Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The sanctions relief that North Korea might be asking for

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some interesting reporting by Hankyoreh, citing South Korean government sources familiar with the US-North Korea negotiations, suggests that North Korea is pushing for two concessions from the US:

According to a South Korean government source closely acquainted with the North Korea-US talks, Kim reaffirmed the North’s willingness to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facilities during the first round of working-level talks in Pyongyang on Feb. 6–8, while demanding the partial loosening of sanctions as a corresponding measure for allowing inspections of the facilities. The North Korean side said it “could offer more generous steps” if the US were to even partially loosen sanctions as a corresponding measure, the source reported.

Politically,  this makes a great deal of sense. Yongbyon dismantlement would make for great photo-ops and video clips, regardless of the actual substantive meaning of such actions. For North Korea, partially loosened sanctions would be highly beneficial for several reasons. For one, it could be a tacit signal to China and Russia that the US will no longer be as vigilant on sanctions monitoring as it has been in the past. Moreover, should North Korea push for the ceiling on its oil imports to be lowered, that would likely save the regime substantial amounts of hard currency that it now has to put towards more expensive, illicit transfers and the like. Gas prices in the country have stabilized over the past few months, but are still higher than in normal times. (I dig into this more in a new working paper published by the Stimson Center, click here to read it.)

And not least, any sanctions exemptions on Mt Kumgang and the like could – hopefully, from the regime’s point of view – be a first step to more South Korean investments and cash flows to tourism in North Korea, one of Kim Jong-un’s hallmark industries.

According to Hankyoreh, none of this is out of the question:

Biegun stated in no uncertain terms that the US would not be able to loosen or lift sanctions. At the same time, he reportedly suggested it may consider loosening sanctions if North Korea were to offer the Yongbyon dismantlement “plus something extra.”

And:

Accordingly, they suggested that if North Korea adopts a more forward-thinking approach on the Yongbyon dismantlement issue during negotiations, the US may grant priority consideration to projects involving inter-Korean cooperation, including partial resumption of the Kaesong Complex and Mt. Kumgang tourism. This prediction was based on the limited range of measures available to the US without touching the current sanctions framework. Indeed, many Korean Peninsula experts have noted that the Mt. Kumgang tourism venture individually would not be in violation of UNSC resolutions and suggested that it should be quickly resumed.

I’m no judicial sanctions expert, but I suspect that this might not be entirely accurate. If sanctions are strenuous enough to prevent South Korean reporters to bring in laptops into North Korea, it’s easy to wonder how large-ish-scale tourism to North Korea through Kumgangsan wouldn’t risk violating sanctions. In a way, the multilateral UN sanctions are easier to loosen in practice. A strong, even informal signal from the US to China could make the latter re-interpret its sanctions interpretations, and make monitoring and enforcement much more loose. Truck traffic has reportedly already increased across the border compared to a few months ago, and it’s a trend that’ll likely become increasingly more pronounced the less vigilant the US is about pushing for rigid sanctions implementation.

Article source:
N. Korea demands partial relaxation of sanctions in exchange for Yongbyon inspections
Kim Ji-eun
Hankyoreh
2019-02-14

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Gas prices down in North Korea after Kim’s China visit

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A while back, I speculated that fuel prices in North Korea might go down after Kim Jong-un’s visit to China. This is precisely what happened, Daily NK reports. Causality is of course impossible to prove, but given circumstances (and the historical pattern of fuel price movements, which I write about in a forthcoming working paper), a connection doesn’t seem unlikely.

“The cost of 1 kg of fuel has fallen by around 2,500 KPW from 13,000 KPW two weeks ago,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on January 22. “The fall of 2,500 KPW per kg is a lot, so it’s being welcomed by merchants.”

The drop in fuel costs has impacted gasoline prices in the country’s northern region, with the source adding that truck drivers he spoke with have reported that the fuel prices in Pyongyang are similar.

Despite the restrictions on oil imports into the country due to international sanctions, smuggling across the country’s porous sea and land borders have kept gasoline supplies (including diesel) steady in the country, the source said.

The cost of fuel in North Korea last year fluctuated considerably due to sanctions pressure. News outlets reported last year that fuel prices reached 27,000 KPW per kg in early January 2017, a 60% spike from December 2016 prices.

The prices dipped back down to around 15,000 per kg, before settling at 15,500 KPW in December 2018. This suggests that gasoline prices in North Korea are more sensitive to international sanctions than other commodities like rice.

The recent fall in prices is likely due to a reduction in the price of smuggled fuel from China and the rising volumes of diesel fuel being refined and sold in the country.

Domestically refined diesel is generally supplied to the military and state-run factories, but also finds its way to the markets through different avenues. The source reported that there is now more diesel fuel being circulated in the markets.

Also, see this on the general ease of smuggling conditions/border controls after the visit.

Full article:
Optimism rising as fuel prices dip in North Korea
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-01-28

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UN panel says North Korea is selling fishing rights

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One of the many ways in which North Korea earns hard currency is sales of fishing rights to vessels from China. This is also supposedly one of the reasons for the North Korea “ghost ships” drifting to Japan. Because many fishings rights near North Korea are sold to Chinese vessels, North Korean boats have to go further out, often without adequate fuel supplies. Kyodo News reports that the UN panel of experts will soon publish their report detailing some of these fishing rights sales, which breach the sanctions currently in place:

The claim is based on information provided by two unnamed member states, though one has been identified as Japan, according to officials in Tokyo.

It is also expected to be reported that more than 15 Chinese fishing vessels were inspected and found to be carrying licenses from North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, during the reporting period of January-November 2018.

It is anticipated that information obtained from fishermen who were questioned will reveal that around 200 Chinese fishing vessels were operating in North Korean waters. Based on another interview, it was discovered that the price of a single fishing license cost about 50,000 yuan ($7,250) per month.

The fishing vessels apparently displayed fishing permit number plates that were attached to the outside of the vessels, flown on flags, or both in combination.

These actions violate a Security Council resolution adopted in December 2017 in response to Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launch the previous month. In it, the 15-member council clarified that any sale of fishing rights by North Korea was strictly prohibited.

Last September, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono highlighted concerns about the sale of fishing rights as well as ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products as two examples of the North’s “sophisticated efforts to evade and circumvent” past resolutions.

The resolutions were imposed on the country in escalating fashion as it carried out a total of six underground nuclear tests and numerous missile launches using banned equipment.

Each year, the panel prepares its report based on information analyzed by its eight members, who have expertise on a variety of issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and export trade control.

Full article:
N. Korea likely to be accused of illegally selling fishing rights
Kyodo News
2019-01-31

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Could Xi Jinping give Kim Jong-un fuel deliveries for his 35th birthday?

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At the present time of writing, Kim Jong-un is still in China, though some signs suggest his train may have taken off back to North Korea. Kim spent is 35th birthday in Beijing, and visited a high-tech factory zone and other sites relevant to his economic and industrial policy focus.

But what did Xi Jinping give Kim for his 35th birthday?

If the past is any indicator, Xi’s present may have been sanctions relief in the form of increased fuel deliveries. The data suggests that this is precisely what happened after Kim’s third visit to China last summer, on June 19th of 2018. Consider the following graph, from a forthcoming working paper:

Average gasoline and diesel prices on markets in three North Korean cities, January–August 2018. Data source: Daily NK price index. Graph: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein/North Korean Economy Watch.

(If the image is too small, click it to see a larger size.)

Look closely at the dip in the blue line, in the right-hand side of the graph. This shows a significant drop — 50 percent! — in average gas prices on markets in three North Korean cities. This price drop came right at the time of Kim’s third visit.

Coincidence? Could be.

Market prices, however, tend to move for a reason, and there are no obvious factors that can explain this particular price drop. Other than Kim’s visit, that is. This is, of course, circumstantial speculation, but it makes a great deal of sense. China may have simply upped fuel deliveries to North Korea as a show of good faith prior to Kim’s visit, or after a direct request from Kim.

Should Kim have asked Xi for similar sanctions relief during this visit, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. It’s also worth noting that exchange rate for both US dollars and Chinese renminbi have gone up quite significantly on North Korea’s markets in the past few weeks, as I noted a couple of days ago, hinting that the economy may be under some distress. North Korea may not be under any general economic crisis as a result of the sanctions, but things surely aren’t looking great.

We should know when the next price update from Daily NK or other sources comes in, and just because Kim seems to have gotten sanctions relief at one point after a meeting with Xi doesn’t mean it’s a given for every single occasion. But it is reasonable to expect that Kim did get something from the trip. It did, after all, coincide with his birthday.

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Market exchange rate for USD on North Korean markets at two-year high, RMB rate up as well

Monday, January 7th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Judging by the latest market price data from Daily NK, the exchange rate of the North Korean won (KPW) to the US dollar (USD) appears to have reached its highest point since the beginning of the latest period of heightened tensions with the United States. The latest price observation by the Daily NK puts the KPW-USD average exchange rate on markets in three North Korean cities at 8,500 won. That’s an increase of 445 won from the last observation (December 11th), or about 5 percent in a fairly short time span. (Please click both graphs for closer views).

Graph 1. KPW-USD average exchange rate for markets in three North Korean cities, January 2017–December 2018. Data source: Daily NK.

The Chinese Renminbi (RMB) has also appreciated against the won in the latest observation, but not by as much. From the observation on December 11th, the RMB went up from 1197 KPW to 1242, an increase by about 3.7 percent.

Graph 2. KPW-RMB average exchange rate for markets in three North Korean cities, January 2017–December 2018. Data source: Daily NK.

As graph 2 shows, the RMB-increase is almost as large as the one for USD. The RMB, however, is not at an historical high for the period in question, which the USD is. The RMB is, on the other hand, significantly higher than in the same period last year, and from December 26th of 2017, it’s increased by almost 11 percent, from 1120 KPW to 1241. The USD, meanwhile, stands at about 6 percent more than it did on December 26th of 2017.

In other words, both currencies have appreciated, and by significant proportions, assuming that this latest price report conveys accurate information representatives of the general exchange rate level in the country. It doesn’t seem to be a seasonal issue, given the differences from last year.

With the information currently available, it is of course very difficult to tell what could have caused this minor spike of sorts. The two currencies are likely not controlled by the exact same factors, as the RMB is much more widely used among the North Korean public. Few people hold and use USD on a daily basis. Rather, the main holders of USD in North Korea are likely to be state institutions such as major state-owned enterprises. This matters for the way the markets are likely to work for RMB and USD respectively.

Both, on the other hand, are foreign currency. As such, they are at least partially interchangeable. To put it simply, if the regime would decide to soak up foreign currency in general, for whatever purpose, it would likely target both USD and RMB, and other foreign currencies as well, because they can be used for the same things to a large extent.

So. What could (and I say could with the utmost of caution) have caused this upturn?

The regime has been conducting market crackdowns on illegal trade and smuggling of banned foreign goods, such as foreign media, over the past few months. An upturn in this crackdown could cause anxiety on the markets, causing people to hoard foreign currency. It doesn’t seem, however, that foreign currency trade has been targeted in particular, making this scenario unlikely.

It could also be that other goods that require foreign currency payments, such as gasoline, have become more expensive. This means that traders buying and selling such goods need more foreign currency to pay for their imports, and they may even require foreign currency payments from their customers. This, in turn, would cause the RMB and possibly the USD to appreciate over the KPW. But gas prices aren’t out of their ordinary span, and they’ve actually decreased in the latest price observation, to 15,200 won/kg from 15,200 won/kg, albeit after first spiking from 13,133 won/kg to 15,733 won/kg between mid- and late-November. Still, the trends don’t run in parallel.

A third possibility, and the most likely one out of the three presented here, in my opinion, is that the state has soaked up foreign currency from the markets by, for example, demanding more of it from state-owned enterprises. It could also be that if in normal times – and this is a big if – the state releases foreign currency on to the markets to maintain exchange rate stability, they’re doing less of that now, causing the foreign exchange rate to appreciate. The state’s foreign currency reserves and coffers have likely been dwindling for some time under sanctions. Curiously, we haven’t seen signs of it on the markets. It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues in the weeks and months ahead.

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How North Korea turns coal into gas, and what it might mean for sanctions

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Wall Street Journal has an interesting and thoroughly researched report out today, on North Korea’s use of a technique to synthetically produce synthetic fuels from coal:

China, North Korea’s longtime ally, has provided technology and expertise for the coal-conversion efforts, according to Chinese companies. One said in July that it is supplying a large coal gasifier designed to produce 40,000 cubic meters an hour of synthetic gas to an industrial zone north of Pyongyang.

That output alone would be enough to produce synthetic fuels equivalent to about 10% of North Korea’s annual imports of crude and refined oil in recent years, according to David Von Hippel, an expert on North Korea’s energy sector at the Nautilus Institute.

[…]

It has become cheaper in recent years—in part because of Chinese development of the technology—and remains viable for countries with abundant coal and few alternatives.

North Korea obtained German coal-gasification technology from the Soviets around the 1960s but did little to develop it, and became dependent on subsidized crude from Russia and China.

[…]

Crucially, coal gasification has helped provide raw materials to increase output of fertilizer and plastic sheeting for greenhouses, boosting food production, and enabled other industries to develop products such as steel alloys and pipes, experts said.

The technology is also now used in small-scale power plants to boost electricity supplies, according to footage broadcast by North Korean state television in November.

One Chinese company, Hebei Kaiyue Group, said on its website that seven officials from North Korea’s Academy of Sciences visited one of its facilities in June to study how it converts coal to methanol, ammonia and dimethyl ether, which can be used as a diesel alternative.

The large gasifier slated for the industrial zone north of Pyongyang was built by Yangmei Chemical Industry Machinery Co. Ltd, a subsidiary of one of China’s biggest coal companies; it has been completed but not yet transported to North Korea, as the Chinese awaited North Korean instructions, according to two people involved. The company declined to comment.

Full article/source:
North Korea Turns Coal Into Gas to Weather Sanctions
Jeremy Page
Wall Street Journal
2018-12-17

I have a brief quote in the story, basically saying that even if North Korea can only produce fairly moderate quantities of gasified, synthetic fuels through this technique, it could potentially be very significant for the economy as a whole. This is particularly true for transportation and industrial manufacturing. The former is crucial not only for the state-side of the economy, but also for the private sector (i.e.: markets and entrepreneurs).

When trying to asses whether North Korea can “weather” sanctions or not, it’s meaningful to remember that the economy as such is still, partially, recovering from the near-complete collapse of the 1990s. So the quantities needed to make a significant contribution to industrial production may not be that massive. All of this is a way of getting at, in absence of actual numbers, how much this coal gasification technique may matter for North Korea. Putting together whatever oil and fuel North Korea can get through smuggling, regular imports, non-commercial transfers from China, and coal gasification, North Korea is probably muddling through sanctions relatively well, and better than many would have expected a year or so ago, at least in some respects.

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Chinese sanctions enforcement on North Korea: don’t jump to conclusion

Friday, December 7th, 2018

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Is China enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea? Is “maximum pressure” still on and working? How much is China really trading with North Korea?

None of these questions can really be answered with the open-source information available at the moment. In fact, I doubt that any sources exist that could provide a conclusive answer. Much of the relaxation in Chinese implementation of the various bans and limitations on trade with North Korea likely comes from the Chinese authorities simply turning a blind eye, and how do you record trade that happens because you’re looking away?

The best information we have, unsatisfactory as it may be, comes from anecdotal observations along the border between China and North Korea. Nikkei Asian Review recently visited the border area and gives us an interesting and informative look at what the situation is like in the region. However, the information given through reports such as this one is not enough to jump to the conclusion that China has stopped enforcing sanctions on North Korea. As I explain further below, until we see significant, meaningful amounts of coal and textiles crossing the bridge, North Korea is still suffering immense losses in its export incomes from Chinese implementation of sanctions.

The problem is that this is, of course, hard to see with your own eyes when you visit the border areas. After all, you can’t see what’s not there. To be sure, report such as this one matter a great deal, and I’m not at all discounting its value. The fact that there’s immense, vibrant and dynamic economic activity going on by the Sino-Korean border is interesting in its own right, as it dispels the notion that North Korea is fully isolated economically. As Nikkei shows, that’s just not the case:

The number of trucks making their way across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge increased sharply in November, according to an executive of a housing materials supplier in the border city of Dandong.

Many carry plywood flooring, elevator components and other materials to construction projects in North Korea, while seafood heads in the other direction.

I saw similar goods transported over in great quantities in the summer of 2016, another point in time when China was supposed to be squeezing North Korea economically, according to the sanctions frameworks in place.

“These days, the bridge gets jammed with traffic, which is something we rarely saw after the sanctions resolution” in 2017, the executive said.

This is a similar impression to what we’ve seen in other news reports. Traffic declined drastically during the US-North Korea tensions of 2017, and the during the late summer and fall of that year in particular, when round after round of sanctions were levied on the country.

However, that traffic has increased from a relatively extreme low point is itself not evidence that sanctions no longer have any effect. Traffic alone does matter as an indication, but not much more. We need to know what is being shipped as well.

Increased bilateral trade serves both countries’ aims. Beijing wants to strengthen its influence over Pyongyang, while the Kim Jong Un regime needs to develop a struggling economy. Activity at the border area highlights attempts to rebuild ties.

About 70% of China-North Korea trade passes through Dandong. In late November, construction work could be seen getting underway in Sinuiju on the other side of the Yalu River, which separates the two countries.

A large, cylinder-shaped building is taking shape close to the bridge, in an area that also hosts an amusement park. According to local rumors, it is a hotel that will target Chinese tourists.

About 10 km to the south lies the New Yalu River Bridge, which is expected to replace the older crossing as the main cross-border artery when it opens. Many structures that look like new apartment buildings can be seen close to it on the Korean side.

The North Korean leader has shifted his focus to economic policy amid improving relations with China and South Korea.

Sinuiju will potentially be crucial to driving economic growth through trade with China. This past summer, Kim inspected cosmetics and textile plants in the city, and many believe Pyongyang has stepped up the development of nearby areas.

And just a few weeks ago, Kim Jong-un oversaw the Sinuiju grand redevelopment plan.

The sanctions imposed on the Kim regime over its nuclear and missile programs make it difficult for the country to rebuild its economy on its own.

China, which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s total trade in value terms, is backing efforts to revitalize the city.

Black North Korean clams are easily distinguished from the yellow Chinese variety, claimed a middle-aged woman at the Donggang Yellow Sea market as she hooked some out of a net and sorted them by size.

The Chinese authorities toughened controls on imports of clams, crabs and other seafood from North Korea immediately after the sanctions were imposed, but several wholesalers said smuggling in the Yellow Sea had picked up again this past spring.

North Korean seafood at the market, they claimed, was simply being packaged as if it came from China. The clams served at a restaurant in the city were all black.

The sanctions also restrict the acceptance of North Korean workers.

At a garment factory in suburban Dandong, however, there were a number of female laborers from across the border, and what appeared to be a North Korean merchant was seen staying at a luxury hotel in the area, neither of which would have been common sights just after the sanctions were imposed. These people most likely enter China on short-stay permits, rather than working visas.

Guest workers appear to have been one of the first areas in which China began relaxing control, shortly after Kim Jong-un’s spring 2018 visit to Beijing.

Chinese influence in North Korea’s construction sector also appears to extend well beyond the supply of materials.

“It is hard to imagine they have the technology to construct a round building,” said a senior official of a construction materials company in Dandong, speaking about the supposed new hotel on the other side. What is less hard to imagine, he assumed, is where the technical support was coming from.

Locals claim that a Chinese inspection team had gone over to look at the construction of roads linking the new bridge with the nearby town.

Full article and source:
China-North Korea border trade thrives again, despite sanctions
Daisuke Harashima
Nikkei Asian Review
2018-12-06

Again, all of this matters. But the question is just how much it matters when North Korean can’t export nearly the same quantities of coal and minerals to China that it has over the past few years. Some might argue that this trade, too, could simply be hidden and kept off of China’s books. I doubt it. Some, perhaps, but absolutely not all or even most of it, simply given the quantities we’re talking about here. I would think you’d have to do quite a few nighttime runs by ship across the Yalu river to get any meaningful quantities across hidden.

Consider the mere magnitude of the numbers we’re talking about here. I unfortunately don’t have time to dig up the latest data right now, but for a sense of proportion: in July of 2017, China imported only 2.7 million tonnes of coal from North Korea, a downturn of 75 percent. To my knowledge, this number hasn’t climbed significantly since, aside from some outlier months before various sanctions have taken effect, and the like. Chinese imports of North Korean coal account for 42.3 percent of total Chinese imports, according to one figure.

The point isn’t that North Korea is under perfectly applied “maximum pressure” by China. But that trade may be somewhat more porous than a year and a half ago doesn’t mean that North Korea’s economy isn’t experiencing immense difficulties under sanctions at the present moment. I’ll finish this post with a graph showing total volumes of North Korean exports of anthracite and iron ore to China between 2009 and 2015, a period of immense growth in these exports, based on UN Comtrade data. These incomes have been crucial for Kim Jong-un’s ability to orchestrate the massive infrastructure updates and construction projects we’ve seen under his tenure.

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Ri Yong Ho’s visit to Vietnam (or: the futile guessing game of North Korea’s developmental model of choice)

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho recently visited Vietnam, prompting speculation about economic reforms in North Korea. KCNA (whose website is impossible to link to for individual texts):

Pyongyang, December 3 (KCNA) — The government delegation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea led by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited the Socialist Republic of Vietnam from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.

During the visit Ri Yong Ho paid a courtesy call on Nguyen Xuan Phuc, prime minister of Vietnam, had talks with Pham Binh Minh, deputy prime minister and foreign minister, and was invited to a welcome reception given by the deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

During the courtesy call and talks both sides had an in-depth exchange of views and reached consensus on the issue of further developing the relations of friendship and cooperation between the two countries, provided and boosted by President Kim Il Sung together with President Ho Chi Minh, in various fields as required by the new era and other issues of mutual concern.

With the risk of sounding like a broken record: it seems that every time a North Korean official visits or mentions another country, especially those in the region, speculation follows about whether North Korea is soon to adopt the “model” of the country in question. It’s often unclear, however, what this would mean in practice. Would North Korea simply look at one, specific country’s institutions and laws, translate them to Korean and adopt them wholesale? Would North Korea adopt the same sort of sequencing of economic reforms, in the precise order in which the country in question adopted them?

Of course not.

Kim Jong-il, in his time, visited both Russia and China, and made comments to the effect that North Korea could learn from the countries’ economic systems. Kim Jong-un has visited not just China, but Singapore too. He may even come to Seoul before the end of 2018, and if so, he’ll likely visit construction sites and perhaps even factories operated by one or several of South Korea’s major conglomerates.

The point is that North Korean government officials and policy planners, like those of all countries, will naturally look for inspiration from around the world, from whatever country may have achieved the goals that the North Korean regime aspires to.

For now, that appears to be economic growth under continued one-Party rule. There are a number of countries that fit that description. Arguably South Korea does too, in a way, given that its economic growth miracle first began under harsh political oppression. There is simply little sense in debating what “model” North Korea will choose, because there is no reason to believe the country would adopt any one “model”, because that’s simply not how countries work.

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[Updated] Kim Jong-un oversees master plan for Sinuiju facelift and construction

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A couple of weeks ago, KCNA carried a report of Kim Jong-un’s oversight of a grand, general reconstruction plan for Sinuiju, North Korea’s most important hub for trade with China.

North Korea, it seems, expects that trade primarily with China will continue to grow and remain the country’s most important source of foreign currency revenue for the foreseeable future. This is something to keep in mind through the speculations about US and other western investments in North Korea in the event that sanctions are lifted and denuclearization (whatever version of it) comes through.

The plans for Sinuiju are also notable simply because Sinuiju is not Pyongyang. There has been quite a bit of work done in the past few years, under Kim Jong-un, at extending the renovations drive and infrastructure construction to smaller, provincial cities (mostly provincial capitals). One message seems to be that Kim Jong-un’s ambitions and promises of economic development aren’t just for the elite, but for the population as a whole.

It’s unclear how the plans that Rodong speaks of are related to the Sinuiju International Economic Zone. An issue of the quarterly North Korean magazine Foreign Trade in 2015 indicated that renovations of Sinuiju would focus on infrastructure renewal, but as the example of the bridge to nowhere shows (see below), it’s unclear what actual progress is being made in reality on this.

Some specific thoughts and annotation below (my emphasis, except on the leader’s names, that’s all standard KCNA):

Pyongyang, November 16 (KCNA) — Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, examined and guided the master plan for Sinuiju City together with leading officials of the party, administration and design organs of North Phyongan Province.

Learning about the implementation of the behests of President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il for the construction of Sinuiju City and examining in detail the master plan for the construction of Sinuiju City and a diorama of the future city, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un set forth the tasks and ways of successfully sprucing up Sinuiju City to meet the demand of the present era.

“The present era” = likely, the era of a growing middle class with demands for consumption and entertainment, many of which make their money through the markets and semi-private business.

He said that it is necessary to form the center of Sinuiju City deep up to the southern Sinuiju area with the statues of

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the center square of the city as the axis, arrange high-rise apartments and public buildings at provincial and city levels in its surroundings in a dimensional way, successfully arrange the blocks of high-rise and skyscraper apartment buildings along the main axis and arterial road of the city and the bank of the Amnok River in formative artistic way and build many parks within the dwelling area and thus turn the city into the one in the park.

This all sounds very expensive. Meanwhile, North Korea faces largely unfunded humanitarian needs, which could be met relatively cheaply. In fact, the equivalent of one-sixth of North Korea’s total luxury goods imports in 2017 would be enough.

Saying that it is necessary to build many modern and majestic architectures rich in national character in order to build the city befitting to a gateway city of the country, he called for successfully arranging the public buildings such as theatre, cinema, sports village, ice rink and sci-tech library and service facilities including hotel and department store in a rational way and to be of modern taste.

Books have been written about the concept of “rationality”, so I won’t go into what the use of that phrase means in this context. But it does sound like what Kim is talking about is simply making Sinuiiju “modern”, with all of what that entails. These days, there’s quite a bit of reporting and chatter around about how Pyongyang, and other North Korean cities, have undergone stark modernizations during Kim’s tenure. This is clearly true, but it’s worth remembering the reason why these things are news: the presence of “service facilities”, “department store[s]” and the like, things taken for granted in much of the world, is still not widely spread in North Korea outside of Pyongyang. (This is also true for Wi-fi.)

He also gave a direction of sprucing up the present industrial areas and remodeling the railway station of the city and Uiju Airport in a modern way.

Speaking of infrastructure: this is the only part of the article where infrastructure is mentioned. It is interesting and notable that despite the attention and grand plans for Sinuiju, the new bridge connecting the city to Dandong had still not been connected to North Korea’s road network as of mid-February this year, as far as I can tell from satellite imagery. This is the most recent date for which imagery is available.

The end of the new bridge from Dandong, on the North Korean side. Photo: Google Earth.

Underlining the need to pay deep attention also to the creation of cultural environment including urban greening, he called for creating green belts near the city’s main road and around the industrial area to make sure that one citizen has 50 square meters of green tract of land, and for building city park, botanical garden and recreation ground in a cozy and peculiar manner to suit the specific conditions of the local city.

Again, that’s going to cost a lot of money, and not least, human effort. Citizens might be happy about green spaces, but they’ll be less so at having to go out and construct them through “voluntary” labor.

Noting that it is most important in urban construction to make sure that citizens don’t feel any inconvenience, he said that it is necessary to increase electricity production and make a maximum use of natural energy so as to round off the city electricity supply network system, perfect the heating system, put the water supply on an international standard and properly establish the system for purifying industrial waste water and sewage as the city has dense arrangement of residential quarters and industrial establishments.

Electricity and energy supply is one of the main achilles heels for the North Korean economy, and its industry is highly vulnerable to shortages in electricity supply. “Maximum use of natural energy” sounds like hydrogen power to me, which is North Korea’s most plentiful source of electricity. Aside from coal, that is, but given the export value of coal, its use for domestic electricity production comes with a high opportunity cost. In any case, the North Korean administration is clearly aware (and has been for decades) that energy is a big problem, and bringing it up in conjunction with a city plan inspection is likely a way of sending the message that the authorities are working on it. How exactly that is being done is less clear.

On the theme of energy in Sinuiju, it might be worth noting that the city is home to one of the country’s main oil refineries, the Ponghwa Chemical Factory, south of the city.

Ponghwa Chemical Factory, south of Sinuiju. Photo: Google Earth.

As I keep stressing all the time, the provincial party committees should pay special attention to the work of intensifying the provincial design organs and construction forces and put constant efforts on it and thus decisively raise the level of the building in the construction projects of local areas, he pointed out.

Calling for reviewing the master plan for Sinuiju City and the long-term goals for city construction in cooperation with powerful design organs of the country, remapping it out to be realistic and submitting it within a few months, he said that the Party Central Committee would discuss and decide on the plan after going through relevant procedures, and the construction of the border city would be conducted year by year and phase by phase with the state backing after setting the goals of 5-year plan.

Noting that the work of remodeling Sinuiju City for which President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il gave instructions dozens of times is a very important task of carrying out their behests, he stressed the need to gain good fruition within a few years to come.

Article source:
Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Master Plan for Construction of Sinuiju
Political News Team
Rodong Sinmun
2018-11-16

[Updated 2018-12-6: I added a few details throughout the post, as well as satellite imagery.]

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North Korea spent two million dollars on surveillance equipment

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The spread of cell phones in North Korea, rather than being a catalyst for a Pyongyang Spring, is likely giving the regime more means and channels for surveillance. Daily NK reports:

The North Korean regime imported a large shipment of mobile phone wiretapping devices from China in May, local sources have reported.

“The authorities bought new electronic wave interruption devices and mobile phone wiretapping devices in May this year. The cost of the equipment was around 15 million yuan (2.45 billion South Korean won), according to a Ministry of State Security (MSS) official that I talked to,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs.

“The MSS official also told me that the equipment will be supplied to cities on the Sino-North Korean border, starting from Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, and then to Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, and other cities. The cities are probably filled to the gills with high-quality electronic signal interruption and wiretapping devices now.”

Daily NK recently reported that North Korean law enforcement officials have installed new mobile phone wiretapping devices on the Sino-North Korean border to monitor international calls.

A number of residents calling relatives in South Korea have been arrested, and the MSS has demanded money from their family members in South Korea in return for their release.

The North Korean authorities have strengthened surveillance and wiretapping activities to prevent North Koreans who have access to outside information from sparking unrest in the country. These efforts have become particularly pronounced recently as inter-Korean relations have improved. Ultimately, the authorities want to prevent sensitive domestic information regarding denuclearization and nuclear development plans from leaving the country.

“For North Korean officials who depend on the regime staying in power, they know that the ‘information war’ with their own citizens and the international community is important and are set on preventing things from going in an undesirable direction,” one expert told Daily NK on condition of anonymity.

A separate source in Pyongyang also reported that MSS officials who misappropriated some of the funds used to buy the new equipment were purged.

“Several MSS officials were purged after it was found that they bought cheap equipment and embezzled the rest of the money. Another team of MSS officials had to go to China again to buy better equipment,” he said, adding that the officials who misappropriated the funds faced punishment after the equipment they bought did not operate as intended.

Article source:
North Korea spent $2M on surveillance and wiretapping equipment in May
Kim Song Il
Daily NK
2018-12-03

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