Archive for the ‘International Governments’ Category

Tumen Triangle tribulations: The unfulfilled promise of Chinese, Russian and North Korean cooperation

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Andray Abrahamian has published a report with the US-Korea Institute on developments in the Tumen Triangle.

Here is the report description:

The Tumen Triangle region-where North Korea, China and Russia meet-is, in many ways, the story of regional integration being held back by the political concerns of Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow. There are long-term forces at work here, such as Moscow’s concerns over Chinese dominance in the sparsely populated Russian Far East. This legacy of mistrust frames cross-border interactions and despite recent warm relations, major cross-border cooperation remains limited.

In this USKI Special Report, Andray Abrahamian, Director of Research at Choson Exchange examines historical legacies, contemporary relations and shifting strategic priorities between the three countries. The report then focuses trade and investment in the Tumen Triangle region, particularly how the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and Primorsky Krai interact with and affect Rason Special City, the center of the Rason Special Economic Zone.

You can download the report here (PDF).


North Korean food shortage news roundup: October and November (updated)

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This summer and fall has seen a somewhat contradictory stream of information about the North Korean food situation. First there were the drought warnings, which were closely followed by regime sources claiming that harvests were actually getting better thanks to agricultural reforms. During the fall, however, the picture painted by multilateral institutions like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) has been one of dire and continued problems.

In early October, the FAO said that North Korea’s staple food production could go down by 14 percent during the year compared to last year, as AFP reported:

North Korea’s staple food production could plummet by 14 percent this year because of bad weather, sparking fears of exacerbating chronic food shortages in the impoverished nation, according to the UN agricultural agency.

The gloomy forecast from the Food and Agriculture Organization comes as the reclusive communist country prepares for a lavish military parade Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party.

The North is expected to produce 3.7 million tonnes of rice and corn this year, down from 4.3 million tonnes last year, according to a report from the FAO early warning system.

Pyongyang plans to import 500,000 tonnes of rice and corn from abroad, the FAO said, but it will not be enough to feed its 25 million people.

The country, plagued by regular droughts, will face a total shortfall of 1.2 million tonnes of its staples.

State media reported in early June the country’s main rice-growing areas had been badly hit by the “worst drought in 100 years”.

North Korea saw significant rainfall later, but analysts said the prospects for this year were still grim.

Full story here:
North Korea food production could drop 14%: FAO 
Yahoo News/AFP

Later last month, the FAO reiterated its concerns over North Korea in its yearly report on the state of agriculture in the world. Voice of America:

More than 26 percent of children in North Korea’s countryside are underweight, a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report says.

The agency, in its recently released “State of Food and Agriculture 2015” report, also estimated that there are twice as many undernourished children in the communist country’s rural areas as in its cities.

Andre Croppenstedt, an FAO researcher who wrote the report, told VOA that “it’s normal to have a much higher percentage of children underweight in rural areas as opposed to urban areas,” but that the gap “is perhaps a little larger than usual” in North Korea.

The North Korean ratio is the 24th highest among the 123 low-income developing countries. Among East Asian countries, North Korea’s ratio ranked fifth, after East Timor, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Laos.

Read the full story here:
FAO: 1 in 4 Rural North Korean Children Underweight
Kim Hyunjin
Voice of America

And last month, WFP announced it was extending its aid to North Korea over next year due to expected food shortages. Voice of America again:

The United Nations’ food agency plans to extend aid to North Korea amid reports that the communist country is facing food shortages next year.

Damian Kean, a regional spokesperson for the World Food Program (WFP), told VOA this week the agency plans to extend the current food aid program for another six months.

“This current program cycle is supposed to be finished this December. What we decided to do is to extend the program until the middle of next year,” said Kean.

He added that the agency needs an additional $23.3 million to fund the extension.

The WFP is conducting an assessment of the nutritional status of North Koreans to determine if further assistance is needed after June of next year, Kean said.

The agency launched a two-year food aid program in July 2013, and it had already extended the program through the end of this year.

According to Kean, the food shortages are affecting the most vulnerable groups, including young children and pregnant women.  More than 30 percent of North Korean children under five are experiencing stunted growth because of malnutrition, and more than a third of pregnant women and breastfeeding women are suffering from anemia.

Full story here:
UN to extend aid to North Korea
Kim Hyunjin
Voice of America

This all suggests, as one might have expected, that North Korean claims of successful agricultural reforms may not have been the whole truth. At the very minimum, had such reforms had a strong and positive impact, harvests shouldn’t be declining compared with last year. Or harvests could just be stronger than what they would have been after the drought absent economic reforms. In any case, North Korean claims of a growing harvest do not seem to have held out.

UPDATE 10-10-2015:

Marcus Noland at the Peterson Institute’s Witness to Transformation Blog offers an interesting theory on these numbers: they aren’t that bad when compared with output over the last decade.

Last week Yonhap ran a story titled “N.K. may suffer severe food shortage next year: S. Korean expert” in which Kwon Tae-jin, formerly of the Korea Rural Economics Institute and now at the GS&J Institute, argued that North Korea may be facing its greatest food shortage of the Kim Jong Un era. Numerous articles, citing reports from the UN system, have highlighted high rates of malnutrition, particularly among vulnerable groups such as children.

The problem is that while the situation appears to be deteriorating relative to last year, as shown in the chart above, the FAO forecast of actual food availability per capita for 2015-16 actually represents a slight improvement over conditions for most of this decade.

Detailed data from the FAO displayed in the table below confirm that while production is forecasted to decline for coarse grains, maize, and rice, only in the case of rice is output forecasted to be below the 2011-13 average, and in this case, increased imports are expected to offset most of the shortfall.

Full story here:
Is North Korean food insecurity being hyped? 
Marcus Noland
Witness to Transformation

What I wonder still is what this says about the progress of reforms, even if the figures aren’t particularly alarming. Also, the trend has been an increase in harvest figures over the past few years. So even if these figures aren’t particularly out of range, they still go against a trend of growth.


UPDATE (11-27-2015): Daily NK interviews one person in the country who says that this year saw a bumper harvest despite weather conditions, but not thanks to state reforms. The article says it’s not thanks to increases in collective farm harvests that things are going better, but because those tending individual plots have found better farming methods:

However, the number of people working hard to ensure the success of the rice harvests on collective farms is dropping. This is in large part due to the fact that despite reassurances from the state that farmers will receive sizable allocations of the harvest for their own use, for the past several years this has not been the case.

After “repeated failures by the authorities to fulfill stated promises,” he asserted, farmers have concluded that it makes no difference to them personally whether the collective farms do well or not.

Read the full article:
Despite Mother Nature, a bumper year for rice harvest
Lee Sang Yong


NCNK on pending sanctions legislation

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

The National Committee on North Korea (NCNA) has published a quick summary piece on sanctions legislation under deliberation in the US Congress. According to NCNK’s web page:

There are currently three related North Korea sanctions bills under consideration in Congress. H.R. 757, introduced to the House by Rep. Ed Royce in February 2015, is broadly similar to a bill that passed the House in the last session of Congress, but wasn’t acted upon by the Senate. In the Senate, S. 1747 was introduced by Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsay Graham in July of this year. Additionally, Senators Cory Gardner, Marco Rubio, and James Risch are co-sponsors of the recently-introduced bill S. 2144.

Although the three sanctions bills are generally similar in scope, there are several key differences among them, including their potential impact on humanitarian operations; the level of discretion the Executive Branch would have in applying sanctions; and language on sanctions targeting North Korea’s mineral industry.

NCNK’s new Issue Brief gives a detailed side-by-side summary of these three bills, noting key provisions and differences between the three.

You can download the Issue Brief here (PDF).


World Food Program North Korea funds down

Monday, October 5th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Voice of America reports:

The U.N. food aid agency said Thursday that its aid to North Korea’s vulnerable people dropped 44 percent last month because of a lack of funds.

A World Food Program spokesman said the organization in September provided 2,105 tons of food to 742,000 people who depend on external assistance, including pregnant women and children.

Last month’s amount was also significantly less than what the U.N. agency planned to provide. The agency’s goal was to provide 10,000 tons of food to 1.8 million people every month.

Recently, the agency scaled down distribution areas to 69 counties and cities across the country.

“The main reason for distributing less food in September was insufficient funding resources,” wrote Damian Kean, WFP’s regional communications officer, in an email to VOA.

To fund projects this year, the agency needs about $167.8 million, but it has secured only half of the amount so far, according to the agency’s website.

The FAO has also highlighted the problem. As mentioned in another post, while the North Korean government claims success for agricultural reforms and claims that the drought impact was very limited, international aid agencies paint a different picture. But data confusion is nothing unusual for North Korea, and perhaps the picture will change as both the North Korean government and multilateral agencies continue to reassess the situation.

Read the full article:

Cash-strapped World Food Program Cuts Aid to N. Korea

Voice of America



The Political Prestige of North Korea’s Economic Reforms, and why it may be a Problem

Monday, September 28th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This certainly has been the season of contradictory information on North Korea’s food supply. The North Korean government is celebrating and claiming success of their agricultural reforms, while the FAO reports that things have gotten worse. Let us recap what has happened:

First there was the drought. North Korean state media described it as the worst one in 100 years. UN agencies predicted large-scale crop failures and appealed for food aid, warning that large shares of the population would be at great risk if aid did not come. The UN’s emergency response fund (CERF) allocated $6.3 million to counter the impacts of the drought. The rains came, however, and the drought alarms seemed to have been exaggerated.

Next, the North Korean media – assuming you can even talk about it as a single, coordinated entity – went the other direction. In July, the weekly Tongil Sinbo claimed that thanks to agricultural reforms, this year’s harvest had actually increased “despite adverse weather conditions”.

And recently, reports turned the other way again. In early September, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN declared that the cereal production forecast for the main season of 2015 had declined drastically from last year due to a “prolonged dry spell”.

The rain that eventually came in July and August, causing flooding in the northern parts of the country and leading to an estimated loss of one percent of all planted areas. The FAO rice production forecast for 2015 is 12 percent below that of last year. State food rations, the importance of which can be debated, declined drastically, according to the agency.

In the midst of all of this, North Korean propaganda is still claiming success for the reforms. Earlier this month, the state news agency KCNA reported that a “dance party” had been held in South Hwanghae, part of the country’s rice bowl, celebrating improving conditions on the countryside:

The performers presented cheerful dances depicting the happy agricultural workers who work and live in the rural areas now turning into a good place to work and live thanks to the successful embodiment of the socialist rural theses under the leadership of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

The picture gets even more complicated if one assigns meaning to the fact that cereal imports from China were reportedly lower in July this year compared to 2014. Figures from just one month might not indicate a trend, but given that July was a particularly dire month, these figures are still significant. If imports are being decreased because the official line is that agricultural conditions have improved, no matter the reality, that might be bad news for those in the North Korean public that rely on the public distribution system for any significant part of their consumption.

Either the FAO is right and the North Korean government wrong, or the other way around. Harvests this season cannot have been improving and getting worse at the same time. The FAO is probably far more likely than the North Korean government to have made a correct assessment here. Even if North Korean authorities aren’t claiming success of the reforms for propaganda reasons – which they may well be doing – it is hard to see why their statistical and monitoring capabilities would be better than those of the FAO.

So, the North Korean government is claiming that agricultural reforms are leading to better harvests and food conditions, even when they probably aren’t. Why would they do that? There are lots of possible reasons and one can only speculate.

One possible reason is that the agricultural reforms have become a prestige project. North Korean propaganda channels and news outlets have publically claimed that reforms are being implemented and leading to good results, even though some adjustment problems have been admitted. The same pattern, by the way, can be seen with regards to forestry policies – state media has publicized them with a bang and claimed that they just aren’t being implemented well enough by people on the ground when they don’t seem to be working as intended.

This could be an indication that agricultural reforms are indeed, like many have assumed, a major policy project of Kim Jong-un and the top strata.

That could be good news. After all, North Korea is in dire need of changes in agricultural structures, production methods, ownership and responsibility.

But it could also be bad news. When policies are strongly sanctioned and pushed by the top, their flexibility is likely to be inhibited. In other words, if the top leadership says that something should get done, it has to get done regardless of whether it works well or not.

Again, look at the forestry policies. According to reports from inside the country, those tasked with putting the new policies into practice on the ground say that doing what the central government asks isn’t smart or possible. Nevertheless, such orders are hard and risky to question.

At this stage it is only speculation, which is always a risky endeavor when it comes to North Korea. It may well later turn out to be wrong.

But if the state is placing enough prestige in the agricultural reforms to claim that conditions are improving even if they aren’t, that may lead to limited flexibility in how they are implemented and changed in the future. In other words, if the leadership thinks they are important enough to claim success even when things are getting worse, they may not be prone to changing their orders to fix what isn’t working.


China – DPRK open new shipping route

Friday, September 25th, 2015

According to Xinhua:

A bulk cargo and container shipping route between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been put into operation, focusing on coal import from DPRK and grocery export from China, authorities said on Friday.

The route, linking Longkou port of east China’s Shandong Peninsula to Nampo port of western DPRK was the first scheduled shipping line for bulk cargo and container between the two countries. It is serviced by seven ships, which complete one circuit of the ports every ten days, according to Longkou Port Group.

The route was jointly established by Longkou Port Group, Liaoning Hongxiang Industrial Group and a shipping company in DPRK in a bid to promote international trade under China’s “Belt and Road” initiative.

Located at the Bohai Sea coast and built in 1914, Longkou port handled 75.07 million tonnes of cargo and 550,000 TEU of containers last year.

“The opening of the route can help improve the service function of the port and is of great significance for the port’s transformation and upgrading,” said Zhang Haijun, general manager of Longkou Port Group.

Read the full story here:
Bulk cargo and container shipping route links China, DPRK


North Korean and Chinese scholars clashing over North Korean business laws

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap reports about a seemingly interesting forum that has taken place in Beijing, sourcing Global Times reporting. The article is an interesting illustration of the divergent ways in which Chinese and North Korean scholars/analysts seem to view North Korea’s economic situation and business environment (my emphasis):

Scholars from North Korea and China recently held a forum where they remain at odds over whether the isolated North could attract foreign investors and protect them, according to state-run Chinese media.

North Korean scholars insisted that their country offer a raft of legal and financial incentives for foreign investors, but Chinese scholars raised doubts over the North’s efforts, as it is under U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.

The three-day forum, held in the Chinese border city of Yanji, ended on Sunday, state-run Global Times newspaper reported on Tuesday.

Paik Il-sung, a legal professor at North Korea’s Kim Il-sung University, said that the North’s laws protect the property rights of foreign investors. Even if the rights of foreign investors undermine North Korea’s national interests, an “unavoidable confiscation” of their property would be carried out in accordance to laws, Paik said.

Choe Su-gwang, an economics professor at the North Korean university, said that North Korea allows foreign investors to arbitrate conflicts with the state throughout an arbitration panel.

Besides geopolitical risks, poor infrastructure was cited by Chinese scholars as one of main reasons for deterring foreign investment in North Korea.

Lin Jinshu, a professor from China’s Yanbian University, said China intends to build infrastructure in the North’s Rason special economic zone, but a lack of relevant accords prevents Chinese investors from doing so.

Rason was designated by North Korea as a free trade zone in 1991, but efforts by the North to bring life to the zone have failed amid geopolitical concerns.

A monthly usage fee for the Internet in the Rason economic zone is 7,000 yuan (about US$1,089), but the Internet there is slow as a “turtle’s pace,” Lin told the forum.

Zhang Huizhi, a professor at China’s Jilin University, also raised the question how North Korea could protect property rights of foreign investors in the event of a war.

Aside from the comment about an arbitration panel, it is notable that the emphasis by the North Korean side of the discussion, at least as reported in this piece, lies very heavily on legal text. It’s enough if written laws are good, seems to be the attitude, which is of course not the way most potential investors see things.

Read the full article:

Yonhap News

N. Korean, Chinese scholars at odds over investment in N. Korea






New border bridge between North Korea and China: all is well in the border areas

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap reports a new agreement between North Korea and China to build a bridge over the Tumen River, connecting Tumen City in China and Namyang in North Korea:

North Korea and China have signed an agreement to build a new bridge over the Tumen River that runs between the two nations, Chinese officials said on Wednesday, in the latest sign that economic ties between Pyongyang and Beijing remain largely unaffected despite the North’s nuclear and missile programs.

The agreement was signed in Pyongyang on Tuesday by North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Pak Myong-guk and the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea, Li Jinjun, the Chinese Embassy said in a statement.

The new bridge will link the North Korean border city of Nanyang and the Chinese border city of Tumen, where bilateral trade with North Korea is bustling.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

During the signing ceremony, Li told Pak that the new bridge “will provide greater convenience for people of the two countries and trade ties” and “will also contribute to improving infrastructure of the China-North Korean border,” according to the statement.

Tumen is, of course, close to the larger city of Yanji (연길) and the two are well connected by highway.

It is perhaps symbolic of China-North Korea relations on the more local level that the announcement comes amidst news of increased signs of North Korean nuclear and rocket activity. Often, economic activity and ties between Chinese and North Korean border regions goes largely unaffected by regional political tension.

Read the full story:

Yonhap News

N. Korea, China sign deal to build new bridge over Tumen River


Yonhap News


A new defector survey about market trade in North Korea, and what it says (maybe) about Kim Jong-un

Friday, August 28th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

In Wall Street Journal, Jeyup Kwaak reports on a new defector survey by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (08-26-2015) (added emphasis):

The Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies annually surveys more than 100 North Koreans who defected in the prior calendar year. The results provide firsthand insight into developments in the isolated state, though its researchers said they shouldn’t be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.


The latest survey, of 146 North Koreans who escaped in 2014, shows significant growth from the previous year in the number of people saying they conducted private business activities and paid bribes to enable them. A little more than half said they received no money from the state, down from last year’s survey but up from the one released in 2013.

Experts say between half and three-quarters of North Koreans’ income comes from quasi-illegal market activities, such as trade of basic goods smuggled in from China, but sporadic crackdowns by national or regional security officials lead to irregular business and bribery. Defectors say officials often collect fees when they set up a booth at a market.

The results themselves do not present a new trend. Several previous defector studies indicate that markets are perhaps the most important source of income and sustenance for many (if not most) North Koreans. However, a few things are interesting to note.

The links may not be entirely clear, but it is at least symbolic that the current survey, albeit with a very small number of interviewees, suggests that support for Kim Jong-un and the leadership may not be waning, at the same time as market activity continues unabated. This at least calls into question an assumption that sometimes occurs that market trade would lead people to become more critical of the regime.

Again, too much shouldn’t be read too much into a small study with participants that probably are not geographically or socially representative of North Korea as a whole. Defectors as a group rarely are. But perhaps one could imagine that market trade being so institutionalized and regulated by the regime would make it more synonymous with the regime itself. I.e., if market trading is seen as something positive, maybe this reflects positively on the regime as well — perhaps the market has been co-opted.

The article also reminds us of the rather peculiar combination of dynamics seen under Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, market trade seems to continue unabated domestically, and initiatives like the new special economic zones and the agricultural reforms show that there is at the very minimum some new thinking going on.

But on the other hand, border controls have been tightened to a degree rarely seen since the mid-1990s, according to defector reports. Just today, DailyNK reports (in Korean) that resident in the Sino-Korean borderlands have seen their access to the Amnok river, often used for laundry by locals, increasingly restricted as of late. As the WSJ writes,

Just 614 North Koreans made it to the South in the first half of this year, compared with 2,706 in the 2011 calendar year, according to the most recent ministry data.

The drop in North Koreans who visited China on legal visas so far this year should perhaps also be seen in this context.

Taken together, the tightened border controls on the one hand, and the seemingly changing (one could say “progressive”) rhetoric on economic matters on the other, paint a mixed picture.

In the early days of Kim Jong-un, the question was whether he was a reformer or a hardliner. A few years into his rule, it seems he might be neither and both at the same time.


The Kaesong Industrial Complex and inter-Korean tensions

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-8-24): The North and South Koreans have agreed to a solution to the situation. According to KCNA via Yonhap:

1. The north and the south agreed to hold talks between their authorities in Pyongyang or Seoul at an early date to improve the north-south ties and have multi-faceted dialogue and negotiations in the future.

2. The north side expressed regret over the recent mine explosion that occurred in the south side’s area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), wounding soldiers of the south side.

3. The south side will stop all loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the MDL from 12:00, August 25 unless an abnormal case occurs.

4. The north side will lift the semi-war state at that time.

5. The north and the south agreed to arrange reunions of separated families and relatives from the north and the south on the occasion of the Harvest Moon Day this year and continue to hold such reunions in the future, too and to have a Red Cross working contact for it early in September.

6. The north and the south agreed to vitalize NGO exchanges in various fields.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-8-20): The two Korea’s literally just finished hammering out a new agreement on “wages” for North Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. However, with the ink barely dried, a new round of escalating conflict between the Koreas is affecting operations at the KIC…

According to Yonhap:

South Korea said Friday it will limit the entry of its nationals into a joint industrial park in North Korea following the exchange of artillery fire between the two sides.

The Unification Ministry said it will only permit South Korean businessmen directly involved in the operation of factories at the Kaesong Industrial Park to enter the complex.

But other South Koreans, including those working at subcontractors, will not be allowed to move in and out of the complex in the North’s border city of the same name, the ministry said.

South Korea fired back at North Korea on Thursday following the North’s firing of shells at a South Korean front-line military unit in the western area of the heavily fortified border. No damage was reported.

A total of 124 South Korean small and medium-size enterprises operate factories at the industrial park, the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation. About 54,000 North Koreans work there.

South Korean businessmen safely returned to the South from the complex on Thursday despite the North’s provocation.

The ministry said it has taken measures to ensure the safety of South Koreans who are temporarily staying in the North.

Read the full story here:
S. Korea to partially ban entry into joint industrial park