Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Chinese imports of North Korean goods down by 35 pct in March 2017

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap reports a 35 percent drop in Chinese imports from North Korea in March this year, compared to February, citing decreased coal imports after the February ban as a reason:

Imports from North Korea declined to US$114.56 million last month from $176.7 million tallied the previous month, according to Chinese customs data.

In late February, China suspended North Korean coal imports through the end of the year in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in December to punish Pyongyang for its fifth nuclear test in September.

The resolution centers on putting a significant cap on North Korea’s exports of coal — the country’s single biggest export item and source of hard currency. The cap was set at whichever is lower between 7.5 million tons or $400 million.

North Korea heavily relies on coal exports to China for its foreign currency income. China imported $1.19 billion worth of coals from North Korea last year.

Full article:
China’s imports of N. Korean goods fall 35 pct in March
Yonhap News
2017-04-25

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China continues mineral imports from North Korea, despite sanctions

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

About that supposed “squeeze”….Yonhap:

China keeps importing from its traditional ally gold, silver, copper and zinc all of which are put on the U.N. sanctions list, with such imports last month alone amounting to US$650,000, Voice of America said, citing data from China’s General Administration of Customs.

Resolutions Nos. 2270 and 2321, which the U.N. Security Council adopted last year to punish the North’s nuclear and missiles tests, also ban U.N. member nations from importing titanium, vanadium and nickel from the communist country. Minerals are a key source of hard currency for the North to maintain its regime and develop weapons of mass destruction.

North Korean vessels presumably carrying minerals were spotted at Chinese ports, the broadcaster said, citing MarineTraffic, which provides live ship tracking intelligence worldwide.

The boats are moored at the ports of Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, and Penglai and Yantai, Shandong Province, which handle minerals, according to the broadcaster.

As of Tuesday, the North Korean ship Haebangsan was docked at Lianyungang, and several other ships — the Sobaeksan, Rungna No. 1, Haoyu and Hungbong No. 3 — were also waiting for their entry on seas some 20 kilometers off the port, the broadcaster said.

The Uri Star, Jinhung, Kumgansan and Gumdae were staying near Yantai, and the Munsusan and Jonwon No. 67 were spotted on seas off Penglai, it added.

Full article:
China keeps importing U.N.-sanctioned minerals from N.K.
Yonhap News
2017-03-29

Now, it seems unclear whether this formally constitutes a breach of the $400 million cap specifically. Note that UNSC resolution 2321 only mentions coal specifically with regards to the $400 million cap (my emphasis):

Underlining that measures imposed by the resolution were not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the country’s civilian population, the Council decided that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should not supply, sell or transfer coal, iron and iron ore, and that all States should prohibit the procurement of those materials from that country, with the exception of total coal exports to all Member States not exceeding $53,495,894 or 1,000,866 metric tons, whichever was lower, between today and 31 December; and $400,870,018 or 7,500,000 metric tons per year, whichever was lower, beginning on 1 January 2017.

Total exports to all Member States of coal originating in the DPRK that in the aggregate do not exceed $53,495,894 or 1,000,866 metric tons, whichever is lower, between the date of adoption of this resolution and 31 December 2016, and total exports to all Member States of coal originating in the DPRK that in the aggregate do not exceed $400,870,018 or 7,500,000 metric tons per year, whichever is lower, beginning January 1, 2017 …

I’m not sure whether China has paid these amounts for minerals other than coal from North Korea in the past. Perhaps it is paying a markup price for other minerals to make up for the decreased imports of coal. It does in any case suggest that abiding by the words and the spirit of UN resolutions on North Korea is far from China’s only or even main priority in these matters.

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The new Dandong-Pyongyang flight

Wednesday, March 29th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Rodong Sinmun carried a short/concise article announcing the new flight service’s premiere:

A Pyongyang-Dandong air service was opened. The plane will depart from Pyongyang at 9:00 Tuesday and Friday every week and arrive in Dandong at 9:50 (9:20 local time). And it will leave Dandong at 10:50 (10:20 local time) and arrive in Pyongyang at 11:40. The first plane with passengers aboard arrived in Pyongyang on Mar. 28.

The opening of the air service will provide conveniences to those wishing to tour the DPRK.

Meanwhile, Daily NK reports:

Liaoning province authorities are promoting the route’s low prices and short travel time as advantages for potential customers. One way fares are 800 yuan (approximately US $115), while round trip fares are 1,500 yuan (approximately $215), with the trip taking around 30 minutes. The Dandong-Pyongyang flight is listed as JS782, while the Pyongyang-Dandong flight is listed as JS781. However, the source notes that locals are unenthusiastic about flying with Koryo Airlines – North Korea’s state-owned carrier.
“Amongst themselves, residents are expressing concern about Koryo Airlines’ obsolete equipment, and wondering whether the company can guarantee passenger safety,” the source said during a telephone conversation with Daily NK on March 24. “People are sarcastically quipping, ‘North Korea has a special kind of charm that makes you worry.’”
Some are having trouble believing the airlines’ claim that the new line was opened because the number of people traveling back and forth between Pyongyang and Dandong is increasing.
A new bridge under construction on the Yalu River will link up China’s Dandong with North Korea’s Sinuiju, but has yet to be completed. Ever since the United States Justice Department sanctioned the Chinese company Liaoning Hongxiang on suspicion of evading US sanctions on North Korea, Dandong residents have become wary of engaging in business with North Koreans.
According to the source, Chinese residents in the area are saying that “Dandong has already been fooled multiple times by North Korea. Our residents don’t go to North Korea for vacations. Only naive people from the inner regions of China cross the border. So the pre-existing flights from Beijing to North Korea should suffice.”
Additionally, the new air route is also unpopular because Chinese residents are wary of North Korea’s continued obsession with nuclear weapons and missiles despite international condemnation, said an additional source close to North Korean affairs in China.

Full article:
Chinese residents sigh as Dandong-Pyongyang flights are unveiled
Kim Ga Young
Daily NK
2017-03-27

(UPDATE 2017-03-30): Yonhap on restrictive measures by Russia and China on DPRK-related air traffic:

Russia and China have recently adopted punitive measures affecting North Korea’s aviation industry in a bid to mount pressure on the regime following its series of military provocations, the foreign ministry here said Thursday.

“Last May, the European Union banned North Korean airplanes or airplanes that depart from North Korea from landing on the territory of or flying in the airspace of the EU member countries,” Cho June-hyuck, spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a press briefing.

He also referred to the U.S. and South Korea’s decisions in December to put North Korea’s sole airline Air Koryo on their sanctions lists as well as Australia’s on-going push to halt its flight service assistance to the North Korean air carrier, involving technology, training and financial support.

“As the outcome of the lead by South Korea, the U.S. and EU, Russian air carrier Aeroflot has recently suspended its code-sharing arrangement (with North Korea) and Air China, the only foreign airline servicing the North Korean route, is reportedly set to stop its flights to North Korea from mid-April,” the spokesman noted.

“This series of actions taken marks a meaningful step that took into account concerns that Air Koryo is being used in North Korea’s illegal activities,” he said, also referring to Thailand and Kuwait’s suspension of their air routes to the North last year.

Cho also pointed to growing sanctions efforts in the Central and South America with which, he said, North Korea is making a point of increasing ties in order to escape its worsening isolation from the rest of the world.

“Yesterday, the government of Ecuador announced withdrawal of its visa-waiver policy with North Korea,” he said. “It was a very notable action given that the Ecuadorian government has kept an ideological bond with North Korea.”

He said the recent action is in line with the condemnatory stances over North Korea’s recent provocations announced by the Caribbean community as well as Nicaragua, a traditional ally of North Korea.

Full article:
Russia, China adopt sanctions on N. Korea’s flight services: ministry
Yonhap News
2017-03-30

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Still too early to tell on Chinese imports of North Korean coal

Monday, March 27th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is still far too early to say anything of certainty or substance on Chinese compliance on the UN resolution cap of $400 million on coal imports from North Korea. A few figures have come out over the past week that are of interest on the issue. Altogether, the statistics suggest that two parallel processes are at play. While China certainly seems to have imposed the coal ban at least in part to comply with the UN-mandated $400 million import cap, it also continues to shift its consumption to domestic coal in the face of a drive to draw down on coal consumption altogether.

As UPI reports, one angle is that China instituted the ban to pre-emptively ensure compliance with the cap, knowing that deliveries early in 2017 would come close:

The official, who spoke to local news service Newsis on the condition of anonymity, said a Chinese decision announced Feb. 18 to suspend all North Korean coal imports included an accounting of “excess” North Korean coal that was delivered to China in late 2016, according to the report.

“China is of the mind to carry over the excess of December [imports] to this year’s upper limit,” the official said.

Resolution 2321 also bans North Korea sales of copper, nickel, silver, zinc and even statues.

China agreed to play a key role in the agreement. All exports of North Korea coal would not exceed $400 million per annum or 7.5 million tons yearly.

In 2017, China has so far imported about $126 million of coal in January and $100 million in February.

While the total number of coal imported appears to be well below the annual quota, when the December data is included China reaches the upper limit of coal restrictions, the South Korean official said.

Full article:
Report: China suspended North Korea coal imports to not exceed quota
Elizabeth Shim
2017-03-23
United Press International

Bloomberg reports the same figures, but give an added context. It is not only coal imports to China from North Korea that have fallen. Those from Australia and Mongolia have dropped, too:

China’s imports of North Korea anthracite coal in February fell 18.7 percent from a year ago to the lowest since January 2015, after a ban on imports as a result of the reclusive nation’s missile program. Imports of anthracite coal, a hard coal with a high energy content used in steel mills, dropped to 1.23 million tonnes in February from 1.45 million tonnes in January, data from the General Administration of Customs released on Thursday.

Waning shipments from North Korea follows Beijing’s decision in late February to ban coal imports entirely after Pyongyang tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in a direct challenge to international efforts to stabilise the Korean peninsula.

The ban has also sent steel mills who use anthracite as a feed stock to find alternatives in the domestic market. Chinese anthracite prices gained more than 50 yuan($7.26) per tonne to around 780 yuan($113.26) in February, data provided by China Sublime Information Group showed. Imports from China’s top supplier Australia <COA-AUCN-IMP> in February plunged 29 percent from January to 5.16 million tonnes, the lowest since May. Still, Australian imports were 16.8 percent higher than a year ago, the data showed. The decline adds to speculation that China is trying to control coal imports to aid the country’s efforts to reduce overcapacity at domestic mines.

The head of China’s quality supervision agency vowed to crack down on low-quality coal import. Traders in southern Chinese ports also reported cases of cargoes delayed due to customs checks. Coal shipments from Mongolia <COA-MNCN-IMP> tumbled 37 percent from January to 1.97 million tonnes, though it more than doubled from the same period last year.

Full article:
China’s North Korean coal imports drop to two-year low on ban
Reuters
2017-03-23

In other words, it is not only imports of North Korean coal that have dropped. Imports from other countries have fallen too. The “import ban” and fall in imports, rather than being linked by direct causation, may stem from a combination of factors that were already at play. Any conclusions that “China is putting the squeeze on North Korea” or the like are still premature.

On a different note regarding China-North Korea-trade, NK Economy Watch editor Curtis Melvin notes on Radio Free Asia that the Nampo port oil terminal has been upgraded. Perhaps a sign of long-term expectations on the North Korean side of long-run trade ties with China…

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Some coal transports to China continue, while some controls tighten, Daily NK says

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports that coal smuggling continues despite the Chinese import suspension. Presumably, the suspension would also imply tighter controls on smuggling operations, some of which likely goes on with a degree of knowledge on the side of the authorities:

Although China’s Ministry of Commerce previously announced the suspension of coal imports from North Korea until the end of 2017, coal trading has continued in Rizao Port, Shandong Province, where regulatory control is known to be relatively loose. However, as of February 23, the customs clearance process was reportedly also strengthened in this region, leading to speculation that the coal trade will likely be curtailed in Rizao as well.
“Even on February 20, the day after the announcement to suspend North Korean coal imports, a vessel loaded with North Korean coal was permitted to unload after passing quality inspection at Rizao Port. Although official coal imports from North Korea have all been stopped, coal shipments have been continually imported through Rizao Port while circumventing customs clearance,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on February 23.
“The North Korean trading companies have already signed contracts for coal trading in the first half of 2017, so they have no choice but to continue shipping in order to receive foreign currency. But the regulations have been strengthened as of today, so all coal is supposedly banned from entering China,” the source added.
To date, North Korean coal has been primarily exported by ships traveling through Nampo Port to Rizao Port, or from Songrim Port in North Hwanghae Province to Dongjiang Port in Dandong or Dalian. The coal is then sold to regions in southern China after passing quality inspection.
“The Chinese companies are obliged to import North Korean coal to secure their sales volumes. The coal trade between China and North Korea is mostly between individual merchants, so they are continuing to engage in smuggling, ignoring diplomatic pressure and sanctions,” the source said.
“When sanctions were imposed in earnest in April last year, the North Korean trading companies overcame the restrictions by changing their trading ports.”
However, in Dongjiang and Dalian, which are close to the border areas and where international attention is concentrated, the regulations imposed by Chinese customs offices are known to be strict.
“Rizao Port is relatively looser with their regulations than Dongjiang Port and Dalian Port because it mostly handles freight. The traders have resorted to Rizao Port in the face of sanctions because they can trade coal without going through the customs clearance process,” a separate source in China with ties to the coal industry reported.
“Even if the UN Security Council and the Chinese authorities tighten regulations on the coal trade, it cannot last long. Coal trading agreements are made between trading companies solely based on profit, so they are bound to create an alternate route whenever sanctions are introduced.”
“The traders can falsify records for coal and document it as other goods, or can borrow vessels belonging to other countries. The UN sanctions are currently ineffective for the land border between China and North Korea, which stretches for over 1300 km, so it will be impossible to block all coal smuggling via sea, which covers a far larger area,” he concluded.

Full article:
North Korean coal smuggling continues despite China’s import ban
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-02-27

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Causes for skepticism on China’s coal suspension

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

As Yonhap reports, Chinese coal imports from North Korea exceeded the ceiling mandated by UN sanctions by almost three times in December last year (2016):

The volume of North Korea’s coal exports reached nearly three times what the United Nations Security Council has allowed in its latest punitive resolution imposed on the communist country, an update on the U.N. website showed Tuesday.

The report indicates huge shipments of the energy resource were sent before China announced its ban last week. The data did not specify which country imported North Korean coal over the months, but put the number of reporting member states that bought North Korean coal at one, apparently meaning China.

The latest update of the U.N.’s 1718 Sanctions Committee, which oversees the implementation of UNSC sanctions on North Korea, showed North Korea exported a total of just over 2 million tons of coal in December, which is worth US$183.89 million.

In terms of value, the monthly export volume is well over the import ceiling of $53.5 million which the UNSC imposed in Resolution 2321 for the period of Nov. 30 to Dec. 31.

Denouncing North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in September last year, the UNSC approved Resolution 2321, putting import ceilings on North Korean coal, the biggest source of foreign currency earnings for the reclusive country, which is believed to buttress its development of nuclear and missile programs.

The annual import ceiling for 2017 was set at 7.5 million tons or $400.87 million in value.

The sanctions committee update also showed that the monthly export of North Korean coal for January stood at 1.44 million tons, which accounts for over 19 percent of the annual total.

The data also suggests that China stockpiled on North Korean coal before its announcement on Saturday to suspend imports through the end of the year. China said the decision was made in accordance with the latest UNSC resolution.

Asked to comment on the figures, South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said “China is explaining that the North Korean coal import suspension adopted on Saturday is part of its implementation of a UNSC resolution.”

Full article:
U.N. report: N. Korea’s coal exports far exceed U.N. ceiling in Dec.
Yonhap News
2016-02-21

This, I would argue, is part of a longstanding pattern, one that gives cause for skepticism on China’s recently announced ban on coal imports from North Korea through the rest of 2017.

It is important to remember that China is already obligated to suspend most mineral imports from North Korea under the UN Security Council Resolution 2270. The resolution was adopted in early March last year, after the first of the two nuclear tests of 2016, and mandated the ban on member states on imports of North Korean minerals, including coal.

The resolution, however, contained a massive loophole and excluded imports whose proceeds went to humanitarian purposes. Needless to say, determining precisely what coal imports from North Korea would generate revenue going toward humanitarian purposes inside the country – and what exactly counts as “humanitarian” – is close to impossible. Though the sanctions under resolution 2270 were by far the strongest ever adopted by the council against North Korea, in retrospect, the humanitarian exemption appears to have been designed specifically to give China the wiggle room to choose its own trade policy vis-à-vis North Korea, regardless of what sanctions mandate. By continuing its imports of North Korean coal, China can perhaps credibly point to the humanitarian exemption clause, but at the very least, this behavior would seem to go counter to the spirit of the sanctions.

After the sanctions were adopted, a familiar pattern set in. In the first few weeks after the sanctions were adopted, tangible signs suggested that Chinese authorities were serious about implementing the sanctions framework. For example, coal shipments from North Korea were reported to be sitting in limbo out at sea, unable to land at their Chinese ports of destination. On April 7th 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce formally announced an embargo against imports of coal, iron and iron ores from North Korea, “in order to carry out relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council.”

Still, during the summer, things looked relatively normal along the border. On a visit to the Sino-Korean border area in late June last year, I spoke to several people involved in the border trade who said that goods were flowing just as normal. Trade was bustling, and around a total of 200 trucks – the number commonly estimated for a regular day before the sanctions were put in place – either crossed the bridge connecting North Korea and China or waited in line to cross.

Some told me that Chinese imports of coal had gone down, but that this was more due to a decline in domestic demand for North Korean coal than the UN sanctions. Trade in coal between the two countries fluctuates for a whole host of reasons other than sanctions. A change in demand from Chinese firms has historically often been the most important explanation for changes in Chinese coal imports from North Korea. Domestic considerations probably loom large in the suspension announcement as well. Remember, for example, that Chinese authorities are already trying to cut down on domestic coal consumption and production to combat smog and pollution.

At first, the summer did see a significant drop in trade between North Korea and China. In July, trade as measured in terms of dollar value plunged by 27 percent for July 2016, compared with the same month in 2015. This came after a smaller decrease in April, the same month that Chinese authorities formally announced the embargo.

This trend, if should even be called it a trend, did not last long. In August, China bought around 2.5 million tonnes of coal from North Korea, the highest figure ever recorded for a single month. This more than made up for any previous declines. All in all, imports of North Korean coal rose the same year that sanctions were supposed to prohibit it almost completely.

In other words: after tightening the screws in the beginning, seemingly to make a point and a symbolic show of compliance, China’s sanctions regime appeared to let up almost completely, and things went back to normal.

Will this time be any different? It is possible, but we should not be surprised if news of continued coal shipments surface later in the year. Though trade in coal could reasonably be expected to decline for some time, as it has in the past, it would not be wholly surprising if it returned to normal levels after a short and symbolic embargo period.

(Part of this post is an excerpt from a piece I published in The Diplomat Magazine on February 20th.)

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China says it is suspending imports of North Korean coal for the rest of the year

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In yet another so-called “strong signal”, China’s commerce ministry said on Saturday it won’t be importing any more coal from North Korea for the rest of the year. Remember, that coal that was already basically supposed to not be imported after last year’s sanctions (save for that generating revenue for humanitarian purposes). And the imports of which was already supposed to be capped at a low monetary limit. And so on and so forth.

Of course, as a usual caveat this time could be different but whether or not this decision will be enforced, and how strictly, remains to be seen, to put it mildly. China has other concerns in its relationship with the Korean peninsula and North Korea than signalling its commitment to the international community. Moreover, as I have written before, there are many factors that impact Chinese imports of North Korean coal than central government decisions. Domestic demand is one, and has probably played a greater role than diplomatic considerations over the past few years.

Other than the missile launch, one could suspect this is also a signal against the killing of Kim Jong-nam, who lived under Chinese protection.

Yonhap:

China’s commerce ministry said Saturday it will suspend the import of North Korean coal, apparently in response to the latest provocations made by Pyongyang.

Beijing’s Ministry of Commerce said the decision, which comes into effect on Sunday, is in line with the United Nation’s sanction against North Korea. The suspension will be valid through Dec. 31, the ministry added.

“As coal takes up a significant portion of Pyongyang’s trade with China, the decision is anticipated to have a significant impact on North Korea,” an expert on China said.

Coal is estimated to take up 40 percent of North Korea’s exports to China.

China had banned imports of coal from North Korea in April last year, but had been making exceptions for those intended for household use, which led to criticism over the regulation’s effectiveness.

North Korea fired a new intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) called the Pukguksong-2 on Sunday from an air base in the country’s northwestern province toward waters off its east coast.

Full article:
China suspends imports of N.Korean coal
Yonhap News
2017-02-18

(Update 02-19-2017): an analysis from Choson Exchange:

When the UN Security Council imposed the cap on coal trade, China was left with the question of how such a cap could be implemented. Would there be an auction system for quotas? Is it able to track forward contracts or does it only know belatedly the level of coal trade after import figures come out? This problem came to the fore last year when the Chinese were unable to meet their commitments regarding the import cap as they wrestled with these problems.

China has generally chosen to ensure adequate flexibility in the wording of UNSC sanctions to give it wiggle room, rather than outright violating those rulings. Allowing a coal cap to pass at the UNSC indicates their willingness to adhere to the ruling. In imposing a ban for 2017, China probably took into account rapidly rising coal prices and a probable rush by companies to frontload sales ahead of the cap to predict that the coal cap would be breached far earlier in the year. Rather than risk a violation of the coal cap limit, China is proactively clamping down on trade.

Domestic concerns might also play a part. China is restricting domestic production of coal. Between domestic producers and North Korean ones, China obviously prefers the former.

Full article:
Why China imposed a ban on North Korean coal imports
Choson Exchange blog
2017-02-19

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North Korean issues more exit visas for people earning money in China

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK, with interesting details (3rd paragraph) on North Korean visa routines:

As the North Korean authorities prepare for the 75th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s birthday (February 16), the regime has discretely issued passport visas to residents that are able to earn foreign currency in China, in order to fund the expansion of a greenhouse full of Kimjongilia (a flower named after Kim Jong Il).

“In South Pyongan Province, the regime secretly recruited individuals who can earn money for the greenhouse expansion project, regardless of whether they have connections in China. Although the process of visa issuance is usually complicated, the regime has handed out visas to anyone who is likely to earn money,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on February 7.
“The provincial governments have instructed the foreign affairs unit of the State Security Department (SSD) to distribute allotments of passport visas to each region. Those recruited are waiting for their departure to China, assigned only with the duty to ‘secure funds,'” the source added.
Visa issuance in North Korea is subject to strict regulations for ordinary citizens. Applicants must have relatives in China and a document with a confirmation seal from Chinese immigration officials confirming that the relatives have extended an invitation. The law stipulates that ▲relatives should be closer than a first cousin once removed, ▲a visit cannot exceed either 40 days or two months and, ▲visa applications can only be submitted three years following the previous visit.
Normal applications are only open to those over 55 years of age who have a spouse and children. A confirmation process by the people’s unit, town office, state enterprise, the Party, the SSD, and the Ministry of People’s Security is then needed to show that there is no problem in regards to ideology. In particular, it is important that the applicant has no relatives who are defectors or who were sent to correction camps. If all of these requirements are met, then bribes of more than 500 USD are demanded from the foreign affairs division.
However, this rigorous procedure has been thoroughly disregarded as the provincial governments dispatch individuals to China to earn money. The Workers’ Party has issued instructions that each province should prepare the materials needed for the expansion of the Kimjongilia greenhouse.
Full article:
North Korea issues more visas ahead of Kim Jong Il’s birthday
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-02-15
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Sino-North Korean trade suffering from the Amnok river being frozen

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

Smuggling and some trading activities between North Korea and China have been temporarily suspended due to the freezing of the Amnok (Yalu) River. Cross border exchange between the two countries often relies on the use of small boats to ferry goods between Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, and Dandong, Liaoning Province.
“The Amnok River began to freeze due to plummeting temperatures from last November, so trade and smuggling activities have been suspended. Residents are waiting for the winter cold to pass at the end of February, and are repairing their ships,” a source in North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 5.
“The authorities have issued administrative instructions to the state fisheries including the Amnok shipping office to suspend all trade as well as fishing, and focus on repairs. But the fishermen themselves are more interested in smuggling because the state isn’t paying for the repairs.”
“Even the state fisheries offices are engaged in smuggling in order to survive and make loyalty contributions to the regime. Some managers of state-run fisheries have recently been approaching private smugglers, who reportedly earn around 200,000 RMB a year, for business propositions,” the source added.
According to the source, the state fisheries eschew official trade and resort to smuggling when official operations are suspended, because their primary concern is a loss of market competitiveness. Moreover, smuggling is critical in offsetting the costly customs tariffs incurred during official trade.
Operations are supported by border patrol officials who collude with the smugglers. Border guards, who are in charge of border security and preventing defections, are bribed heavily in return for allowing the smugglers to operate freely.
“The ones who are suffering the most from the recent freezing of the Amnok River are the officials manning the border posts. They are having a hard time because bribes have dwindled,” added a separate source in North Pyongan Province.
“Most smuggled goods are traded in Dandong and Dongjiang, and merchants there are also affected. There are literally hundreds of Chinese vessels anchored at Dongjiang Port in Dongjiang City waiting for smuggling to resume.”
Article source:
North Korea-China trade suspended due to frozen Amnok River
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-02-11
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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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