The calm throughout the storm: North Korean market prices in May 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK just released their market price index for May 29th. With that, we get a pretty clear picture of the market situation for the full month of May.

So, what’s new? Not much, and that is newsworthy in its own right. Throughout the period of so-called “maximum pressure” in economic sanctions pushed by the Trump administration, North Korean market prices have, save for some months of a shaky diesel market, remained remarkably stabile. This trend continued in May.

Overall, average rice prices for May, in three North Korean cities, was 5041 won per kg. The average USD-exchange rate for the same period was 8061 won for $1. For a simple point of comparison, the average three-city rice price for late April 2017 was 4900 won/kg, and for USD, 8057 won/$1. For early June, rice cost 5228/kg, and for USD, 8026 won/$1. That prices are climbing is fully natural given that we’re approaching the so-called “lean season”, when North Korea is at the furthest point from the last harvest, and closest to the coming one.

How these relatively stabile prices are maintained is still very much a mystery. I maintain that if “maximum pressure” was truly all-encompassing, it would be very unlikely for at least foreign currency prices not to be impacted. The government may be keeping market prices stabile by adding to the supply of food and foreign exchange from their own coffers, and in the case of the foreign exchange rate, by contracting the supply of won by drawing down on credit supply to state enterprises, for example. But news of economic management at this scale would likely have been reported by at least one of the many outlets that regularly publish economic news from North Korea sourced from people inside the country. As things stand right now, there’s much we don’t know, but if the North Korean economy is truly in a crisis mode, market prices aren’t reflecting such a state of affairs.

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An affiliate of 38 North