Recent DPRK wage increases / economic management changes

UPDATE 3 (2013-11-14): North Korea accelerating economic reforms? Wages and prices to be self-regulated (IFES):

North Korea appears to be pushing for internal economic improvement measures. Chosun Sinbo, the pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, released an article on November 6 that discussed various performance-enhancing management and operational changes that took place at the Pyongyang Essential Foodstuff Factory this year.

Chosun Sinbo referred to Kim Jong Un’s speech made last March at the plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party about improving economic management and named the recent changes at the food factory as a pilot project for this purpose. The news article added that “There are studies to bring fundamental changes in economic management and specific measures are being made to turn this into a reality.”

The main systemic changes made at the Pyongyang Essential Foodstuff Factory were the increase in autonomy of the company and the enforcement of wage differential based on performance. Based on the principle of cost compensation, prices of products produced with raw materials at the factory may be freely adjusted after consulting with the state.

The news article further explained that “The principle of socialist distribution is a simple system of distributing as much as you earn and the cost of living is determined by labor productivity.”  It also reported that some of the employees’ wages increased. Such news is likely intended to advertise to the outside world about North Korea’s changing domestic economic policies.

The North Korean economic journal Kyongje Yongu has also been increasingly reporting on the principle of distribution based on economic performance. In the recent issue published on October 30, 2013 (issue No. 4), an article titled “The Principle Problem of Properly Implementing the Socialist Labor Wage System” criticized the equalization of product distribution as it decreases the enthusiasm of workers toward production: “The strength and life used during the process of labor must be compensated through the principle of earning the amount of your labor.” The article stressed that wages must increase with production and rationalized the need for such wage increase.

Chosun Sinbo and Kyongje Yongu articles reveal the long-term efforts by the North Korean government in enhancing research about economic improvement measures and expanding projects in various factories, companies, and cooperative farms to implement these measures.

Recently, North Korea launched the State Economic Development Commission and organized a number of international forums on special economic zones.  These can be construed as possible signals toward economic reform, as North Korea continues to make various changes in its internal economic policies.

UPDATE 2 (2013-11-7): Another story of note in the Daily NK ties factory wage increases to the ability of enterprises to negotiate prices with the state:

Choson Sinbo, the regular publication of the pro-North Korea General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), has published news of a Pyongyang-based food factory being used as a testing ground for independent economic management. The enterprise fixes prices semi-independently in discussion with the state and pays increased wages, the piece, published yesterday, explained.

The publication conveyed, “Pyongyang Essential Foodstuff Factory became a test unit and conducted research in order to enact changes to overall economic management. They are currently implementing these.”

It continued, “Of particular note is the organization of production and economic management based on cost compensation principles and the socialist rules of division. Pyongyang Essential Foodstuff Factory has enacted the measures for themselves and prepared the collateral to allow for expansion and reproduction.”

“This factory has shed the state planning model and sources its own materials, and in discussion with the state it has been able to set its own prices as it sees fit. There is also a measure currently being adopted that provides monthly allowances in consideration of the labor of the employees,” it further emphasized.

However, a high-ranking defector was skeptical when asked about the piece, telling Daily NK, “These factories produce things like soybean paste, soy sauce, salt and side dishes. They have always played the role of distributor to the people, so there is no way that they would be able to just set prices how they wish on these products. It’s likely that the measures focus on work teams making apple and pear beverages, liquor and beer; things that do not relate to improving the lives of the people.”

UPDATE 1 (2013-11-7): The Daily NK follows up on the DPRK’s strategy to bring official wages in line with the price level:

North Korea’s decision to drastically increase the wages of workers in parts of the heavy industrial sector is designed to boost morale and improve productivity, the better to expand the country’s capacity to generate foreign currency income from investments in the exploitation of its mineral resources.

As exclusively reported yesterday by Daily NK, major industrial concerns in North Hamkyung Province such as Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex have raised wages by a factor of approximately one hundred, from a derisory 3,000 won per month, around half the market price of a kilo of rice, to 300,000 won. Thus far, 100,000 won of the total has been paid in cash and the remainder in kind in an attempt to head off the very real danger of dramatic price inflation that would result from 100% cash payments.

That such a substantial wage rise was only deemed feasible in enterprises with the potential to export primary or secondary resources for foreign exchange should not come as a surprise. Smaller domestic enterprises don’t have the liquid resources to take such a step. As with the Kaesong Industrial Complex, wages in cash and kind have always been more generous for workers in joint venture enterprises than elsewhere. The latest move reflects an extension of that reality.

At this early stage, experts believe that the measure is designed to create a business model for North Korea not unlike that on show at Kaesong, under which each province can improve its economic performance and attract greater quantities of foreign capital. By actively nurturing those rare businesses that are competitive in the regional environment, the country hopes to raise productivity overall.

A researcher with Industrial Bank of Korea, Cho Bong Hyun told Daily NK, “Raising salaries for enterprises in the minerals sector looks like an inevitable choice, since productivity couldn’t have been expected from light industrial enterprises when the operational level of most of those factories is so low.

Cho continued, “The Kim Jong Eun regime, which is currently concentrating on producing results in the economic sphere, made this decision based on the fact that for some time it has been earning foreign currency quite easily by exporting its mineral resources. They also hope that by raising salaries they can induce greater productive effort, since workers have not wanted to work properly since the public distribution system collapsed [in the 1990s].”

Yoon Deok Ryong, a senior research fellow with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy added, “Kim Jong Eun has granted this autonomy to firms and raised wages in order to earn foreign currency and firm up his system. He wants to right the economy by discriminating in favor of businesses that are somewhat competitive.”

However, despite cautious enthusiasm for the latest step, the two experts cautioned that unless North Korea moves further in the direction of a market economic system, the measure might not prove effective.

Cho explained, “No matter how tightly the North Korean authorities seek to control economic activity, they will find it almost impossible to stop these wage rises inciting inflation and causing the value of the North Korean Won to nosedive even more. There is also the danger of conflict with between military and Party-Cabinet elements over the management of mineral resource enterprises that can be used to produce military goods.”

Yoon added that workers in enterprises excluded from the latest wage rises will not see the bigger economic picture, and will simply be aggrieved at there being no improvement in their own conditions. “Conflict is unavoidable,” he concluded.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-11-6): According to the Daily NK:

Wage levels for workers in some larger industrial enterprises have risen by a factor of approximately one hundred times, Daily NK has learned. The move, which was put forward as part of the “June 28th Policy” in mid-2012 and is designed to bring wages more into line with market price levels, appears designed to improve the productivity and competitiveness of major industrial concerns.

According to a source from North Hamkyung Province, the monthly wage of people working at Musan Iron Mine, Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex and Sungjin Steel Mill rose from an average of just 3000-4000 won up to 300,000 won in September and October. In an attempt to forestall the inflation that such a step would otherwise guarantee, 200,000 won of the payment is issued in goods, with just 100,000 won provided in cash.

The source explained to Daily NK on the 5th, “In September the order was handed down in the name of the State Economic Development Commission to Musan, Kim Chaek and Sungjin; it was about guaranteeing independence in terms of production and the authority to set salary levels. At the time most workers did not believe that they were going to be given a wage of 300,000 won, and are really surprised now that they are actually getting it.”

The source went on to assert that the same instructions have been handed down to all provinces, not only North Hamkyung. “Relatively more competitive” industrial enterprises in each province have been selected, he said, and are resetting wages at a higher level.

Explaining the system of payments in kind, the source said, “Because they are concerned about the danger of inflation being created by the wage rises, they give 200,000 won of it in rice, vegetables, side dishes, other necessities, and electronics. Only the remaining 100,000 won is given in cash.” Workers have been told “not to make purchases in public markets since the state is now providing for your daily needs,” although the instruction is not likely to be adhered to.

Predictably, the source revealed that the move has attracted attention from surrounding enterprises. “Workers who had been ‘off sick’ are coming back,” he said, “and workers from other enterprises have been descending on us after hearing that we are getting a lot of wages and other stuff.”

The move appears designed to increase the competitiveness of major industrial enterprises in North Korea, and to improve the attractiveness of joint ventures to companies in China.

At the time of writing, the dramatic wage increase has not generated rice price inflation in public markets in the North Hamkyung Province region. For example, the price of rice in Musan is currently stable at around 5,800 won/kg.

On this, the source concluded, “Because some of the wages have been given in kind, demand in markets will not rise for the time being.” However, he cautioned that later, when workers attempt to buy and sell the products they have received, instability and inflation could result.

Read the full story here:
Wages Rise 100x in Heavy Industry
Daily NK
Lee Sang Yong
2013-11-6

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