Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

Sanctions, and the weakness of North Korean food security

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

While some Pyongyangites started off the week by checking out plasma-screen TV’s at a consumer goods fair, Daily NK published an ominous story that reminds the reader of the dark 1990s. Rumors are now circulating of a starvation death in Hyesan:

An increasing number of North Koreans are suffering from the effects of food insecurity and malnutrition, according to inside sources who spoke with Daily NK. A rumor is circulating in Ryanggang and North Hamgyong provinces that the body of someone who starved to death has been seen near the train station in Hyesan City.
“More than a handful of people have come forward and said that they saw the body of someone who starved to death near the Hyesan train station. The food situation was relatively good for the past few years, so it’s such a shame that we’ve returned to dire circumstances so suddenly,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK.
A source from North Hamgyong Province similarly reported that “a rumor is swirling around the market that a starved body was discovered. There are so many people talking about it that it’s being viewed as a fact.”
The source added that the credibility of the rumors is high, saying, “There was a severe drought at the beginning of the year in North and South Hamgyong provinces and Ryanggang Province. The corn and rice harvest did not meet its targets, amounting to approximately half the volume produced last year.”
Full article:
Food insecurity riles North Korea’s poorest provinces
Kim Chung Yeol
Daily NK
2017-10-18

As crude as it may sound, one cannot draw sharp conclusions from one unconfirmed death by starvation in a North Korean city. But the fact that people think conditions bad enough to believe such rumors to be true says something about the instability of food supply in North Korea right now.

For several years, the supply of food in North Korea has looked remarkably stabile compared to the 1990s. A combination of more freedom for the markets to operate, more leeway for farmers in how they operate, produce and sell their goods (and procure inputs such as fertilizer), larger and more consistent imports from China – these are all factors that have led to better food security overall in North Korea. Market prices have sent a clear message on this.

But perhaps “stabile” was the wrong way to describe food supply. “Consistent” may have been a better way of looking at it. A system is hardly stabile when a combination of relatively usual events for the country – bad weather and changing geopolitical conditions – can shake its core.

As usual with these dynamics, it would be wrong to attribute the changes to one single factor. That is, we cannot say that sanctions –> starvation in some automatic fashion. Rather, several trends have coincided and caused the dire situation:

First, North Korea has experienced a very troubling drought early on in the farming season. As Andy Dinville shows at 38North, using satellite data, weather conditions have been particularly bad this year, significantly harming this year’s harvest.

In any normal year since the early 2000s, when market mechanisms seriously became a routinized part of North Korea’s agricultural economic system, it seems that the effects of a drought could have been offset at least in part by increased imports from China, or other sorts of shifts.

Which brings us to a second factor, namely sanctions and the current tensions, and China’s enforcement of economic pressure on North Korea. Not only does this mean that overall trading conditions are difficult, and that Chinese sellers are wary of trusting that they’ll actually receive payments from North Korean buyers. It also means that goods such as fertilizer for farming are more difficult to acquire. Like the Daily NK article notes:

“Last year, North and South Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces endured a flood of epic proportions and this year there was a drought, so the agricultural situation in both regions is poor. Additionally, because of the sanctions, it has been harder to procure different kinds of fertilizer necessary for farming, so this has exacerbated the damage.” he continued.
Third, the geopolitical instability naturally makes for a nervous market overall. The price of corn, for example, is up by 47 percent compared to last year. It is important to note that this sort of change in market prices has not been observable during the many instances in the past when international aid organizations have warned of food shortages in North Korea. Hoarding is a natural behavior on any market when actors believe a shortage is looming in the near future. It is a stark sign of the shift in China’s behavior from previous rounds of sanctions that North Korean markets now seem to confirm that China is putting real and heavy economic pressure on the country. The loopholes may still be there but they are much more narrow than usual.
As winter approaches, things aren’t likely to get any easier. Fuel shortages will make heating more difficult and expensive than usual for average North Koreans, particularly as the state soaks up oil and fuel from the market, raising prices further. Things may well get much worse before they get any better.
UPDATE 2017-10-24: 
A reader with extensive experience working on North Korean food security emailed a somewhat skeptical note regarding the food production decrease estimates I cite above. The main point is: even if food production goes down, it may not spell disaster as the past few years harvests have been exceptionally good in comparative perspective. I quote an excerpt here with the reader’s permission:
It really doesn’t look like there is much difference between positive and negative trends, particularly if you just look at the end of August. And his [Dinville] data compares the 2017 harvest with the 2016 harvest, which was probably the best harvest in 30 years. So even if 2017 is a bit lower than 2016, it will still be a relatively stable year and much, much better than 2001. There were no major disasters in the country, as well, aside from the drought and the effects of the flooding from last fall in a few counties in the northeast. My takeaway from his [Dinville’s] data is that there were a few fields (the red “strongly negative” portion) that couldn’t be irrigated sufficiently but we shouldn’t extrapolate to the entire country harvest. Kitchen gardens have also expanded in the country and can help to mitigate a poor harvest, at least for some families.
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FAO warns of worst North Korean drought since 2001

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

FAO sounds the alarm bells yet again this year about drought in North Korea:

20 July 2017, Rome- DPR Korea’scrop production for 2017, including staple rice, maize, potatoes and soybean, has been severely damaged by prolonged dry weather conditions, threatening food security for a large part of its population, according to anew FAO updateprepared in collaboration with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

Rainfall from April to June in key crop producing areas in Democratic People’s Republic of Koreawere well below the long-term average, severely disrupting planting activities and damaging the 2017 main season crops.

“So far, seasonal rainfall in main cereal producing areas have been below the level of 2001, when cereal production dropped to the unprecedented level of only two million tonnes, causing a sharp deterioration in food security conditions of a large part of the population,” said Vincent Martin, FAO Representative in China and DPR Korea.

Food shortages during ongoing lean season

The severe dry spell also affected the 2016/17 early season crops which were harvested in June and include wheat, barley and potatoes. According to FAO’s latest estimates, production of 2017 early season crops has plunged by over 30 percent, from the previous year’s level of 450 000 tonnes to 310 000 tonnes.

Despite the fact that the early season harvest accounts for only 10 percent of the total annual cereal production, these crops are an important source of food during the lean season from May to September.

Concerns over the 2017 main season crops

Although rains in the first half of July provided some relief, they were generally too late to allow normal planting and development of the 2017 main season crops, to be harvested in October-November.

The lack of rain is expected to have a serious impact on main season crops in the major cereal producing areas, including the provinces of South and North Pyongan, South and North Hwanghae and Nampo City, which normally account for close to two-thirds of overall main season cereal production.

With forecasts of reduced production of the 2017 main season crop, the food security situation is expected to further deteriorate during the 2017/18 marketing year and cereal import requirements are likely to increase.

Immediate interventions

“Immediate interventions are needed to support affected farmers and prevent undesirable coping strategies for the most vulnerable, such as reducing daily food intakes,” said Martin. “It is critical now that farmers receive appropriate and timely agricultural assistance, including irrigation equipment and machinery.”

According to the report, it is also essential to immediately start rehabilitating and upgrading irrigation schemes to reduce water losses and increase water availability.

Increased food imports, commercial or through food aid, would be required during the next three months at the peak of the lean season, ensuring adequate food supply for the most vulnerable, including children and elders.

Full article:
DPR Koreas food production hit by the worst drought since 2001
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
2017-07-20

It is worth noting that many question marks exist on the FAO’s overall methodology. I’ve written about some of these issues before, here and here. Surely, market prices appear to be pointing up in North Korea this summer, but not toward any unprecedented levels. I see no reason to doubt what FAO says about weather conditions, but the consequences for North Korea’s food supply are less clearly outlined, especially since WFP and FAO, for political reasons, often are not able to fully take the market sector into account in their assessments.

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North Koreans suffering under drought

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

From Daily NK:

Previously we reported that many residents of North Hamgyong Province were more worried about flood than drought due to traumatic memories of the widespread flooding last year. But in other regions, farmers are deeply concerned about the ongoing drought.
People are saying that it will be difficult to farm in most regions due to the lack of water. According to sources in Taehongdan County and Paekam County in Ryanggang Province, the underground water sources that were once used for drinking water have dried up due to an unprecedented and severe drought.
Ryanggang Province is famous for being the location of Mt Paektu. But Taehongdan County and Paekam County are notorious for water supply issues, as a majority of the land is contains large volumes of sand. Due to this environment, underground water sources have diminished quickly this year, and the valley streams are said to be filled with residents collecting water from early dawn.
The regions near Mt Paektu suffer from a lack of water every year, but is this year worse than normal?
Yes, the water shortages are a chronic problem, so residents resort to underground water, using a manual pump. But now the underground water supplies have dried up. Residents are deeply concerned, wondering when they can finally live without having to worry about basic necessities. When one thing improves, like the food security issue, something else goes wrong. People know that farming will be very difficult if the drought continues.
Ryanggang Province is not the only region suffering from drought. According to Daily NKs sources, rice planting has generally started at a later date than last year in most regions. People are said to be digging wells under the scorching summer sun in their desperate search for new sources of water.
It seems that not only farmers, but also ordinary people are suffering from the drought. Can you provide more details?
According to a resident in Taehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, the drought has been severe since early spring this year and the furrows are all covered with dust. The farmers have no specific measures to cope with the situation, as the pumping facility is dilapidated and there are not many places to draw water from.
The 10.18 Collective Farm in Undok is also suffering under the drought. Residents have to walk tens of kilometers to draw water, as the village streams are parched.
Some merchants are purchasing drinking water in large volumes and selling it at a slightly cheaper price. The drinking water is said to be selling like hotcakes in the markets. So the solution to the urgent need for drinking water has come through the markets and private vendors.
That is good to hear. The merchants are adapting quickly to the changing environments.
Yes. Merchants are most aware of the needs of the rest of the population, as they survive off good trading decisions.
This is actually helpful for the residents as they can purchase drinking water at an affordable price. So its a win-win situation.
However, a constant supply of water from the markets is not possible, so some residents are said be installing water pumps from place to place to draw underground water.
Residents in rural areas must find it difficult to constantly purchase water with their limited budgets. How much does drinking water cost?
Mineral water was originally purchased mostly by people traveling by train or merchants going on long-distance business trips using servicha (transportation and delivery services). Also, some of the donju purchased mineral water, thinking that local tap water might be contaminated. However, most residents have been using water from wells, spring water, or underground water drawn by pump and because the underground water all dried up so fast, people have no choice but to purchase mineral water.
The bottled mineral water brands currently available in North Korea include Paektu Spring Water, which is jointly produced by a North Korean company and a foreign company, Ryongak Spring Water, which is produced in Pyongyang, and Sindok Spring Water, produced in Onchon County, South Pyongan Province. Of these three, Sindok Spring Water is said to be the most popular.
Sindok Spring Water is claimed to be high quality and is supplied to Kim Jong Uns family and high-ranking officials. Merchants are selling the water at 500-550 KPW per bottle, which is 100 KPW lower than usual.
Full article:
North Korean residents suffering under severe drought
Unification Media Group/Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2017-07-03
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Ten million live in food insecurity in North Korea, UN says. But what does that really mean?

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A new report published by World Food Program and other UN institutions (Food Insecurity Information Network), detailing food insecurity in the world in 2016 as a whole, says the following about the situation in North Korea:

  • 4.4 million (or 17 percent of the North Korean population as a whole) is in “crisis, emergency and [or?] famine”.
  • 5.6 million (or 22 percent of the population) lives in a “stressed” situation when it comes to food.
  • This brings the entirety of the population living in food insecurity to ten million.

North Korea is the only country in all of East Asia with food insecurity, the report says.

It is unclear where the data comes from. According to the report, it could either have come from government sources in North Korean or from the World Food Program, but the report itself does not specify this.

A few things are worth noting. First and most importantly, particularly at a time when news reports abound about the rising middle classes and the new consumption habits of the wealthy, it is crucial to remember that a significant proportion of the North Korean population still live lives far away from the relative luxury of Pyongyang.

Second, though there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that a significant part of the North Korean population lives in severe hardship, harvests do not appear to be declining. On the contrary. According to the WFP’s 2017 needs assessment for North Korea,

“[w]hile official Government harvest data for 2016 has not yet been released, FAO estimates that rice production in 2016 increased by 23 per cent compared to the previous year when there was drought, but remains below the previous three-year average.”

Third, the World Food Program’s methodology for estimating these figures is rather unclear and problematic. For example, in the above-mentioned assessment of North Korean needs and priorities for 2017, released earlier this year, the WFP classifies all those depending on the Public Distribution System (PDS) as “suffering from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services.”

Presumably, this is derived from the fact that PDS distribution (of grains and staple foods, which is basically all it distributes) fluctuates through the year and is fairly unpredictable. But with the growing prevalence of the markets, it is unclear whether even those who the WFP claim “depend” on the PDS, really get the main portion of their food from the system. Over the past few years, public distribution of food has become an increasingly marginal (though certainly not unimportant) part of the food supply, and assuming that 18 million North Koreans experience food insecurity simply because they are beneficiaries of the public distribution system seems questionable at best. Obviously, the only way to understand food security overall would be to look at sources of food overall, not just one channel of supply.

Fourth, one overall problem with data on food security in North Korea remains the involvement of the North Korean government in the data collection. That is not to say that the North Korean government pushes the food production estimates upward to make itself look more successful. On the contrary, at times it probably exaggerates food needs in order to receive more outside assistance. Rather, the political nature of food, markets and the economic system makes it difficult to get trustworthy assessments of the food situation in the country. Only in one paragraph in its short version of North Korea’s needs estimates for 2017 does the World Food Program even allude to the markets:

In addition to the PDS, households are increasingly reliant on markets for their foods, except cereals. Farmers’ markets are distribution channels for a wide range of foods and basic necessities. In addition to swaps and bartering, markets involve large numbers of small transactions, often led by women.
Markets enable households to sell produce from their kitchen gardens; vegetables, maize and potatoes, as well as some small livestock.

Given the extent to which marketization has prevailed in North Korean society for over close to three decades, language like this seems to conflict with an overwhelming body of information about the centrality of the markets in the system today.

And, of course, there is the elephant in the room: North Korea’s economic system itself. As Amartya Sen famously pointed out, famine and food insecurity does not first and foremost stem from a lack of food overall, but from skewed entitlements. In other words, resources exist, but the problem is who gets them. In North Korea, the regime continues to refuse overarching and fundamental reforms of the economic system. As Fyodor Tertitskiy convincingly argued in a recent piece in NK News, the systemic changes in the North Korean economy of the past few years is most likely the work of bureaucrats within the state hierarchy, rather than a push by Kim Jong-un. In short, there are a lot of things the regime could change about the economy, to improve access to food and diminish food insecurity, but which it does not do.

This makes language like this, also from the WFP’s 2017 needs assessment, so problematic (my emphasis):

There are many complex, intertwined reasons for the high rates of undernutrition in DPRK, including challenges in producing sufficient food. The majority of the country is mountainous, only 17 per cent of land is good for cultivation.
Agriculture also remains dependent on traditional farming methods. Food production is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs, such as quality seeds, proper fertilizer and equipment. In addition, changing weather patterns have left DPRK vulnerable to droughts and floods, which have affected agricultural production.

Mountains and bad weather are not factors unique to North Korea. Geography is not destiny, and there is no shortage in the world of countries that have overcome difficulties in their natural environment through good policy. One has to understand the difficult spot that the WFP and other UN institutions work in, given North Korea’s politically sensitive and tense context. But one can only hope that the WFP is clearer about pointing out systemic deficiencies in the North Korean economy when they talk to officials behind closed doors, than they are in public statements.

All this said, North Korea is an extremely difficult environment to navigate for international aid organizations. The women and men on the ground certainly do their best to accomplish good things, and make accurate measurements in a challenging environment. But it is important to keep these and other methodological issues in mind before drawing any major conclusions about North Korea’s food situation.

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North Korean merchants resisting price controls on markets

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

Food prices in the past closely mirrored the ups and downs of rice prices in North Korea. For example, if rice prices climbed by 1,000 KPW per kg, then corn prices could also be expected to rise by approximately 500 KPW. But that trend is beginning to change.
In addition, North Korean rice prices used to exhibit sensitivity to currency exchange rates, but rice prices have recently been falling and climbing independently of the exchange rates.
To calm volatility, the authorities have entered the markets and attempted to control prices, but merchants have widely rejected these measures. Merchants who sell similar products have been collaborating with one another to set prices or decide when to withhold products from sale.
Merchants know that the authorities attempts to crackdown on the marketplace usually fizzle out over time, said a separate source in Ryanggang Province. The vendors will pretend to agree and listen to the authorities, but then they will secretly raise the prices.
As rumors spread that large shipments of pork were being smuggled in, shrewd merchants refrained from putting pork up for sale because they were expecting the price to rise. They then sold large quantities at a higher price, before the prices gradually began to fall again, she continued.
One expert believes that this development signals how prices have moved out of the domain of the authorities and under the influence of the black market.
The price volatility we are currently seeing in North Koreas markets is a common element for underdeveloped countries, said Professor Lim Eul Chul, from the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) at Kyungnam University. He went on to explain that pricing decisions by individual actors involved in market activity are becoming increasingly relevant, but the authorities are having trouble keeping up with the information.
In the past, market agents carefully watched the authorities reactions when setting prices, but the markets have developed and now it is the authorities who are following behind. Big merchants have the power and sway to move the market and control prices. We can expect this trend to continue, he concluded.
Full article:
Merchants resist price controls
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2017-03-20
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North Korean rice prices have dropped drastically one year after the sanctions. Why?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Prices for rice have fallen in North Korea. Daily NK, which tracks prices of rice and foreign currency in three North Korean cities, reported in the beginning of this week that rice prices have fallen thanks to continued development of the market economy and a steady flow of goods to and from China. This has happened despite expectations that the sanctions that the UN passed one year ago would cause inflation.

In theory, the sanctions were supposed to curb trade with China because they targeted North Korea’s crucial minerals trade. In practice, a steady stream of news from the border suggests that trade has continued, albeit with periodic squeezes, following a familiar pattern of China’s sanctions implementation waxing and waning.

This makes a lot of sense. A better functioning and more efficient market should logically lead to lower prices, as should increased trade with China, given the increase in supply. But neither of these two factors explains the timing. There are several other elements to take into consideration when analyzing price changes in North Korea. I am not making any certain claims here about the relatively drastic shift in prices, but rather, pointing to a few factors that may have contributed.

First, one must ask: how big is the drop? The short answer is: pretty big, but not unprecedented. The following graph shows the last and first price observations in the Daily NK market prices database for every year since 2010–2011. (I’ve excluded 2009–2010 because of the distortions that the 2009 currency reform creates in the data.) It shows that a similar price drop happened between 2011 and 2012 as well.

Graph 1: rice prices in North Korea, last and first year observations. Graph by NKeconwatch.com. Data from Daily NK.

This latest price point, however, is not a historic low-point. We’ll see if prices continue to drop over the weeks, but as of now, there are fairly near time points when prices have been lower, such as April 2014 (see graph further down).

Prices are seasonal to a degree. Though the market system and the public distribution system (PDS) obviously function under very different mechanisms, the following graph from the World Food Program’s 2013 food and crop assessment (the latest exhaustive one they published, to my knowledge) underscores the point that supply varies depending as the harvest draws farther and closer, and suggests that overall supply tends to be particularly good in December and January in other years as well:

Figure copied from World Food Program Food and Crop Assessment in the DPRK, November 2013, showing seasonal variations in government grain distribution.

Overall, the story under Kim Jong-un’s tenure seems to be one of price stability. Since around the spring of 2014, prices have moved in a fairly delineated fashion (as visible in the right half of this graph):

Rice prices, average of three cities, 2012–2017. Data from Daily NK, graph by NKEconwatch.com.

Second, though it would be intuitively easy to conclude that the drop in prices was caused by better functioning market mechanisms and agricultural management changes, this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Again, such changes are crucial and may well have played a large role in the greater price stability of the past few years. But they would not explain this sudden shift.

Instead, the story seems to partially be the opposite, one of government action. A few days ago, Voice of America reported that PDS distributions in January of this year have, according to a World Food Program official, gone up by around ten percent as compared to the same period last year. Both in September and November, the North Korean government imported significantly larger quantities of rice than usual. These imports presumably go out through state channels rather than the private markets.

So while it’s impossible to isolate different effects from one another, it looks like the state can still have a significant impact on the food economy, even with the strong and continuously evolving market sector. This impact seems particularly likely this time around, given the sudden drop in prices. Only time will tell whether drop continues, or if prices continue to bounce within the limits of the past few years.

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Rice prices on steady decline

Monday, February 6th, 2017

According to the Daily NK:

Rice prices in North Korea’s markets are reportedly on a downward trend. It was originally expected that the sanctions implemented by the international community would lead to inflation due to trade reductions, but a year after the sanctions were implemented, prices have instead fallen due to the steady development of marketization and active trade with China.

According to recent findings by Daily NK, rice is trading at 4,000 KPW (per kg) in Pyongyang, 3970 KPW in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, and 4190 KPW in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province. This represents an approximate 1,000 KPW reduction from a year ago (Pyongyang 5019 KPW, Sinuiju 4970 KPW, Hyesan 4980 KPW).

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on January 30, “I know that China donated a large amount of rice after the flood damage in September last year. I also heard that rice farming in North and South and Hwanghae Provinces and South Pyongan Province went well.”

The price of rice in Hoeryong City (North Hamgyong Province), which suffered severe flood damage last year, is at approximately 3,600 KPW. “Rice was about 5,000 KPW in January, but prices have fallen now, so women preparing for the New Year’s holiday were fairly pleased,” she said.

“Rice prices have also been slowly dropping since the end of last year at the Pyongyang markets and reached 4,000 KPW this year. Traders (who purchase products to sell elsewhere) lining up at the market entrance to buy rice coming in from the countryside are saying that the amount of rice circulating in the markets has definitely increased compared to January last year,” a source in South Pyongan Province said.

“Rice prices in most markets in Pyongyang are declining, with more than 70% of rice being imported from China. People usually mix Chinese rice with Korean rice because Chinese rice is too dry (as if it has been in storage for a year), unlike the sticky Korean type.”

VOA (Voice of America) reported on January 26 that North Korea’s total rice imports from China amounted to 4.2 million tons last year (2016), a 2.4-fold increase over the previous year (2015). This statistic was put forward by Kwon Tae Jin, Director of East Asia Research at the GS&J Institute, citing an analysis of data published by China’s General Administration of Customs.

Sources within North Korea have consistently pointed out that revitalized market activities have played a role. “In the past (Kim Jong Il’s time), rice prices increased whenever the regime cracked down on market activities, but people are now able to do business without many restrictions. In the current situation, it’s unlikely that the price will suddenly jump,” a source in Ryanggang Province said.

Market stability has been a hallmark of Kim Jong Un’s rule and is thought to be reducing backlash from the general public as their quality of life improves.

However, the ongoing decline in rice prices is likely to lead to livelihood instability for farmers. If rice prices fall while the prices of other commodities (Chinese imports) remain the same, issues are likely to arise.

“The prices of commodities other than rice have mostly increased. As a result, a growing number of farmers are worrying that they will be unable to survive on farming alone,'” the Ryanggang-based source said.

Read the full story here:
Rice prices on steady decline
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin
2017-2-6

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The size of North Korea’s market economy, and why it matters

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The other day, South Korean think-tank KINU (Korean Institute for National Unification) reportedly claimed that North Korea has 404 official markets in total. As Curtis Melvin has already pointed out on twitter, the real number is actually higher, but all this depends on what precise definition you use of markets (institutionalized and government recognized, versus operating in a legal gray zone, et cetera). As this report by the U.S.-Korea Institute laid out last year – also using satellite imagery, like the KINU report does – markets have grown significantly in size since the early 2000s.

The more interesting figures, in my opinion, are KINU’s estimates for what the markets actually generate in terms of income for the government, and how many people they employ. Below, I place these figures in a comparative perspective within the economy as a whole, and discuss the proportional weight of the markets in the North Korean economy. But first, some of the usual caveats:

As with any figures relating to the North Korean economy, a great deal of caution must be exercised in approaching these numbers. It would seem nearly impossible, for example, to accurately calculate the number of people employed by the markets. In theory, this should not be that hard. Using Google Earth, you can measure, with a fair degree of accuracy, the size of the trading grounds, and knowing the rough size of the average market stall in a North Korean market and how many people work in each one, getting a rough number for the amount that they employ should not be impossible. It would be a very rough estimate but arguably that is better than nothing. But in practice, it would still not give the full story of how many people work in the markets, since many people work there part-time, at least according to (possibly outdated) anecdotal evidence.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the market system is not the entire private sector – many other types of exchanges and transactions go on in the North Korean economy, not all recognizable from above, in complexes such as residential buildings and the like, where small business have been known to operate from. So any number for government revenues, it is important to bear in mind, will only be an estimate (again, a very rough one) for the specific type of markets that KINU has recorded. KINU does not seem to have made its report available online yet – perhaps their methodology is laid out clearly enough to answer some of these questions.

What do the numbers tell us?

Still, the numbers are interesting as starting points for a broader analysis of the proportions and size of the North Korean economy. Starting with the number of individuals employed within the market system, KINU puts the number at 1.1 million. This is about 1/25 of the entire population of the country, as derived from the 2008 census. Table 34 (page 187 and onward) gives the total working-age population as approximately 17.37 million. Subtracting the share of the population listed as “studying,” we get around 16.4 million. Further subtracting the share of the population listed as “retired,” which arguably we shouldn’t do since elderly North Koreans are known to be significantly involved in market activities, we get approximately 13.3 million individuals. I do not subtract the share listed as “doing housework” simply because it seems far too unlikely that such a category in North Korea would really be excluded from the market labor force.

Just assuming as a theoretical experiment that KINU’s figures and the census numbers are accurate, we get a 7.5 percent share of people employed in the official market sector. In reality, the share may well lower since many people in the demographic groups subtracted are known to be involved in market activities. Conversely, it may be higher if KINU’s number does not take part-time workers into account or otherwise underestimates the number of market workers. Wheher or not one thinks this to be a high or low number is a matter of perspective. For comparison, the share of the labor force employed in retail trade in the United States was 10.2 in 2014.

Another interesting figure KINU gives is that for government revenue from the markets. Again, this, too, should not be hard to estimate in theory: if you approximate the amount of market stalls through satellite imagery and multiply the amount by the fee paid by each trader to the government, it shouldn’t be impossible to get a rough estimate for how much the trade brings the government. But of course, here, too, complications abound: when looking at markets from above, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly how large the actual trading grounds are, for example, and how much is made up of administrative and storage facilities. Still, an approximate estimate is immensely valuable as a starting point for a broader debate.

According to KINU, the North Korean government collects between $13 and $17 million per day in fees from market traders. Ever since 2003, the North Korean market regime has become increasingly formalized and incorporated into the official economy. This trend has reportedly continued under Kim Jong-un as well, and arguably accelerated during his tenure. This is clearly a wise move from a policy perspective: the government needs the markets and it needs the revenue, and their depiction as a threat to the regime may not be the full story.

Using the low number of $13 million gives us a figure of $4.7 billion in revenue per year, while the higher figure of $17 million gives $6.2 billion per year. Both the low- and the high-end estimates would put government revenues from market fees at a significantly higher figure than, for example, North Korea’s trade with China. In 2015, for example, North Korea’s exports to China estimated a total of $2.95 billion. The latest sanctions additions are estimated to take off around $700 million from North Korea’s export incomes. It is important to remember that even if they were to accomplish that, which remains doubtful, North Korea still has a domestic economy that matters greatly too. And remember – these are only estimated (estimated!) figures for government revenue from a specific type of market. They do not represent the entire private sector in North Korea.

So, while the role of exports should not be underestimated, it is important to remember that North Korea has a domestic economy of considerable size. Perhaps whatever pressure the sanctions applies on the North Korean economy could serve as an argument for those in the policy bureaucracy pushing for economic reforms that could further let the private economy develop.

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KINU report claims North Korea has 404 markets

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

As reported by Yonhap here (I will try to find a link to the full report as soon as it is up):

North Korea currently has 404 official markets which employ some 1.1 million people, a local think tank said Friday.

The Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) came up with the figures based on an analysis of the North Korean markets using Google Earth and a survey of North Korean defectors. The total does not include unauthorized markets.

Google Earth is a Google application that lets the user look at any corner of the earth as if viewed from a satellite.

The average number of customers reaches 57,000 per market. Nine markets are larger than South Korea’s famous 14,437-square-meter Dongdaemun Market in terms of their respective size, according to a KINU report.

The institute estimated North Korea collects US$13-17 million a day in usage fees from merchants selling goods at the markets. The communist state has received the fees since it gave an official permit to the markets in 2003, it said.

The communist state also has many temporary markets that have not gotten official authorization from the state, known as “Jangmadang.” These markets are set up in vacant fields where local merchants gather to sell and trade goods.

Full article:

N. Korea operates 404 official markets: report
Yonhap News
2016-12-10

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North Korean leader visits fishing station on the East Sea, emphasizes raise in catch

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Kim Jong Un visited a fishing station in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) area, and ordered that the catch be raised. Under leader Kim Jong Un, phrases like ‘the Golden Sea’ and ‘Socialist scent of the Sea’ have become prominent. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official wire service, reported that Kim visited the May 27 and August 1 Fishing Stations and conducted on-the-spot guidance.

The report stated that “Workers in the people’s army fishing sector and fishermen fulfilled their annual target set for them by respected comrade Kim Jong Un by November 7th by waging a fishing battle. They achieved dazzling success in catching 10,000 tons of sailfin sandfish, and continue to raise the amounts caught.”

Kim, first visiting the May 27 Fishing Station, indicated his satisfaction, saying, “I put many issues aside to come and convey this extraordinary news of success in the fishing industry to all the people. . . . Seeing the fishing station and apartments unfold before me like a picture as I was coming here was worth the trip. The East Sea area has a town in a state of ecstasy.”

The KCNA also reported that the May 27 fishing station had been built on the orders of Kim Jong Un, who also visited the site while it was under construction back last year in March. “It is another pride of the Songun era, with all the necessary and cutting edge facilities needed for the production of aquatic products and for the lives of fishermen.”

Having seen the fishing station, Kim said: “The People’s Army has shown how the Party’s policy, which states that using the mental energy of people one can create something from nothing, can be achieved. . . . The docks of the East Sea overflow with the smell of fish. I feel pleased to think of the parents who sent their children to guard the fatherland feeling happy when they smell this.”

Following this, Kim visited the August 1 Fishing Station, and said: “Seeing the fish piled high like a mountain for enough supply until next September I feel very happy, and feel all my fatigue leave me. . . . The organization at this facility is most satisfactory.” The Fishing station supplies orphanages, kindergartens, schools and nursing homes across the country with fish.

Kim Jong Un also discussed achievements in resolving the following problems: scientific fishing that enables fish to be caught regardless of the season; achieving a high standard of expertise, modernization and use of information technology in production and operations, introducing modern fishing methods, and increasing the catch; guaranteeing that fishing happens on more than 300 days, not allowing the seasons to keep the seas empty; equipping facilities with high quality refrigeration; taking a deep interest in the lives of fishermen; and stimulating energetic competition between fishing stations and individual boats.

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An affiliate of 38 North