Archive for the ‘International Governments’ Category

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.


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


DPRK visitors to China drops in H1 2015

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

According to the Daily NK:

The number of North Koreans who visited China through legal means has dipped this year.

Data on the number of foreigners who went to China in the first half of this year indicate roughly 89,700 North Koreans crossed into the country, according to figures from China’s National Tourist Office cited by the Voice of America [VOA] on Wednesday.

This a 2.2 percent drop from the 91,800 visitors who were there during the same period last year, indicating the numbers are heading toward a two-year decline, it reported.

The figures from this report are only limited to those who visit through legal means and do not reflect illicit trips or defectors who enter the country.

Roughly 52 percent of North Koreans traveling to China reportedly went looking for jobs at restaurants or factories. The number of job-seekers inched up by 3,300 on-year, according to the VOA.

Men outweighed the number of women from the North, making up roughly 85 percent at 76,500. Only 13,200 were female visitors.

The total number of foreigners who went to China in the first six months of the year was at roughly 12.3 million. The greatest number of travelers came from South Korea at slightly over 2.1 million, while North Korea placed 20th on the list.

Read the full story here:
N. Koreans on visas to China drops
Lee Dong Hyuk


DPRK – China Trade in 2015 (UPDATED)

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

UPDATE 2 (2015-8-17): Marcus Noland weighs in on the H1 2015 KDI report.

UPDATE 1 (2015-8-11): KDI reports that DPRK-China trade continues to fall in 2015. According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s trade with China plunged more than 10 percent in the first five months of 2015 due mainly to a drop in raw material prices, a report showed Tuesday.

North Korea’s outbound shipments to its neighbor sank 10.3 percent on-year to US$954 million in the January-May period, while imports plunged 14.3 percent to $1.09 billion, according to the report by the Korea Development Institute (KDI).

“Bilateral trade was down 12.5 percent compared to the year before with exports of anthracite coal and iron ore affecting overall numbers,” KDI said. “Compared to the year before, when trade fell 4.8 percent, this year’s drop is more pronounced.”

The think tank based its assessment on data provided by the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the Korea International Trade Association.

North Korea’s exports of coal to China declined 1.6 percent in dollar terms, with the number for iron ore nosediving 70.3 percent.

Falling exports and a subsequent drop in earnings were probably felt by Pyongyang, which will have to consider other means of generating hard currency.

Compared to 2013, when the North’s exports of coal reached its peak, this year’s numbers represent a 24.6 percent drop.

“The contraction is noteworthy because the North actually diversified the places it shipped coal to in China,” the KDI said.

In regards to iron ore, exports declined, both in terms of volume and prices, with the weakening of China’s steel industry directly impacting trade. Exports stood at 600,000 tons, down from 1.11 million tons, with the value standing at $22.96 million.

The KDI said Pyongyang’s No. 1 import item from its neighbor was filament yarn, followed by cargo trucks and petroleum products. Imports of yarn and petroleum products were down, while shipments of cargo trucks rose.

In bold above I have highlighted what appears to be bad news for North Korean coal exporters. I was surprised to see this because an earlier report by Bloomberg indicated that North Korean coal exports to China had increased by 25% this year (over 2014).  However, it is worth pointing out that the Bloomberg report focuses on the actual quantity of coal crossing the border and KDI  reports on the value of the coal crossing the border. The only way both reports can be true is if the North Koreans are again taking lower prices from the Chinese for their coal compared to their international competitors. Another explanation for the conflicting reports could arise if there was a significant difference between Chinese customs data (Bloomberg) and that used by the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the Korea International Trade Association (KDI). I don’t have enough experience with these data sets to know how consistent they are.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein offers a link to the report here (in Korean only).

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s trade with China tumbles this year: KDI

ORIGINAL POST (2015-4-26): Yonhap reports that DPRK – China trade has fallen in the first quarter of 2015:

Trade between North Korea and China, its economic lifeline, slipped 13.4 percent on-year in the first three months of this year amid frayed bilateral ties, data showed Sunday.

Bilateral trade volume fell to US$1.1 billion in the January-March period, compared with $1.27 billion for the same period last year, the Beijing unit of South’s Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) said, citing Chinese customs data.

China is North Korea’s top economic benefactor, but its political ties with Pyongyang have been strained since the North’s third nuclear test in February 2013.

No crude oil was officially sent to North Korea from China for all of last year.

China’s shipments of crude oil to North Korea were also absent during the first quarter of this year.

South Korean diplomatic sources in Beijing, however, have cautioned against reading too much into the official Chinese trade figures because China has provided crude oil to North Korea in the form of grant aid in the past and such shipments were not recorded on paper.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s trade with China dips 13.4 pct in Q1


The drought that didn’t matter, North Korea says – thanks to agricultural reform?

Monday, August 10th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

During the past few months, the World Food Program (WFP) has made reoccurring pleas for increased food assistance to North Korea to alleviate the food shortages expected from a severe summer drought. The North Korean government made similar statements and claimed that the drought was the worst one to occur in 100 years. Aid to the country was subsequently increased from the originally planned level, due to the drought. But now, one North Korean official is saying that food production ended up increasing, after all, thanks to agricultural reforms.

A recent brief by the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University (IFES) cites a July issue of Tongil Sinbo, a North Korean state-run weekly newspaper. There, Chi Myong Su, director of the Agricultural Research Institute of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the country, says that

“the effectiveness of field management system (pojon) from cooperative farm production unit system (bunjo) is noticeable and succeeded in increasing grain production despite the adverse weather conditions.”

The article cited by IFES highlights the smaller work-team structure as key to the success of the reforms. Also, it almost outright states that greater economic incentives were the main factor (although they call it “enthusiasm” and “patriotism”):

“Despite the adverse weather conditions last year, the high grain yield was possible due to implementation of scientific farming methods and field management system to increase enthusiasm of farmers,” and “based on this experience, many cooperative farms across the country will expand subworkteam management system to field management system.”

This is interesting for several reasons.

First, the agricultural reforms seem increasingly pronounced. Though other reforms were reportedly backtracked earlier this year, the government seems eager to claim success for the road travelled in agriculture.

I have written elsewhere that the data doesn’t necessarily support a claim that reforms are working. There is still reason to be skeptical – after all, a North Korean government official claiming that his government’s policies are working is not surprising – but even the claim itself is interesting.

Second, the statement raises questions about monitoring and data gathering capacities, both of the regime and relief organizations in Pyongyang. Again, just a few months ago, alarm bells were ringing about a potential food shortage, and now, a regime official claims that food production has increased. What was the basis of the WFP and regime claims that a food shortage was imminent a few months ago, and what has changed since those claims were made?

Another recent IFES brief also deals with North Korean press reports about the agricultural reforms. It quotes a Rodong Sinmun article from earlier in the summer that brings up some adjustment problems that farmers have had, such as learning how to properly use fertilizers. The most interesting part in my opinion is the following:

The newspaper stressed that “when all farmers claim ownership of their field and subworkteam, one can create innovation in the farming operations.”

Thus, it seems like Pyongyang wants to encourage experimentation and diversity in production methods. This would be a potentially important step towards more efficient agriculture. Perhaps it is part of a pattern. Provinces have reportedly gotten significant leeway in setting up their respective special economic development zones, which could also be a way to encourage experimentation in policies and management methods.

According to the Tongil Sinbo article, reforms are set to expand further in the country given the alleged success. Perhaps it won’t be too long before we can learn more about them through assessments by multilateral organizations like WFP.


US marine insurance company fined for North Korea dealings

Friday, August 7th, 2015

According to UPI:

A New York marine insurance firm has agreed to pay fines for violating U.S. sanctions against North Korea, Cuba and Iran.

Insurance provider The Navigators Group, Inc. admitted the company provided North Korea vessels with marine insurance, according to a statement from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on Thursday.

OFAC said Navigators had committed a total of 48 violations: The firm was found in violation of North Korea sanctions including Executive Order No. 13466 and various sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan.

The firm has agreed to pay a reduced fine of $271,000 — down from an initial penalty of $750,000. Of the $750,000 amount, $570,000 was a fine for North Korea sanctions violations.

OFAC said the penalty was reduced after Navigators voluntarily disclosed information of its violations and cooperated with investigators.

Navigators earned $1.1 million in insurance premiums between 2008 and 2011 from 24 individual policies for North Korea vessels.

Between 2009 and 2010, the firm delivered $12,000 in payouts.

Despite sanctions, North Korean ships remain active at sea.

Read the full story here:
New York marine insurance company fined for North Korea dealings
Elizabeth Shim