On the DPRK’s informal credit markets…

According to the Daily NK:

Loan-sharking of both money and food is back to being widespread in North Korea these days, and sources say this is causing problems.

The activity is said to have waned for a time in the face of strict crackdowns during the currency redenomination in 2009; however, according to sources, a lot of those people who were expropriated by the currency redenomination have now started borrowing money from loan sharks in order to begin trading or get access to food, meaning it has spread widely once again.

A source from Hyesan, Yangkang Province explained on the 13th, “Those without funding for trade tend to borrow money at high interest. If they borrow money from an acquaintance, the interest rate is five percent, or they make an agreement with a loan-shark, who they don’t know well, to give ten percent.”

“Some loan-sharks get from 15 to 20 percent interest from smugglers for loans over a single night! Even though it is risky, depending on the regulations, they lend money to smugglers because they can earn large sums of money in just a few days.”

Loan sharks have been the target of crackdowns for years. In August 1997, the Ministry of Public Security (formerly the People’s Safety Ministry) released a decree stating that authorities could go so far as to execute those caught loaning food at high interest rates. Additionally, right before the currency redenomination in September of 2009, the National Security Agency cracked down on loan-sharking, releasing a decree calling on officials to “Map out measures to uproot usury.”

However, given that even agents of the People Safety Ministry use loan-sharking for the trading activities of their families, the crackdowns are doomed to fail.

According to sources from several provinces, the activity is also more common in rural areas than in cities, because in cities people have more survival mechanisms, but rural people do not have many alternative ways to get hold of money or food.

Loans are used in these agricultural areas in order to borrow grain from March to May, and are paid back double in the harvest season. In Yangkang Province, meanwhile, when people borrow one kilogram of rice or flour, they must pay it back in the form of 2.5 or 3 kg of potato starch, since the major product of the province is potatoes.

It is the kind of interest rate that was applied during the March of Tribulation, but people still apply it now.

This is a vicious circle of poverty, another defector pointed out. “Those who suffer loan-sharking each year face another worrying fall because their harvest must be paid to the loan sharks.”

The author of this Daily NK story unfortunately chooses to describe the DPRK’s “informal lenders” as “loan sharks,” making them morally equivalent to thieves and bullies, rather than describing them as lenders in a high-risk market.  This sort of pejorative name-calling is common among those who don’t understand how credit markets work, particularly in a high-risk business environment such as the DPRK.

The reality is that informal and black market lenders in the DPRK are making de jure illegal loans from their own savings.  This means that if the loan is officially discovered, the lender (and probably the borrower) will face criminal charges.  Even if the lender is not arrested, he must pay regular protection money to keep it that way.  Additionally, there is little property in the DPRK which can be credibly used as collateral in a loan, which means that even if the loan is not discovered by the authorities, if the borrower defaults or absconds with the funds there is little the lender can take possession of to recover his capital.  This level of risk requires borrowers to pay much higher interest rates to coax scarce lenders into the market.

In addition to the high interest rates that black market lenders usually charge, they also earn a bad reputation for their resort to “informal” mechanisms to insure and recover these loans.  Some insurance mechanisms, such as lending to family members and close acquaintances, might work well.  Other mechanisms, such as making threats of harm (and following through), are not as widely respected. But these are “technological” adaptations and responses to the DPRK business environment, not purely sadistic behavior.  In other words, these market practices are completely predictable given the institutional environment and not unique to the DPRK.  If the DPRK court system impartially enforced contracts, and collateral could be legally secured, these sorts of technologies would be unnecessary.

I am not claiming that black market lenders are angels, or even pleasant people (in fact some of them may be powerful individuals in the party and security infrastructure), but they are financing the development of the DPRK’s unofficial economy out of nothing more than financial self-interest.  Without their efforts a whole class of informal and black market entrepreneurs would be unable to access capital markets to start new businesses or finance operations.  The unpleasant side of black market lending should not be placed on the market participants themselves, but on the DPRK’s policymakers who have pursued economic policies that have made this sort of behavior necessary.

Read the full Daily NK story here:
Loans Creating Circle of Poverty
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin
2011-5-16

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