North Korea and the coronavirus: why internal controls may be working

February 25th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At this point, it seems unlikely that not a single case of the coronavirus would have reached North Korea, despite government media claims. The border to China is quite porous even when controls are tight, and the provinces bordering North Korea had seen, as of last week, some 200 cases. The government has ordered schools shut for one month starting five days ago, on February 20th. Unsurprisingly, it has taken special care to protect Pyongyang from the virus, and face mask distribution goes first to the one percent.

The economic effects of all this are very troubling. As this blog has previously noted, markets and society overall seem to be taking the border closure much more seriously than sanctions, and have reacted with much more anxiety than when new rounds of sanctions measures have been levied by the international community in the past. Prices have climbed quite drastically, as we shall look at in some detail in this post. They have risen by much more in Hyesan than in the rest of the country, which tells us something interesting about the government’s internal controls. That differences in market prices are increasing could be a sign that internal controls on travel across provincial boundaries are being enforced quite effectively. When traders cannot as effectively move their goods to where demand is the highest, prices will increase. One also has to bear in mind that Hyesan is very dependent on trade with China to begin with, and we should therefore expect prices there to increase disproportionately.

(My apologies for the awkward look of the graphs — please click for full size!)

In normal times too, prices tend to be higher in Hyesan than in other cities. But usually not by that much. Notice what happens around  January, though: prices skyrocket all over the country but they do so by much more in Hyesan.

This is particularly evident when we look at price differences. Normally, prices are between 5–10 percent higher in Hyesan than in both Pyongyang and Sinuiju. Since the border closure, however, they have gone beyond 20 percent over both cities, according to price observations from the past few weeks. 
Again, the border closure to China may be a central part of the explanation. But rice itself isn’t typically a good that North Korea relies so much on Chinese imports for. We don’t know the precise proportions, but likely, most rice consumed in North Korea in an ordinary year is grown within the country. A likely conclusion is, therefore, that the closure of provincial borders within North Korea is being enforced with some efficiency, making it much more difficult for market traders to transport goods such as rice between different markets in the country. This adds to the already stark economic difficulties from the closure of the border to China. Many other prices have risen drastically as well: gas prices in Hyesan are now 46 percent higher than in late December of last year, and 38 percent higher in the country as a whole. The government has attempted, reportedly with some success, to institute price controls on the markets, but as the story goes with such state attempts in general, they are unlikely to last as black markets arise to respond to shortages.

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Almost a year after the alarm bells: following up North Korea’s food crisis (and an aid success story?)

February 20th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

There exists two very radically different narratives on North Korea’s food situation and harvest of last year. The strangest pat of the story is that the state, likely through its different arms, are able to hold both stories at once. The first was the one trumpeted out by the North Korean government and international aid agencies last year (as well as some scholars), that North Korea was facing a famine. The second one is from Kim Jong-un’s plenum speech in late December, where he claimed that North Korea’s harvest was the largest one “on record“.

The Red Cross (IFRC) released an assessment report last month, and though it leaves many questions unanswered, it’s a fascinating and much more detailed read than most assessments of North Korea’s food situation over the past two years. I list some of the highlights below.

First, the most remarkable finding of the report is perhaps how big of a difference aid and support to irrigation can make. I have previously written that the most likely reason the food situation turned out better than expected is that China stepped in with aid. This still seems to be the most plausible scenario, but it is also possible that aid came not in the form of food deliveries, but in equipment and fuel for irrigation, most likely it was a mix of both. If the report is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt its veracity and methodological grounding, we can extrapolate that improving irrigation can more than double harvests in certain environments. The table below comes from page 5 of IFRC, “DPR Korea: Drought and Food Insecurity Final Report DREF Operation n° MDRKP013,” 17 January, 2020, http://adore.ifrc.org/Download.aspx?FileId=286144, accessed February 20, 2020:

(Note: mt/ha = metric ton/hectare. Click to enlarge.) 

As the table shows, expected versus actual harvests of early crops more than doubled in three of the communities surveyed. One farmer interviewed in the report says that thanks to the IFRC water pumps, their harvest was the best in a decade in the end, and not the worst, as the international community first projected. The total cost of the operation was the equivalent of less than $250,000 for a strong impact on communities holding 34,414 people. Scale that up by 100 and we have $25 million for measures that could drastically help around 3.5 million people. And so on and so forth. Of course, this isn’t a precise or grounded calculation by any means, but it does give a sense of the proportions at hand. $25 million is a third of what North Korea spent on tobacco imports from China last year. Remedying difficult farming conditions isn’t necessarily all that expensive, but can be very, very effective. (Before drawing any certain conclusions from this, do be sure to read the report. It highlights the specific conditions of the localities in question.) It is often said that North Korea’s geographical features make it naturally inhospitable to agriculture and food production, but efficiency and capacity could be vastly improved through investments in agricultural infrastructure.

Second, even with the improvements that came after the initial food crisis alarm bells, none of them make it even remotely likely that Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “best harvest on record” was true. The report highlights some of the difficult weather conditions the country faced in 2018 and 2019. For example:

The agricultural production this yea r(2019) in DPRK was seriously impacted by the after-effects of the droughts that have occurred consecutively over the past 5 years.The situation was worsened by th elittle snowfall last winter and almost no rainfall in the 1st quarter of this year. The unusually low levels of precipitation continued in April and May,combined with higher than usual temperatures. As a result, the water levels in the reservoirs are much lower than normal. These conditions have remained the same during the summer months.

(Source: p. 3 of the report.)

Third, the report raises several intriguing questions about the IFRC in North Korea. To the best of my understanding, the IFRC has a chapter in North Korea but like all organizations in the country, it is for all intents and purposes a government entity. The report references its personnel several times — ” DPRK RCS has a good volunteer network established in these areas” (p. 2), “the team also coordinated with and consulted the Red Cross branches, local authorities, and the State Hydro-Meteorological Agency” (p. 2), “workshop…with community people” (p. 8), et cetera — and it would be very interesting to learn more about how the organization functions on the ground, how its staff are recruited, what “volunteer” actually means, et cetera.

Notwithstanding the questions that reports such as this one give rise to, they are crucial resources for knowledge on North Korean agriculture and food production.

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How the coronavirus may impact the North Korean economy (Updated 18/2/2020)

February 13th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yesterday (February 12th), North Korea announced it is prolonging its self-imposed isolation to protect the country from the coronavirus. KCNA:

The spread of the epidemic comes to be a serious problem with the possibility of international disaster.

In this regard, the Non-Permanent Central Public Health Guidance Committee of the DPRK discussed the issue of prolonging the isolation period and strictly enforcing it in order to completely cut off the inroads of Covid-2019 and ensure the life of the people and safety of the state, and submitted it to the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly

The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK examined, approved and decided the proposal of the Non-Permanent Central Public Health Guidance Committee according to the law on prevention of epidemics.

According to the decision urgently adopted at the SPA Presidium, the isolation period in the territory of the DPRK shall be prolonged to 30 days for the time being.

All the institutions and fields of the state and foreigners staying in the DPRK should obey it unconditionally.

The KCNA website doesn’t allow for direct links, but the above was published on February 12th at their website. The country’s quarantine seems to amount to a near-total shutdown of cross-border traffic. So far, North Korea has not confirmed any deaths from the virus, but sources from inside the country have claimed that at least a handful of people have died from the virus. It seems highly doubtful that these sources could know for sure that the coronavirus, and not regular pneumonia, was the cause.

The government’s measures are rather stern, but a border shutdown is perhaps the most reasonable measure the government can take since it doesn’t have the resources to properly monitor the situation inside the country. KCNA also reported on February 12th that the local Red Cross “organized training courses for Red Cross volunteers and sent them to relevant areas.” A press statement (not on their website) from the Red Cross confirms this and says that the “Red Cross has also sent volunteers on bikes to these remote areas to share coronavirus awareness messages.” (Updated Feb 15 2020 with link to the press statement.)

How is all this impacting the North Korean economy? We don’t know for sure, but here are some possibilities:

The markets appear to be under a great deal of pressure. The border trade shutdown isn’t exactly total, as items such as fuel is likely still coming through pipelines. Certainly, some other goods are getting through as well, we just don’t know how much. But most consumer goods are kept out, and the authorities are even cracking down heavily on smuggling that it usually turns a blind eye to, resulting in drastic price rises over the past few weeks. According to some reports, perhaps exaggerated, economic activity is at a virtual standstill along the border. Prices have not reacted this strongly to any sanctions-related measures throughout “maximum pressure”, or really any international event that I can recall. All this points to the border closure measures being seriously and strictly enforced. The ban on tourism is also a significant blow to the economy. Tourism from China has been growing steadily as a source of income for the past few years and it’s a particularly crucial revenue stream of foreign currency at a time when many others have dried up in the wake of sanctions.

In addition to the international border crossing, the government has also banned travel between regions inside North Korea, to prevent the virus from potentially spreading through the country. One has to assume that this ban is at least as strictly enforced as the one on the Chinese border. If so, internal market trade may well be  severely hampered, as traders can no longer easily move goods between regions. This would obviously be a big problem, particularly for agricultural goods but also for the manufacturing sector. The North Korean market economy, which a majority of North Koreans are in some way dependent upon for their consumption, needs a well-functioning transportation network to operate with even a minimum level of efficiency. It is no coincidence that transportation as a sector has gone ahead of many others in North Korea’s marketization process. The government has now reportedly instituted price controls. These are unlikely to be respected perhaps even in the short run, and certainly will not be in the longer run. More traders will sell on the black markets, which will grow perhaps beyond any scope they’ve been since the early 2000s when the state began incorporating the markets into the official system.

One North Korean source quoted by Radio Free Asia puts the government’s dilemma regarding the virus and the economy brutally but clearly:

According to the third source, the poor are angry that the rich care about their health, but don’t seem to care if they have eaten.

“They say they might die from a disease, but they could also die from starvation because they are unable to make enough money to support themselves for a day,” said the third source, adding that the working class say there is no difference between the two because they are dead either way.

At the end of the day, there will come a time when keeping the border shut and domestic travel and transportation paralyzed just won’t be worth it or even possible, at least without massive humanitarian aid coming in to compensate. Something will have to give eventually, and when it does, the real challenge of virus containment may truly begin.

Update 18/2/2020:

Reuters reports that North Korea seems to be planning to hold the Arirang mass games by August, counting on the virus crisis to have eased by the summer:

The Mass Games are due to return on August 15, which is celebrated as Liberation Day on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat at the end of World War Two, Young Pioneer Tours, which runs tours to the North, said in a statement.

Despite the name, the Mass Games are large performances involving tens of thousands of dancers, gymnasts, martial artists and singers acting out familiar propaganda themes.

Another firm, Koryo Tours, quoted sources in North Korea as saying the games were expected to be held over major holidays, perhaps starting on August 15 and including October 10, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea.

No further details were known, and tickets are always sold on site rather than in advance, said Koryo Tours general manager Simon Cockerell.

“Tourists still can’t enter North Korea but when the virus issue dies down the border will open again,” Cockerell told Reuters. “It’s a reactive policy, so it will depend on what happens in China, basically.”

North Korea revived the Mass Games in 2018 to sell an image of international engagement and peace while raising much-needed foreign currency.

Source: Josh Smith, “North Korea looks to hold ‘Mass Games’ this year despite coronavirus fears: tour companies,” Reuters, 18/2/2020.

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North Korea’s coronavirus border shutdown: “Nobody is to come into contact with Chinese people”

February 5th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korean authorities seem to have basically ordered the country’s border to China shut entirely in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though it’s still unclear to what extent these orders are being implemented. Reuters:

“They’re keeping the cargo out and they’re keeping the Chinese out; nobody can go in or out,” said one source with firsthand knowledge of the situation at the China-North Korea border.

Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector in Seoul who reports for the Daily NK website, also confirmed that the border appears to have been almost entirely shut down since at least Jan. 30.

“The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces ordered all guard posts to bar smuggling as well,” she said. “People, freight, nothing can come in or go out.”

Pyongyang has reportedly asked Beijing not to repatriate North Korean defectors detained in China, according to one South Korean pastor who works with refugees.

According to the source with knowledge of the situation at the border, North Koreans who work in restaurants and elsewhere in China, violating United Nations sanctions, are in “virtual captivity” in their homes under instructions from authorities back in North Korea.

North Korea is typically adept at implementing public health interventions and acted “swiftly and decisively” to try to stop the disease from entering the country, but sanctions restrictions could make it difficult for them to get medical supplies, said Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on health care projects in North Korea.

“Their actions, very costly in terms of revenue from tourists and trade as well as administratively for quarantining people, reflect their concerns regarding their health system’s capacity to handle an outbreak,” Park said.

The efforts – which appear to have been successful in preventing any cases in North Korea so far – mean North Korea has severed or drastically restricted the economic ties it relies on.

“There could be a huge impact not just on the North’s market economy, but also on the entire economy of the country,” Kang said. “North Korea promotes localization, but even for products – candies, crackers, or clothing – manufactured in the country, the raw materials come from China.”

Upcoming North Korean political holidays, which usually include gifts of sweets and crackers for children, may be more less festive than usual if the country’s supplies of sugar, flour, and other ingredients are scarce, she said.

Source and full article: “Burdened by sanctions, North Korea sees coronavirus threaten economic lifelines,” Josh Smith, Reuters, 4/2/2020.

Daily NK reports similar that the government has, quite incredibly, shut the crucial Sinuiju port for shipments to and from China:

Daily NK sources reported that with the port’s shutdown, maritime transportation of goods near the Sino-North Korean border have completely come to a halt.

“All the harbors at Sinuiju Port, which were open until at least Jan. 24, have been completely shut down as of Jan. 25,” a North Pyongan Province source told Daily NK on Friday.

“Authorities are prohibiting the movement of both personnel and goods to stop the coronavirus from entering the country,” he added.

Daily NK sources explained that ships leaving for sea must normally receive a confirmation document and undergo a series of inspections at port customs, but all the customs offices are currently closed and all the boats are docked.

Sinuiju Port, which sits opposite the Chinese city of Dandong in Liaoning Province, is a hub for smuggling as well as official trade with China.

Government ships charged with clamping down on smuggling on the Yalu River have also halted operations, Daily NK sources reported.

“Since all the boats are docked, all the anti-smuggling boats working along the Yalu River have anchored as well,” one source said. “The military unit overseeing the boats have given orders that ‘nobody is to come into contact with Chinese people.’”

Smuggling along the Yalu River also appears to have largely stopped, according to Daily NK sources.

”The current atmosphere is such that if anyone were to say they were going out to smuggle, they would be branded a traitor,” one source said.

With North Korea constantly emphasizing the danger posed by the Wuhan coronavirus through state media along with intensifying its border security, smugglers are on their toes, Daily NK sources said.

Not only is there a fear of infection, but smugglers are also worried that being caught smuggling while the government is so intensely guarding the border might lead to much harsher punishment than usual.

Article source: “N. Korea shuts down Sinuiju Port amid coronavirus fears,” Mun Dong Hui, Daily NK, 4/2/2020.

The state is taking very serious measures. According to another Daily NK report (in Korean), medical staff has been dispatched to all customs houses along the Chinese border, and are checking the vitals of everyone who enters from China. In the Nampo port, North Korea’s commercially most important one, foreign passengers are forbidden from leaving their ships and entering the country.

As NK Pro reports, tourism is essentially completely banned, and border crossings with China and Russia completely shut aside from outbound movements of people (with some exceptions, as reported here by Daily NK). Goods may still cross by land between the countries. People who have been to China are quarantined for one month.

Predictably, goods prices have soared as a result of the border closings, particularly on manufactured and imported goods from China. Prices for goods like flour have gone up by 47 percent since January. This is itself very interesting, since we’ve seen such small or non-existent market price changes following sanctions thus far. The most likely reason is that sanctions actually do not greatly impact most goods that matter to people’s everyday lives, and the North Korean government won’t exactly stop goods from crossing the border. Here, however, the government itself is enforcing a blanket ban on crossings. It’s serious, and reportedly even for smugglers.

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The UNCTAD claim on North Korea’s GDP-growth in 2019

January 18th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that North Korea saw a real-GDP growth of 1.8 percent in 2019. Marcus Noland once wrote that one should not “[…] trust any datum on North Korea that comes with a decimal point attached.” This is perhaps even more true of large-scale, macro figures such as this. For one, you need an estimated inflation rate to calculate real GDP, and I have no idea which number UNCTAD may be using. You can find the figure on p. 178 here, together with a quite optimistic prognosis for 2020 and 2021. Even with that growth, North Korea barely recaps the negative growth of 2018. Let me say again that all of these numbers build on little but more or less qualified guesswork. That’s important to keep in mind since this one line in a UN report graph has made quite a few international headlines already.

Most likely, UNCTAD builds their projections upon the somewhat lower decline in exports in 2019 compared with 2018. It’d be interesting to know if they also take into account the seemingly decreased vigilance in sanctions enforcement by China, and how one could possibly quantify this. More on the possible variables here.

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Did North Korea really see its best harvest “on record last year?

January 17th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As I and Peter Ward discovered some weeks ago, the claim by Kim Jong-un that North Korea had its “best harvest on record” did not make it into the English-language summary of Kim’s plenum speech put out by KCNA. Several media outlets have picked up on this claim, and that is not surprising. Not even a year ago, last spring and summer, both the North Korean government and UN organs sounded the alarm bells that North Korea’s harvest was so disastrous as to suggest a famine might be looming.

So what happened?

First of all, it should be noted, as always, that one must be extremely cautious in studying data on anything related to the North Korean economy. Most people who follow North Korea are well aware of this but especially when it comes to an issue like this, one cannot be cautious enough.

I focus here on the claim by Kim that the harvest was the best “on record”. It may well have been a good harvest, or at least a much better one than anticipated. This seems to be the case. The only attempt I’ve seen at a numerical estimate comes from South Korea’s Rural Development Administration. They estimate that North Korea’s harvest grew by around two percent in 2019 over 2018. This sounds fairly plausible and could perhaps be explained by weather conditions unexpectedly improving, or fertilizer donations from China, and the like. Or the government and FAO’s projections were simply wrong from the beginning.

To understand why it is so unlikely that this year’s harvest would be the best on record, we have to look at what ‘the record” really says. The following graph shows North Korean harvest figures between 1990 and 2017, as recorded by the FAO. These figures are not independently recorded or verified but, to the best of my knowledge, generated by FAO in cooperation with the North Korean government, or provided directly by the government. Usually, that would be a problem, but here, it’s actually quite helpful since it helps us analyze the claim about the “record”.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: FAOSTAT.

I downloaded these numbers from the FAO database some months ago. For whatever reason, I’m unable to access the data at their website at this time of writing, and therefore, can’t fill in the data further back. This data also differs somewhat from other data on North Korean harvests from the World Food Program and FAO. Still, they match quite closely with other data the two organizations have published in recent years about North Korean food production. Again, keep in mind that this data is produced and published in concert with the North Korean government. In that sense, these numbers are the “record”.

Over the past few years, estimated harvests have gravitated between four and five million tons in milled rice equivalent.  (You can read more here about what that actually means.) In 1993, North Korea’s record of harvests notes 7.5 million tons. Harvests hovered around 8 million tons in the 1980s – again, to the best of my recollection, as I can’t access the FAO statistics database numbers of North Korea at this time of writing.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: WFP/FAO. 2019 is a projected figure.

For Kim’s claim to be true, therefore, this past year’s harvest would have had to go from around five million tons in 2018, to surpassing eight million tons in 2019. I am no agricultural economist, but Kim would likely need something like a miracle of nature for this to happen. I am not aware of North Korea’s landmass suddenly doubling, for example, or the amount of arable land increasing by one third overnight. Therefore, Kim’s claim is most likely, beyond reasonable doubt, simply not true. Note also that outlets such as Daily NK have reported that the government has taken predatory measures against grain trade as a result of what the outlet describes as “poor agricultural yields”.

In other words, there is very little to back up the claim made by Kim (and subsequently by North Korea-affiliated Choson Sinbo). This claim is a break with a pattern over the past few years, where North Korean media has been very frank – often, probably exaggerating – in describing difficulties and damage caused by flooding and inclement weather. There are several reasons why this may have changed with regards to the harvest. For one, food security a very basic need for any country. With bad food security, North Korea appears weak in the face of sanctions. It would hardly be the first time the North Korean government lied for strategic, propaganda purposes. It is also possible that harvests were much better than anticipated, and that Kim’s claim is merely a strong exaggeration. Perhaps “best on record” should be read as a superlative, rhetorical claim rather than a literal one. At the end of the day, we simply don’t know, and the ways of the inefficient North Korean bureaucracy are mysterious.

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North Korea’s largest fertilizer plant reportedly shut down

November 6th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Fertilizer production is one area where UN sanctions appear to have rather dire unintended consequences. Daily NK reports:

Daily NK reported in February of this year that production at the complex was gradually falling.

UN sanctions and the ensuing ban on the import of oil, a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers, may have also been a factor in the factory’s closure, the source added.

FAILING TO MEET DEMAND

North Korea’s fertilizer production is currently meeting only one third of the country’s total demand. North Korea uses a total of 1.55 million tons of chemical fertilizer per year but only produces about 500,000 tons, Daily NK sources said.

North Korea relies predominantly on imported fertilizer. Farm workers reportedly prefer the fertilizer from the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex because it is superior in quality than fertilizer imported from China. The military was given priority for fertilizer produced at the complex.

The shortage of fertilizer is adversely affecting agricultural production, particularly given that this year’s production of fertilizer has fallen far short of demand, Daily NK sources said.

“Collective farms have had an overall poorer harvest this year compared to the last,” said one of the sources. “Farmers are blaming the lack of fertilizer for the poor harvest.”

UN SANCTIONS HAMPER PRODUCTION

North Korean authorities have made various attempts to normalize fertilizer production. For example, the authorities have installed large ammonia synthesis facilities and introduced 4,000 horsepower compression engines to help increase fertilizer production, Daily NK sources confirmed.

The import of a wide range of machinery and raw materials is banned under UN sanctions, however. Some North Korea observers argue that the ban on these imports only make it harder for North Korea to improve its agricultural production by itself.

“North Korea needs a dependable supply of coal, oil and electricity, and a total revamp of its fertilizer manufacturing facilities to normalize fertilizer production. None of this is possible due to UN sanctions,” a former North Korean agricultural official familiar with fertilizer production in the country told Daily NK. “If the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex remains nonoperational, it is highly likely next year’s agricultural production will be adversely affected.”

WORKERS REASSIGNED TO OTHER PROJECTS

Daily NK sources also reported that some 70% of the workers at the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex were sent to construction sites throughout the country after the complex shutdown. These construction sites included the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone, the Hamhung-Wonsan highway, and the Tanchon Power Plant. Some workers were even sent to the fields to farm.

“The Hungnam Fertilizer Complex employed more than 10,000 workers. Lots of workers complained after they were sent to do other work following the shutdown,” one of the sources told Daily NK. “Many people wanted to work at the complex because it gave employees a stable supply of rations. That’s all in the past now.”

Article source:
N. Korea’s largest fertilizer complex no longer operational 
Jang Seul Gi
Daily NK
2019-11-06

Note that the article confirms that rations are (at least in this case and most likely usually, if at all) distributed by enterprises as remuneration rather than through PDS centers.

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What explains North Korea’s exchange rate drop? How significant was it?

August 25th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few weeks, both Asia Press and Daily NK have reported the North Korean won depreciating against the dollar on the markets.

According to the figures from Asia Press, it seems the won first fell drastically, but that the initial FX-rise was a so-called “overshoot”, a disproportionately high rise of the exchange rate, but later corrected itself to levels more reflective of actual availability of dollars. The Asia Press index rose from 8,593 won/1$ on July 19th, to 9,463 won/$1 on August 6th, to 8,625 won/$1 on August 21st. Asia Press notes that the reason for the dollar appreciation is unclear, and speculates that it may be related to sanctions. That’s true, but it’s unclear what would have changed so suddenly and drastically in sanctions implementation as to cause a sudden rise of around ten percent. All in all, discounting the sudden and very temporary rise,  the exchange rate rose by not even one percent.

Reporting by Daily NK confirms the exchange rate spike reported earlier by Asia Press:

Daily NK conducted a market survey on August 6 that found the price of US dollars in North Korea was 7,850 KPW in Pyongyang, 7,880 KPW in Sinuiju and 7,900 KPW in Hyesan. The price ballooned some 800 to 900 KPW in just two weeks.

North Korea’s currency rate regularly sees significant volatility, but the last time the rate increased by 900 KPW in just two weeks was in 2015. During the second half of 2015, the North Korean authorities conducted harsh crackdowns on Chinese-made products and heightened international sanctions came into effect. The combination of these two factors caused the exchange rate to skyrocket more than 700 KPW.

There were even areas of the country that temporarily saw a spike to more than 9,000 KPW. In Rason, North Hamgyong Province, the exchange rate rose to 9,740 KPW on August 14 but has since retreated to between 8,500 and 8,700 KPW.

A Daily NK source in North Hamgyong Province said that the rising exchange rate may be related to stagnation in North Korea’s domestic markets. “The currency rate changes every day and it rose in August again,” he said. “The spike in the currency rate this year suggests that businesses aren’t doing so well and it may also be due to external factors.”

The source suggested that the external factors include the US-China trade war and China’s recent intentional devaluation of the yuan. For the first time in 11 years, the Chinese yuan broke past seven renminbi to the dollar on August 5.

Source:
USD – North Korean Won exchange rate spikes in North Korea
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-08-22

The FX-rate spikes aren’t reported in the Daily NK price index, so it doesn’t even appear in the broader exchange rate graph. The following graph shows the exchange rate from 2015 until Daily NK’s latest report, only a few days ago:

Graph 1. North Korean won/$1, 2015–August 2019. Graph by NK Econ Watch, data from Daily NK price index.

The won has depreciated against the dollar, for sure. Particularly in the short run. The past few weeks have seen slightly more volatility than usual. But still, in the big-picture context, things look fairly stabile.

Graph 2. North Korean won/$1, September 2018–late August 2019. Graph by North Korean Economy Watch. Data source: Daily NK.

A spike such as the one reported earlier in August can happen for many reasons. There is likely so little of US-dollars in circulation in North Korea that fairly minor changes can make a big dent in the market exchange rate. Communications function so poorly in North Korea that rumors spread easily with little possibility for quick confirmations or denials.

I and Peter Ward have previously argued, among other things, that the dollar isn’t a currency of general use in North Korea. The main holders of dollars are, most likely, state-owned corporations and other non-human entities. One move by a major holder could therefore have a significant impact on the market as a whole. The RMB has held completely stabile, so it’s very likely not a matter of any general stress on the markets. Had the source been something related to sanctions implementation, upped pressure, significantly changed expectations, or the like, we should have seen changes in the won-to-RMB-rate as well. As things stand right now, the market exchange rate does not look to be out of its normal range.

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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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