(UPDATED)Financial crisis hits DPRK

Although many would assume that North Korea’s economic isolation would insulate it from recent global financial instability, this does not appear to be the case.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

North Korea does little trade with the rest of the world — about $2 billion annually — and now it’s being hurt by lower prices paid by its biggest trading partner, China, according to report from a South Korean institute that specializes in North Korea research.

In recent weeks, the Chinese companies that buy North Korean ores and minerals like zinc, which are some of its biggest exports, have slashed the prices they’re willing to pay. That’s forced some North Korean mining firms to halt production and even produced a drop in the smuggling of ore and scrap, trade that’s illegal in the North but is believed to play an important role in supporting the impoverished country.

Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Seoul-based Institute for Far Eastern Studies who wrote the report issued Thursday, said he learned about the commodity-trade problems from North Koreans doing business in China

“Chinese companies that are affected by global trends don’t want to pay as much as they used to for North Korean raw materials or resources,” Mr. Lim said. “Thus, North Korean merchants can’t make profits from trade.”

The price pressure exerted by Chinese traders on North Korean companies is in line with the broader drop in commodity prices in recent months. But it has imposed new burdens on North Korea in what is shaping up to be a terrible year there.

Official North Korean media have published reports saying the global financial crisis will ruin the U.S. and other industrial powers. But in the report, the Institute for Far Eastern Studies said “North Korean people are becoming very anxious over the possibility of the international economic crisis having a long-term impact.”

Below is the IFES report mentioned in the Wall Street Journal:

Global Financial Crisis hits DPRK economy by way of China 
NK Brief No. 08-10-29-1
10/29/2008

Contacts within North Korea are reporting that the North Korean people are becoming very anxious over the possibility of the international economic crisis having a long term impact as not only exports have dropped, but even cross-border smuggling is taking a hit.

Recently, as Chinese traders have more than halved the price of North Korea’s main export goods such as minerals and scrap iron, North Korea’s markets and even construction industry have felt the blow.

As North Korean state-run media outlets report the current financial crisis as the ruin of the United States and other capitalist world powers, they report as if North Korea were completed unaffected by it. On the 20th, the Rodong Sinmun emphasized that the the U.S.’ financial management system was ‘like a candle in the wind.’

However, it has been leaked that since last week, businesses in North Korea have been shutting their doors as a result of the financial crisis. In particular, the value of the North Korean Won has dropped sharply against the Chinese Yuan, and combined with Chinese traders’ reluctance to purchase North Korean goods and calls to lower prices, very little business is being conducted. This has led mines in Hyesan to halt exports of lead and zinc, and with the drop in legitimate exports, of course smuggling has dropped of, as well.

Furthermore, as raw materials from China are not being supplied, construction projects in the North are also grinding to a halt. 

(UPDATE) Barbara Demick reports in the Los Angeles Times:

Despite efforts to keep North Korea’s extreme poverty out of view, a glance around the countryside shows a population in distress. At the root of the problem is a chronic food shortage, the result of inflation, strained relations with neighboring countries and flooding in previous years.

Aid agencies say the level of hunger is not at the point it was in the 1990s, when it was defined as a famine, although they have found a few cases of children suffering from kwashiorkor, the swollen belly syndrome associated with malnutrition. Mostly what they are seeing is a kind of collective listlessness — the kind shown by the people on the streets of Nampo.

“Teachers report that children lack energy and are lagging in social and cognitive development,” reported a group of five U.S. humanitarian agencies in a summer assessment of the food situation. “Workers are unable to put in full days and take longer to complete tasks — which has implications for the success of the early and main harvests.”

Hospitals complained to aid workers of rising infant mortality and declining birth weights. They also said they were seeing 20% to 40% more patients with digestive disorders caused largely by poor nutrition.

The U.N. World Food Program reached similar conclusions. In a recent survey of 375 households, more than 70% were found to be supplementing their diet with weeds and grasses foraged from the countryside. Such wild foods are difficult to digest, especially for children and the elderly. The survey also determined that most adults had started skipping lunch, reducing their diet to two meals a day.

These are some of the same signs that augured the mid-1990s famine, which killed as many as 2 million people, 10% of the population.

“The current situation hasn’t reached the famine proportions that it did during the 1990s. Our hope and goal is to keep it from going over the precipice,” said Nancy Lindborg, president of Mercy Corps, one of the U.S. aid organizations working in North Korea. “You have a number of factors that have conspired to create a really tough food situation.”

In Pyongyang, the capital, residence in which is reserved for the most politically loyal North Koreans, plenty of food is available on sale. A grocery inside the Rakwon Department Store carries Froot Loops and frozen beef. At open-air markets, you can find mangoes, kiwis and pineapples

But the products are far too expensive for most North Koreans, whose official salaries are less than $1 a month — 60 to 75 cents monthly for the workers surveyed by the World Food Program. And the farther you get from Pyongyang, the poorer are the people.

Nampo is 25 miles southwest of the capital, on the Yellow Sea. It used to be a thriving port city, but nowadays its harbor is used mostly for shipments of humanitarian aid. On a weekday morning, many people sit along the sidewalk watching the few cars pass by. They appear to be unemployed or homeless.

North Koreans say that the food situation is improving and that a good harvest is expected this autumn, as a result of improved weather conditions. The last two years were disastrous because of heavy flooding.

“There was a problem before, but it is getting better. We expect a bumper harvest,” said Choe Jong Hun, an official of the Committee for Cultural Relations With Foreign Countries.

North Korea experts, however, are skeptical. “One good harvest is not really going to alter the picture,” said Stephan Haggard, a UC San Diego professor who has written widely on the North Korean famine.

The World Food Program and the U.S. aid organizations are providing food for the most vulnerable, including children and pregnant women. A U.S. ship carrying more than 27,000 tons of bulk corn and soy is slated to arrive in Nampo within days.

International agencies have been trying to raise money to expand their food aid to the general population. Many urban North Koreans are dependent on food rations, which have dwindled to 150 grams a day, or a little more than 5 ounces.

Even in Pyongyang, one can see signs of scarcity behind the facade of what is supposed to be a showcase capital. Foreign residents say they have seen homeless children in the last few months — a notable sight in a totalitarian country where nobody is supposed to wander away from their legal residence. (Los Angeles Times)

Read the full Wall Street Journal articles below:
North Korea Feels Effects of the Crisis
Wall Street Journal
Evan Ramstad and Sungha Park
10/31/2008

North Korean facade of self-sufficiency can’t hide signs of hunger
Los Angeles Times
Barbara Demick
11/2/2008

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