Archive for the ‘Economic reform’ Category

North Korean state takes over foreign currency stores

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Donju life might not always be what it is cracked up to be. Radio Free Asia reminds us that regardless of how well North Korea’s upper-middle class traders might be doing, the economic framework is still highly arbitrary:

North Korean hard currency shops providing foreign products for sale to the country’s wealthier citizens may soon see a full government takeover of its supply chains, leading to a drop in the quality and hike in the price of hard-to-obtain goods, North Korean sources say.

The stores, which require payment in Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars, have operated in recent years in Pyongyang and other large cities under the management of private businessmen who pay large portions of their profits to the central government.

Government-run trading firms are now poised to take over the purchase and pricing of products sold in the lucrative stores, though, a source in China’s Dandong city, just across the Yalu river from North Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service.

Until now, shop managers have gone to China themselves to bring back products—including clothing, cosmetics, and furniture—or sale in their stores, RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If this system of supply changes, not only will store managers be prevented from going to China, but no use will be made of their marketing and management skills,” the source said.

Once the new system is implemented, stores will have to submit a list of needed products to their city’s local trading firm, which will then make the purchases from China itself, the source said.

“There are doubts that [the government] will be able to supply needed products on time, though, and the change in quality and price of the items may lead to conflicts between store managers and the trading organizations handling product supply,” he said.

Profit grab seen

Separately, a source in the capital Pyongyang said no official statement announcing the change has yet been made.

“But there is a high possibility the new system will be established after the [ruling Korean Workers’ Party] convention in May,” he said.

If put in place, the move may be aimed partly at further reducing the profits earned by store managers, who already pay most of what they earn to the government of the reclusive, U.N.-sanctioned state, the source in Pyongyang said.

“North Korea’s foreign currency situation is urgent now,” the source said.

“From now on, the managers of foreign-currency shops will receive only a small salary, as they did in the past,” he said.

“Sales will drop, though, and the management will experience difficulties,” he said.

Full article here:
North Korean ‘Foreign Currency’ Stores Face State Takeover
Jonhoo Kim
Radio Free Asia
04-19-2016

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North Korea and taxation: some possible causes

Friday, March 18th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As this blog noted yesterday, South Korean daily Joongang Ilbo claims that the North Korean government may formally reintroduce a tax system before May this year, when a Worker’s Party convention will be held.

The goal, according to Joongang’s source, is primarily to formalize the private economy further. The latest UNSC sanctions are forcing the government to seek out more sources of revenue, and the growing private economy is seen as a resource that can still be tapped further.

Moreover, the source says, the state is planning to expand trading permits for private merchants, both on the formal markets and in private business in general. Under the new system, the state would essentially let merchants get access to land, water and electricity in exchange for a fee, much like in other countries where the state holds a monopoly on goods that often fall into the category of natural monopolies.

This is all interesting for several reasons. First, since the notion of North Korea as a tax free society might appear puzzling to some, it is worth taking a look at why the government decided to abolish taxes in the first place.

Ironically, had Joongang waited a few weeks before publishing the news, they would have hit the 42nd anniversary of the decision to make North Korea formally tax free. For it was on March 21st in 1974, at the Third Session of the Fifth Supreme People’s Assembly that Kim Il Sung officially announced that taxes were abolished. According to a KCNA-piece published in 2009, highlighting the occasion, the decision was taken as a step towards full socialism and framed in a historical context.

Taxation was a vestige of the past: the Japanese colonial power had instituted a “predatory” tax system that Kim Il-sung had vowed already in the 1930s that he would get rid of.  (The Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), too, of course, had a tax system that could at times well be called predatory, but the KCNA piece does not mention this).

The ideological rationale, of course, is that under socialism, you don’t need taxation because private property has been abolished. In North Korea, collectivization of agriculture, for example, occurred only gradually. According to KCNA, agricultural taxes-in-kind were fully abolished by 1966. Given recent policy changes where farmers supposedly now get to keep a more significant share of their production than before, one could argue that taxation has in effect already been brought back to agriculture, and that the tax-in-kind-rate is around 70 percent.

So why could the government want to bring back taxation? Aside from the reasons given by the Joongang article, one could speculate about a possible connection with the remarks cited by KCNA earlier this year about party officials “seeking privileges, misuse of authority, abuse of power and bureaucratism manifested in the party” (February 4th, 2016).

Corruption is often an integral part of everyday life for anyone involved in business in a country that lacks a functioning rule of law. Corruption is known to be strongly institutionalized in North Korea, and when news of discontent come out of North Korea, it often has to do with arbitrary rule changes and regulations regarding market trading and business. A formalized tax system doesn’t itself guarantee a transparent set of rules and regulations, or that these rules are followed. But it is an almost necessary prerequisite.

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The UNSC sanctions and the North Korean economy

Friday, March 11th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In the past few days, Daily NK has carried a number of interesting reports on how the latest round of UNSC sanctions have impacted the domestic economy in North Korea. Below, I’ve gathered a compendium of sorts. I’ll continue updating it as more stories surface.

Only a short while after the sanctions were announced, trucks carrying mineral exports were blocked from entering China. Some businesspeople were apparently surprised at China’s relatively forceful implementation of the sanctions, given that little impact had been seen from past sanctions:

Chinese authorities began prohibiting mineral exports from North Korea on March 1st in a move not strictly related to the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2270, which outlines sanctions against North Korea. North Korean authorities and foreign-earning currency enterprises tied to the military did not see this move coming and expressed embarrassment and shock.

In a telephone conversation with the Daily NK on March 4, a source from North Pyongan Province said, “Beginning on March 1, mineral exports such as coal and ore have not been allowed to pass through Chinese customs into China. Trucks loaded with mineral deposits have been idly waiting in front of Chinese customs near Dandong. The foreign trading companies are simply waiting for instructions from the higher authorities.”

Full story:
Trucks loaded with mineral exports blocked from entering China
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2016-03-07

A few days later, Daily NK reported that “panic” had begun to set in, not just among high-level businesspeople and traders involved in the mineral extraction industry, but also among market vendors who worry that they won’t be able to buy products for import from China:

“The news that the UN resolution containing sanctions against North Korea passed unanimously is spreading like wildfire through [domestic] cell phones. People in the North had little interest in sanctions in the past, but these days they are expressing concern that ‘this time things are going to be different,’” a source in South Pyongan Province reported to Daily NK on March 7.

A source in North Hamgyong Province corroborated this news, reporting the same developments on the ground in that region.

“Sinuiju is known as the gateway to China and the ultimate symbol of friendly relations between our two nations. That’s why news of its closure to mineral exports is causing dismay,” she explained, adding that a rumor has also taken off that international customs offices in other border towns such as North Hamgyong’s Rajin and Hoeryong will be shuttered.

Further anxiety is being stoked by the fact that trusted allies such as China and Russia are participating in the sanctions and the fact that residents are getting detailed information about the resolution’s specific clauses.

“People are further concerned because things have apparently changed significantly since China helped the country to overcome the difficulties during the ‘Arduous March,’ [famine] in the mid 1990s. People from all over the country are concerned that China might shut the border down totally. If that happens, it will become difficult for everyone to make a living,” the source indicated.

“Wholesalers and market vendors are feeling the most vulnerable to the UN sanctions. Their greatest fear is that they won’t be able to buy products. Merchants who have been selling Chinese products at cheap prices are expecting a cost increase and have momentarily discontinued sales.”

Full story:
Panic sets in as sanctions specifics circulate 
Daily NK
Choi Song Min
2016-03-08

Not just mineral exports to China have taken a hit. Food products specialties like hairy crab, frequently imported to cities like Yanji in China from North Korea’s northern fishing cities like Rajin, are now being sold at domestic markets instead:

“These days items that were previously hard to find because they were earmarked for export are suddenly emerging at the markets,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “The price haven’t gone down enough yet, so you don’t see too many people actually buying them. But you do see flocks of curious people coming out to the markets to see all the delicacies for sale.”

She added, “High-end marine goods like roe, sea urchin eggs, hairy crab, and jumbo shrimp and produce like pine nuts, bracken, and salted pine mushrooms were once considered to be strictly for export, but now they’re easy to find. The number of such products, referred to as ‘sent back goods,’ at Sunam Market and other markets around Chongjin is growing by the day.”

Additional sources in both North and South Hwanghae Provinces reported the same developments in those regions.

Despite the sanctions that have already kicked in, products from China are still flowing into North Korea. however, the goods sold in bulk to China–minerals like coal, marine products, etc.– have nowhere to go and are therefore making their way back into the country.

Full story:
Would-be food exports to China popping up in jangmadang
Choi Song Min
Daily NK
2016-03-11

Politically, too, the topic of sanctions has become highly sensitive. According to reports by Daily NK, surveillance authorities have increased their focus on certain groups that they deem as more likely than others to speak out about the added pressures from the sanctions:

The boost in surveillance is interpreted as a move by the regime to nip in the bud any rumblings of political unrest engendered by members of society more likely to speak out about the pressure squeezing North Korea. Those tracing the lines of the circumstances leading to this pressure, namely a volley of sanctions lobbed at North Korea by the international community in response to its nuclear test and rocket launch, are a threat to the regime’s authoritarian grip over the population.

A source with the Ministry of People’s Security [MPS, or North Korea’s equivalent of a police force] informed Daily NK on March 8 that internal orders came down at the beginning of March for the MPS to survey and track the recent movements of those anyone ascribed to the “wavering” cohort. Two separate sources in the same province verified this information, but Daily NK has not yet confirmed if the same orders are in effect in other provinces.

Full story:
MPS steps up surveillance to suppress potential ‘pot stirrers’
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2016-03-11

(UPDATE 2016-02-18): a couple of days ago, Daily NK published another piece on this topic. They note that market prices have remained relatively stable, and that many people don’t seem to treat this sanctions round as anything out of the ordinary:

Market prices in North Korea have remained relatively stable despite stronger sanctions enforced by the international community, including China, as well as greater limitations on market operationsdue to nationwide preparation for Pyongyang’s May Party Congress.

Multiple Daily NK sources within the country have confirmed that rice prices in Pyongyang, South Pyongan Province’s Sinuiju, and Ryanggang Province’s Hyesan are trading at 5,100 KPW, 5,150 KPW, and 5,080 KPW per kilogram, respectively, similar to levels before sanctions were stepped up (5,100 KPW, 5,100 KPW, 5,260 KPW).

This is also the case on the foreign exchange front, with 1 USD trading for 8,150 KPW in Pyongyang, 8,200 KPW in Sinuiju, and 8,170 KPW in Hyesan, showing some signs of strengthening for the local currency from pre-sanction rates (Pyongyang 8,200 KPW, Sinuiju·Hyesan 8,290 KPW).

“There had been concern we would see fewer goods in the market because of UN sanctions, but in reality, there hasn’t been much difference,” a source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation on Sunday. “The state is placing restrictions on opening hours for the market for the ‘70-day battle’ (mobilization for the Party Congress), but the markets have remained lively, and there’s not much change in terms of market prices.”

Further confirming trends previously reported by Daily NK last week, an additional source in North Hamgyong Province reported yesterday that some people had stocked up food worried about sanctions from the UN, but that this hasn’t led to a violent gyration in prices. “Actually, in some regions, we’re seeing prices of certain products drop,” he noted.

This price stability seen in the marketplace, in spite of the sanctions having kicked in earlier this month, can be attributed to the fact that most products are still trading as they would have save one of the North’s main export items: minerals.

The simple reality that people have experienced similar times before is also at play. “In the past, people who had stockpiled food during other sanctions discovered that after the political climate evened out a bit they were unable to get their money’s worth for everything they bought. This is why we’re seeing less of it,” a source from Ryanggang Province explained. “Initially there was a little bit of noise, but in general people are remaining calm.”

Full article:
Market prices so far showing resilience against sanctions
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin
2016-03-14

Also, Marcus Noland recently launched a “Black Market Contest” at the Witness to Transformation blog, letting readers bet on what will happen with the unofficial exchange rate as a result of the sanctions:

The exchange rate issue has re-emerged with the imposition of sanctions. My colleague Steph Haggard leans toward the view that the imposition of a broader set of sanctions, particularly with respect to mining, together with enhanced Chinese enforcement will generate a balance of payments cum financial crisis with uncertain implications for political stability. I am more skeptical of both the additional coverage and the likely Chinese rigor in enforcement.

But this is an empirical issue. If the sanctions bite, then one would expect to see their effects manifested in the black market rate on the won. So we decided to offer up this conundrum to the wisdom of the crowd, or at least of our readership, in this Witness to Transformation Black Market Contest. Yes, you can ply your wits against North Korean loan sharks and black market traders. Or maybe the North Korean monetary authorities. Here’s how it works.

Steph thinks that within two months, evidence of the impact of sanctions should begin to emerge. So the object of the contest is to guess the black market won-dollar rate two months hence. Since the sanctions resolution passed 2 March, we will use the first DailyNK average rate applying to the post-2 May period as the reference. So you have the next month to analyze trade data, contact spies in Dandong, or call in favors in Switzerland to inform your estimate. Whoever guesses closest to the May black market rate wins. In the event of a tie, whoever submitted their entry first wins.

Please list your estimate in the comments section below. The entry period closes 15 April.

Full article:
Witness to Transformation Black Market Contest
Witness to Transformation blog
Marcus Noland
2016-03-16

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2016 Pyongyang Spring Trade Fair

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

UPDATE 2 (2016-3-17): According to the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES):

North Korea to Host International Trade Fairs despite UN Sanctions

Despite the newly imposed sanctions by the UN Security Council (UNSC), North Korea does not appear to be deterred from hosting large-scale international events, as Pyongyang plans to host its annual Pyongyang International Trade Fair (PITF) twice this year, in May and September.

North Korea’s official web portal ‘Naenara’ reported that the spring PITF will be held at the Three-Revolution Exhibition House in the Sosong District in Pyongyang from May 16th to the 19th and the autumn PTIF will be held at the same venue from September 5th to the 8th.

‘Naenara’ claimed that the country “has been hosting hundreds of trade shows both in the country and abroad for over 50 years since April 17, 1958 and such events will enable the DPRK to accelerate its friendship and cooperation with other states and boost its international trade.”

According to the website, these trade fairs will exhibit items such as machine tools, mining equipment and their manufacturing technology for minerals—items in a sector now heavily targeted by the new sanctions imposed by the UNSC.

According to the report, the trade fairs will also include displays of construction machinery and building materials, energy and environment protection materials, communication and information technology, agricultural equipment and technology, foodstuffs and production technology, print and packing machinery, medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, light-industry products, consumer goods, and even vehicles.

Advertising is of course permitted at the trade fairs, with installation and removal displays and promotional materials requiring pre-approval by the host Korean International Exhibition Corporation. Transportation of the items for exhibition is to be dealt with by the Pyongyang Agent Department of the Italian company OTIM (Organizzazione Transporti Internazionali Marittimi). OTIM, a freight forwarding company established in the late 1940s, has been authorized and in charge of transporting goods between North Korea and Europe.

‘Naenara’ announced that the fairs will accept emailed or faxed applications until 40 days prior to the opening and has requested companies to send along their list of participants.

Apart from domestic enterprises, companies from around 16 countries or more — including Australia, China, Cuba, Cambodia, Germany, Italy, Indonesia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, and Vietnam — have reportedly participated in these trade fairs in the past.

Given North Korea’s isolation from the international system and closed-nature of its economy, the international trade fairs have been important events for its economy. However, while North Korea seems determined to host its annual spring and autumn events despite the international sanctions and pressure, just how many companies from other countries will participate is an open question.

UPDATE 1 (2016-3-1): The 2016-Q1 issue of Foreign Trade is out, and it contains some additional information on the 2016 Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair.

Foreign-Trade-2016-Q1-Pyongyang-Trade-Fair

ORIGINAL POST (2016-2-11): Everyone may be talking about nukes, rockets, sanctions, and the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, but the North Koreans have begun planning the 2016 Pyongyang Spring Trade Fair. Below you can see images of the first flyers to emerge:

Ex-Easy-Trade-Fair-2016-a

Ex-Easy-Trade-Fair-2016-b

Promotion of the trade fair appears to be in the hands of a Chinese internet firm named Ex-Easy.

Thanks to a reader (Andy) for translating some of the flyer:

“Pyongyang International Business Products Exhibition” is organised by an affiliated company under DPRK’s Ministry of Trade. This international exhibition is DPRK’s largest and most trade-conducive of its kind. It is organised yearly since 1998, and is held twice yearly – in spring and autumn – from 2005. The exhibition will be held in Pyongyang’s Three Revolution Exhibition hall, with a capacity of 6500 square meters. The DPRK has been gradually liberalising its economy in recent years and increasing its trade with neighbouring countries. At the same time, it has raised its domestic living standards, and they are attracted to Chinese products and (manufacturing) techniques.

Products exhibited:
1. Daily necessities, office supplies, household appliances, manufacturing / packing equipment, sewing equipment, clothes, stitched (embroidered?) products, …
2. Food, flavourings, food additive facilities/techniques, high temperature processed products and equipment, fruits, vegetable processing equipment, techniques, nucleic acid manufacturing facilities/techniques/products, bean processing and techniques, fish/seafood processing/techniques, health product processing/techniques
3. Sealing machinery, vacuum packaging, engraving machinery, food packaging machinery
4. Injection moulding machinery, moulds.
5. Misc hardware and DIY materials: bathroom/kitchen, construction/DIY, locks, safety equipment/accessories, small scale electronics, construction decorations, interior decoration – doors/windows/ceiling/walls/paint/chemicals/ceramics/masonry materials, building tech, environmentally frendly materials, furniture, inspection and certification
6. All sorts of large machinery – mining and related equipment, farming equipment, electronics, light industries, food processing and related equipment, chemical products, medical equipment, medicine manufacturing facilities.

Last exhibitions featured exhibitors from DPRK, China, Germany, UK, Australia, Italy, Poland, Cuba…. 400 over companies from 16 countries/regions. A total of 6372 square meter of exhibition space over two floors, taking up all usable space. Cars and engineering machinery took up about 1000 square meters of space outdoors. Exhibited products included cars, tooling machine, chemical, machines, communication equipment, electrical equipment, transportation machinery, plastics machinery, engineering equipment.

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Rason imposes entry fee at Chinese border

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Rason imposed a RMB10 fee for individuals (more for vehicles) to enter the economic and trade zone in December last year.

Rason-border-charge-2015-12

I have translated the notice and posted here as a PDF.

 

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Friday fun with North Korea’s new slogans

Friday, February 19th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

What better way to start off the weekend than to go through North Korea’s latest batch of political slogans (“Joint calls/공동구호”)? These were issued collectively by the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission on Wednesday February 17th, and printed on the frontpage of Rodong Sinmunas part of the run-up to the 7th Party Congress to be held later this year.

Below I have gathered those that relate to the economy, and a few other interesting ones, with brief annotation:

The calls underlined the need to make hurrah for the WPK and socialism resound far more loudly this year when the Seventh Congress of the WPK is to be held by staging an all-out death-defying struggle for building a thriving nation and improving the people’s living standard.

The Byungjin line is alive and well.

Let’s dynamically wage this year’s general advance in the same spirit as shown in succeeding in the H-bomb test!

Let’s build an economic giant as early as possible with the strength and the spirit of Korea and at the Korean speed!

Send more satellites of Juche Korea into space!

As often before, the satellite launch and the hydrogen bomb test are tied into the theme of economic development: both are technological advancements, showing the overall progress of the economy.

Produce more new-generation electric locomotives and passenger cars!

A shout-out to the domestic car industry?

Put the manufacture of Korean-style world-class underground trains on a serial basis!

The domestically manufactured subway cars haven’t been forgotten. One wonders if people living outside Pyongyang feel as strongly about them.

Step up the modernization of the mining industry and keep the production of nonferrous metal and non-metallic minerals going at a high rate!

Provide more resources for building an economic giant by channeling effort into prospecting underground resources!

At least now Jang Song-taek can’t touch them anymore.

Make the foreign trade multilateral and diverse!

This is interesting, and a clear statement about an important rationale for the SEZs: North Korea will remain politically and economically vulnerable as long as China continues to be its single largest trading partner by a large margin.

Let’s greet the 7th Party Congress with proud achievements in the improvement of the people’s living standard!

The people “will never have to tighten their belts again”, as Kim Jong-un said in his first public speech in 2012.

Achieve a great victory on the front of agriculture this year!

Which the regime has already claimed it did last year. The UN doesn’t agree.

Let’s give a decisive solution to the problem of consumer goods!

Let’s produce more world-competitive famous products and goods!

North Korean media has highlighted strides in consumer goods production several times this year.

Make Wonsan area an icon of city layout and build it into a world-level tourist city!

A shout-out to the Wonsan tourist zone, presumably.

Establish Korean-style economic management method guided by the Juche idea in a comprehensive manner!

Sounds like the management reforms, with greater autonomy for enterprises, are still on the table.

Let the entire party and army and all the people turn out in the forest restoration campaign!

And make sure they “properly conduct fertilizer management“. This is the only reference among the slogans to the forestry campaign, where the regime has publically acknowledged some crucial and systemic problems, but is yet to find a credible solution.

Put an end to proclivity to import!

Does this tell us something about North Korea’s trade balance that the numbers aren’t showing?

The Korean People’s Internal Security Forces should sharpen the sword for defending their leader, system and people!

Note that “people” comes after both “leader” and “system”.

Let us thoroughly implement our Party’s policy of putting all the people under arms and turning the whole country into a fortress!

Enhance the fighting capacity of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards by intensifying their drills as the anti-Japanese guerillas did in Mt. Paektu!

Develop and produce a greater number of various means of military strike of our own style that are capable of overwhelming the enemy!

Enhance the fighting capacity of the Worker-Peasant Red Guards by intensifying their drills as the anti-Japanese guerillas did in Mt. Paektu!

These four slogans seem to be saying that the Four Military Guidelines, adopted in 1962 by the Central Committee, are still very much in play: 1) arming the population, 2) fortifying the country, 3) establishing a cadre-based army, and 4) modernizing military equipment. Mao would probably have been happy to know that his People’s War Doctrine lives on in North Korea.

The whole list of slogans is very long, and saying that policy areas need to improve, or that production in a certain area needs to go up, isn’t much of a policy line. Still, it’s interesting to see what areas are highlighted.

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Pyongyang Times: Tourism regulations in EDZ instituted

Monday, February 15th, 2016

According to the Pyongyang Times (2016-2-15):

Tourism regulations in EDZ instituted

The government has set new regulations to control tourism in the economic development zones.

Tourism regulations were adopted by decision No. 90 of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly on December 23 2015.

The regulations containing 32 articles in five chapters are applicable to EDZs established for tourism.

The DPRK citizens, overseas Koreans and foreigners can tour EDZs in various styles and methods including visit, sightseeing, vacation, amusement, sports, experiencing and medical treatment.

Personal safety, human rights and property of tourists in EDZs are protected by the law of the DPRK.

Management of tourism is undertaken by the managing authorities of EDZs.

The zones encourage planned development and protection of tourism resources such as scenic attractions, historic relics and remains and natural monuments.

Investors can invest, establish and run businesses in such fields of travel, lodging, restaurant, amusement, welfare services, production and sale of souvenirs and development of tourism resources in the zones with the approval of the management authorities of EDZs.

In case of establishing a travel company in the zones, license of the central tourism guidance organ should be gained through the management authorities. After receiving the license, the travel company should register its business with the management authorities and receive business registration certificate.

When an investor wants to set up and run a tourism service business in EDZs, he or she should obtain the approval of the management authorities following relevant regulations.

Tourists who want to travel EDZs should apply for tourism directly or via local and foreign travel companies outside relevant EDZs.

Anyone, who did any harm to personal safety, health and property of tourists, failed to provide proper service obliged by contracts, destroyed tourism resources or caused any damage to businesses and individuals, bears such civil liabilities as to restore them to their original state, or pay compensation, penalty and arrears.

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How bad is the Kaesong shutdown for the North Korean Economy?

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The Ministry of Unification in Seoul announced today that the industrial park in Kaesong be closed as a form of retaliation for North Korea’s recent rocket launch, alleging that funds from the park have been used to finance the north’s arms buildup. Wall Street Journal (with my emphasis):

A representative of South Korea’s Unification Ministry said that the move to shut down Kaesong was an effort by South Korea, “as a key party, to show leadership in taking part in these moves.”

Kaesong is an important source of income for Pyongyang. The regime received $120 million last year, and a total of $560 million since 2004, in workers’ wages directly from the South Korean side, according to the Unification Ministry. Those payments are made directly to the regime, which is then charged with paying the workers themselves, a system that critics say allows the regime to pocket most of the money.

“It appears that such funds have not been used to pave the way to peace as the international community had hoped, but rather to upgrade its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles,” the Unification Ministry said on Wednesday.

Naturally, this is bad news for the North Korean economy. But how bad exactly?

Here are a few other figures to give some sense of the proportions:

  • The volume of trade between North Korea and China only in the January-May period of last year totalled $1.1 billion, with North Korean exports accounting for $954 million.
  • Between January and November last year, the value of North Korea’s exports to China was $2.28 billion.
  • Textile exports to China from North Korea brought in around $800 million in 2014.
  • North Korean guest workers in China’s border provinces are estimated to be raising between $140-$170 million per year.

In the overall context, it seems like losses from the closure of Kaesong could be potentially bad, but not catastrophic.

UPDATE 1: Here is the full statement from the Ministry of Unification:

Government Statement regarding the Complete Shutdown of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex

North Korea has pushed ahead with the extremely provocative act of launching a long-range missile on the heels of its 4th nuclear test, showing disregard for the repeated warnings of the international community and the suffering of its people.

North Korea’s provocations are a direct challenge to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the international community and its actions are absolutely unacceptable. Notwithstanding international efforts to deter North Korea from developing its nuclear capabilities and long-range missiles,

North Korea has declared that it would follow up on its recent provocations with additional nuclear tests and missile launches, thereby not even showing the slightest intent to forgo the development of its nuclear and missile capabilities.

The status quo is not static, as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will be upgraded, all but leading to a catastrophic disaster. If left unattended, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development will lead to a fundamental imbalance in and threat to the security landscape of Northeast Asia, not to mention the Korean Peninsula, and the countries of this region will be left with no choice but to take measures to ensure their own survival and shore up their security, and there are concerns that this could eventually even lead to a nuclear domino effect.

Under these grave circumstances, it is clear that the existing approach will not work in discomfiting North Korea’s nuclear and missile development plans. Accordingly, what is in order is a vigorous response together with the international community that, for sure, exacts a price for North Korea’s misguided actions, as well as extraordinary measures that compel North Korea to give up its nuclear capabilities and change its ways.

At a time when the international community is seeking sanctions in the wake of North Korea’s violation of UN Security Council resolutions with its nuclear test and long-range missile launch, there is a need for Korea, as a key party, to show leadership in taking part in these moves.

Over the years, our Government has been working to continue maintaining the Gaeseong Industrial Complex despite North Korea’s repeated provocations and under extreme state of affairs, all with a view to assisting the lives of the North Korean people, providing impetus to lifting up the North Korean economy, and achieving the shared progress for both South and North Korea. We have also made every effort to move the Gaeseong Industrial Complex forward under the position that it should be developed in conformity with international norms.

However, such assistance and the efforts of our Government have ultimately been wrongly harnessed in the service of upgrading North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

To date, the total amount of cash that flowed into North Korea through the Gaeseong Industrial Complex is 616 billion won (560 million dollars), with 132 billion won (120 million dollars) in cash having flowed into North Korea last year alone, and the Government and the private sector have invested a total of 1.019 trillion won. It appears that such funds have not been used to pave the way to peace as the international community had hoped, but rather to upgrade its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

This tramples on the efforts of the Korean Government and the 124 businesses that have set up shop in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, and puts at risk the lives and safety of the Korean people.

Today, in order to stop funds of the Gaeoseong Industrial Complex from being used to support the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, and to prevent our businesses from suffering, the Government has decided to completely shut down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex.

We have notified the North Korean authorities of this decision and called on them to extend such cooperation as is rendered necessary by the complete shutdown of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, including the safe return of our citizens.

The Government will move expeditiously forward with all steps to ensure the safe return of our citizens, and will set up a Government Task Force under the Office for Government Policy Coordination to provide the necessary whole-of-government assistance to our businesses.

We ask for the full understanding of our people that the Government’s complete shutdown of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex is an unavoidable decision, which takes into account the seriousness of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and we call upon the people to stand with us as we seek to overcome such challenges.

UPDATE 2: Kent Boydston at the Peterson Institute offers this graph, and notes we can expect to see the trend reverse:

DPRK-China-ROK-trade-2015

Full reference to the Wall Street Journal article quoted above:
South Korea, Japan Take Steps to Penalize North Korea
Wall Street Journal 
Jonathan Cheng
02-10-2016

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Unofficial and official exchange rates in North Korea: how big is the gap?

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Photographer Jaka Parker, who lives in Pyongyang and runs a highly popular Instagram page with everyday life pictures from Pyongyang, recently photographed a table showing the official exchange rates of the North Korean won to several major currencies, including the US dollar and Chinese yuan. Mr. Parker has been kind enough to allow North Korean Economy Watch to publish his photographed table, seen here below:

Official exchange rates of the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK. Photo credits: Jaka Parker.

Official exchange rates of the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK, January 28th. Photo credits: Jaka Parker.

It is interesting to note how these rates compare to unofficial market exchange rates gathered by Daily NK. Their latest data covers the period of January 7th-13th, so these two sets of figures may not be fully comparable. However, they at the very least give an interesting indication of the difference between the official and unofficial rates. Below are the $1-prices at unofficial market rates given in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan according to the latest available information (in North Korean won):

  • Pyongyang: 8190
  • Sinuiju: 8260
  • Hyesan: 8190

As Mr. Parker’s picture shows, the $1-price at the unofficial rate (in Pyongyang) was 109.60 won on January 28th. This would suggest that the unofficial USD-rate is roughly 80 times higher than the official one.

Compared with data from 2011, the discrepancy between the official and unofficial rates is significantly larger today. In 2011, the unofficial rate was $1 = 3,000 won, and the official one at $1 = 100 won. Since then, the unofficial won-rate has depreciated significantly against the dollar. (which has essentially flattened out since 2013: see graph below, based on price data from Daily NK and put together by the present author). In other words, while unofficial rates have soared, the official USD-to-won-rate has essentially stayed the same.

Inofficial market exchange rates over time, Won for USD. Data source: DailyNK. Graph created by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein.

Unofficial market exchange rates over time, Won for USD. Data source: DailyNK. Graph created by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein.

That’s a snapshot of late January. However, Mr. Parker has also generously allowed me to publish other pictures he has taken of exchange rate tables at institutions in Pyongyang. Below is a quick look at a few exchange rate figures from last year, with rough comparisons to the corresponding black market exchange rates (all figures for the unofficial market come from Daily NK and I include the rate in Pyongyang only). Note how smaller currencies like the Swedish krona (SEK) can be exchanged by North Korean institutions.

January 8th, 2015: USD selling at 109.520 won at the Foreign Trade Bank. Closest available unofficial data puts the USD at 8190 won – same as above.

North Korean won exchange rates as of January 8th, 2016. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of January 8th, 2016. Photo: Jaka Parker.

November 24th, 2015: $1 for 111.050. Black market rate: 8600 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 24th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 24th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

November 9th, 2015: $1 selling at 110.57 won. The closest available unofficial rate was recorded between October 21st-27th: $1 for 8600 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

October 29th, 2015: $1 for 109.550 won. Closest available black market rate: 8600 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of October 29th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of October 29th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

September 28, 2015: $1 for 108.29 won. Closest available black market rate: 8260 won.

North Korean won exchange rates as of September 28th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

North Korean won exchange rates as of September 28th, 2015. Photo: Jaka Parker.

One clearly visible trend is that both the official and unofficial exchange rates steadily climb throughout the fall, but decline in January. It’ll be interesting to continue following them over the course of the year.

 

 

 

 

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Labour regulations in EDZ modified

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

According to the Pyongyang Times (2016-2-3):

The DPRK has modified its labour regulations for the economic development zones, which were worked out according to a decision of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly on December 12 2013.

According to them, a foreign investment business is encouraged to employ local manpower as much as possible but it may hire foreign management staff, specialists and technicians.

The fixed monthly minimum wage is set by the central agency for the special economic zones guidance in consultation with relevant provincial-level people’s committees and EDZ management agencies.

An employee is supposed to work 8 hours a day or 48 hours a week on average.

A business shall make sure that employees take rests on local holidays and Sundays.

The forms of payment to the employees involve wage, incentives and bonuses.

According to the quality and amount of work, payment should be done correctly and employees who have carried out the same amount of work are to be paid evenly on an equal footing irrespective of gender and age.

The monthly wage is up to a business. In this case, it cannot be set lower than the fixed minimum wage.

While making preparations to start operation, a business may set the salary for employees, apprentices and unskilled hands within the scope of over 70 per cent of the fixed minimum wage.

A business shall pay for its employees’ regular and supplementary leaves in accordance with the number of their days off.

Female staff on maternity leave shall be paid over 60 per cent of the leave allowances.

If a business works an employee while on leave, it shall pay him or her the equivalent of 100 per cent of the wage per day or hour, as well as their leave allowances.

A business shall give supplementary living allowances that account for over 60 per cent of their wages per day or hour to those who are under training or out of work due to the management.

When it works an employee late at night or overtime, the business shall pay him or her 150 per cent of the wage per day or hour.

If the work is done overtime late at night, 200 per cent of the wage per day or hour shall be given to the worker.

If a business works an employee on holidays or Sundays without compensatory days off, it should pay 200 per cent of the wage per day or hour.

The wage is given in cash, and the bonuses and incentives may be paid in the form of notes or goods.

The DPRK citizens and their families in the EDZ are to benefit from the social and cultural policies of the government, namely free education and medical service, social insurance and social security.

If any breach causes damages to the lives, health and properties of a business or employee, it shall be restored to their original state or compensated duly for the damages.

By Cha Myong Chol PT

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