Archive for the ‘International Governments’ Category

Did North Korea really see its best harvest “on record last year?

Friday, January 17th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As I and Peter Ward discovered some weeks ago, the claim by Kim Jong-un that North Korea had its “best harvest on record” did not make it into the English-language summary of Kim’s plenum speech put out by KCNA. Several media outlets have picked up on this claim, and that is not surprising. Not even a year ago, last spring and summer, both the North Korean government and UN organs sounded the alarm bells that North Korea’s harvest was so disastrous as to suggest a famine might be looming.

So what happened?

First of all, it should be noted, as always, that one must be extremely cautious in studying data on anything related to the North Korean economy. Most people who follow North Korea are well aware of this but especially when it comes to an issue like this, one cannot be cautious enough.

I focus here on the claim by Kim that the harvest was the best “on record”. It may well have been a good harvest, or at least a much better one than anticipated. This seems to be the case. The only attempt I’ve seen at a numerical estimate comes from South Korea’s Rural Development Administration. They estimate that North Korea’s harvest grew by around two percent in 2019 over 2018. This sounds fairly plausible and could perhaps be explained by weather conditions unexpectedly improving, or fertilizer donations from China, and the like. Or the government and FAO’s projections were simply wrong from the beginning.

To understand why it is so unlikely that this year’s harvest would be the best on record, we have to look at what ‘the record” really says. The following graph shows North Korean harvest figures between 1990 and 2017, as recorded by the FAO. These figures are not independently recorded or verified but, to the best of my knowledge, generated by FAO in cooperation with the North Korean government, or provided directly by the government. Usually, that would be a problem, but here, it’s actually quite helpful since it helps us analyze the claim about the “record”.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: FAOSTAT.

I downloaded these numbers from the FAO database some months ago. For whatever reason, I’m unable to access the data at their website at this time of writing, and therefore, can’t fill in the data further back. This data also differs somewhat from other data on North Korean harvests from the World Food Program and FAO. Still, they match quite closely with other data the two organizations have published in recent years about North Korean food production. Again, keep in mind that this data is produced and published in concert with the North Korean government. In that sense, these numbers are the “record”.

Over the past few years, estimated harvests have gravitated between four and five million tons in milled rice equivalent.  (You can read more here about what that actually means.) In 1993, North Korea’s record of harvests notes 7.5 million tons. Harvests hovered around 8 million tons in the 1980s – again, to the best of my recollection, as I can’t access the FAO statistics database numbers of North Korea at this time of writing.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: WFP/FAO. 2019 is a projected figure.

For Kim’s claim to be true, therefore, this past year’s harvest would have had to go from around five million tons in 2018, to surpassing eight million tons in 2019. I am no agricultural economist, but Kim would likely need something like a miracle of nature for this to happen. I am not aware of North Korea’s landmass suddenly doubling, for example, or the amount of arable land increasing by one third overnight. Therefore, Kim’s claim is most likely, beyond reasonable doubt, simply not true. Note also that outlets such as Daily NK have reported that the government has taken predatory measures against grain trade as a result of what the outlet describes as “poor agricultural yields”.

In other words, there is very little to back up the claim made by Kim (and subsequently by North Korea-affiliated Choson Sinbo). This claim is a break with a pattern over the past few years, where North Korean media has been very frank – often, probably exaggerating – in describing difficulties and damage caused by flooding and inclement weather. There are several reasons why this may have changed with regards to the harvest. For one, food security a very basic need for any country. With bad food security, North Korea appears weak in the face of sanctions. It would hardly be the first time the North Korean government lied for strategic, propaganda purposes. It is also possible that harvests were much better than anticipated, and that Kim’s claim is merely a strong exaggeration. Perhaps “best on record” should be read as a superlative, rhetorical claim rather than a literal one. At the end of the day, we simply don’t know, and the ways of the inefficient North Korean bureaucracy are mysterious.

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Chinese tourism to North Korea rising

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap:

In the report on North Korea published by the state-run Korea Development Institute, Kim Han-gyu, a deputy director at the Korea Tourism Organization, estimated that the number of Chinese tourists to North Korea hit a record high last year, and the trend is likely to persist for the time being.

“This is a probable scenario if current relations between North Korea and China, and the international political situation either persist or improve,” Kim said.

In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited North Korea for the first time since he came to power in 2012, a trip that suggested that bilateral relations are back on track after being strained over Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in recent years.

The bilateral ties — once described as being as close as “lips and teeth” — had been soured over the North’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.

North Korea has stepped up efforts to attract more tourists in an apparent bid to earn hard currency in the face of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear tests and its long-range rocket launches.

In 2002, 121,000 Chinese visited North Korea, accounting for 62.4 percent of all foreign tourists to the North that year.

The number of Chinese tourists fell sharply to 24,000 in 2009, when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test in May that year.

Source:
Chinese tourists to N. Korea on rise: official
Yonhap News
2019-07-31

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China’s Xi promised funding for bridge connections in North Korea, reports say

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This is quite interesting, and hardly surprising. Overall, I’ve seen very little to suggest that China regards the current sanctions pressure as anything but a temporary measure. That would fit the historical pattern well. (For more on this, feel free to check out my chapter on Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy and its impacts on the North Korean economy.) This time is very different because of the longevity and extent of the Chinese sanctions pressure, but in nature, I don’t believe China’s medium- to long-term strategy on North Korea and sanctions has changed. Talk of China “abandoning” North Korea, which used to be rife when Chinese trade data on North Korea pointed in a downward direction, has often been and remains much overblown.

The news is that Xi Jinping, during his June visit to North Korea, supposedly promised that China would fund facilities on the North Korean side of the new-ish border bridge between southwestern Dandong, as well as fund work on the Hwanggumpyong SEZ. Asahi Shimbun:

China has promised to foot the bill for the construction of related facilities for an already-completed bridge across the border between China and North Korea, sources said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made the pledge when he visited North Korea in June, they said.

During the visit, Xi also promised that China will promote construction of an economic development zone on North Korea’s Hwanggumpyong Island in the Yalu River, which forms a natural border between the two countries, the sources added.

Construction of the bridge and the economic development zone were agreed on when former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was still alive. But the projects were effectively frozen after his son and successor Kim Jong Un became the country’s leader.

Xi’s willingness to pay the costs of building an access road to the bridge on the North Korean side of the border, as well as customs-related facilities, suggest that economic relations between the two neighbors are moving to a firmer footing.

According to sources knowledgeable about trade between the two countries and those with links to North Korean authorities, Xi’s promises were conveyed to high-ranking North Korean government officials during meetings to report on the outcome of a summit meeting between the two countries.

Xi’s largesse was also shared in the North Korean military as it will be involved in the construction of bridge-related facilities as well as the economic development zone.

The New Yalu River Bridge connects Dandong in China with Sinuiju in North Korea. Although the bridge has been completed, it is not yet open to traffic.

China will provide about 2.5 billion yuan (39 billion yen, or $360 million) for the construction costs. Chinese engineers have been conducting field surveys since late June.

Since around that time, the upper parts of the bridge have been lit up at night.

In mid-July, cars carrying Chinese government officials traveled to a border gate in the middle of the bridge.

Construction of the bridge started in 2011 when Kim Jong Il was in power. China spent about 1.8 billion yuan in construction costs. The bridge was completed in 2014 under Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Source:
China to fund costs so bridge to North Korea can open to traffic
YOSHIKAZU HIRAI
Asahi Shimbun
2019-07-29

On the North Korean side, the bridge has been lacking a connection to the broader road network (or to anywhere, really) since construction began in 2011, as these pictures show:

The new Yalu river bridge, October 1st, 2011. Image from Google Earth/Digital Globe.

The new Yalu river bridge, March 2nd, 2019. Image from Google Earth/Digital Globe.

Overall, this emphasizes the reality that China really is the only country that North Korea has close, substantive and sustainable trade links with. It was truly unlikely that Xi’s visit to North Korea would occur without any promises for economic benefits or the like. Kim Jong-un’s visits to China have rendered similar benefits, though perhaps not of the same economic magnitude.

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Daily NK: North Korean laborers reach Russian construction sites despite sanctions

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports:

“Recently, there have been many North Korean workers coming in to Russia. They are arriving at Khabarovsk Station via Tumangang Station. North Korean workers are usually dispatched to Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk and most of them are construction workers,” a source familiar with local affairs told Daily NK.

According to the source, a considerable number of new laborers are being deployed to Russian construction sites as well as some factories and logging sites.

In an interim report submitted to the United Nations in March, Russia said that the number of North Korean workers staying in Russia has declined from 30,023 at the end of 2017 to 11,490 at the end of 2018. Although the number with officially granted visas may have declined, it is believed that these new workers are entering Russia using methods other than a work visa, such as student or temporary stay visas.

It has been reported that in addition to the hard labor, those working in Russia have poor working conditions. They are cooking and sleeping at the same construction site at which they are working.

“North Korean workers are working at a building that is attached to the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok’s Russky Island, and work an average of 15 hours per day from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm or even until 11:00 pm,” he said.

“The daylight is long these days in Russia, so they are working until late in the night without lighting. North Korean workers are really angry because they are worked like dogs. And even though they are working so hard, they do not have much left after paying $1200 dollars to the North Korean company they work for.”

Even under such dire circumstances, North Korean laborers still value being sent to Russia because they can make significantly more money than they can in North Korea.

Some of the highly skilled North Korean workers who have been working in Russia for more than three years are said to be finding their own work under the condition that they pay $1000~$1300 dollars to the state enterprise as a loyalty contribution.

“Those with good skills are freelancing. Some even make $2000~$3000 dollars a month,” a separate source in Russia told Daily NK.

“Russian companies also prefer North Korean workers. Their wages are cheap and they are skilled and work very fast. That is why Russian construction companies prefer to hire them.”

Currently in Russia, there are about 23 North Korean enterprises including Rungrado, Namgyong, Cholsan Trading Company, and Number 17 Construction Company that manage North Korean workers. “A Khabarovsk-based North Korean trading company manages about 2000 North Korean workers,” said the source.

However, it has been reported that recently-dispatched North Korean workers in Russia cannot freely move or contact the outside world as they are under tighter surveillance.

Source:
North Korean laborers reach Russian construction sites despite sanctions
Jang Seul Gi
Daily NK
2019-07-24

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China-North Korea trade up in first half of 2019

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A fairly minor recovery from an already low level, one should bear in mind. SCMP reports:

China’s trade with North Korea recovered in the first half of this year after a sharp fall in 2018, Beijing said on Tuesday.

The announcement comes as ties between the countries improve, with Chinese President Xi Jinping making his first state visit to Pyongyang last month.

Total trade with North Korea reached US$1.25 billion between January and June, up 14.3 per cent compared to the same period a year earlier, Ministry of Commerce figures showed.

Exports to North Korea amounted to US$1.14 billion – a rise of 15.5 per cent – while imports rose 3.2 per cent to US$110 million.

China remains North Korea’s sole military ally and biggest trading partner. Trade in 2018 was worth US$2.7 billion, down 48.2 per cent year on year, the Seoul-funded Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency said last week.

North Korea’s trade with China fell sharply in 2018, taking its overall foreign trade to less than US$3 billion for the first time since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.

[…]

Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said China was “doing its work under the UN sanctions regime” but that North Korea might have the strength to work through its economic hardships.

“The country is always economically isolated from the rest of the world, and North Korean people are used to this situation. In fact, self-reliance has been their way of life for a very long time,” Zhang said.

Article source:

China-North Korea trade up 14.3 per cent in first half to US$1.25 billion
Lee Jeong-ho
South China Morning Post
2019-07-24

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DailyNK on Xi Jinping’s June 2019 and domestic economic impacts

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea on June 20-21 has garnered significant international interest on the impact it will have on the lives of ordinary North Koreans, who continue to suffer from the impact of international sanctions.

There is also interest in the “bag of gifts” that Xi will bring to North Korea for his upcoming visit. Past Chinese premiers visiting North Korea typically brought gifts for the regime: Jiang Zemin promised food, fuel and manure to North Korea during his visit in 2001, while Hu Jintao promised two billion USD in aid in 2005.

One potential reason that Xi has not made an earlier trip to North Korea may be because China’s hands are somewhat tied in regard to such gifts while international sanctions remain in place. In all likelihood, however, the fact that Xi has decided to make the trip suggests that China intends to provide economic aid to the country.

Some observers say that China will have difficulty providing aid that goes outside the boundaries of international sanctions. There may be limits to only providing humanitarian aid such as food or manure as a show of sincerity.

Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) researcher Cho Han-bum told Daily NK on June 18 that “China will not be able to lift the sanctions or become a game-changer on the international stage in regards to North Korea,” but that “it wants to influence events on the Korean Peninsula so it will try to maintain a strong relationship within the framework of international sanctions.”

“China can provide large shipments of food and other necessities,” Cho also noted. “They might try to strengthen the bilateral relationship by increasing human exchanges and tourism to North Korea.”

While China has acquiesced to many of the international sanctions imposed on North Korea, the country may aim to improve the lives of the North Korean people given that it publicly opposes sanctions that damage the civilian economy.

“The Chinese government believes that the sanctions are damaging North Korea’s civilian economy while failing to denuclearize the country,” Gyeongsang National University professor Park Jong-chul told Daily NK when asked for comment. “I predict that China will drastically increase humanitarian aid that does not run afoul of international sanctions.”

Park opined that Xi’s visit to North Korea could lead to more human exchanges, which could in turn positively impact the North’s civilian economy. “Many more Chinese business people, scholars, students and tourists will go to North Korea […] this could soften the impact of the sanctions on North Korea while still abiding by them,” he said.

Xi’s visit to North Korea could also change the atmosphere in the Sino-North Korean border region. China could scale back its strong-armed efforts to eliminate smuggling in the area or even allow North Korean workers to return to China.

Daily NK reported in January that smuggling was widespread in the border region after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s fourth visit to China. A Chinese source also reported that large numbers of North Korean workers were seen heading into China after Kim’s first visit to the country in March last year.

“The Chinese government is cracking down on smuggling, but tends to soften its stance during and after summits,” Park said. “There is an increasing number of North Korean workers at companies in Beijing and other places in China […] The Chinese government seems to be developing a visa that can allow these workers to stay under non-worker visas.”

Source:
Impact of Xi’s planned visit to North Korea on the country’s civilian economy
Ha Yoon Ah
Daily NK
2019-06-20

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Seoul wires $8 million to North Korea in humanitarian aid

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Note: this is not a lot of money in context. It covers only a small part of what WFP and others estimate as the funding need.

Yonhap:

South Korea on Tuesday sent a pledged donation of US$8 million to U.N. agencies to support their efforts to provide assistance to North Korean women and children in need, the unification ministry said.

Last week, the Seoul government endorsed the donation plan for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for their projects to support the nutrition of children and pregnant women in North Korea and address their health problems.

Of the total, $4.5 million was allocated to the WFP and the remainder to UNICEF.

The money was remitted to the agencies Tuesday afternoon, according to the unification ministry.

A ministry official said earlier in the day that it will take more time before the money will be actually spent on the agencies’ projects in North Korea, adding that they are working on reducing the time before its implementation in consideration of the urgent need of many North Korean people.

Article source:
Seoul wires promised money to U.N. agencies for N.K. projects
Yonhap News
2019-06-11

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Is China trying to destroy North Korea?, wonders this North Korean trader

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I suppose the headline for this post might count as clickbait in our field, but I couldn’t help it… Daily NK:

North Korean workers in China facing visa denials or restrictions on their sojourn periods are being forced to return home, according to an affected source in China.

A North Korean trader in Liaoning Province recently told Daily NK by phone that Chinese authorities are demanding that all North Korean workers return home.

“I do business in Liaoning Province. China is making a big fuss and ordering us out [of the country] and now my Chinese visa has almost expired. But few North Koreans actually care about their visa status in China. China telling us to leave and it’s making me really angry and annoyed,” he said.

“A lot of people are returning home. This happened in the past, but this time is different. I asked a North Korean customs official and he said that half of the North Koreans in Dandong have left. That’s a huge number of people. Those who remain are worried about their status here. People who work in China generally have debts to pay back. I sometimes wonder if China is trying to destroy North Korea.”

He also spoke about his own precarious situation.

“I’ve brought over many workers myself into China. Each of them gave me 500 dollars and I found them work in factories run jointly with China. They’re all 500 dollars in debt. They can’t repay this money, so they’re worried about returning home. They could get beaten up or even die if they can’t repay their debts,” he said.

“I haven’t been able to contribute enough to the [regime’s] loyalty fund either. Returning home would be a death sentence. I’d rather die here (in China) before my body returns home.”

Full article:
North Korean trader in China expresses concerns about his own precarious situation
Ha Yoon Ah
Daily NK
2019-05-07

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Possible North Korea five-year strategy document leaked, says Japanese newspaper

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The following is interesting if true, and it makes a great deal of sense. One of North Korea’s main challenges is diversifying itself away from the overwhelming reliance on China for trade and economic ties. It’s easier said than done, though, and a wise (from a North Korean point of view) strategic ambition is one thing; realizing it is entirely different. I’ve written elsewhere about the age-old North Korean aim of diversifying itself economically away from reliance on China. Still, not much has happened since Kim Jong-il’s speech in the 1990s…

Hankyoreh’s re-write of Mainichi Shimbun:

A document titled “National Economic Development Strategy (2016–2020)” that North Korea adopted in the 2016 congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) stated that the country needs to become less dependent on China, the Japanese press has reported.Japanese newspaper the Mainichi Shimbun reported on Apr. 21 that the strategy document set the goal of achieving an average annual economic growth rate of 8% and proposed “reducing our reliance on China and expanding foreign trade in a number of areas, including Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.”

While this strategy was adopted in the 7th WPK Congress, held in May 2016, after a hiatus of 36 years, the specific details and figures in the strategy had not been previously disclosed. The Mainichi explained that the strategy document had recently been acquired by Cho Yun-yeong, a Korean-Japanese researcher on North Korea.This document said that China represented 71.6% of North Korea’s trade value in 2014; Russia, 4.2%; and Germany, 0.8%. “China accounts for an overwhelming share of trade. We’ve been unable to move away from our dependence on China,” the document said.

The solution posited by the document was the diversification of foreign trade.More specifically, North Korea set the goal of increasing the amount of its trade with Russia to US$1 billion by 2020. According to the latest estimate by the South Korean government, North Korea’s trade with Russia amounted to US$77.84 million in 2017. In other words, the North was seeking to increase its trade with Russia more than tenfold in the space of just four years.The Mainichi Shimbun also said the North Korean document proposed gaining funds needed for building hydroelectric plants from Russia, as well as technical cooperation for upgrading facilities such as the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex and the Musan Iron Mine.

North Korea also appears to have drawn up a plan to attract investment from Russian companies in international tourism zones in Wonsan and Mt. Kumgang and an economic development zone in Chongjin, along the the East Sea, in order to “build a cooperative network for producing medical products on consignment, processing marine products and developing natural energy.”The Japanese newspaper predicted that economic cooperation between the two countries could be on the agenda of the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is likely to be held in Vladivostok on Apr. 24. But given the failure of the second North Korea-US summit, in Hanoi, to live up to its expectations, it won’t be easy for the North to massively boost its trade with Russia, as it hopes to do.

Full article:

N. Korean document reveals strategy to decrease reliance on China, Japanese press reports
Cho Ki-weon
Hankyoreh
2019-04-22

And here’s the original article:

Documents obtained by a South Korean researcher have shed light on the full breadth of North Korea’s top-secret state economic development strategy for 2016 to 2020, including an 8% economic growth target and strengthened ties with Russia and other countries to break dependence on China.

The 157 pages of strategy documents, along with a Jan. 21 paper titled “Cabinet decision No. 2,” which presents North Korea’s agenda for this year, were obtained by Cho Yun-yong, a researcher on North Korea who formerly served as a Tokyo correspondent for South Korean news agency Newsis.

According to the documents, Pyongyang aims to achieve 8% annual economic growth through technological development and trade diversification. While the state economic development strategy had been presented at the seventh convention of the Workers’ Party of Korea in May 2016, its details and numerical targets were not publicly released.

The objectives outlined in the documents likely provided motivation for Pyongyang’s strong demand that economic sanctions on the country be lifted during a February summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. They also likely played a part in the planned summit between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin later this month.

With regard to the current status of the North Korean economy, the strategy documents point to low output levels of electricity and coal and the failure to fulfill domestic demand for food supply and daily necessities. As measures to realize the economic development strategy, the documents cite technological development, trade diversification and the full introduction of a new economic management method, which implies de-facto economic reform.

Specifically, the strategy calls for a break from the North’s exclusive devotion to China and expansion of trade to Russia and other countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In particular, the initiative aims to boost the amount of trade with Russia to 1 billion dollars (about 110 billion yen) by 2020. The figure is more than 10 times the North Korea-Russia trade value of 77.84 million dollars in 2017, as reported in South Korean statistics.

The five-year strategic plan also suggests having Russia provide North Korea with the funds necessary to build hydroelectric plants and other facilities, as well as technological cooperation for revamping the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex and the Musan Mine.

Furthermore, the economic strategy proposes inviting investment from Russian companies for special economic zones along the Sea of Japan. These proposals may become topics for discussion at the upcoming summit between Kim Jong Un and Russian President Putin.

Article source:
Docs shed light on scope of N. Korean development strategy through 2020
Koichi Yonemura
Mainichi Shimbun
2019-04-20

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North Korea has skipped Kaesong liaison office meetings for eight weeks

Thursday, April 18th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Yonhap:

North Korea skipped a weekly meeting of the co-chiefs of an inter-Korean liaison office for the eighth straight week on Friday, deepening concerns about slumping cross-border exchanges amid stalled denuclearization negotiations between the U.S. and the North.

“North Korea informed us in advance that the North’s office head could not attend this week’s meeting,” unification ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told a regular press briefing. “The meeting will not be held (this week), but the two Koreas continue to discuss necessary matters in a normal manner.”

When the two Koreas launched the liaison office last September in the North’s border town of Kaesong, they promised to hold a meeting of its co-heads — Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung on the South side and his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong-su — every week, mostly on Fridays, to discuss cross-border issues.

The weekly meeting has not been held since before the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, which ended without a deal due to differences over how to match Pyongyang’s denuclearization steps with Washington’s sanctions relief. It was last held on Feb. 22.

Full article:
N. Korea skips meeting of liaison office chiefs for 8 straight weeks
Yonhap News
2019-04-19

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