Archive for April, 2010

DPRK currency reform hit markets hard

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Great reporting by the Choson Ilbo–which provides video footage (before and after) of the DPRK’s currency reform on the market  in northern Onsong.


(October 2009)


(March 2010)

Video of the market is available from the the Choson Ilbo and ABC web pages.

According to the Choson Ilbo:

Footage taken in October shows a bustling market, but the same place in March is almost deserted, with only a few traders selling goods. In October, the market was overflowing with food, clothes, shoes, cooking oils, squid and other goods. But three months after the currency debacle, only a few bags of corn are visible in the stalls. Products that were part of South Korean aid shipments to North Korea can also be spotted.

“Judging by the fact that the market was still deserted even in late March, it appears that retailers are waiting until prices go up even more,” said an official at the Unification Ministry. “The sale of goods picked up somewhat after North Korean authorities increased supply by importing products from China and other countries ahead of Kim Il-sung’s birthday” on April 15, a North Korean source said.

Onsong market before the currency revaluation used to include both roofed and open-air stalls where unauthorized merchants sold goods on mats placed on the ground. The square in front of the train station was also a bustling market where traders sold products away from the watchful eye of the authorities. But in early March 90 percent of the stalls were empty.

Pastor Kim Sung-eun of the Caleb Mission said, “If the owners of roofed stalls, who paid a fee for official approval to sell goods, disappeared, it suggests that North Korea’s middle class has collapsed.”

There was also evidence of South Korean aid products being sold in the markets. Bags of grain bearing the South Korean Red Cross symbol could be seen in various parts of the market. Some North Koreans used them as shopping bags. Goods sent as part of aid shipments by South Korea including grain bags are said to be very popular in the North. “There are rumors that high-ranking North Korean officials sold South Korean aid products in the markets, but none of them have been confirmed,” a Unification ministry official said.

“The market opens around 8:30 a.m. and closes around 7 p.m. after sunset,” said a North Korean defector from Onsong. “It’s heartbreaking to see the once bustling market so empty.”

This particular market is not visible on Google Earth.  The imagery is low-resolution and likely predates the construction of the market. See for yourself.


DPRK to promote production of consumer goods

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

According to the People’s Daily (Xinhua):

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has decided to promote the production of consumer goods in order to improve people’s lives, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported Wednesday.

The major task was to continue exploiting the potential of the light industry, raising production, improving quality, promoting the modernization of enterprises and guaranteeing its operation at full capacity, a cabinet meeting has agreed.

Besides, the ministers underlined the importance of the spring ploughing and sowing, saying supply to the rural area should be ensured.

They also demanded sectors such as metal, electricity, coal and railway continue promoting production to create condition for the improvement of people’s lives.

The newspaper said DPRK’s Premier Kim Yong Il attended the cabinet meeting, but did not mention the exact date.

Industrial production grew 16 percent in the first quarter, compared to the same period a year before, said the paper.

Consumer goods are part of Kim Kyung-hui’s (Kim Jong-il’s sister) portfolio as head of the KWP’s light industry department.

Read the full story here:
DPRK to promote production of consumer goods
People’s Daily (Xinhua)


“Let’s eat huge rabbits” (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Back in 2007 a German breeder of large rabbits expressed concern that some rabbits he sold to the DPRK had been eaten.  You can read about it here.

Well, the rabbit story is back.  According to Radio Free Asia:

The fate of dozens of giant rabbits sent to North Korean to start breeding a cheap source of protein for the famine-hit poor is still unknown, leading to speculation that they may already have been eaten by officials in the isolated Stalinist state.

“I am not aware of [exactly] what happened after we sent the rabbits,” said Jin Sook Lee, the director of the German charity, the German Overseas Korean Cooperation Association. “I don’t even know if they are being used to boost the food supply.”

She said the intended breeding program had run into difficulties once the German-bred outsize rabbits arrived in the isolated Stalinist state, where some sectors of the population still face malnutrition.

To ensure the successful expansion of the giant rabbit population, rabbit cross-breeding and species hybridization were needed, Lee said.

But many female rabbits failed to get pregnant, and of the rabbit kittens that were born, many were deformed, she added.

Boosting ‘rabbit-breeding’

Several charities have raised money to send giant rabbits to North Korea to boost the food supply, as the animals yield up to 10 kilos (22 lbs) of meat.

While the uber-bunnies normally breed as rapidly as their smaller cousins, the French humanitarian group Premier Urgence said it had send staff to North Korea to boost “rabbit breeding skills” among officials in charge of the farms.

The charity, which has received around U.S.$1.5 million in European Commission assistance funds for North Korea, said last November it planned to send a further 200 giant rabbits purchased in neighboring China to North Korea.

Chinese media have meanwhile reported comments made to the German magazine Der Spiegel by the original breeder of giant rabbits Karl Szmolinsky, who has had no information from North Korean officials since he sent 12 rabbits to boost the breeding farms in 2007.

“The only conclusion I can come to is that my rabbits made a nice meal for someone,” an online Chinese farmers’ news service quoted him as saying.

“I would really like to go over there and give them a hand.”

Premiere Urgence said in November that it had sent giant rabbits to seven farms in the country, including Ryongsung in Pyongyang, Youngtan in Northern Hwanghae province, Mikok, and Chungjong in Northern Pyongan province.

Livestock failures

Premiere Urgence said it planned to help the North Koreans improve giant rabbit reproductive rates by sending equipment and working on rabbit-farming skills.

The group said in November it had already dispatched three international staff members to Pyongyang, including a French and a Dutch national, while seven local staff members were already in the office, tasked with technical and clerical duties.

In an attempt to overcome severe food shortages, the North Korean authorities have already experimented with chicken, cow, and pig farming.

However, because of the decrepit state of North Korea’s facilities and the lack of technical skills, most attempts to raise livestock for food appear to have failed.

Director Lee said that sending giant rabbits from Europe was very expensive, costing about U.S. $100 per animal.

The first two rabbits to travel to North Korea paid a fare of U.S. $1,300, with vaccinations and veterinary fees on top of that.

She said her group had given up further plans to send giant rabbits to North Korea.

Experts also said the giant rabbits require more than one kilo (2.2 lbs) of carrots and potatoes daily, hard to come by in impoverished North Korea.

Szmolinsky, 67, of the eastern German town of Eberswalde near Berlin, was first approached by North Korean officials in 2006 after he won a prize for breeding Germany’s largest rabbit.

According to the United Nations, North Korea suffers widespread food shortages, and many people “struggle to feed themselves on a diet critically deficient in protein, fats, and micronutrients.”

Each of Szmolinsky’s rabbits produces around seven kilos (15 lbs) of meat, and under normal conditions should be able to produce 60 offspring a year.

Read the full story here:
Giant Rabbits’ Fate ‘Unknown’
Radio Free Asia
Noh Jung-min


DPRK goes after Hwang Jang-yop

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

UPDATE 2:  A third individual has been arrested for going after Mr. Hwang.  According to the AFP:

A third man has been arrested over a plot to assassinate a top ranking defector from North Korea, a report said Saturday.

The man, whose family name is Han, was a former North Korean agent who has been living in South Korea since the 1960s, Yonhap news agency said, quoting prosecutors.

Han was charged with seeking to trace Hwang’s address in a plot to assassinate him, Yonhap said.

Han was recruited said to have been recruited by North Korean agents in 2000, who helped him reunite his family members living in the North.

North Korea has denied involvement in the bid to assassinate Hwang, accusing Seoul of inventing the story to fuel tension.

UPDATE 1:  Seoul convicted the two North Koreans to ten years in prison.  According to the Associated Press:

The Seoul Central District Court handed down 10-year sentences to each of the men after convicting them of violating South Korea’s National Security Law.

The defendants – Kim Myong Ho and Dong Myong Kwan – entered the packed courtroom under heavy security, handcuffed and wearing beige prison clothes. They have seven days to appeal the verdict.

They were arrested in Seoul in April for allegedly planning to kill Hwang Jang-yop, a former senior member of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party who defected to South Korea in 1997. North Korea has denied the assassination plot, accusing South Korea of staging it to intensify anti-Pyongyang sentiment.

The North Koreans posed as ordinary defectors and told investigators they were ordered to report back to Pyongyang on Hwang’s activities in Seoul and to prepare to “slit the betrayer’s throat,” prosecutors have said.

“The efforts to try to locate Hwang’s residence to plot to kill him … is a dangerous act undermining social security and order that must be condemned,” judge Cho Han-chang said.

The defendants did not speak throughout the trial, except when giving barely audible answers to the judge’s questions about their date of birth and place of origin. Their lips were pursed throughout the trial and they looked away from the proceedings.

The men were led away immediately after the verdict was read. Defendants normally are not given time or opportunity to comment on the verdict, court spokesman Kim Sang-woo said.

“If they disagree with the sentencing they can simply file an appeal,” Kim said.

The defendants confessed in their statements to having committed all of the acts they have been charged for and have since shown much remorse, the judge said.

“They have admitted to all of their crimes and even showed a human side, worrying about the safety of their families in North Korea,” Cho said.

High-profile defectors are believed to be key targets for assassination plots. In 1997, a nephew of one of Kim Jong Il’s former wives was killed outside a Seoul apartment, 15 years after defecting to the South. Officials never caught the assailants but believe they were North Korean agents.

Kim Jong Il reportedly has vowed revenge for Hwang’s defection.

The North Koreans made their way from Yanji, China, to Thailand posing as defectors. Thai authorities deported one to South Korea in January and the other in February, according to prosecutors.

ORIGINAL POST: According to the BBC:

South Korea says it has uncovered a plot to assassinate the most senior official ever to have defected from Communist North Korea.

Two North Koreans, said to have been posing as defectors themselves, have been arrested on suspicion of being on a mission to kill Hwang Jang-yop.

Mr Hwang, 87, once a close confidant of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, defected to the South in 1997.

Pyongyang’s official government website had recently threatened him with death.

The alleged plot to kill Mr Hwang was uncovered when the two men, named by the Yonhap news agency as Kim and Tong, crossed into South Korea from Thailand earlier this year, posing as defectors themselves.

They were questioned by South Korean officials during the debriefing sessions that await all North Korean refugees who make it to Seoul.

A unnamed senior official at Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office told reporters they had said their orders were to “slit the betrayer’s throat”, the Associated Press news agency reports.

Mr Hwang, who was once the secretary of the North Korean Workers’ Party, has said he left the country after witnessing the impact of disastrous economic policies which led to widespread famine in the 1990s.

He left close family members behind, many of whom are reported to have been sent to labour camps.

Mr Hwang lives under heavy police protection at an undisclosed location and has remained a harsh critic of Pyongyang.

The Washington Post adds more:

Compounding the perception of an imminent threat from the North, the South’s intelligence service and prosecutors gave a rare public account of a foiled plot.

They said two North Korean army majors defected through Thailand, arriving in South Korea in January and February. But inconsistencies were found in their stories, and the men said under interrogation that they intended to kill Hwang Jang Yop, 87, a former chairman of North Korea’s legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly.

“The men tried to kill themselves during the interrogation session,” said a spokesman for Seoul prosecutors.

Since defecting in 1997, Hwang has been a thorn in the side of North Korea, publicly condemning the nuclear-armed dictatorship of Kim Jong Il. In recent months, he has traveled to Washington and Tokyo to share his views on strategic thinking in Pyongyang.

Complaining about such trips, North Korea’s Uriminzokkiri Web site warned Hwang that “traitors have always been slaughtered with knives.” But Pyongyang did not comment on the allegation that it had sent assassins to kill him.

North Korea has a record of assassinating its opponents abroad. The wife of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee was fatally shot in 1974. Seoul says that Kim personally ordered the killings of several members of South Korea’s government in Burma in 1983 and the destruction of a civil airliner in 1987, killing 115.

Read the full stories here:
North Korea ‘plotted to kill high profile defector’

South Korea says it foiled assassination plot by North
Washington Post
Christian Oliver


Alternative school for DPRK settlers opens in Seoul

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

According to Yonhap:

The first accredited high school opened Tuesday for North Korean students who have settled in South Korea.

Yeomyung, established in central Seoul in 2004, used to provide schooling for older aged students whose families had defected from the North. Graduates had to pass state qualification exams in order to receive high school diplomas since it was not a formally accredited institution.

The number of North Korean students was 1,478 at the end of last year, according to government data, with 77 percent of them are enrolled in regular schools. Yeomyung currently has 32 students enrolled in its high school course.

“We will provide full support to see that North Korean adolescents who receive education at alternative schools or private facilities become sound citizens,” Education Minister Ahn Byong-man said at the opening ceremony.

Read the full sotry here:
Alternative school for N. Korean students opens in Seoul


DPRK Economist: Currency reform caused instability

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 10-04-20-1

Ri Ki Song, a professor at the Institute of Economics, a part of North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences, acknowledged during an interview on April 18 that the North’s currency revaluation of last November had caused some instability to unfold across the country. Professor Ri emphasized during an interview in Pyongyang with Kyoto News, “there was some temporary unrest in some areas . . . but there was absolutely no social upheaval and unstable situations were immediately controlled.”

Professor Ri, in answering questions for the Japanese news agency, was the first North Korean to acknowledge the problems caused by the reform. Regarding foreign media reports of the currency reform, Ri stated that the articles did not reflect the reality of the situation, and that the reforms had not destabilized the North Korean society. These comments were in line with those he made on April 1, when he stated at an APTN press conference, “Many people outside of North Korea have been noisily prattling on about problems emerging during exchange rate fluctuations, but there is no social unrest of the kind they speak of.”

He explained that some instability had occurred because price controls and other measures had not immediately followed the revaluation, and that “markets did not open for a few days [after the currency reform],” acknowledging that preparations for the measures had been insufficient. He also explained that following the currency reform, North Korean authorities had taken steps such as reducing prices on some foods and slashing unproductive expenditures. The government also encouraged women to take up jobs in light industry and in the service sector, and repaired the transport system. In an effort to develop the economy in 2010, the North Korean government boosted the budgets for the light industrial sector by 10.1 percent, and that of agriculture by 9.4 percent.

Professor Ri went on to say that authorities had reduced the price of a kilogram of rice from 40 won to 24 won, had lowered the price of eggs to 8 won, and had cut the prices on cooking oil and soap, as well. He added that this trend will continue for the near future.

The currency revaluation, the first of its kind since 1992, was aimed primarily at increasing the value of the North’s money and harnessing inflation, but despite the reform, the government is still managing foreign exchange rates. While keeping exchange rates under control, Ri stated that authorities could still adjust the value of the won, depending on economic developments as well as other domestic and international conditions.

In both the APTN and Kyoto interviews, Professor Ri called foreign coverage of the North’s economic situation “exceptional,” and insisted that nothing was wrong with the DPRK economy.


German NGO worker on the DPRK

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

According to the Times of India:

Economic sanctions by the United States and other western countries is actually strengthening the Kim Jong-il’s regime, a German social worker involved with a non-government organization told reporters here this morning. Sanctions are also affecting life in other ways like the new-found emphasis on sustainable agriculture, she said.

“The leaders are using the sanctions as a justification. People believe the country is in a bad condition because of outside forces,” Karin Janz, country director in North Korea for the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, said while speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing. The official media justified its actions as efforts to fortify the nation against the onslaught of foreign forces, and the people fully believed it, she said.

The sanctions have hit the North Korean agriculture and caused fears of a worsening of the food situation, Karin said. “The North Korean agriculture is highly industrialized,” she said while explaining the country’s agriculture is heavily dependent on imported farm machines and chemical fertilizers. Most of these materials came from South Korea, which has now slammed the doors.

The government has suddenly realized the value of sustainable development and is asking agricultural cooperatives to change their focus. They are being asked to go for organic farming, grow composts and reduce their dependence on chemicals. It is a new policy on sustainable development by default, she said.

“It could be a good start in the direction of sustainable development. But it is a long way to rehabilitate the soil, which is badly damaged” she said.

The Internet is banned to ensure that local citizens do not communicate with the outside world. There is a limited form of Intranet for university students to chat among themselves. But if the ban on Internet were to be lifted, most North Koreans will use it to absorb new knowledge and grow the country with new technological inputs.

“I cannot imagine some kind of opposition rising because it is simply not possible,” she said while discussing the highly militarized nature of the society. The government controls every aspect of life in North Korea and ordinary people seem to be comfortable living in some kind of a “safety shell”, she said.

Patriotism runs high among the people and most have full faith in their leaders. The only sign of dissatisfaction Karin saw was in January when currency reforms hit a large number of people very badly. People who held old currency notes suddenly found they could not exchange them for the new Won notes the government introduced early this year.

Welthungerhilfe is one of the few foreign NGOs that are still operating in North Korea when most of the others have left either because of the challenges posed by government rules and the drying of financing from western sources. There are many Chinese NGOs but the local government does not allow they to communication with those from western countries.

In her five years travelling across nine provinces of North Korea, Karin has not come across a single case of starvation. The food situation is bad, but it is not as grave as the western media tended to show, she said. The government has also done a fairly good job of developing infrastructure and provide school education although the conditions are still a far cry from what prevails in the developed world, she said.

Here is the Welthungerlife North Korea web page (in German).  Here is the page in English (via Google Translate).

I cannot prove it, but I am willing to bet that Welthungerhilfe built these greenhouses near Kujang (via Kernbeisser).  These greenhouses are too new to be visible on Google Earth.

Read the full story here:
Economic sanctions strengthen North Korea’s dictatorship, says German NGO
The Times of India
Saibal Dasgupta


DPRK’s NDC inspects Kaesong zone

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

According to Yonhap:

A group of North Korean officials, including military officers, were inspecting an inter-Korean factory park in the North this week, a Seoul official said Tuesday, amid concerns Pyongyang may be moving to put the brakes on the long-running symbol of reconciliation.

The inspection, which began Monday with an abrupt notice, was reminiscent of a similar visit in December 2008. Six days later, the communist state temporarily banned South Korean access to it.

Eight North Korean officials, including a senior director of the National Defense Commission (NDC), inspected a South Korean company and some facilities such as a substation and roads in Kaesong on Tuesday, Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said.

The NDC is the highest seat of power in the North, chaired by leader Kim Jong-il. The visitors included uniformed officers who asked both South Koreans and North Koreans at the park rudimentary questions about their operations, Chun said.

“A wide range of questions was asked, such as items produced, the productivity of North Korean workers, the capacity of the sewage, and how certain facilities are maintained,” Chun told reporters.

More than 110 South Korean firms employ some 42,000 North Korean workers at the Kaesong industrial park, born out of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. The park began operating in 2004.

Pyongyang said on April 8 that it would “entirely reevaluate” the park if relations between the sides do not improve, while ditching Seoul as a partner for joint tours to its eastern mountain resort.

The DRPK recently inspected the Kumgangsan resort before “seizing” several of the facilities.  The Kaesong Zone has been inspected several times before as well.


DPRK to produce mobile phones

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

According to Telegeography:

Tokyo-based newspaper Chosun Sinbo has reported that mobile subscriptions in the DPRK are continuing to rise steadily and could reach 600,000 by the end of the year. The pro-North Korea newspaper added that the number of cellular customers in the communist state currently stands at over 120,000, with wireless infrastructure reportedly present in more than half of the country’s cities and counties that is expected to accommodate 600,000 subscribers by year-end. The DPRK’s only mobile operator is CHEO Technology, which offers services under the Koryolink brand. Citing the head of North Korea’s mobile telecoms department, Choe Un, the report also added that the state plans to produce its own handsets – currently manufactured in China – within the next six months.

According to TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database, CHEO was awarded a 25-year licence to operate a 3G network in January 2008, with the first four years on an exclusive basis. It is owned by Orascom Telecom Holding of Egypt (75%) and state-owned Korea Post and Telecoms Corporation (25%). Services were launched in December 2008 in the capital Pyongyang, but the network has since been expanded to include the main road running up to the northern city of Hyangsan, with the company currently working on expanding services nationwide.

Yonhap asserts that the Choson Sinbo piece claims the DPRK will start manufacturing mobile phones:

“Within half a year, handphone terminals will begin to be produced,” the paper said. “For a certain time, parts will be imported from overseas and assembled, but eventually the prospect is that development will be self-sufficient.”

The report said equipment for mobile service has been set up in more than half of the cities and counties in the country, adding the service will also be used on major roads and railways.

If a reader can send me a link to the original Choson Sinbo artilce I would appreciate it.  I have troubles navigating that site.

Here are previous posts about North Korea’s mobile phone networks and Orascom.


Over 30,000 Chinese tourists to visit Pyongyang this year

Monday, April 19th, 2010

Michael Rank

Over 30,000 Chinese tourists are expected to visit Pyongyang this year, well above normal levels of around 20,000, and numbers are likely to increase further in future, the head of the Pyongyang-based Korean International Travel Company said recently.

In a rare instance of a North Korean official divulging meaningful statistics, Jo Seong-gyu 조성규 赵成奎 was quoted on a Chinese website as saying that in addition to the average 20,000 Chinese tourists who visit under national agreements, a further 20,000 Chinese visitors a year cross into North Korea as border tourists. He said these had been typical levels since a bilateral tourism agreement was signed in 1988. Although Chinese tourists typically number around 20,000 annually, there had been up to 50,000 in some years, as well as years when levels had dipped sharply, he added.

Jo was speaking to Chinese journalists visiting Pyongyang to mark a newly implemented bilateral tourism agreement. He did not say how many border tourists were expected this year, but several new local agreements have been signed recently, so that number is also likely to increase.

Jo said KITC had hired almost 90 Chinese-speaking guides to cope with the expected flood of Chinese tourists. Apart from the usual tourist sights of Pyongyang, the Myohyang mountains and Gaeseong, there are also plans for Chinese tourists to visit the Chinese Korean war cemetery in Hoechang 회창군 county (satellite image here), about 100 km east of the capital, where 134 “martyrs” of the Chinese People’s Volunteers are buried, including Mao Anying 毛岸英, son of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. The 90,000 square metre cemetery is the largest of dozens of such cemeteries in North Korea. Click here for photos of Premier Wen Jiabao visiting the cemetery last October.

Jo said Mt. Chilbo 칠보산 七宝山 on the Sino-Korean border will also be opened to Chinese tourists.

He said the increase in Chinese tourists visiting North Korea was due to a vogue for “red tourism”  – nostalgic tours to revolutionary sites which have become fashionable in China in recent years. These tend to appeal mainly to the older generation who remember the Maoist era, including perhaps the Korean war, and Chinese reports suggest that visitors to North Korea are often in their fifties and sixties.

Jo warned Chinese tourists to behave themselves, saying they should “respect Korean laws and regulations and moral standards and proceed from a standpoint of cherishing Korean-Chinese friendship, mutual understanding and tolerance.”