Is North Korea scaling back winter exercises because it lacks fuel and food?

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Much has been made of North Korea’s apparent decision to scale back its annual winter military exercises. Some have concluded it’s a sign that sanctions are working: the army lacks both fuel and food, and has therefore had no choice but to change the scale of the exercises.

While this may be true, I haven’t seen anything in the data that proves it. Take food prices, for example. The average rice price among three North Korean cities, according to the latest observation by Daily NK, is 4853 won per kg. It’s declined pretty strongly over the past few months, which isn’t unusual for this time of year. In the comparable period last year, the same price was exactly 800 won lower. In other words, food prices, as measured by rice prices, often used instead of a CPI-basket for the North Korean market, are 20 percent higher today than they were in the comparable period last year.

That isn’t negligible, but I would still say a large part of the price difference falls within the margin of error. Prices can fluctuate heavily on the North Korean market, and the results might have been different even had prices been measured on a different day. And for most of the past few months, prices have pretty much looked seasonally normal.

Lack of fuel is a much more plausible explanation. Prices have steadily climbed since early 2017 and according to data from NK PRO continue to rise. But part of the reason for the increased prices is, likely, that the military has been soaking up more fuel than usual from the market. I don’t think there’s much reasonable doubt that fuel has been more difficult to acquire since sanctions began to be enforced more strictly by China. But we also know that North Korea has continued to import fuel by circumventing sanctions. Some of these methods have been publicly exposed by US intelligence but there’s likely much more going on that we don’t see. If full-scale military exercises were a priority for the leadership, I doubt that it would be impossible for agents and enterprises further down the line to somehow acquire the fuel it needs.

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An affiliate of 38 North