Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

“Maximum pressure” and the North Korean economy: what do market prices say?

Friday, March 9th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

With the news today about a summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump tentatively planned for the end of May, there has been much debate about the role of the US policy of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions.

The efficacy of the policy is difficult to evaluate, particularly since it often takes many months or even years for the full effect of sanctions to play out. Whether the policy has been effective or not depends on, well, how you judge success or failure. There is little doubt that North Korea’s exports have taken a significant hit not primarily from the sanctions themselves, but from China’s enforcement of them. This is the single biggest difference between how sanctions have hit the North Korean economy during the past year, versus previous years. It seems fairly indisputable that sectors of the economy have suffered, with export industries taking the biggest hit.

But what has been the impact on the economy as a whole? It’s difficult to say, but we have two important indicators: prices of rice and foreign currency on North Korean markets. The data on these two indicators is far from perfect, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw firm conclusions from it. (For an explanation of this data, and the rationale for using rice prices in lieu of the formal goods basket used to measure inflation in other countries, see this article, for example). Nevertheless, neither of the two indicators suggest a situation out of the ordinary on North Korean markets during the period that “maximum pressure” has been applied.

First, a look at rice prices. If sanctions were truly devastating the North Korean economy, there is a whole host of reasons why one should expect rice prices to increase.

One of them is expectations of worse times to come as importing inputs for agriculture as well as food becomes increasingly difficult. Another is that if importing food products in general* becomes more difficult, perhaps because Chinese traders anticipate that their North Korean counterparts won’t be able to pay, consumers would be expected to switch more of their consumption to domestically sourced goods, increasing demand and thus prices. In general, anxiety about worsening times often leads to inflation.

This does not seem to have happened. In fact, rice prices have been remarkably stable over the past year (if the graph looks strange, click for full image):

There may well be other forces at work, too. Increased smuggling of cheaper Chinese rice, for example, may well have contributed to the price stability. But this is in itself a sign of the resiliency of the North Korean economy; when some supply decreases, there are ways of compensating through other means.

Exchange rates are another important metric. If the inflow of foreign currency (in this case US dollars) decreases, its price – the exchange rate – should go up. Expectations matter here, too: if the market expects that foreign currency supply will dry up in the future, it tends to act in the present and make purchases today to hedge for tomorrow. As with rice prices, exchange rates have been remarkably stable over the past year (again, click for better image):

In sum, we have little or no hard evidence that the North Korean economy, on the whole, has suffered significantly and harshly from sanctions thus far. That may itself not be an argument against sanctions, since again, it may take much longer than just a year for their full impact to play out. But it does call into question the claims that “maximum pressure” is the chief reason for Kim Jong-un’s outreach to Donald Trump.

*This likely holds true regardless of the level of self-sufficiency in North Korea’s agricultural production.


North Korean markets insulated from sanctions, but not forever

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

Posted by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Analysis at Daily NK:

In 2017 alone, the United Nations Security Council passed four major sanctions resolutions against North Korea: Resolutions 2356, 2371, 2375, and 2397. Under the measures, the North’s crude oil imports were restricted, and coal and mineral exports were banned. Additionally, the North was prohibited from sending its laborers to work abroad – one of the key ways in which the regime earns foreign currency.
“One cannot say that, on a macro level, sanctions against North Korea have been ineffective,” said Lee Seok Ki, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET). “Since around August or September of 2017, the North’s exports have dropped significantly, and we have seen a major impact from sanctions on their industrial output. The country’s anthracite (coal) exports are down 66% compared to the previous year, which is a devastating hit to their mining sector, and the trend is expected to continue.”
Lee added that while most indicators point to declining imports, it remains difficult to conclude that sanctions have had the same effect on the North Korean manufacturing sector. Despite this, Lee noted that “sanctions are having an effect on the trade sector and we will continue to see both quantitative and qualitative effects in the long term.”
Other experts support the opinion that sanctions are working against the North’s overall trade. “North Korea’s exports to China are down 37%, which has led to a further 1.8% drop in growth for the North’s economy over the last year,” said Kim Byung Yeon, a professor at the Department of Economics at Seoul National University.
“If the North is unable to get sanctions lifted, the growth rate for their economy could drop to as low as minus 5% in the next year,” Kim added, explaining that the effects on economic growth will be significant due to the structure of the North’s economy and the relatively high proportion that exports contribute to it.
Kim said that citizens working in the trade sector have been most affected by sanctions, though he points to the government as taking the most damage. “Most trade has been conducted by state-owned and party- or military-run companies, meaning that the elite class and government officials take a big hit from sanctions,” Kim said. “Kim Jong Un relies heavily on trade as a source of income (for his regime), which means that the person most impacted by sanctions is none other than Kim Jong Un.”
But while sanctions appear to be having a significant effect on the North’s trade and industry, experts are noting that the local markets in the country have not been affected as heavily.
“When you look at the price of rice or the exchange rate over time, it’s hard to see any major effect of sanctions (on local markets),” KIET researcher Lee said.
Daily NK’s own research has come to the same conclusion, finding that the price of rice in North Korea’s markets has remained steady at around 4,000 to 5,000 KPW per kg since the beginning of the recent surge in international sanctions.
“People have been relying on themselves, actively participating in the markets and smuggling since the end of the Arduous March (great famine of the 1990s), which means that sanctions do not yet seem to be having an effect on the markets,” said a source in North Hamgyong Province, pointing to the steady availability of consumer goods as evidence.
“Kim Jong Un has instituted improvements in the quality of domestic-made goods, leading to these products in many cases pushing out Chinese versions from the markets,” said Lee Geun Young, Professor at the Yanbian University Department of Political and Public Administration. “There are now fewer items being brought in from China, so these products are having less influence on market prices.”
However, experts also believe that the damage inflicted by sanctions will inevitably reach the markets. “It’s not easy to precisely predict when the effect of sanctions will reach the markets,” Professor Kim said. “But one thing is clear: because many items rely on some form of importation, the long-term effects of a continuing decline in trade will inevitably lead to a reduction in the volume of available goods and a decrease in consumer purchasing power.”
Article source:
North Korean markets insulated from sanctions, though not forever
Jang Seul Gi
Daily NK

US prepares maritime interdiction to stop North Korean sanctions evasion

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As the Winter Olympics with all its inter-Korean contacts wind down, the US is preparing to place Coast Guard forces to stop and search vessels in Asia-Pacific waters, to prevent North Korean sanctions circumvention. Reuters:

Washington has been talking to regional partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, about coordinating a stepped-up crackdown that would go further than ever before in an attempt to squeeze Pyongyang’s use of seagoing trade to feed its nuclear missile program, several officials told Reuters.

While suspect ships have been intercepted before, the emerging strategy would expand the scope of such operations but stop short of imposing a naval blockade on North Korea. Pyongyang has warned it would consider a blockade an act of war.

The strategy calls for closer tracking and possible seizure of ships suspected of carrying banned weapons components and other prohibited cargo to or from North Korea, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Depending on the scale of the campaign, the United States could consider beefing up the naval and air power of its Pacific Command, they said.

The U.S.-led initiative, which has not been previously reported, shows Washington’s increasing urgency to force North Korea into negotiations over the abandonment of its weapons programs, the officials said.

North Korea may be only a few months away from completing development of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, despite existing international sanctions that, at times, have been sidestepped by smuggling and ship-to-ship transfers at sea of banned goods, according to officials.

“There is no doubt we all have to do more, short of direct military action, to show (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un we mean business,” said a senior administration official.

The White House declined official comment.

The effort could target vessels on the high seas or in the territorial waters of countries that choose to cooperate. It was unclear, however, to what extent the campaign might extend beyond Asia.

Washington on Friday slapped sanctions on dozens more companies and vessels linked to North Korean shipping trade and urged the United Nations to blacklist a list of entities, a move it said was aimed at shutting down North Korea’s illicit maritime smuggling activities to obtain oil and sell coal.

Tighter sanctions plus a more assertive approach at sea could dial up tensions at a time when fragile diplomacy between North and South Korea has gained momentum. It would also stretch U.S. military resources needed elsewhere, possibly incur massive new costs and fuel misgivings among some countries in the region.

The initiative, which is being developed, would be fraught with challenges that could risk triggering North Korean retaliation and dividing the international community.

China and Russia, which have blocked U.S. efforts at the United Nations to win approval for use of force in North Korea interdiction operations, are likely to oppose new actions if they see the United States as overstepping. A Chinese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such steps should only be taken under United Nations auspices.

China’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement to Reuters, said they did not know anything about the plan, but that in principle China believes U.N. resolutions on North Korea should be fully and thoroughly implemented.

“At the same time, we hope relevant countries act in accordance with Security Council resolutions and international law,” it added, without elaborating.

Full article:
Exclusive: U.S. prepares high-seas crackdown on North Korea sanctions evaders – source
Phil Stewart, David Brunnstrom

I won’t go into the strategic and political implications, but when it comes to sanctions circumvention, a plan like this, thoroughly executed, would likely raise the costs of North Korean sanctions circumvention. Even with what sanctioned trade still goes on, there’s likely a substantial premium charged by traders that deal with North Korea because of the risks involved. As those risks go up, so should the premium. No measures can make circumvention fully impossible, but it can get a whole lot more expensive.


Is North Korea scaling back winter exercises because it lacks fuel and food?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Much has been made of North Korea’s apparent decision to scale back its annual winter military exercises. Some have concluded it’s a sign that sanctions are working: the army lacks both fuel and food, and has therefore had no choice but to change the scale of the exercises.

While this may be true, I haven’t seen anything in the data that proves it. Take food prices, for example. The average rice price among three North Korean cities, according to the latest observation by Daily NK, is 4853 won per kg. It’s declined pretty strongly over the past few months, which isn’t unusual for this time of year. In the comparable period last year, the same price was exactly 800 won lower. In other words, food prices, as measured by rice prices, often used instead of a CPI-basket for the North Korean market, are 20 percent higher today than they were in the comparable period last year.

That isn’t negligible, but I would still say a large part of the price difference falls within the margin of error. Prices can fluctuate heavily on the North Korean market, and the results might have been different even had prices been measured on a different day. And for most of the past few months, prices have pretty much looked seasonally normal.

Lack of fuel is a much more plausible explanation. Prices have steadily climbed since early 2017 and according to data from NK PRO continue to rise. But part of the reason for the increased prices is, likely, that the military has been soaking up more fuel than usual from the market. I don’t think there’s much reasonable doubt that fuel has been more difficult to acquire since sanctions began to be enforced more strictly by China. But we also know that North Korea has continued to import fuel by circumventing sanctions. Some of these methods have been publicly exposed by US intelligence but there’s likely much more going on that we don’t see. If full-scale military exercises were a priority for the leadership, I doubt that it would be impossible for agents and enterprises further down the line to somehow acquire the fuel it needs.


The August 5th UNSC sanctions on North Korea: new scope, but same old tools. Will this time be any different?

Sunday, August 6th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On Saturday August 5th, the UN Security Council passed yet another resolution, 2371, following North Korea’s missile tests. Like resolution 2270 that was passed in March 2016, 2371 also takes aim at North Korea’s mineral exports. The new resolution also bans imports of seafood products from North Korea, and bans member states from hiring new North Korean laborers, but they do not need to fire ones already hired, so it is questionable whether this source of income will decrease and/or disappear, or merely stop increasing.

Unlike 2270 last year, it does not appear to contain a humanitarian exemption or any other loophole for mineral imports. In sum, the new resolution appears much more holistic than its predecessors in fully cutting off North Korea’s most central export revenues.

But while the content of the resolution is different, the tools remain the same. Its efficacy still hinges upon implementation by UN member states, and of course, above all, by China, and it is difficult to see why such implementation would be more likely this time. Both President Trump and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, have made a big number of China’s and Russia’s vote in favor of the resolution. WSJ reports:

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley praised the councils solidarity, saying more days like this one were needed at the United Nations. She also personally thanked China for helping move the resolution from talk to action. The U.S., which had drafted and put forward the resolution, negotiated for more than a month with China over the text and final measures targeting Pyongyang.

This resolution is the single largest economic sanctions package ever leveled against the North Korean regime, said Ms. Haley, adding the council had put the country and its leadership on notice and what happens next is up to North Korea.

President Donald Trumpsaid on Twitter, The United Nations Security Council just voted 15-0 to sanction North Korea. China and Russia voted with us. Very big financial impact!

However,both China and Russia voted in favor of UNSC 2270 as well, and there are still abundantly clear signs that China did little to implement the ban on imports of North Korean minerals. Had UNSC 2270 been implemented in full, North Korea’s export revenues would already have been badly hit.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Bank of Korea announced a few weeks ago its estimate that the North Korean economy grew by close to four percent last year. One should read those numbers with a very,veryhefty dose of skepticism, given the difficulty in estimating anything relating to the North Korean economy, but at the very least, we can safely conclude that the North Korean economy is not in dire straits. Its foreign trade increased by close to five percent last year, according to KOTRA. Though there have been several reports suggesting difficulties for companies involved in cross-border trade between China and North Korea over the past year, there are no indications that China has implemented the near-blanket-ban in minerals trade that the UNSC resolution from March last year mandates.

So why would this time be any different? My guess is that it won’t be. It is very difficult to imagine that China would have voted in favor of a resolution that would hit North Korea’s economy so badly if it would really have believed that such a resolution would be fully implemented. The basic political dynamics remain: China does not want North Korea to crumble, and China craves geopolitical stability above everything else.

As always, only time will tell. But those who applaud this resolution as a new and radical turn on the global stage in the North Korea issue may want to look back at historical precedent, and moderate their expectations.


UN security council adopts sanctions banning imports of wide range of North Korean goods

Saturday, August 5th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein:

On Saturday August 5th, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution banning member states from importing North Korean export goods such as minerals and seafood products, and from hiring North Korean laborers. Wall Street Journal:

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley praised the councils solidarity, saying more days like this one were needed at the United Nations. She also personally thanked China for helping move the resolution from talk to action. The U.S., which had drafted and put forward the resolution, negotiated for more than a month with China over the text and final measures targeting Pyongyang.

This resolution is the single largest economic sanctions package ever leveled against the North Korean regime, said Ms. Haley, adding the council had put the country and its leadership on notice and what happens next is up to North Korea.

President Donald Trumpsaid on Twitter, The United Nations Security Council just voted 15-0 to sanction North Korea. China and Russia voted with us. Very big financial impact!

Both China and Russia urged a return to talks with North Korea and told the Security Council that the U.S. must abandonits military exercises with South Koreaand dismantlethe missile-defense system in South Korea known as Thaadbecause North Korea perceived that as a threat and it undermined the security of the region.

We stress that additional restrictions cannot be an end to themselves, they need to be a tool to engage in dialogue, said Russias new ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia.

The nine-page resolution steps up trade restrictions with Pyongyang by aiming to cut off a third of its $3 billion annual export revenue. It bans North Korea from trading coal, iron, lead, iron and lead ore, and seafood.

The resolution also prohibits countries from hiring North Korean laborers and bans countries from entering or investing into new joint ventures with Pyongyang.

Diplomats and sanctions experts have long warned that export revenues, even remittances from foreign workers, are cycled back to North Koreas military and nuclear programs.

A Security Council diplomat offered this estimate on North Koreas foreign revenue earnings in 2017: $295 million from seafood; $251 million from iron and iron ore, and $400 million from coal trade.

North Koreans work in China, Russia and the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf in a variety of businesses ranging from factories to restaurants and nightclubs and are estimated to send home several billion dollars in revenue, a large portion of which the government claims, according to U.N. sanctions experts.

The new resolution restricts North Koreas technology trade and tightens enforcement of sanctions on North Korean vessels by banning violators from entering ports around the world.

Under the resolution, North Koreas Foreign Trade Bank, which handles foreign exchange, will be added the U.N.s sanctions list that freezes the assets of targeted entities.

It remains to be seen whether the new sanctions will deter North Koreas pursuit of advanced ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons or bring its leader Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table.

North Koreas economy has managed to stay afloat largely because China, its main trade partner, and Russia and some African nations havent fully enforced existing U.N. sanctions. The U.S. Treasury in June sanctioned Chinese entitiesprimarily banks and shipping companiesand individuals for violating sanctions and conducting trade that contributed to North Koreas military and nuclear program.

Chinas Ambassador Liu Jieyi said his country denounced unilateral sanctions by the U.S. and said action against North Korea must be through the U.N. mechanism. Mr. Liu told the council he welcomed the U.S. position that it wasntseeking regime change in North Korea.

China has always been firmly opposed to chaos and conflict in the [Korean] peninsula, Mr. Liu said.

Although China and Russia have pushed for a resumption of the six-party talks with North Korea, disagreement remains on how to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the table. China and Russia have called for a freeze-for-freeze plan under which North Korea would halt any more military or nuclear action and the U.S. would end its military exercises with South Korea.

Full article here:
North Korea Hit by $1 Billion Sanctions After Missile
Farnaz Fassihi
Wall Street Journal


The UN summary of the resolution reads as follows:

The Security Council today further strengthened its sanctions regime against the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, condemning in the strongest terms that countrys ballistic missile launches and reaffirming its decision that Pyongyang shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.

Unanimously adopting resolution2371(2017) under Article41, ChapterVII of the United Nations Charter, the 15-nation Council decided that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea shall not supply, sell or transfer coal, iron, iron ore, seafood, lead and lead ore to other countries.

Expressing concern that Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea nationals working abroad were generating foreign export earnings to support the countrys nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, it also decided that all Member States shall not increase the total number of work authorizations for such persons in their jurisdictions, unless approved by the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution1718(2006).

Through the text, the Council decided that States shall prohibit the opening of new joint ventures or cooperative entities with the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea entities and individuals, or expand existing joint ventures through additional investments. In addition, it decided that Pyongyang shall not deploy or use chemical weapons and urgently called for it to accede to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and Their Destruction.

Also through the resolution, the Council named nine individuals and four entities to be subject to a travel ban and asset freeze already in place, as well as to request that the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) issue special notices with respect to designated individuals.

In addition, it reaffirmed that its provisions were not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, and that the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution1718 (2006), on a case-by-case basis, exempt from sanctions those activities that would facilitate the work of international and non?governmental organizations engaged in assistance and relief activities for civilian benefit.

Furthermore, through the text, the Council called for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks between China, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation and the United States towards the goal of a verifiable and peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Speaking after the resolutions adoption, the representative of the United States said the Council had put the Democratic Peoples Republic of Koreas dictator on notice by increasing the penalty of its ballistic missile activity to a whole new level. All Member States must do more to put more pressure on that country, she said, adding that the United States would take defensive measures to protect itself and its allies, including through joint military exercises.

Chinas representative said that, while todays resolution had imposed further sanctions, it did not intend to negatively impact such non-military goods as food and humanitarian aid. Calling on all parties to implement the resolutions provisions fully and earnestly, he recalled that China and the Russian Federation on 4July had put forward a road map to resolve the issue through two parallel tracks denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism. Recalling that the United States had recently indicated that it was not pushing for regime change or for the Korean Peninsulas reunification, he said an escalation of military activities would be detrimental to all countries of the region.

Japans delegate said the sheer number and frequency of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Koreas nuclear and ballistic missile tests show how unprecedented and unacceptable these provocations are. Not only was the quantity outrageous, but the qualitative advancements were alarming. Noting that todays resolution would reduce the Democratic Peoples Republic of Koreas revenue by approximately $1billion, he said all Member States must demonstrate renewed commitment to implement the Councils decisions.

The Russian Federations representative, while calling on the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea to end its banned programmes, said progress would be difficult so long as it perceived a direct threat to its security. Emphasizing that military misadventures risked creating a disaster, he said sanctions must be a tool for engaging Pyongyang in constructive talks rather than to seek the countrys economic asphyxiation.

The Republic of Koreas delegate said that Pyongyangs missile provocations on 4and 28July, together with its nuclear programme, posed a grave threat to international peace and security. Indeed, such reckless acts of defiance should be met with stronger measures, he said, adding that additional sanctions contained in resolution2371(2017) would significantly cut off the inflow of hard currency that would otherwise have been diverted to illicit weapons programmes.

Full article:
Security Council Toughens Sanctions Against Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea,Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2371 (2017)
United Nations Meetings Coverage


North Korea’s economy grew by almost 4 percent in 2017, says BOK

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap reports:

The estimated expansion of the gross domestic product (GDP) represents a sharp turnaround from 2015 when the economy of one of the world’s most isolated countries shrank 1.1 percent due mainly to a drought.

Last year’s growth is the highest since 1999 when North Korea’s economy expanded 6.1 percent, according to the Bank of Korea (BOK).

North Korea’s economy expanded 1.2 percent on average between 2012 and 2016, a sign that its economy is mired in low growth.

There are no indications that the North’s economy has suddenly improved since late 2011 when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power on the sudden death of his father and long-time leader Kim Jong-il, an official said.

“North Korea’s economic structure is very fragile and is not really set up for high growth,” the official spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The BOK estimated North Korea’s gross national income (GNI) stood at 36.4 trillion won (US$32.4 billion) in 2016. South Korea’s per-capita GNI stood at 31.98 million won, which is 22.1 times larger than the North’s 1.46 million won.

Related to last year’s growth, the central bank said North Korea’s mining industry grew 8.4 percent, the highest since 1999 when it expanded 14.2 percent.

North Korea’s trade volume came to $6.55 in 2016, up 4.6 percent from a year earlier, the BOK said. The increase came despite tightened U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea over its repeated nuclear tests and its long-range rocket launches.

The sanctions call for, among other things, a ban on the country’s exports of coal and other mineral resources to cut off North Korea’s access to hard currency.

Still, the provision will not apply if transactions are determined to be exclusively for livelihood purposes and unrelated to generating revenue for North Korea’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs or other activities prohibited by previous U.N. resolutions.

China accounts for nearly 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, and mineral resources are a key part of their bilateral trade.

Full article:

N. Korea’s economy grew 3.9 pct in 2016: BOK

Yonhap News



North Korea Sells South Korean Cookware Seized at Kaesong

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Radio Free Asia:

South Korean cookware seized illegally by North Korean authorities after the Kaesong joint industrial park was closed last year are being found for sale in large quantities in Chinese cities near the North Korean border, sources say.

Formerly viewed as a symbol of cooperation between the two halves of the divided Korean peninsula, Kaesong was closed in February 2016 after North Korea ordered all South Koreans out of the complex, seized South Korean assets there, and declared the area under military control.

The move came a day after South Korea announced it was pulling out of Kaesong in retaliation for North Korean nuclear and long-range missile tests earlier in the year.

Now, electric rice cookers produced by South Korean firms in Kaesong are turning up for sale across northeastern China, a source in Kaifeng, in central China’s Henan province, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“North Korea began to sell South Korean products left behind in Kaesong starting in mid-December,” said the source, familiar with trade in the northeast and speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Their exact number is unclear, but it’s known to be in the hundreds.”

Electric cookers bearing the Kaesong markings “Made in Korea” are among the most popular items offered for sale in Korean stores located in cities in China’s northeast, sources said.

“Those buying the cookers are mainly South Korean businessmen.  Then resell them to Korean merchandise stores located in Shenyang, Yanji, and other places,” RFA’s source in Kaifeng said.

‘A complicated problem’

Speaking separately, the operator of a shop in China near the border with North Korea told RFA that he was approached in early December by four North Koreans he had never seen before.

“They asked if I would be interested in buying electric cookers made in Kaesong for a low price,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

“They said there were about 6,000 of these that they could sell.”

“At first, I thought that I could make a lot of profit by selling them, but then I refused the offer because I thought this could become a complicated problem for me later on,” he said.

While the same rice cookers are also made in Qingdao, in China, and labeled “Made in China,” those made in Kaesong are more popular with consumers because of their “Made in Korea” markings, he added.


Full article:
North Korea Sells South Korean Cookware Seized at Kaesong
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Richard Finney.


DPRK builds replica Blue House (UPDATE: And destroys it)

Sunday, December 11th, 2016

UPDATE 2 (2016-12-12): Kim Jong-un visited the nearby training grounds of “Special Operation Battalion of KPA Unit 525,” the unit that carried out the assault on the replica Blue House, on November 4 of this year. Here is the model of the actual Blue House at the training grounds:

Although Kim Jong-un visited this location in early November, these images were apparently not published until after the combat drill was officially announced on December 11. No doubt they would have given away the secret if they had been.

The model has a few discrepancies when compared with satellite imagery, but is a fairly accurate representation of the actual Blue House and its surroundings.

One soldier was also looking at this satellite image on a computer:

The caption reads (roughly): “View of US-ROK Combined Forces Command basic command post. [UPDATE] In the comments section, James Pearson at Reuters has identified this as the Yongsan Garrison ( 37.536828°, 126.983589°) in Seoul:

UPDATE 1 (2016-12-11): The North Koreans finally got around to destroying the Blue House replica. According to Rodong Sinmun (2016-12-11), Kim Jong-un watched a combat drill of Special Operation Battalion of KPA Unit 525 on the outskirts of Pyongyang:




Kim Jong-un appeared happy with the test:

Here is the Google Earth image of the replica:

Here is the video.

So why stage this combat drill now? Inter-Korean politics? UN Security Council meeting on NK human rights?

ORIGINAL POST (2016-4-27):



Pictured above: (Top) South Korean military image of the replica blue house built in North Korea (Bottom) A Google Earth satellite image of the Blue House in Seoul.

The South Korean military is reporting that the North Koreans have built a replica of the Blue House in “Dewonri/Daiwonri”. According to the Japan Times:

North Korea is preparing to blow apart a replica of South Korea’s presidential Blue House on an artillery range outside Pyongyang, in an apparent propaganda exercise, the South’s military said Wednesday.

An official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said the North’s military had been detected building the half-sized replica at the Daiwonri range near the capital earlier this month.

“The North is apparently preparing to showcase a mock attack on the Blue House using the replica as a target,” the official said.

Around 30 artillery pieces, hidden under coverings, have been brought to the range.

“The exercise is believed to be aimed at stirring up hostility against the South, summoning up loyalty (to leader Kim Jong Un) and fueling security concerns in the South,” the official said.

I refer to this area as the “Taewon-ri (대원리) Artillery Range”, and I have previously written about it at NK News here. The Americans call the location “Sungho Dong Military Training Area”.

The South Korean military also released a second photo:




Bank of Korea estimate of North Korean economy in 2015 published

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

UPDATE 1 (2016-12-15): Yonhap reports on some statistics released by Statistics Korea. They largely mirror Bank of Korea data, so I have put the report here:

North Korea’s per capita income was unchanged at 1.39 million won (US$1,179.10) last year, about one twenty-secondth of South Korea’s, government data showed Thursday.

According to data by Statistics Korea, North Korea’s nominal gross national income (GNI) came to 34.5 trillion won in 2015, with its moribund economy contracting 1.1 percent last year.

In comparison, South Korea’s GNI stood at 1,565.8 trillion won last year, roughly 45 times larger than North Korea’s.

North Korea’s population stood at 24.47 million last year, while South Korea had a population of 51.01 million, the data showed.

Mobile phone subscriptions in North Korea were 12.88 per 100 people, while those in South Korea were 118.46 per 100 people, according to the data.

South Korea’s total trade volume was valued at $963.3 billion last year, compared with North Korea’s $6.3 billion.

South Korea’s overall energy output capacity reached 97.64 million kilowatts, 13 times larger than the North’s 7.42 million kilowatts.

In 2015, Seoul’s total rice production reached 4.32 million tons versus 2.01 million tons for Pyongyang.

The two Koreas also showed significant gaps in social infrastructure.

South Korea’s road network totaled 107,527 kilometers compared with the North’s 26,183 kilometers.

The statistics office has been publishing general information on the North since 1995 as a way of providing insight into the economic and social conditions of the reclusive country.

ORIGINAL POST (2016-7-22): I have added the report to my DPRK Economic Statistics Page. You can download the PDF here.

The Bank of Korea claims the DPRK economy shrank in 2015 by 1.1%

This number has numerous drawbacks which I have discussed before.

According to the Yonhap:

North Korea’s economy is estimated to have contracted 1.1 percent last year amid negative growth in most industries, South Korea’s central bank announced Friday.

The Bank of Korea (BOK) has issued an annual report on the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of one of the world’s most secretive nations.

It said the communist country’s GDP shrank 1.1 percent in 2015 from a year earlier, the first negative growth since 2010.

The bank cited a drop in crop and mining output by 0.8 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively.

The manufacturing sector suffered a 3.4 percent decline. The electricity, gas and tap water business also tumbled 12.7 percent due to a fall in hydroelectric power production attributable to a drought, according to the BOK.

But the construction field posted a 4.8 percent rise, and the service sector grew 0.8 percent.

The North’s mining and manufacturing industries accounted for 32.7 percent of its GDP, down 1.7 percentage points from 2014.

The BOK put the North’s gross national income (GNI) at 34.5 trillion won ($30.3 billion), 45 times less than that of South Korea. The North has around 25 million residents, half of the South’s population.

The data also showed that the North’s trade volume totaled $6.25 billion, down 17.9 percent on-year.

Exports slipped 14.8 percent to $2.7 billion, and imports shed 20 percent to $3.56 billion.

The North is under heavy U.N.-led economic sanctions for its nuclear and missile activities.

Since no accurate economic data from North Korea are available, the BOK said the statistics are based on estimates using methodologies applied to gauge South Korea’s own economy. Thus, it’s not desirable to directly compare the data with those of other foreign nations, added the bank.

Here is coverage in the Wall Street Journal:

North Korea’s economy likely shrank last year for the first time in five years, South Korea’s central bank said, potentially increasing the ruling challenge for leader Kim Jong Un, who has promised to boost prosperity while confronting the U.S. and other nations with nuclear weapons.

The Bank of Korea said Friday that it estimated North Korean gross domestic product fell 1.1% in 2015, the first decline since 2010 and the largest fall since a 1.2% contraction in 2007.

North Korea doesn’t release official statistics or allow outsiders to make assessments of its economy from within the country. As a result, the BOK’s estimate of North Korean GDP is often cited as the best guess. It bases its calculations on information from Seoul’s spy agency and other authorities that study North Korea.

The biggest recent economic setback for North Korea has come from a sharp fall in the price of coal, its main export product, and a slowdown in China, its sole major trading partner. The South Korean central bank said the North’s external trade was valued at $6.25 billion in 2015—down 18% from a year earlier.

New international sanctions on North Korea following its nuclear bomb test in January this year and long-range rocket launch in February may increase the economic pressure on Pyongyang. For the first time, United Nations sanctions target North Korea’s commodities trade, while the U.S. has sought to cut off Pyongyang’s links to the international financial system.

North Korea insists it will continue to pursue twin policy priorities of nuclear weapons development for its defense while seeking to boost its economy. In his first speech in 2012, Mr. Kim said North Koreans should “not have to tighten their belts again” and has regularly visited economic projects such as factories and farms.

However, output in nearly all North Korean industries contracted last year, including agriculture, fishing, mining and energy, the South Korean central bank said in its report.

Construction was a rare bright spot, growing an estimated 5%, as Mr. Kim has pursued the redevelopment of areas of central Pyongyang, including major new housing projects. The Bank of Korea also estimated a 0.8% increase in service-sector output, reflecting the emergence of unofficial market trading and underground financial services.

The North’s per capita income was around $1,224 in 2015, the bank said, compared with South Korea’s $27,200.

Here is coverage in Reuters:

North Korea’s economy contracted in 2015 at the sharpest pace in eight years, an estimate from the Bank of Korea showed on Friday, as low global commodity prices landed a blow to exports, a key driver for the impoverished country’s economy.

The gross domestic product in North Korea last year fell a real 1.1 percent, South Korea’s central bank said, which was the first fall since 2010 and compares with a 1.0 percent gain in 2014. It also marked the fastest decline since a 1.2 percent drop in 2007.

Isolated North Korea does not publish economic data.

All sectors except construction and services declined, a likely burden for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un already under pressure from international sanctions against multiple provocations including a nuclear test in January.

“The key reason for the GDP contraction looks to be trade as global commodity prices fell while China demand also declined,” said a Bank of Korea official, who declined to be named as he was unauthorized to speak to media.

“North Korea’s main commodity exports are coal and iron ore, which likely all declined last year.”

Neighboring China is North Korea’s chief trading partner.

The Bank of Korea data showed exports in North Korea fell 14.8 percent last year in annual terms as mineral product shipments slumped 14.7 percent. This was far worse than a 1.7 percent decline seen in 2014.

Imports dropped a faster 20.0 percent last year, compared with a 7.8 percent increase in 2014.

The central bank official said trade is expected to worsen this year as it becomes difficult for North Korea to boost shipments with other countries with international sanctions likely to grow heavier following Pyongyang’s continued missile launches and nuclear threats.

Construction rose 4.8 percent last year, accelerating from a 1.4 percent gain in 2014, the same data showed.

Meanwhile, a 0.8 percent gain in services last year reflects North Korea’s economic shift towards capitalism as the black market there has become more pervasive. Financial services have also grown, which likely contributed to the gain, the BOK official added.

The Bank of Korea has released GDP data on North Korea every year since 1991 based on information received from related sources, including the Ministry of Unification.

Here are comments from The Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES):

North Korean GDP Dropped Estimated 1.1% in 2015

The Bank of Korea (BOK), South Korea’s central bank, released data on July 22, 2016 indicating that the North Korean economy shrunk by 1.1% in 2015. If this estimate is correct, this would mean that the North Korean economy contracted for the first time since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2012. At the same time, these estimates also indicate that the gap in per capita GDP between North and South Korea widened from 21.3 times in 2014 to 22.2 times in 2015.

The last time North Korea’s annual growth rate was below zero in BOK statistics was five years ago. Back in 2009, it was estimated to be -0.9%, edging up to -0.5% in 2010. However, the last four years have been a time of continued expansion according to the BOK with North Korea’s economy estimated to have grown 0.8% in 2011, 1.3% in 2012, 1.1% in 2013 and 1.0% in 2014. The estimated growth rate for 2015 was the lowest since the -1.2% of 2007.

The BOK’s data indicates that while growth sped up in North Korea’s construction sector in 2015, the performance of the agriculture, fisheries, mining, manufacturing, and public service (electricity, gas and water) sectors was poor.

In the mining sector, declining magnesite and iron ore production resulted in a 2.6% loss of output, while in manufacturing, both light and heavy industrial saw production decline and consequently the sector contracted by an estimated 3.4%.

Output in the public service sector fell by a dramatic 12.7%. The BOK highlighted a drought in 2015 as being a key contributory factor in this regard: reducing hydroelectricity output, as well as exerting a negative influence on steel and machine tool production. At the same time, gains in agricultural and fisheries sector, which had been estimated to be 1.2% in 2014, was partially reversed in 2015, with the sector believed to have contracted by -0.8%. Although output in the livestock and fisheries sector expanded rapidly, this was offset by declines in cereals production including rice and corn due to drought.

Conversely, the construction sector expanded by 4.8% as both output in building and public works-related construction rose. The service sector, principally public services, the wholesale and retail service sector, and communications, grew by an estimated 0.8%.

North Korea’s nominal Gross National Income (GNI) was estimated to be 34.5 trillion South Korean won (KRW), i.e. 2.2% of South Korea’s nominal GNI. Per capita GNI rose to 1.393 million KRW, an increase on the 2014 figure of 1.388 million, but still only 4.5% of South Korea’s per capita GNI.

The gap between North and South Korean per capita GNI rose from 21.3 times in 2014 to 22.2 times 2015. At the same time, combined North Korean commodity imports and exports declined by 17.9% to $6.25 billion (excluding North-South trade) compared to the previous year ($7.61 billion).

The year 2015 saw a decline in the price of minerals, including iron ore, internationally. Reduced demand for North Korean anthracite in China had an impact, with North Korean exports declining to $2.7 billion, a 14.8% decline year-on-year. Textile exports increased by 5.3%, but mineral product exports fell by 14.7%. Income (totaling $3.56 billion), chiefly from mineral products and textiles, thus shrunk by a dramatic 20%.

The difference in the scale of North Korean and South Korean trade volumes rose to 154.1 times in 2015 (an increase from 144.3 times in 2014). At the same time, according to South Korean Ministry of Unification statistics, inter-Korean trade rose by 15.7% year-on-year to $2.71 billion.

Here are comments by Marcus Noland.


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