Province, the percentage would drop even further.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-11-12): I previously wrote about Camp 16 in Myonggan here (2013-7-19). Now Google Earth has updated the imagery of Camp 15 with satellite pictures dated 2015-11-2 and 2015-10-15. I reported some of the changes in this RFA report this week, but here they are again…

1. New small hydro power plant. The North Koreans built a dam, drainage canal and small power station near one of the camp’s production facilities:

 Camp-power-station-16-2013-10-3 Camp-16-power-station-2015-10-15

Here is a close up of the plant and a nearby factory that appears to be operational:


2. New housing and possibly a sports field. A new apartment block was built in the camp. It appears to be nearly 160m in length and is composed of just a couple of stories. The building behind it that is probably for livestock. The picture also reveals what appears to be a sports field of some kind next to the housing. The image is not very clear, so this could be something else, but I am not sure what.

Camp-16-New-Housing-2013-10-3 Camp-16-New-Housing-2015-10-15

Here is a closeup of the “sports field”. If you have a better idea what this is, please let me know.


3. New fish farm. The fish farm is small, just over 1,100 sq meters surface area.

Camp-16-fish-farm-2013-10-3 camp-16-fish-farm-2015-10-15

4. Housing Razed. Just north of the fish farm some buildings, which could be small homes or workshops, appear to have been razed:

Camp-16-Housing-razed-2013-10-3 Camp-16-housing-razed-2015-10-15

5. Evidence of continued mining and logging. Below we can see evidence of mining activity since 2013.

Camp-16-mine-activity-2013-10-3 camp-16-mine-activity-2015-10-15

Here are piles of felled trees which indicate the mine also exports lumber:


If the minerals that are mined and the lumber that is harvested are exported for hard currency, the transaction would likely involve a trade company under the control of the Ministry of State Security (MSS,  SSD, NSA), however, I am not privy to the details of those transactions.


North Korea’s “Epic Economic Fail” in International Perspective

November 11th, 2015

A new report by Nicholas Eberstadt has been published by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. According to the summary:

This report brings to the table new research on the dimensions of economic failure in modern North Korea, offers a quantitative view of how nations develop in our modern world, and where North Korea’s awful slide downward fits within this global tableau; offers admittedly approximate long term estimates of overall net resource transfers to the DPRK, including estimates of net transfers from the major state benefactors; and some indications about the interplay between concessionary resource transfers from abroad and the DPRK’s domestic economic performance. It concludes with some observations about the implications of these findings

You can download a PDF of the report here.


South Korean intelligence says North Korea has 380 markets

November 11th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

According to Yonhap, South Korean intelligence counts the markets in North Korea to 380:

Growth in marketplaces in North Korea can serve as a catalyst for improving frayed inter-Korean ties as they will prod the North into carrying out reform and liberalization, analysts said Wednesday.

But they also said whether North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear weapons program will be a major point of consideration for South Korea in deciding ways to spur inter-Korean economic cooperation and ease Seoul’s economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

The North has operated the state-controlled rationing system for a long time. But marketplaces have gradually increased since the mid-1990s as North Koreans had to find sources of survival following a severe famine and economic hardship, widely known as the “Arduous March.”

In a recent annual audit session, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers that around 380 markets exist across the North that help instill market capitalism in ordinary North Koreans.

One has to wonder exactly what it means to “instill market capitalism” into people…

UPDATE: Curtis Melvin has counted 406 formal markets in North Korea (not counting street markets) using satellite imagery.

Full story here:
N.Korea’s burgeoning market economy to help warm inter-Korean ties
Yonhap News


North Korean food shortage news roundup: October and November (updated)

November 10th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This summer and fall has seen a somewhat contradictory stream of information about the North Korean food situation. First there were the drought warnings, which were closely followed by regime sources claiming that harvests were actually getting better thanks to agricultural reforms. During the fall, however, the picture painted by multilateral institutions like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) has been one of dire and continued problems.

In early October, the FAO said that North Korea’s staple food production could go down by 14 percent during the year compared to last year, as AFP reported:

North Korea’s staple food production could plummet by 14 percent this year because of bad weather, sparking fears of exacerbating chronic food shortages in the impoverished nation, according to the UN agricultural agency.

The gloomy forecast from the Food and Agriculture Organization comes as the reclusive communist country prepares for a lavish military parade Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.

The North is expected to produce 3.7 million tonnes of rice and corn this year, down from 4.3 million tonnes last year, according to a report from the FAO early warning system.

Pyongyang plans to import 500,000 tonnes of rice and corn from abroad, the FAO said, but it will not be enough to feed its 25 million people.

The country, plagued by regular droughts, will face a total shortfall of 1.2 million tonnes of its staples.

State media reported in early June the country’s main rice-growing areas had been badly hit by the “worst drought in 100 years”.

North Korea saw significant rainfall later, but analysts said the prospects for this year were still grim.

Full story here:
North Korea food production could drop 14%: FAO 
Yahoo News/AFP

Later last month, the FAO reiterated its concerns over North Korea in its yearly report on the state of agriculture in the world. Voice of America:

More than 26 percent of children in North Korea’s countryside are underweight, a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report says.

The agency, in its recently released “State of Food and Agriculture 2015” report, also estimated that there are twice as many undernourished children in the communist country’s rural areas as in its cities.

Andre Croppenstedt, an FAO researcher who wrote the report, told VOA that “it’s normal to have a much higher percentage of children underweight in rural areas as opposed to urban areas,” but that the gap “is perhaps a little larger than usual” in North Korea.

The North Korean ratio is the 24th highest among the 123 low-income developing countries. Among East Asian countries, North Korea’s ratio ranked fifth, after East Timor, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Laos.

Read the full story here:
FAO: 1 in 4 Rural North Korean Children Underweight
Kim Hyunjin
Voice of America

And last month, WFP announced it was extending its aid to North Korea over next year due to expected food shortages. Voice of America again:

The United Nations’ food agency plans to extend aid to North Korea amid reports that the communist country is facing food shortages next year.

Damian Kean, a regional spokesperson for the World Food Program (WFP), told VOA this week the agency plans to extend the current food aid program for another six months.

“This current program cycle is supposed to be finished this December. What we decided to do is to extend the program until the middle of next year,” said Kean.

He added that the agency needs an additional $23.3 million to fund the extension.

The WFP is conducting an assessment of the nutritional status of North Koreans to determine if further assistance is needed after June of next year, Kean said.

The agency launched a two-year food aid program in July 2013, and it had already extended the program through the end of this year.

According to Kean, the food shortages are affecting the most vulnerable groups, including young children and pregnant women.  More than 30 percent of North Korean children under five are experiencing stunted growth because of malnutrition, and more than a third of pregnant women and breastfeeding women are suffering from anemia.

Full story here:
UN to extend aid to North Korea
Kim Hyunjin
Voice of America

This all suggests, as one might have expected, that North Korean claims of successful agricultural reforms may not have been the whole truth. At the very minimum, had such reforms had a strong and positive impact, harvests shouldn’t be declining compared with last year. Or harvests could just be stronger than what they would have been after the drought absent economic reforms. In any case, North Korean claims of a growing harvest do not seem to have held out.

UPDATE 10-10-2015:

Marcus Noland at the Peterson Institute’s Witness to Transformation Blog offers an interesting theory on these numbers: they aren’t that bad when compared with output over the last decade.

Last week Yonhap ran a story titled “N.K. may suffer severe food shortage next year: S. Korean expert” in which Kwon Tae-jin, formerly of the Korea Rural Economics Institute and now at the GS&J Institute, argued that North Korea may be facing its greatest food shortage of the Kim Jong Un era. Numerous articles, citing reports from the UN system, have highlighted high rates of malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable groups such as children.

The problem is that while the situation appears to be deteriorating relative to last year, as shown in the chart above, the FAO forecast of actual food availability per capita for 2015-16 actually represents a slight improvement over conditions for most of this decade.

Detailed data from the FAO displayed in the table below confirm that while production is forecasted to decline for coarse grains, maize, and rice, only in the case of rice is output forecasted to be below the 2011-13 average, and in this case, increased imports are expected to offset most of the shortfall.

Full story here:
Is North Korean food insecurity being hyped? 
Marcus Noland
Witness to Transformation

What I wonder still is what this says about the progress of reforms, even if the figures aren’t particularly alarming. Also, the trend has been an increase in harvest figures over the past few years. So even if these figures aren’t particularly out of range, they still go against a trend of growth.


UPDATE (11-27-2015): Daily NK interviews one person in the country who says that this year saw a bumper harvest despite weather conditions, but not thanks to state reforms. The article says it’s not thanks to increases in collective farm harvests that things are going better, but because those tending individual plots have found better farming methods:

However, the number of people working hard to ensure the success of the rice harvests on collective farms is dropping. This is in large part due to the fact that despite reassurances from the state that farmers will receive sizable allocations of the harvest for their own use, for the past several years this has not been the case.

After “repeated failures by the authorities to fulfill stated promises,” he asserted, farmers have concluded that it makes no difference to them personally whether the collective farms do well or not.

Read the full article:
Despite Mother Nature, a bumper year for rice harvest
Lee Sang Yong


The (Market) Forces of History in North Korea

October 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market is a common topic for debate in history. How did it impact the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the US and the UK? What impact did economic conditions have in the French Revolution? These questions are, and should be, asked in the current debate about North Korea’s socioeconomic development as well.

But despite the hope of many, the market might not simply be a story of growing individualism and disconnect from the power of the state. While such a trend may well be at work, it could also be the other way around.

This was recently illuminated through an interesting story by Reuters. In a visit to Pyongyang, they took a look at how markets and everyday business transaction function in North Korea at the moment. As they note, it is telling that a reporter from an international news agency can make transactions in the open, with a government minder by his side, at the black market rate. Business that previously had to be done in the shadows now happens in the open:

Shoppers openly slapped down large stacks of U.S. dollars at the cashier’s counter. They received change in dollars, Chinese yuan or North Korean won – at the black market rate. The same was true elsewhere in the capital: taxi drivers offered change for fares at black market rates, as did other shops and street stalls that Reuters visited.

The most obvious conclusion is that the state is adapting itself to the bottom-up development of the market. Indeed, this is the way the story is often told. In this narrative, the government is only reacting to developments and has long lost the economic policy initiative.

But one could also see a government that is confident enough to relax the rules. It just isn’t a certain fact that the state and the market are two opposing entities.

First, connections to the state still seem to be good for those wanting to trade on the market. For example, according to the surveys conducted by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that laid the foundation for Witness to Transformation (2011)party membership is still considered one of the best ways to get ahead in North Korea (or at least it was at the time when the surveys were conducted). A somewhat similar trend can be discerned in survey results presented by Byung-Yeon Kim of Seoul National University at a conference at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late September this year. Kim’s results also indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between party membership and participation in both the formal and informal economy.

Second, the government is making money off of the market. DailyNK recently reported that the fees charged by state authorities for market stalls was raised. They also noted that regulations of the markets seemed to have gotten more detailed over the years. As noted in this report published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, the space that the government allocates to markets has consistently increased in the past few years. Not only have official markets grown, many of them have also been renovated and given better building structures.

All in all, this paints a picture of a government that controls markets while allowing them more space to function. It is not clear that formerly black market activity happening in the open means that the market is gaining ground at the expense of the state. They may well be moving together. That is good news for those hoping for stability, but bad news for those banking on a market-induced revolution. Despite the hope of many that the market will cause the demise of the regime, the role of the market force in North Korea’s history is far from clear.


NCNK on pending sanctions legislation

October 27th, 2015

The National Committee on North Korea (NCNA) has published a quick summary piece on sanctions legislation under deliberation in the US Congress. According to NCNK’s web page:

There are currently three related North Korea sanctions bills under consideration in Congress. H.R. 757, introduced to the House by Rep. Ed Royce in February 2015, is broadly similar to a bill that passed the House in the last session of Congress, but wasn’t acted upon by the Senate. In the Senate, S. 1747 was introduced by Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsay Graham in July of this year. Additionally, Senators Cory Gardner, Marco Rubio, and James Risch are co-sponsors of the recently-introduced bill S. 2144.

Although the three sanctions bills are generally similar in scope, there are several key differences among them, including their potential impact on humanitarian operations; the level of discretion the Executive Branch would have in applying sanctions; and language on sanctions targeting North Korea’s mineral industry.

NCNK’s new Issue Brief gives a detailed side-by-side summary of these three bills, noting key provisions and differences between the three.

You can download the Issue Brief here (PDF).