The North Korean economy is doing badly, but keep some perspective

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Sanctions and Covid-19 have fused together to put the North Korean economy in what can only reasonably be described as an awful situation. Trade first plummeted through sanctions, and then even further because of North Korea’s and China’s anti-Covid19 measures. And the fall continues, as these figures in Hankyoreh show:

Figures from the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) and Chinese customs authorities reviewed on June 18 show a major drop in the value of North Korean goods being exported to the Chinese market: US$10.7 million in January and February (-71.7% year on year), US$600,000 in March (-96.2%), and US$2.2 million in April (-90%). The value of North Korean exports to China, which stood at US$2.63 billion in 2016, has fallen since economic sanctions were toughened, decreasing to US$1.65 billion (-37.3%) in 2017 and US$195 million in 2018 (-88.2%). Exports rebounded in 2019, to US$285 million, but that was still less than a tenth of the value of exports in 2016.

But how bad are things?

Bloomberg ran an article yesterday with the angle that the North Korean economy is the “worst” in two decades, and that this is why the country is lashing out against South Korea with renewed vigor. To support the former claim, it cites figures claiming that the country’s economy will contract by a total of 6 percent this year due to the combination of sanctions and Covid-19.

But how reasonable is this take?

There is no doubting that things are bad, but some context is badly needed. One of course cannot equate an economic contraction with the overall situation. (Never mind that any number on this will be qualified guesswork at best.) A contraction is only the economy shrinking, and it means nothing if we don’t know what the starting point is. In 1997, North Korea was perhaps at the height of a devastating famine, after the economy crumbled following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China vastly scaling back support.

Today, North Korea may be in an economic crisis of sorts. But it entered it on the back of several years of steadily increasing exports to China. These exports, in fact, grew by more than a factor of ten between 1998 and the record year of 2013. So the situation is so different that a comparison is hardly meaningful.

This is also true for the food situation. According to numbers from the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, whose data is questionable but highly valuable, food production stood at 3.3 million tonnes in 2008, not an unusually low figure for the time. Contrast this with the projection that this year’s harvest will be 4.6 million tonnes. Not great, lower than it should be, lower than a few years ago, yes. But still not nearly the level of the disaster years.

Also, it is crucial to remember that even in ordinary times, a not insignificant proportion of trade with China occurs off the books. Throw an increasingly lower Chinese sense of caring what the US thinks about its sanctions implementation into the mix and you’ve got, well, likely a lot more trade happening under the radar. This is what news reports from inside North Korea have been saying for quite a while.

Not that things aren’t bad, or that North Korea’s recent actions have to do with sanctions (they almost certainly do). But don’t forget about context or proportions.