Archive for the ‘China’ Category

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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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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