Archive for the ‘State Offices’ Category

Orascom (OTMT) loses control of KoryoLink

Friday, November 20th, 2015

UPDATE 2 (2016-1-1): According to the Wall Street Journal:

Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris made billions of dollars from a global telecommunications empire that operated in authoritarian states from Zimbabwe to Pakistan. Now he is being dealt a potentially painful setback by one of the global economy’s biggest pariahs: North Korea.

Mr. Sawiris’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding SAE built a highly profitable mobile phone business with around 3 million customers in the isolated nation, as cellphones became popular with wealthier North Koreans and the state eased restrictions on communications. The business earned around $270 million before taxes and depreciation on $344 million in revenue in 2014.

But in the last few years, a state-run competitor emerged in North Korea, and Cairo-based Orascom hit problems trying to repatriate profits. Orascom said in a November filing in Egypt it had lost control of its 75%-owned North Korean venture, Koryolink, and struck the venture from its balance sheet, removing hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

Mr. Sawiris, chief executive officer of both Orascom and the North Korean venture, is now trying to negotiate a solution. “We are still hopeful that we will be able to resolve all pending issues to continue this successful journey,” he said in a statement accompanying the filing.

Orascom’s auditor, however, cited the “futility of negotiation” with North Korea over Koryolink’s assets, which the company said were worth $832 million at the end of June, including cash in North Korean won worth $653 million at the official exchange rate. Koryolink, which now accounts for 85% of Orascom’s revenue and profit, says it hasn’t been able to send any funds out of North Korea in 2015 due to local currency controls and international sanctions targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Sawiris didn’t respond to requests for comment and Orascom declined to make him available for interview. A spokesman for Orascom reiterated the company’s public statements and didn’t respond to further questions. North Korea hasn’t referred to the dispute in its state media and relevant officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

How North Korea resolves the dispute could bear on its plans to cultivate foreign investment to develop the moribund economy. In recent years, Pyongyang has created more than 20 special economic zones for investors and announced local regulations intended to reassure foreigners.

In November, North Korea state media said foreign firms would be able to repatriate profits from one zone in the far northeast of the country “without restriction.”

The setback for Mr. Sawiris, 61 years old, underscores the risk of doing business in North Korea, where foreign firms have complained that property and profits have been appropriated by the government. In 2012, a Chinese mining company said North Korea arbitrarily took over its metal-processing facility in the country. Pyongyang in turn publicly accused the firm of failing to meet investment commitments.

Orascom says talks with the North Korean government to resolve its difficulties have included a possible merger with the rival carrier, Byol. However, North Korea has indicated it wouldn’t give Orascom management control of the combined entity and those talks have stalled, the Egyptian company said in November board minutes, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. As a result, “control over Koryolink’s activities was lost” according to accounting rules, the company said in its latest earnings report.

Few companies venture into North Korea. But for the outspoken Mr. Sawiris—who describes himself as a “freedom fighter” on his verified Twitter profile, and who has experience operating in difficult environments—a bet on the hermit kingdom made sense.

Since 1997, Orascom has built and run mobile networks in more than 20 countries across Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Its strategy: Load up on debt to build networks quickly in risky markets with little or no infrastructure, betting on rapid growth and strong returns, then sell when the market matures and more players materialize.

Orascom operated in many politically unstable nations such as Yemen and Bangladesh. In most cases, the gamble paid off. In 2003, Orascom paid $5 million for one of Iraq’s first mobile network licenses. Its local partner faced kidnappings of staff and attacks on property from insurgents, but in 2007 Orascom sold its Iraq operations for $1.2 billion to a Kuwaiti company.

There have been some setbacks. Orascom’s joint venture in Syria with a company run by a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad fell apart in 2002 when a Syrian court handed the Egyptian company’s share of the venture to the local partner.

In 2011, Mr. Sawiris sold most of his telecommunications assets to Russian mobile operator VimpelCom Ltd. in a deal worth $6 billion. Koryolink was one of the few assets he kept.

Orascom’s operations in North Korea began when the country awarded Koryolink the rights to operate its only mobile network from late 2008 through the end of 2012. North Korea had scrapped an earlier project in the country with a Thai firm in 2004, because of fears the network was vulnerable to spies.

Koryolink started with around 18 foreign staff based at a hotel in the capital city, according to Madani Hozaien, Koryolink’s chief financial officer from late 2008 to mid-2009. North Korea’s tight restrictions on travel made it difficult to manage network facilities and deals with local counterparts were hard to put together, he said.

“Once we had an agreement with one group, another team would appear and we’d have to start again,” he said.

Ihab Shafik, a human resources and administration manager for Koryolink from 2009 to 2012, said the company’s North Korean staff sometimes operated independently. “They built GSM [Global System for Mobile communications] towers without informing us and we discovered them later,” he said.

North Korean authorities gradually from 2008 allowed most members of the public to sign up for mobile service, although they can only make domestic calls and don’t have Internet access.

While mobile phones remain very expensive for most North Koreans, visitors to Pyongyang report that they’re a common sight. Defectors from the country say they have become increasingly important information tools for traders as North Korea’s unofficial market economy has grown in recent years. North Korea state media has even touted the country’s own smartphone, although it is generally considered a rebranded Chinese model.

Orascom’s problems in North Korea appear to have built during the final year of its exclusivity clause in 2012. Koryolink’s annual report for the year noted “restrictions on cash transfers from local currency” in explaining a $272 million cash balance held inside the country, that more than doubled to June 30.

The company’s board meeting to ratify first quarter results in 2015 was postponed by over a month “due to the delay of the negotiations with the North Korean side to solve the problems arising out of the transfer of dividends, the currency exchange rates and the operational problems that has recently emerged,” minutes from the meeting reviewed by the Journal said.

Orascom’s share price fell sharply on the Egyptian stock exchange after the company announced it was removing the North Korean operations from its consolidated earnings. The price has risen recently after Orascom announced plans to buy two financial companies, part of Mr. Sawiris’ effort to move away from telecommunications.

Experts on the North Korean economy say Orascom’s difficulty in repatriating funds is largely due to North Korea’s inability or reluctance to convert Koryolink’s cash to foreign currency from North Korean won at the official exchange rate. North Korea suffers constant shortages of foreign exchange and its own currency is worthless outside its borders.

In 2013, Orascom also was caught up in U.S. sanctions on North Korea, when a bank it had set up with a North Korean partner, which Koryolink uses for financial transactions, was barred from accessing the U.S. financial system.

Here is additional coverage in the Chosun Ilbo.

UPDATE 1 (2015-12-11): Orascom CEO claims to still control KoryoLink, but cannot obtain hard currency or get it out of the country.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-11-20): Martyn Williams broke the story here.

The first problem is that Orascom could not repatriate its profits:

Orascom’s efforts to get its profits out of North Korea have been unsuccessful, partially because of international sanctions imposed on the country but mainly by the government’s refusal to let the money go.

To transfer money out of North Korea, Orascom needs permission from the government and it hasn’t been granted, despite it being a partner in the joint venture.

The government hasn’t acted because it can’t afford to.

The profits are held in North Korean won, but the currency isn’t traded internationally and the government’s official rate is set artificially high, at 100 won to the U.S. dollar. At that rate, Orascon’s holding at the end of last year was worth $585 million.

But at the black market exchange rate, which is effectively the real value of the currency in North Korea, the cash is worth only $7.2 million. And therein lies the problem. The government can’t afford to pay the money at the official rate, and it can’t be seen to officially recognize the black market rate. So the two sides have spent months locked in talks about what to do.

Secondly, the DPRK government launched a second cell phone network to compete with KoryoLink, and efforts to merge the companies have been successful:

The issue came to light in an auditor’s report in June, and a month later Orascom dropped a bombshell: It said the North Korean government — supposedly its close partner — had set up a second carrier to compete with Koryolink.

With its options limited, Orascom entered merger talks to combine Koryolink with the new carrier. The North Korean government has agreed to the move in principle, but so far nothing has happened.

What’s more, the North Korean government has apparently proposed that it be the majority partner in any new venture that’s formed.

That led to a dramatic statement from Orascom when it reported its financial results Monday — “in the group management’s view, control over Koryolink’s activities was lost.”

Sawiris appears to hold out hope, but he might be out of moves.

“We are very proud of the success of our operation ‘Koryolink’,” he said in a statement. “We have around 3 million people today carrying our phones in the DPRK. We are still hopeful that we will be able to resolve all pending issues to continue this successful journey.”

Anna Fifield also followed up in the Washington Post and reported on the name of the new KoryoLink competitor:

This comes after Orascom discovered that North Korea was starting a competitor to Koryolink called Byol, and then began discussions about merging it with Koryolink, thus presumably extracting even more money from Orascom.

Byol (별) translates to English as “Star”.

Here is the OTMT financial report which explains the company’s position (PDF).

Here are screen shots of the relevant sections in the report:

OTMT-report-2015-11-associate

And

OTMT-report-2015-11-other-operator

OTMT-report-2015-11-other-operator2

A small correction needs to be added to the OTMT report, the Central Bank does not set the official exchange rate. That is set by the Foreign Trade Bank.

As Marcus Noland and I have pointed out, North Korea needs a big FDI win to inspire more large-scale foreign investment and modernize its investment regulatory framework, but debacles like this, Xiyang, and the KIC (referring here to the fact that it was too entangled in political risk to be a reliable investment without official subsidies and guarantees) reinforce the view that the DPRK is still too risky to become an attractive investment hub–and this excludes additional problems owing to the country’s weapons programs and human rights abuses.

 

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Types of businesses expanding among North Korean cabinet-directed enterprises

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Business enterprises under the direct supervision of the DPRK Cabinet appear eager to expand business operations, from mine development to the sale of gochujang (red pepper paste), in order to procure funds necessary for state-level development projects and running the government.

The North Korean cabinet-supervised Korea Taeyang Corporation* revealed on its homepage on October 18, 2015, “We are actively pushing forward joint ventures in the selling and manufacturing of molybdenum products with major companies in China, Switzerland, and Brazil.”

“The molybdenum mine located in Changjin County in South Hamgyong Province produces hundreds of tons of molybdenum concentrate every year, so we are manufacturing molybdenum steel at the molybdenum steel refinery and exporting it,” the company explained.

Their work is not restricted to mining, but extends to transportation and distribution, as well as the restaurant business. The subsidiary Korea Taeyang Transportation Co. owns twenty container wagons, thirty freight cars over 20 tons, fifty 10-ton freight cars, and fifty freight cars under 10 tons.

The Taeyang electrics store, located in Pongnam-dong of Pyongyang’s Pyongchon District, specializes in the selling and repair of electrical appliances and electronics like computers. It was also involved in the vitamin C factory built in 2013 in accordance with Kim Jong Il’s dying injunctions.

In addition, there are ostrich ranches and tourist souvenir shops, as well as restaurants that sell ostrich meat and other North Korean and Chinese cuisines in Pyongyang’s Yonpung Restaurant.

Furthermore, it also operates fertilizer and feed factories, duck ranch, pig factory, instant noodle factory, tobacco factory among others. It also has overseas offices in Beijing, Dalian, Shenyang and Africa.

The corporation expressed, “We are hopeful to make connections with buyers interested in ostrich leather, ostrich crafts, agricultural machineries, teak wood manufactured goods, and red pepper and bean pastes.

The president of Taeyang, Pak Sun Chol, is a delegate to the Supreme People’s Assembly and deputy director of Cabinet affiliated General Bureau of State Development.

On Naenara, the official web portal of the DPRK (targeted toward an international audience), the corporation expressed its intention to “meet the continuous challenges in new areas under the direct guidance of the Republic and develop into a technology-focused company that will strengthen cooperation and exchanges with companies from around the world.”

While some of the profits earned by the company are used by the Cabinet for its operating funds, most of the profits are reportedly used for state construction projects.

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The (Market) Forces of History in North Korea

Friday, October 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market is a common topic for debate in history. How did it impact the rise of the anti-slavery movement in the US and the UK? What impact did economic conditions have in the French Revolution? These questions are, and should be, asked in the current debate about North Korea’s socioeconomic development as well.

But despite the hope of many, the market might not simply be a story of growing individualism and disconnect from the power of the state. While such a trend may well be at work, it could also be the other way around.

This was recently illuminated through an interesting story by Reuters. In a visit to Pyongyang, they took a look at how markets and everyday business transaction function in North Korea at the moment. As they note, it is telling that a reporter from an international news agency can make transactions in the open, with a government minder by his side, at the black market rate. Business that previously had to be done in the shadows now happens in the open:

Shoppers openly slapped down large stacks of U.S. dollars at the cashier’s counter. They received change in dollars, Chinese yuan or North Korean won – at the black market rate. The same was true elsewhere in the capital: taxi drivers offered change for fares at black market rates, as did other shops and street stalls that Reuters visited.

The most obvious conclusion is that the state is adapting itself to the bottom-up development of the market. Indeed, this is the way the story is often told. In this narrative, the government is only reacting to developments and has long lost the economic policy initiative.

But one could also see a government that is confident enough to relax the rules. It just isn’t a certain fact that the state and the market are two opposing entities.

First, connections to the state still seem to be good for those wanting to trade on the market. For example, according to the surveys conducted by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland that laid the foundation for Witness to Transformation (2011)party membership is still considered one of the best ways to get ahead in North Korea (or at least it was at the time when the surveys were conducted). A somewhat similar trend can be discerned in survey results presented by Byung-Yeon Kim of Seoul National University at a conference at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late September this year. Kim’s results also indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between party membership and participation in both the formal and informal economy.

Second, the government is making money off of the market. DailyNK recently reported that the fees charged by state authorities for market stalls was raised. They also noted that regulations of the markets seemed to have gotten more detailed over the years. As noted in this report published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, the space that the government allocates to markets has consistently increased in the past few years. Not only have official markets grown, many of them have also been renovated and given better building structures.

All in all, this paints a picture of a government that controls markets while allowing them more space to function. It is not clear that formerly black market activity happening in the open means that the market is gaining ground at the expense of the state. They may well be moving together. That is good news for those hoping for stability, but bad news for those banking on a market-induced revolution. Despite the hope of many that the market will cause the demise of the regime, the role of the market force in North Korea’s history is far from clear.

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Special bonus to be granted in DPRK

Friday, September 25th, 2015

According to KCNA (2015-9-25):

The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK decided to give special bonus to the service personnel and people who rendered devoted and loyal services to present the party with labor gifts.

A decree of the Presidium of the SPA on this was made public on Sept. 23.

The decree said special bonus amounting to 100 percent of monthly rated salaries and wages will be bestowed on all the service personnel, working people and those who receive pensions, subsidies and scholarships on the occasion of the 70th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

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North Korea’s domestic impacts of lower coal prices

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea is seeing some interesting impacts domestically from the lowered coal exports. DailyNK reports that market trade has picked up in intensity as a result of the lower exports of coal:

Amidst the growing private economy in North Korea, a number of people are growing wealthy by cashing in on the expanding distribution industry. Recently, a growing number of these newly rich are purchasing China’s Jinbei brand of small 2-3 ton load trucks to facilitate business operations, Daily NK has learned.

“Recently, Jinbei trucks coming in from Dandong Customs House through to the Sinuiju customs office in North Korea are becoming very hot items in the transportation market,” a source in North Pyongan province reported to Daily NK on September 16th. “Foreign-currency earning enterprises are importing these smaller Jinbei trucks which are quite different from the 20-30 ton load trucks that were previously the norm.”

This information was cross-checked via an additional source in the same province and a source in South Pyongan Province.

As North Korean coal exports have decreased and domestic market activity has picked up, the small trucks have become more useful for delivering goods to local markets. “Ordinary men use bicycles or motorbikes to distribute goods, but the rich are able to buy these small 2-3 ton load trucks and use those instead,” he explained.

These trucks, as with most vehicles in North Korea, are first imported by foreign-currency earning enterprises and sold unofficially to individuals with the cash to pay up front and in full–i.e. the donju. Because possession of vehicles is still officially forbidden in North Korea, the car remains registered under the name of the affiliated enterprise’s name; the entrepreneurial individual utilizing it kicks back a portion of his–or, less frequently, her– profits to the company.

Read the full article:

DailyNK 

Jinbei trucks roll in, ‘donju’ distribution operations rise

2015-09-18

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Sangyon e-commerce system introduced (and Jonsong Card)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

KCNA issued a story today that raised some eyebrows:

Electronic Commerce System ‘Sangyon’ Introduced in DPRK

Pyongyang, September 8 (KCNA) — The Institute of the Commercial Science in the DPRK developed “Sangyon”, an electronic commerce system.

The system makes it possible to ensure business through local network with credit card issued by the Central Bank.

This 24-hour service system has already been introduced to the West Pyongyang Department Store and many other commercial units, winning popularity among its users.

The reason this story raised eyebrows was the mention of a “credit card”. I had to go to the original Korean article to see if the word “credit card” was ever used.  Here is the original Korean:

(평양 9월 8일발 조선중앙통신)

조선에서 전자상업체계 《상연》이 개발되여 봉사활동에 도입되고있다.

상업과학연구소에서 내놓은 이 체계는 국가콤퓨터망을 통하여 상품소개 및 판매,상업정보소개를 진행하는 전자결제방식의 상업봉사체계이다.

이 체계는 중앙은행에서 발행하는 《전성》카드를 리용하여 손님들이 상점에 가지 않고도 필요한 상품에 대한 검색과

주문,카드를 리용한 전자결제와 송달을 받을수 있게 한다.

손님들의 상품수요를 실시간적으로 장악하여 생산단위들에 맞물려준다.

전국적범위에서 상업발전추세에 맞게 무현금류통을 늘이고 상품구입의 편리성을 도모해주는 전자상업체계는 24시간 봉사하고있다.

서평양백화점을 비롯한 많은 단위에 도입되여 사용자들로부터 호평을 받고있는 전자상업체계는 계속 확대도입되고있다.(끝)

The Korean report is quite different from the English version. It says that they have developed an e-commerce system called Sangyong 《상연》. On this system, available 24-hours a day no less, companies can list products, provide information, and consumers can actually make purchases for delivery. This system accepts the Jonsong card [《전성》카드] (a pre-pay card issued by the Central Bank in local currency) for payment.

UPDATE (2016-3-10): Simon Cockerell has posted a photo of a Jonsong Card to his Instagram Account:

Jonsong-Card

The Institute for Far Eastern Studies (2015-8-28) had this to say about the Jonsong Card:

Use of electronic payment cards expands in North Korea

It appears that the use of electronic payment cards in North Korea is spreading as North Korea’s central bank releases a new payment card. Photos of the card (called ‘Jonsong’) have been uploaded to social networking sites like Instagram and Facebook by foreigners currently in North Korea. The card is issued by the Central Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereafter ‘North Korea Central Bank’).

Until now, North Korean’s primary credit cards have been the ‘Narae’ card, issued by the North Korea Foreign Trade Bank in 2010, and the ‘Koryo’ card, issued by Koryo Bank in 2011. ‘Narae,’ a foreign currency debit card, can be used at locations like hotels or foreign currency shops after card-owners load it with foreign currency at a bank; the affiliate card ‘Koryo’ can be used when paying for services or products at shops that have a payment system and deal in foreign currency.

Recently, Yonhap News released a photo of the electronic payment card ‘Sonbong,’ reporting that the card is now in use. The card is issued by the Golden Triangle Bank and can be used in the Rason Special Economic Zone. Both the Sonbong and Narae cards feature a yellow electronic chip on the front of the card. In contrast, North Korea Central Bank’s recently confirmed Chonsong card does not display such a chip and contains a red and blue diamond-shaped design in the lower right-hand corner.

It has not yet been confirmed whether this is a general electronic payment card or if it is intended for specific purposes. In a February 2015 interview with the Japan-based Choson Sinbo, the president of North Korea Central Bank revealed, “North Korea Central Bank is focusing on satisfying the capital requirements that arise in a country’s economic construction by turning over domestic funds more smoothly […] As part of that effort, it is pushing forward the development of new financial products as well as the use of cards in people’s daily lives.”

It is estimated that approximately 4 billion dollars are circulated and held privately by North Korean citizens. As a step to legalize that currency, it is widely known that North Korea implemented the ‘cooperative currency system’ (effective March 1, 2013), inducing individuals and agencies to open and use foreign currency accounts and actively encouraging the use of cards.

These days, foreigners visiting North Korea pay for hotel rooms, taxi fares, and other products with the Narae card after charging it with foreign currency.

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Why won’t North Korean trees grow like Kim Jong-un told them to?

Friday, September 4th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The forestry campaign that Kim Jong-un launched in a speech earlier this year continues. According to a new brief by IFES, North Korean state media has criticized certain nurseries for poor management.

North Korea has once again come out on broadcast television criticizing the poor management of tree nurseries at some of its Forest Management Centers. This public criticism of the forest restoration effort comes after the emergence of Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yeo Jong, as an influential figure in the Department of Propaganda and Agitation.

On August 26, 2015, Korean Central Television (KCTV) aired a program entitled, Let’s Go Forward in Patriotism and Strength in the Forest Restoration Battle. The broadcast criticized several Forest Management Centers, including one in North Hwanghae Province’s Songnim. “They set up sun shades carelessly and then do not even water saplings properly. As a result saplings have become withered and yellow,” the program alleged.

The broadcast went on to a scathing critique of the tree nursery’s poor management: “The spraying equipment also does not properly work […] No more than 30% of the trees are alive […] The soil is overgrown with weeds […] One of the trees still has not sprouted.”

It also condemned the management of the Kangdong County tree nursery. “Because they do not properly conduct fertilizer management and also do not follow water guarantee measures, the saplings turn yellow and wither away. In the vegetable gardens there is so much seaweed that it is difficult to tell whether they are fields of saplings or meadows.”

“The fact that saplings can not grow properly is not due to unfavorable climate conditions but the defeatist and ‘non-owner’ work attitudes of the Forest Management Center workers and tree nursery work groups, who half-heartedly do their work and quit,” the broadcast added.

It went on to say, “When the workers use their heads creatively and engage in the work enterprisingly, great results are achieved in the expansion of the country’s permanent assets […] If all combatants in the forest restoration work sincerely, the Party’s forest restoration plans will be moved forward.”

One could of course argue that the issues described might result from the disconnect between political orders and constraints on the ground. For example, it has been reported that tree species that would suit local conditions in certain parts of the country would take at least three years to produce, but that the central government authorities want things to proceed immediately anyway. I am no forestry expert but it seems like a difficult task for even the most stern of political orders to make trees grow properly in the wrong conditions.

The full text of the IFES brief is available here:

North Korean Broadcast Criticizes Forest Restoration Results

The Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University

2015-09-03

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North Korean Broadcast Criticizes Forest Restoration Results

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
2015-9-3

North Korea has once again come out on broadcast television criticizing the poor management of tree nurseries at some of its Forest Management Centers. This public criticism of the forest restoration effort comes after the emergence of Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yeo Jong, as an influential figure in the Department of Propaganda and Agitation.

On August 26, 2015, Korean Central Television (KCTV) aired a program entitled, Let’s Go Forward in Patriotism and Strength in the Forest Restoration Battle. The broadcast criticized several Forest Management Centers, including one in North Hwanghae Province’s Songnim. “They set up sun shades carelessly and then do not even water saplings properly. As a result saplings have become withered and yellow,” the program alleged.

The broadcast went on to a scathing critique of the tree nursery’s poor management: “The spraying equipment also does not properly work […] No more than 30% of the trees are alive […] The soil is overgrown with weeds […] One of the trees still has not sprouted.”

It also condemned the management of the Kangdong County tree nursery. “Because they do not properly conduct fertilizer management and also do not follow water guarantee measures, the saplings turn yellow and wither away. In the vegetable gardens there is so much seaweed that it is difficult to tell whether they are fields of saplings or meadows.”

“The fact that saplings can not grow properly is not due to unfavorable climate conditions but the defeatist and ‘non-owner’ work attitudes of the Forest Management Center workers and tree nursery work groups, who half-heartedly do their work and quit,” the broadcast added.

It went on to say, “When the workers use their heads creatively and engage in the work enterprisingly, great results are achieved in the expansion of the country’s permanent assets […] If all combatants in the forest restoration work sincerely, the Party’s forest restoration plans will be moved forward.”

KCTV aired a similar broadcast on April 2015 called, Let’s Honor the Noble Wishes of the Party and Make the Whole Country a Primeval Forest. This broadcast said that the forest restoration work had run into some snags and berated people connected to the Forest Management Center.

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The drought that didn’t matter, North Korea says – thanks to agricultural reform?

Monday, August 10th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

During the past few months, the World Food Program (WFP) has made reoccurring pleas for increased food assistance to North Korea to alleviate the food shortages expected from a severe summer drought. The North Korean government made similar statements and claimed that the drought was the worst one to occur in 100 years. Aid to the country was subsequently increased from the originally planned level, due to the drought. But now, one North Korean official is saying that food production ended up increasing, after all, thanks to agricultural reforms.

A recent brief by the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University (IFES) cites a July issue of Tongil Sinbo, a North Korean state-run weekly newspaper. There, Chi Myong Su, director of the Agricultural Research Institute of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in the country, says that

“the effectiveness of field management system (pojon) from cooperative farm production unit system (bunjo) is noticeable and succeeded in increasing grain production despite the adverse weather conditions.”

The article cited by IFES highlights the smaller work-team structure as key to the success of the reforms. Also, it almost outright states that greater economic incentives were the main factor (although they call it “enthusiasm” and “patriotism”):

“Despite the adverse weather conditions last year, the high grain yield was possible due to implementation of scientific farming methods and field management system to increase enthusiasm of farmers,” and “based on this experience, many cooperative farms across the country will expand subworkteam management system to field management system.”

This is interesting for several reasons.

First, the agricultural reforms seem increasingly pronounced. Though other reforms were reportedly backtracked earlier this year, the government seems eager to claim success for the road travelled in agriculture.

I have written elsewhere that the data doesn’t necessarily support a claim that reforms are working. There is still reason to be skeptical – after all, a North Korean government official claiming that his government’s policies are working is not surprising – but even the claim itself is interesting.

Second, the statement raises questions about monitoring and data gathering capacities, both of the regime and relief organizations in Pyongyang. Again, just a few months ago, alarm bells were ringing about a potential food shortage, and now, a regime official claims that food production has increased. What was the basis of the WFP and regime claims that a food shortage was imminent a few months ago, and what has changed since those claims were made?

Another recent IFES brief also deals with North Korean press reports about the agricultural reforms. It quotes a Rodong Sinmun article from earlier in the summer that brings up some adjustment problems that farmers have had, such as learning how to properly use fertilizers. The most interesting part in my opinion is the following:

The newspaper stressed that “when all farmers claim ownership of their field and subworkteam, one can create innovation in the farming operations.”

Thus, it seems like Pyongyang wants to encourage experimentation and diversity in production methods. This would be a potentially important step towards more efficient agriculture. Perhaps it is part of a pattern. Provinces have reportedly gotten significant leeway in setting up their respective special economic development zones, which could also be a way to encourage experimentation in policies and management methods.

According to the Tongil Sinbo article, reforms are set to expand further in the country given the alleged success. Perhaps it won’t be too long before we can learn more about them through assessments by multilateral organizations like WFP.

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Friday fun: New stamps and wild speculation…

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Kim Jong-un has committed significant construction resources to improving the lives of children (particularly orphans) in the DPRK. Now you can share Kim Jong-un’s love of the children (sarcasm) with the people you know by collecting and sending stamps of the Songdowon International Children’s Camp and the new Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage:

STAMP-2015- Sondgowon-International-Children-Camp

STAMP-Pyongyang-Baby-Home Orphanage

Although the stamps are meant for foreign collectors, they are denominated as KPW 30. If the cost of a first class letter in the DPRK is 30 won, that translates into appx $.30 at the official rate and $.00375 at the black market rate (nearly 1/3 of a US penny).

But the Pyongyang Baby Home stamp booklet shows four stamps on a post card, so maybe the official price of sending a postcard is KPW120, or $1.20 at the official rate and $.015 at the black market rate. That seems a bit more reasonable, but it is still probably likely that, as in the USA, mail delivery is a drain on the government’s budget (subsidized activity). I wonder how hard it is to raise postal rates in the DPRK?

Luckily the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication (체신성) does not have to rely on the cabinet for its complete budget. There is always the international stamp-collecting market…and a small venture known as KoryoLink.

I also doubt that any of the money generated from the sale of these stamps actually goes to supporting the budgets of the Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage and Songdowon International Children’s Camp, but you never know.

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