North Korea’s government bonds, and other economic coercion

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

For long, one of the main mysteries of the North Korean economy was how the government managed to keep the economy afloat despite what seemed, for a long time, like fairly stern sanctions implementation by China. North Korea’s market prices for both food and foreign currency remained largely stabile, while price for products such as gas perhaps at times were more volatile than normal, but still not at crisis levels. One of the most puzzling facts was that there were very few signs that state finances were hurting, although by all metrics, they should.

There are several reasons why they most likely did, quite severely, although it wouldn’t necessarily show up in market price data. Perhaps the state sector and marketized sectors are not as closely intertwined as many have thought, or perhaps the government was conducting stabilizing measures that somehow actually worked, either by coercion or market interventions.

The recent news that the government has issued bonds, however, is one of the more concrete signs of significant distress in North Korea’s state finances. In mid-April, Daily NK reported that the government would issue public bonds for the first time in 17 years, partially to finance construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital by ordering institutions involved in the project to pay subcontractors in bonds. A few days later, Daily NK confirmed that bonds had been issued, and that they would be used instead of cash to pay factories for materials necessary for state projects and the like. 40 percent of the bonds would be sold to individuals and 60 to enterprises. Sources that Daily NK spoke to were critical – unsurprisingly – and said that the measure was part of a general drive by the regime to soak up desperately needed cash, and not least foreign currency:

“The government failed to raise the funds it needed when it last floated bonds back in 2003,” another source in the country told Daily NK.

“The government is returning to this already failed way of doing things and only factories and business people will suffer,” he added.

Factories are being pressured to purchase the bonds and donju may face legal punishment or damage to their businesses if they fail to buy the bonds, Daily NK sources warned.

In response to the plan to float public bonds, high-level regime officials are reportedly starting to hoard US dollars. The Ministry of State Security (MSS), the country’s feared security agency, reportedly mobilized teams on Apr. 17 to crack down on those exchanging North Korean won for foreign currency.

“Money dealers have disappeared after it was made known that the MSS would arrest them for peddling dollars,” the first source told Daily NK.

“Donju in Pyongyang are desperate to buy up dollars but there’s nowhere to buy them,” he added.

(Source: “North Korea has begun issuing public bonds,” Daily NK, 22/4/2020.)

It might be worth pausing here to remember what bond are and why the North Korean government has (reportedly) issued them. Put simply, a bond is a loan that an investor – the entity that purchases the bond – gives to the issuer of the bond. Of course, it is very normal and common for governments to issue bonds. But in the case of North Korea, the problem is that investors have good reasons to have little faith that the state will actually be able to hold up its end of the bargain. In that case, the coercive bond sales essentially entail the state expropriating funds from individuals and institutions. The full details of the conditions of the bonds remain unclear, to the present author’s knowledge.

The danger is that when donju and other North Koreans with means don’t want to purchase bonds, the state may use force and coercion to make them do so even when they don’t see it as being in their economic interest. To many significant market actors, it’s likely already clear that those who refuse to purchase bonds or accept them as payment – if they even have that choice – may run into obstacles in running their businesses in the future. Judging by the reports so far, it seems that any organizations that require state funds to purchase raw materials or supplies now use bonds instead of cash, though it’s hard to imagine that this practice really extends to all such actions. In any case, for all the multitudes of ways in which the North Korean economy has changed over the past few years, the omnipotence and autonomy of the state, when it chooses to exercise it, remains.

When economic actors don’t want to purchase bonds voluntarily, coercion is another route to take. In a country such as North Korea, few economic actions are entirely non-political. Therefore, we should not be all that surprised that an owner of mine shafts near Pyongyang has reportedly been executed for his refusal to buy bonds. Part of the reason for the harsh punishment was his criticism of the state and the Party, but nonetheless, refusing to buy bonds was itself a political action:

The source told Daily NK that the sales department director had called the meeting to echo calls by the government to “spend their dollars and participate in the national public bond purchasing plan.” While the other mine shaft owners quietly listened, Lee reportedly asked the director what would happen if he chose to “not buy any public bonds.”

The sales department director responded that the act would be considered “reactionary” because it would mean refusal to carry out party policy.

Lee responded sarcastically, asking in what way the “state” and the “complex” had helped him build up his mining business. His response led to a war of words between the two men.

“The sales department director immediately reported the events of that day to the complex’s party committee. The committee convened a ‘security committee meeting’ [안전위원회] that ended up reporting Lee to the Ministry of State Security [MSS],” the source said.

Security committee meetings are convened at the provincial, municipal and county levels to discuss and make decisions on urgent matters. Participants typically include the chairman of the relevant party committee, the chairman and vice-chairman of the local people’s committee and management-level security officials.

The MSS did not immediately take action against Lee. It was not until May 6 that agents from the security agency visited the complex, forced all the complex’s workers to gather in the facility’s Laborer Hall, and then arrested Lee in front of them for “verbal reactionism” (말 반동). Lee was charged with “criticizing party policy” and he was immediately executed without trial or any other due process.

(Source: Ha Yoon Ah, “N. Korean businessman executed for refusing to buy gov’t bonds,” Daily NK, May 12th, 2020.)

The state is simultaneously using less coercive means to induce donju to invest in state enterprises. Nonetheless, the government is unlikely to raise the sorts of funds it hopes to through the bonds without serious means of coercion. It’s also not the only recent measure that suggests that the regime is quite seriously short on cash, and foreign currency in particular. Radio Free Asia reported on May 11th that the state has banned the use of foreign currency for most transactions, to force people to exchange their foreign currency for domestic at state institutions.

We don’t know the scale at which measures such as these are being implemented. They are unlikely to work in the longer run and may well be rolled back in time. But still, much damage may be done in the process.

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