Archive for the ‘South Korea’ Category

Seoul wires $8 million to North Korea in humanitarian aid

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Note: this is not a lot of money in context. It covers only a small part of what WFP and others estimate as the funding need.

Yonhap:

South Korea on Tuesday sent a pledged donation of US$8 million to U.N. agencies to support their efforts to provide assistance to North Korean women and children in need, the unification ministry said.

Last week, the Seoul government endorsed the donation plan for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for their projects to support the nutrition of children and pregnant women in North Korea and address their health problems.

Of the total, $4.5 million was allocated to the WFP and the remainder to UNICEF.

The money was remitted to the agencies Tuesday afternoon, according to the unification ministry.

A ministry official said earlier in the day that it will take more time before the money will be actually spent on the agencies’ projects in North Korea, adding that they are working on reducing the time before its implementation in consideration of the urgent need of many North Korean people.

Article source:
Seoul wires promised money to U.N. agencies for N.K. projects
Yonhap News
2019-06-11

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North Korea has skipped Kaesong liaison office meetings for eight weeks

Thursday, April 18th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Yonhap:

North Korea skipped a weekly meeting of the co-chiefs of an inter-Korean liaison office for the eighth straight week on Friday, deepening concerns about slumping cross-border exchanges amid stalled denuclearization negotiations between the U.S. and the North.

“North Korea informed us in advance that the North’s office head could not attend this week’s meeting,” unification ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told a regular press briefing. “The meeting will not be held (this week), but the two Koreas continue to discuss necessary matters in a normal manner.”

When the two Koreas launched the liaison office last September in the North’s border town of Kaesong, they promised to hold a meeting of its co-heads — Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung on the South side and his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong-su — every week, mostly on Fridays, to discuss cross-border issues.

The weekly meeting has not been held since before the Hanoi summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, which ended without a deal due to differences over how to match Pyongyang’s denuclearization steps with Washington’s sanctions relief. It was last held on Feb. 22.

Full article:
N. Korea skips meeting of liaison office chiefs for 8 straight weeks
Yonhap News
2019-04-19

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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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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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South Korea gets sanctions exemption for railway survey

Saturday, November 24th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reuters:

South Korea said on Saturday it had received sanctions exemptions from the U.N. Security Council for a joint survey of inter-Korean railways, the first step towards reconnecting rail and road links cut during the 1950-53 Korean War.

In April, the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to adopt practical steps to reconnect railways and roads as part of efforts to improve bilateral relationships.

“The sanctions exemption has big implications given that the project has garnered recognition and support from the United States and the international society,” South Korea’s presidential spokesperson Kim Eui-kyeom said.

He expressed hope of quick construction of the railways, which he said will take inter-Korean cooperation to a new level.

South Korea requested an exemption for deliveries of fuel and other equipment needed to conduct the railway survey in the North, Yonhap News Agency said.

Pyongyang is under wide-ranging U.N. sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

In October, the two Koreas agreed to carry out joint field studies on transport plans, with a ground-breaking ceremony in late November and early December.

But the plan was delayed amid stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang following an unprecedented summit in June at which the two sides agreed to work toward nuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula.

Full article:
South Korea secures U.N. sanctions exemption for inter-Korean railway survey
Hyunjoo Jin
Reuters
2018-11-24

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Mt Kumgang tours unlikely to be resumed this year, because of sanctions

Monday, November 19th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Yonhap, with comments by ever-optimistic Hyundai Asan officials:

The head of Hyundai Group on Monday expressed reservations about any quick resumption of a stalled tour program to North Korea’s scenic mountain resort.

“At this point, the situation is difficult for the tour program to be resumed within this year, but I think it will be done in the near future,” Hyundai Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun told reporters after returning from Mount Kumgang on the North’s east coast.

She made a two-day visit to Mount Kumgang to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the cross-border tour program.

Earlier in August, Hyun had said she expects the project to be resumed within this year.

She said no detailed discussions on economic cooperation between the two Koreas had been made during her visit.

“We are preparing so that the inter-Korean economic projects can be resumed when the U.S. lifts sanctions,” Hyun said, adding that there is not much for a private enterprise to comment on the matter.

About 100 South Koreans and 80 North Koreans officials, as well as some 500 North Korean residents, attended the first celebratory event in four years at the east coast resort. It was jointly organized by Hyundai Group and the North’s Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a North Korean body that handles inter-Korean affairs.

Full article:
Tour program to Mount Kumgang unlikely to be resumed this year: Hyundai chief
Yonhap News
2018-11-19

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Hyundai’s aspiration to reverse N Korea fortunes

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reuters:

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has pushed for rapprochement with the North since his election last year, calls the Kaesong industrial park a “lifeline” for South Korea.

Asia’s fourth-biggest economy is being squeezed globally between high-end, innovative manufacturers and low-cost producers in China and elsewhere.

Before the 2016 closure of Kaesong, some 120 South Korean companies employed 55,000 North Korean workers there, making everything from clothes and kitchen utensils to electronic components. The North Korean workers were well qualified, hard working and cost just a fraction of what workers in the South were paid, factory owners said.

Almost all small and medium enterprises which used to operate in Kaesong said they would like to go back, according to an April survey.

Seven out of 10 South Korean companies would prefer to use North Korean workers instead of foreign migrants due to language barriers and high costs associated with hiring foreign labor, a separate survey by the Korea Federation of SMEs found.

Hyundai Asan has the most riding on the prospect of a peaceful peninsula.

It paid $1.2 billion to buy exclusive rights for Kaesong and Mount Kumgang, and has interests in railroads and infrastructure projects including reconnecting inter-Korean railways.

Hyundai Asan’s rights to land the size of Manhattan in Kaesong last for 50 years, and it has a plan to build an even bigger factory town if the complex reopens, accommodating 2,000 companies and 350,000 North Korean workers.

Less than 5 percent of the total property in Kaesong has been developed currently, Hyundai told Reuters.

Officials say Hyundai has also agreed with the North to run tours in the coastal city of Wonsan, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is trying to build into a hotspot for tourism and foreign investment, as well as Mount Paektu, the famed homeland of both Koreas.

Hyundai’s Baek said the company is also in talks with Seoul and state-run corporations about projects to reconnect railroads between the North and South.

“The government respects Hyundai’s business rights it signed with the North,” said a spokeswoman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, who did not respond to a question about its discussions with Hyundai.

NO LOVE FROM WASHINGTON

South Korean government officials and business executives say the biggest hurdle is opposition from Washington, which wants to maintain sanctions until Pyongyang completely denuclearizes.

In July, Mark Lambert, director for Korean affairs at the U.S. State Department, called about 10 South Korean businessmen for a meeting at the U.S. embassy in Seoul to deliver a stern message: No resumption of any businesses until denuclearization.

“The mood in the room was bleak,” said SJTech Chairman Yoo Chang-geun, who used to operate a factory at Kaesong and attended the meeting.

Baek, who was also present, unsuccessfully argued Kaesong and Mount Kumgang should be waived from sanctions “to show our goodwill to North Korea.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department declined to comment on details of “private diplomatic conversations.”

Article source:
After tragic losses, Hyundai aims to reverse N. Korea fortunes
Reuters
2018-10-31

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Moon’s Europe trip

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

President Moon went to Europe. In France, he argued that sanctions against North Korea should be eased. Yonhap:

Moon agreed with the need to maintain pressure on the North until it denuclearizes, but said such pressure could be or should be eased to encourage the impoverished North.

“I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize and encourage North Korea to speed up the process,” the South Korean president told the joint press conference.

Moon’s remarks come amid an apparent tug of war between the United States and North Korea over when the North should be entitled to rewards for giving up its nuclear ambition.

Pyongyang is said to be demanding timely rewards for what it claims to be irreversible denuclearization steps it has already taken while Washington is insisting on maximum sanctions and pressure until the impoverished nation fully denuclearizes.

In his third bilateral summit with Moon, held in Pyongyang last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to take additional denuclearization steps, including the dismantlement of the country’s only nuclear test site, in presence of international experts for verification.

“Chairman Kim Jong-un has said he is willing to not only halt the country’s nuclear and missile tests and also dismantle its production facilities, but also dismantle all nuclear weapons and nuclear materials it currently possesses if the United States takes corresponding measures,” the South Korean president told Macron in their meeting, according to Moon’s chief press secretary Yoon Young-chan.

Full article/source:
Moon says France, U.N. can speed up N. Korea’s denuclearization by easing sanctions
Yonhap News
2018-10-16

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The economic side of the Moon-Kim summit

Friday, September 21st, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The economic aspect has been continuously front-and-center throughout the Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang (September 19–20). From a diplomatic standpoint, this is not all that surprising. Moon and Kim are pursuing what appears to be a rather classical Sunshine 2.0 pattern, with roughly the same contents as the predecessor. As Yonhap reports:

Earlier in the day, the leaders of South and North Korea agreed to work together for balanced economic development on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to break ground on a joint project to connect railways and roads across their border this year and vowed diverse cooperative projects to deepen their friendly ties and foster a reconciliatory mood.

The agreements were reached during summit talks held in Pyongyang between Moon and Kim.

“We will prepare for (inter-Korean economic cooperation) in a calm and orderly manner,” Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon said in a meeting with reporters here.

“But inter-Korean economic projects can gather speed if circumstances improve,” he said.

The minister said any inter-Korean economic projects should need support from the international community, and there are still many things to be done in advance.

The latest agreement came months after the leaders reached a deal during their April summit to modernize and eventually connect rail and road systems across their divided border.

Field surveys have been carried out to examine the state of some sections of the North’s rail and road networks, but the process has not moved fast enough, apparently due to stringent sanctions imposed on the North for its nuclear program.

Railways and infrastructure are both less politically touchy than outright trade, and potentially mutually beneficial, even though the south will carry the economic burden:

“The South and the North agreed to explore practical measures aimed at increasing exchange and cooperation and seeking balanced development,” read a joint statement they signed after the summit.

“The two agreed to hold a ground-breaking ceremony this year for connecting railways and roads running along their eastern and western coasts,” it also stated.

The decision came months after the leaders reached a deal during their April summit to modernize and eventually connect rail and road systems across their divided border. The Seoul government has set aside nearly 300 billion won for next year to carry out those projects.

Field surveys have been carried out to examine the state of some sections of the North’s rail and road networks, but the process has not been fast enough, apparently because of global sanctions on the North.

The second point of the Pyongyang Declaration promises more economic cooperation for “balanced” growth, and vows to reopen projects such as the Kumgangsan tourism zone, and the Kaesong Industrial Park, according to Moon, “when conditions allow“. Here’s an English-language full-text version of the declaration. A particularly interesting but understudied point is 2.3, on ecological cooperation.

Kim Jong-un’s forestry interest has been a recurring theme throughout his tenure, and as this blog has covered, he’s spoken about the problems associated with excessive tree-felling – the root cause of which is North Korea’s planning failures of the 1990s – in more honest terms than his father did. At the very least, there’s been strong hints of both pragmatism and understanding of North Korea’s structural problems in the way that Kim has talked about the forestry issue (and many others too for that matter). Indeed, the Korea Forest Service chief accompanied Moon to Pyongyang, and he hopes to get to work soon following the summit:

“Forests surrounding populous urban areas were heavily destroyed, but forests in less populated regions were well-preserved,” Kim Jae-hyun said in a meeting with reporters at a government complex in Daejeon. “I saw enough hope.”

He was speaking after accompanying South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to North Korea from Tuesday to Thursday.

As the first step, Kim said the Korea Forest Service will explore ways to create tree nurseries in much-destroyed regions.

“The North Korean side wants large-scale tree nurseries, but it would be more practical to start with small nurseries in regions suffering from deforestation the most,” he said.

In regard to disease and insect control efforts, the official said the use of machinery could be limited as the North is under U.N. sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests, while pesticides are allowed.

“I think (the disease and insect control measures) should start immediately to build trust between the two Koreas,” he said.

The forest expert said his North Korea visit as part of the official entourage showed Moon’s “willingness” to pursue inter-Korean cooperation in the forest sector.

“Looking down from an airplane along the western coastline, North Korea’s forests were very impressive,” Kim said. “There were few trees on hills near Pyongyang, while trees were well-maintained on the way from Sunan Airport to Baekhwawon guesthouse.”

Mountains near Yalu River on the North Korean border with China were denuded, but Mount Paekdu showed off all colors of beautiful trees, he said.

Moon and Kim aren’t the only ones who have talked about economic cooperation. The mayor for Busan, South Korea’s second most populated city, for example, has announced projects that his city will spearhead. Yonhap again:

Busan’s envisioned projects, unveiled in time for President Moon Jae-in’s historic visit to North Korea, call for boosting the city’s cooperation with the North in the fields of fisheries trade and processing, modernization of fishing vessels and equipment, shipbuilding, exhibitions and conventions and smart city technology, the city said.

The city will push to invite North Korean filmmakers and actors to the Busan International Film Festival and hold an inter-Korean film festival.

Nikkei Asian Review also reports that the Moon government has put pressure on Samsung and its head, Lee Jae-yong, to present a large-scale investment plan for North Korea. Samsung has manufactured TV:s in North Korea before, but this time around, the company hasn’t appeared as eager as its other chaebol-counterparts to draft up implementable blueprints for investments up north. Politically, it makes sense. Samsung’s PR hasn’t exactly been superb as of late, with the arrest and later release from prison of its CEO relating to corruption charges tied to the Choi Soon-sil/Park Geun-hye-scandal.

South Korea’s main steelmaker Posco is also hoping for opportunities following the summit:

The executive was part of the business delegation that accompanied President Moon Jae-in on his trip to North Korea earlier this week. Choi and other businessmen discussed various inter-Korean economic cooperation projects that can be pursued going forward if conditions are right.

“It will be a big opportunity not only for POSCO but for the steel industry as a whole,” Choi said. “I think POSCO will be able to find chances for growth.”

The company recently created a new task force to prepare for potential business opportunities in North Korea. POSCO Daewoo, POSCO Engineering & Construction Co. and POSCO Chemtech Co. are participating in the task force.

The steelmaker said it wants to play a key role in railroad and other infrastructure projects in line with the changes in the geopolitical environment in Northeast Asia.

My five cents on what all this entails for the North Korean economy:

Of course, as of yet, nothing. Most of the plans and visions are routinely accompanied by the caveat “when conditions allow”. The infrastructure plans may be able to go ahead even with sanctions in place, at least the rhetoric from the Moon administration, and the timetable for breaking ground on the railway connections before this year is over, seems to suggest so. I’m no expert on the judicial side of the sanctions, but it’s hard to imagine that this will be fully uncontroversial from that standpoint.

In any case, North Korea is in dire need of infrastructure improvements and if they are extensive enough, they should hopefully not just connect South and North Korea with Russia and China for cheaper freight, but also make domestic goods transportation simpler and more efficient, with positive impacts for the markets and private manufacturing in the country.

On re-opening Kaesong, things are a bit more complicated. In its nature, Kaesong is a manufacturing zone mostly cut off from the rest of North Korea. Sure, the incomes of the workers did enter the North Korean economy, and arguably, the fact that South Korean consumer goods could to some extent enter North Korean markets through Kaesong spurred competition for more high-quality goods on the North Korean market as well. But Kaesong is hardly the only, and perhaps not even the main route through which such products enter the country. These are also pretty weak arguments when you look at the entire economic picture.

The problem with Kaesong isn’t so much what it was/is/will be, but the missed opportunities. The hope with special economic zones tends to be that institutional frameworks that are tried there first can later spill over into the rest of the country. In the case of North Korea, the arrangement made pretty sure that that didn’t happen, at least from what we can tell. Had inputs been sourced from North Korea, that could also have spurred wider economic growth, at least in some regions. In theory, there are lots of opportunities for synergy and cooperation between South Korean companies and smaller North Korean ones, not just the state. If the goal is economic development in North Korea more broadly, and not just economic profit on the southern side and incomes for the north, there are lots of models that carry far greater potential.

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Daily NK interviews a state security agent on sanctions, defectors, and life in North Korea

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

As changes to the political situation on the Korean Peninsula continue in the wake of the inter-Korean, US-DPRK (abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name) and Sino-DPRK summits, Daily NK recently met with an official from North Korea’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) in China to talk about international sanctions toward North Korea and the inter-Korean relationship. The MSS officer displayed a clear anti-American bias with his own ideological convictions, but also offered some objective evaluations of the North Korean regime.

Following is a transcript of the full interview.

Daily NK (DNK): International sanctions are still in effect for North Korea, as you know.

Ministry of State Security official (MSS): They are hard to accept. I’m not sure whether South Korea is trying to make itself look good in the eyes of Trump as it accepts the continued sanctions against North Korea, but in any case, they [the sanctions] are an irritant. There are many [North Korean] restaurants in China. The sanctions have made it impossible for new workers for these restaurants to enter China, and those who are here must return to North Korea next year.

I can understand [the international community] criticizing North Korea for not living as well as capitalist countries after moving away from socialism and operating in the international market like other countries. However, I’m angry that China, Russia and the South have come together to sanction us and that the US makes us a very poor country by preventing our goods from entering the international market.

If you ask anyone in North Korea – young or old – they will respond that North Korea must fight and drop a nuke on America. I think that Chairman Kim Jong Un got rid of nuclear weapons so that the sanctions would be lifted and our lives would improve, but personally speaking, I think we should drop a nuke on New York or Washington, D.C.

Why are South Koreans so angry about us making intercontinental ballistic missiles? We are seeking peace by destroying our [nuclear] underground facilities, but the US has simply stopped its military exercises. They could restart them again [at any time]. They claim they will get rid of the sanctions eventually but it’s hard to believe that.

DNK: The inter-Korean atmosphere, however, is focused on continuing exchanges and cooperation.

MSS: The sanctions must be lifted first for anything to really happen. With the sanctions still in effect, I could accept that President Moon Jae-in is the “trailblazer of the Korean people,” but he continues to look to America for guidance. We could ask South Korea to lift the sanctions, but they just do what America tells them to do. We are a brave people made up of the worker class, who form the basis of the socialist revolution. We have nothing to lose from a war. South Korea would hate to go to war, but the majority of us [North Koreans] would go to war without hesitation.

DNK: Have you ever watched South Korean dramas before?

MSS: Yes, I’ve watched them in secret in China. I have seen defectors on South Korean dramas like ‘Now on my way to meet you’ and ‘Moranbong Club.’ They don’t necessarily lie about everything; they get some things right. It is true life in North Korea is hard and that there are almost no rations from the government. There are some places that only give two-weeks worth of rations and people make up for the lack of food by going into business and cooking corn porridge, and some people even die due to the lack of food.

However, some defectors say that residents just walk by dead bodies on the street. How could that even be possible in a place inhabited by human beings? Even during the Arduous March [widespread famine of the mid-1990s], that wasn’t the case. Soldiers and inminban [neighborhood watch-like units] dug graves to bury the dead. That [walking by dead bodies] wouldn’t have even happened in Korea’s feudal period.

When I asked someone why the defectors lie like that, I was told that they are given money to appear on such TV shows. They received free education and healthcare in North Korea, but now they turn around and spit on their own country. They talk trash about their own country. I can acknowledge that life is tough in North Korea, and that people are hungry and there is no electricity so it’s difficult for factories to operate. But they [defectors] exaggerate too much.

Generally speaking, the women that go to South Korea end up living fairly well and the reality is that people [North Koreans] go to South Korea. However, half of them have committed some type of crime. They have fled because they have the police on their tail. At least half of them are in this situation. They have run away because they have committed a crime like borrowing money from people, and being unable to pay the money back, they have run away before getting caught by the police and being sent to a labor camp.

It is these types of people who come out on TV, crying and telling lies. I would be extremely upset if I lived [in the type of country they are describing]. There are difficulties in North Korea, but real people live there.

DNK: Does the North Korean state still have ironclad control over the country?

MSS: It is still difficult for people to move around freely. Nobody can go from the provinces into Pyongyang. You must have a pass to do that. I hope that the country will soon become like China where you only need a residence card to travel. We have a lot of problems. I hope that these problems will be resolved.

In China, people can send instant messages to those living in Germany or England. North Koreans can take pictures with their cellphones, but cannot use the internet. North Koreans cannot make international calls, either. They couldn’t even dream of it.

The state is worried about the impact of bringing in ‘capitalist-related things’ into the country because they could dampen the people’s ideological stance. I think in some ways the state’s restrictions on foreign things has helped keep North Korea’s ideological stance free of contamination.

Article source:
North Korean state security agent shares thoughts on sanctions, defectors and life in North Korea
Kim Song Il
Daily NK
2018-08-08

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