Archive for the ‘China’ 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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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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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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New bridge crossing open between Jian and Manpo

Monday, April 8th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Bloomberg:

China and North Korea opened a new border crossing over the Yalu River, signaling aspirations for deeper economic ties between the neighbors even as Pyongyang’s trade remains crimped by international sanctions.

The border checkpoint at the foot of a new bridge opened Monday, connecting the northeastern Chinese city of Jian with North Korea’s Manpo, Chinese state media reported. The China-DPRK Jian-Manpo highway connection is for passenger and cargo transport and hosts an advanced customs facility, the China News Service said.

The opening was marked by several tour buses crossing from the Chinese side and then returning from North Korea, the Yonhap News Agency of South Korea reported, citing a person familiar with the matter. The ceremony appeared to show that local Chinese officials were ready to step up trade and exchanges with North Korea in response to its call for economic development, according to Yonhap.

China provides a lifeline to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his state has long been dependent on Beijing’s help to keep its meager economy afloat. Kim’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi broke down on Feb. 28 over sanctions that have cut Pyongyang off from global commerce and were imposed on North Korea for its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.

It was unclear how the new border checkpoint — the fourth between China and North Korea — would operate under the sanctions, which ban or limit a broad range of goods from moving in or out of the country. The South Korean Unification Ministry declined to comment.

The economic penalties are expected to be a main topic of discussion when South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets Trump at the White House on Thursday. Moon, a long-time advocate of reconciliation with North Korea, has repeatedly played the role of mediator since he took office in May 2017 amid escalating threats of war between Trump and Kim.

The Manpo border area has drawn the attention of North Korea for years, with Kim’s father and former leader, Kim Jong Il, crossing there in 2010 in one of his rare trips outside the country, the Chosun newspaper of South Korea reported at the time. In the 2010 trip, Kim Jong Il visited the school his father and North Korean state founder Kim Il Sung attended on the Chinese side when he was a child.

China and North Korea agreed to embark on the bridge project in 2012 and completed construction in 2016, Yonhap reported. The opening was delayed by UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea.

In 2017, China’s overall trade with North Korea declined by more than 10 percent to about $5 billion, as Trump secured Beijing’s backing for four escalating rounds of sanctions in response to North Korea nuclear weapons program testing.

Article source:

China, North Korea Open New Border Crossing Despite Sanctions

Jon Herskovitz and Dandan Li
Bloomberg News
2019-04-08

Yonhap:

China and North Korea on Monday officially opened a new cross-border bridge halfway along the Yalu River, offering clues to their possible expansion of bilateral economic exchanges amid ongoing international sanctions.

The new bridge connects Jian in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin with North Korea’s northern border city of Manpo.

The two countries agreed to the Jian-Manpo bridge project in May 2012 and completed its construction in 2016. But they have since delayed its official opening, apparently affected by United Nations Security Council sanctions on the North over its missile and nuclear programs.

Jian, located about halfway along the Yalu River, is considered a representative base of trade between North Korea and China, along with Liaoning Province’s Dandong on the Yalu River estuary and Jilin Province’s Hunchun on the Tumen River estuary.

Four tourist buses arrived in China from North Korea via the new bridge at 8:20 a.m. Monday before returning to the North about one hour later carrying about 120 passengers.

According to a local tour company, the tourists are planning to return to Jian around 5 p.m. after visiting attractions in and around Manpo.

A source in the border area told Yonhap News Agency that China’s provincial governments appear to be boldly trying to cooperate with North Korea in response to their demand for economic development.

“North Korea’s denuclearization has not been implemented, but the environment surrounding North Korea and China appears to be partially changing,” the source said.

“China may not expand its economic cooperation with North Korea considerably in consideration of its relations with the United States. But the opening of a new bridge may signal expansion of bilateral economic exchanges,” said the source.

Article source:
China, N. Korea open new cross-border bridge
Yonhap News
2019-04-08

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North Korea’s harvest numbers: what “food production” really means

Monday, March 11th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I wrote about the confusing harvest numbers this past Friday, and I’ve been able to find little new information to make things clearer. Basically, the problem is that talking about “food production” is too vague, since that can mean a lot of different things. In the standard World Food Program/FAO crop assessments, there are usually two numbers quoted: one estimate for total production of food,  and one for “milled cereal equivalent”, a standardized measurement used to translate the varying nutritional contents of different crops into a standardized weight measure.* (See below for a more detailed explanation.) Basically, the “milled cereal equivalent” figure tends to be significantly smaller, by about 20 percent or so, than the original, total food production figure.

Since we don’t actually know exactly which number is being thrown around in analyses of the current harvest, I’ve calculated a possible milled-equivalent harvest figure, using the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I have the two different numbers from the WFP/FAO crop assessments. None of the historical estimates I’ve found correspond with the harvest numbers for previous years in the 2019 UN Needs and Priorities Plan. Crop production figures are usually given in terms of “marketing years”, not in calendar years. For simplicity’s sake, I denote each year by the second half of the marketing year, when most consumption will occur. So “2019” is the 2018/2019 marketing year, “2018” is the 2017/2018 marketing year, et cetera.

The following shows the scenario where the 4.95 million tonnes production figure is the “unmilled” cereal equivalent measure. Based on the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I’ve had data available from UN institutions (0.85 million tonnes), I’ve added and subtracted to complete the figures where necessary. This is not an exact, scientific way of looking at the harvest numbers. For exact accuracy, I’d need to calculate the milled cereal equivalent of each crop, something I don’t have time to do right now. This may well make the figure even lower. (Hazel Smith’s figure, for reference, is 3.2 million tonnes.) But the following does, at the very least, give a sense of the proportions at hand. And it makes the numbers look different from my initial assessment.

Food production, million tonnes (unmilled) Food production, million tonnes (milled)
2009.00 4.20 3.30
2010.00 5.17 4.32
2011.00 5.33 4.50
2012.00 5.50 4.66
2013.00 5.80 4.90
2014.00 5.98 5.03
2015.00 5.93 5.08
2016.00 5.92 5.07
2017.00 6.03 5.23
2018.00 5.75 5.00
2019.00 4.95 4.10

Table 1. Figures are sourced from various assessments by the WFP and FAO; contact me for exact sourcing on specific figures. 

Graphically, the trend in food production in milled terms, i.e. the lower-end, more realistic figure of how much food is available for consumption, using the above assumption for the 2019-figure, looks like this:

Graph 1. Estimate food production in North Korea, million tonnes, in milled cereal equivalent terms.

In short, this does give a rather grim and highly problematic food situation, putting the quantity of the harvest at 4.10 million tonnes. It puts North Korea back to a state of food production prior to 2010–2011, when harvest started to climb. And now, North Korea receives far less aid than it did a decade ago. Plus, its imports will only amount to 200,000 tons, the government seems to be saying, a similar amount to what it procured in imports and humanitarian aid in 2016/2017, when the harvest was much larger.

For long, this is how low North Korean harvests were. Only a few years ago, this would have looked like a rather solid harvest. Looking back in the future, it might turn out that the past few years of food production growth, since around 2011, was an abnormally good period of time. None of this means that this food situation is anything but poor.

To me, among the figures I’ve been able to find, it’s the only one that make sense in the context of the statement from UN representatives that this harvest was the worst “in a decade”. Hopefully things will become clearer over the coming days and weeks, as more information may be published, in which case I’ll update this post.

In sum, the actual food available in North Korea is, in all likelihood, much lower than the 4.95 million tonnes-figure quoted by the UN and the North Korean government. As the following graph shows, even using the North Korean government’s figures, the drop from last year doesn’t appear all that massive. But on closer inspection, the actual quantity of food available may be significantly lower than the figure the North Korean government states, as I’ve tried to show in this post.

Graph 2. Food production in North Korea, from the UN’s “2019 Needs and Priorities” report on North Korea.

Finally, a note on the issue of the markets and the public distribution system. I maintain that it’s impossible to get a sense of total food availability and circulation in North Korea as a whole, without taking the markets into account. According to most studies we have, the majority of North Korea’s population rely on these markets, rather than the public distribution system, for their sustenance.

But one has to acknowledge that just like the UN and North Korean government figures may not reflect the whole situation accurately, there may be a fair bit of bias in the data on the prevalence of the markets too. Most of this data comes from surveys done with defectors in South Korea. They overwhelmingly tend to come from the northern provinces of the country, closer to China, where market trade has traditionally been more prolific. Most sources for news from inside North Korea are based in the northern parts of the country, where one can get access to Chinese cell phone network coverage.

There’s likely another form of bias present in these surveys, too. Most people who are reliant on the PDS for their sustenance are likely underrepresented among defectors. People in state administration and security organs, for example, are less likely to leave North Korea, though that of course happens too. And in any case, we’re talking about a quite large demographic of people, whose livelihoods would be significantly impacted by cut rations. Such cuts are already happening, Daily NK reports, with some professional groups receiving only 60 percent of  what they otherwise would. The PDS may have changed shape and function quite drastically since the early 2000s, but it may also be more important to the North Korean public than the currently available survey data and reports from inside the country tells us.

Conclusion

North Korea’s food situation, though not at famine-time levels, does appear to be dire. The figures, in combination with reports from inside the country, gives serious cause for concern. Government numbers may not tell the full story since they likely underestimate the role of the markets. Nonetheless, things do look serious. The government could easily alleviate the situation by changing its spending priorities and policies. Chances are that it won’t.

Footnote:

*I’m borrowing here a footnote from a 38 North piece by the late scholar Randall Ireson, whose archive of articles remain one of the best sources for information on North Korean agriculture:

The FAO has consistently used grain equivalent (GE) values for the major crops to compensate for varying moisture and energy content. Thus, husked rice (GE) is .66 of the paddy weight, potatoes (GE) are .25 of the fresh weight, and soybean (GE) is 1.2 times the dry weight because of the high oil and thus calorie content.

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North Korea’s economic situation, going into Hanoi: a roundup of the data

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Hanoi summit is under a week away, Daily NK recently put out new market price data, and I’ve finally had time to update my dataset. There seems like no better time than the present to take a look at some of the numbers we have available for the North Korean economy, thanks to outlets such as Daily NK and Asia Press/Rimjingang.

Currency

Let’s start with the exchange rate. A few weeks ago, the (North Korean) won depreciated quite significantly against the USD, which I wrote about here. At 8,500 won/1usd, the USD-exchange rate on the markets hit its highest point since the inception of “maximum pressure”. The graph below is shows the average market exchange rate in three North Korean cities for won-to-USD.

Graph 1. Average won-USD exchange rate on markets in three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–February 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

As the graph shows, the won rebounded somewhat after the initial spike in early January. According to the latest data point, the exchange rate stands at 8190 won, still somewhat higher than the average for the period, 8136, but barely.

What could have caused this spike? One possibility is that the government has started to soak up more foreign currency from the market, because the state’s foreign currency coffers are waning. After all, given the vast trade deficit, the continued necessity of spending hard currency on things like fuel (bought at higher prices through illicit channels to a greater extent) and other factors, it would make a great deal of sense. Currencies fluctuate all over the globe, sometimes based even on loose rumors that fuel expectations. One anonymous reader who often travels to North Korea for work heard from Korean colleagues that accounting conditions for firms had gotten stricter, likely because the government wants to be able to source more foreign currency from the general public.

It is also noteworthy that while the Daily NK price index reports that the USD-exchange rate has gone back to more normal levels, the Rimjingang index remains at very high levels. Its latest report (February 8th) has the USD at 8,500, and on January  10th, it registered 8,743 won, a remarkably high figure that the Daily NK index hasn’t been near since early 2015. The difference between the two may simple come from the figures being sourced from different regions, or the like. North Korea’s markets still hold a great deal of opportunity for arbitrage, not least because of the country’s poor infrastructure.

So, it does seem like there may be some unusual pressure on the won against the dollar. What it comes from is less clear, but the state demanding more hard currency from the semi-private sector and others may be one important factor. In any case, we shouldn’t be surprised if the trend continues, unless sanctions ease soon.

At the same time, while the RMB has appreciated against the won over the past few weeks, it hasn’t really gone outside the span of what’s been normal over the past few years.

Graph 2. Average exchange rate for won to RMB, average of three North Korean cities, late 2015–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

The average exchange rate for RMB since the start of Daily NK’s data series in late 2015 is 1228 won. The latest available observation gives 1241 won/RMB, and the RMB has appreciated against the won over the past few weeks. The Rimjingang data, here, too, gives a higher FX-rate for RMB than Daily NK, at 1250 won. Their index, too, shows the FX-rate for RMB going up over the past few weeks, but not to levels out of the ordinary. Still, if the won continues to depreciate against both the dollar and the RMB, it may be a sign of a more persistent foreign currency shortage.

Food prices

Rice prices remain as stabile as ever, in fact, even more so than this time last year. They continue to hoover between 4,500–5,000, with the latest observation being at 4,783.

Graph 3. Average rice price for three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

This should not necessarily be taken to mean that North Korea’s current food situation is not problematic. Even with increasing harvests in the past few years, it’s always been fragile. The past year’s drought reportedly took a toll on the harvest. Though market prices aren’t suggestive of any shortages as of yet, that could change in the months ahead. The latest harvest was likely lower than those of several previous years and difficulties in importing fertilizer may have contributed, but the dry weather was the main factor.

Even with a slightly lower harvest than in previous years, it seems that structural changes in agricultural management has improved agricultural productivity to such an extent that food safety isn’t severely threatened even with a reduced harvest.

Gasoline

Gas prices appear to have stabilized around a sanctions equilibrium, of sorts, since a few months back. The past year hasn’t seen any spikes near those of the winter in 2017, when prices went above 25,000 won per kg. For the past year, the price has mostly hovered between 13,000 and 15,000 won per kg. The last observation available from Daily NK, is at 15,200 won per kg. This is slightly higher than the average of the past 12-month period, 13,500 won per kg. A more recent report from Rimjingang puts prices at 13,750 won per kg, so perhaps prices have declined over the past few weeks.

What’s likely happened is that China has settled on a comfortable level of enforcement of the oil transfers cap, for now. (For a detailed look at fuel prices in North Korea and Chinese sanctions enforcement, see this special report.)

Graph 4. Average gasoline price, three North Korean cities, early 2018–winter 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

There is lots to be said about gas prices and their impact on the economy, but for now, it looks like supply of gasoline in North Korea is restricted, but stabile.

Hard currency reserves

I unfortunately don’t have any data to present on this issue, but it’s too important not to mention. We don’t know how large North Korea’s foreign currency reserves are, but all throughout “maximum pressure”, people have been speculating that they’ll soon run out. One South Korean lawmaker said in early 2018 that by October that year, North Korea would be out of hard currency. That clearly didn’t happen.

The lack of stabile foreign currency income may still be a problem for the regime, as mentioned above. It’s hard to imagine how it couldn’t be a huge headache. Look at the following graph for example, showing North Korea’s trade (im)balance with China, throughout 2017 and the first few months of 2018.

Graph 5. North Korea’s trade balance with China, in $1,000 terms. Data source: KITA.

Let’s assume that China is simply letting North Korea run a trade deficit, with only some vague future promise of payment in the form of cheap contracts for coal and minerals. Or, let’s say that China is even just sending North Korea a bunch of stuff without requiring any form of payment whatsoever. It seems highly unlikely to me that even a government like China would support the full extent of these imports. Even if North Korea is only paying in hard currency for a relatively small proportion of what it imports from China, that’s still a lot of money that’s just leaving the vaults, with virtually nothing coming in to replenish them. How long can this go on for? Probably longer than many estimated at the onset of “maximum pressure”, but certainly not forever.

Summary

In sum, judging by the numbers, North Korea’s domestic economic conditions appear stabile but quite difficult. No sense of widespread, general crisis is visible in the data. Nonetheless, the regime is likely under a great deal of stress concerning the economy. How much is hard to tell, but definitely enough for some form of sanctions relief and/or economic cooperation to be high on their agenda for Hanoi.

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