Archive for the ‘Economic reform’ Category

North Korea’s harvest numbers: what “food production” really means

Monday, March 11th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I wrote about the confusing harvest numbers this past Friday, and I’ve been able to find little new information to make things clearer. Basically, the problem is that talking about “food production” is too vague, since that can mean a lot of different things. In the standard World Food Program/FAO crop assessments, there are usually two numbers quoted: one estimate for total production of food,  and one for “milled cereal equivalent”, a standardized measurement used to translate the varying nutritional contents of different crops into a standardized weight measure.* (See below for a more detailed explanation.) Basically, the “milled cereal equivalent” figure tends to be significantly smaller, by about 20 percent or so, than the original, total food production figure.

Since we don’t actually know exactly which number is being thrown around in analyses of the current harvest, I’ve calculated a possible milled-equivalent harvest figure, using the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I have the two different numbers from the WFP/FAO crop assessments. None of the historical estimates I’ve found correspond with the harvest numbers for previous years in the 2019 UN Needs and Priorities Plan. Crop production figures are usually given in terms of “marketing years”, not in calendar years. For simplicity’s sake, I denote each year by the second half of the marketing year, when most consumption will occur. So “2019” is the 2018/2019 marketing year, “2018” is the 2017/2018 marketing year, et cetera.

The following shows the scenario where the 4.95 million tonnes production figure is the “unmilled” cereal equivalent measure. Based on the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I’ve had data available from UN institutions (0.85 million tonnes), I’ve added and subtracted to complete the figures where necessary. This is not an exact, scientific way of looking at the harvest numbers. For exact accuracy, I’d need to calculate the milled cereal equivalent of each crop, something I don’t have time to do right now. This may well make the figure even lower. (Hazel Smith’s figure, for reference, is 3.2 million tonnes.) But the following does, at the very least, give a sense of the proportions at hand. And it makes the numbers look different from my initial assessment.

Food production, million tonnes (unmilled) Food production, million tonnes (milled)
2009.00 4.20 3.30
2010.00 5.17 4.32
2011.00 5.33 4.50
2012.00 5.50 4.66
2013.00 5.80 4.90
2014.00 5.98 5.03
2015.00 5.93 5.08
2016.00 5.92 5.07
2017.00 6.03 5.23
2018.00 5.75 5.00
2019.00 4.95 4.10

Table 1. Figures are sourced from various assessments by the WFP and FAO; contact me for exact sourcing on specific figures. 

Graphically, the trend in food production in milled terms, i.e. the lower-end, more realistic figure of how much food is available for consumption, using the above assumption for the 2019-figure, looks like this:

Graph 1. Estimate food production in North Korea, million tonnes, in milled cereal equivalent terms.

In short, this does give a rather grim and highly problematic food situation, putting the quantity of the harvest at 4.10 million tonnes. It puts North Korea back to a state of food production prior to 2010–2011, when harvest started to climb. And now, North Korea receives far less aid than it did a decade ago. Plus, its imports will only amount to 200,000 tons, the government seems to be saying, a similar amount to what it procured in imports and humanitarian aid in 2016/2017, when the harvest was much larger.

For long, this is how low North Korean harvests were. Only a few years ago, this would have looked like a rather solid harvest. Looking back in the future, it might turn out that the past few years of food production growth, since around 2011, was an abnormally good period of time. None of this means that this food situation is anything but poor.

To me, among the figures I’ve been able to find, it’s the only one that make sense in the context of the statement from UN representatives that this harvest was the worst “in a decade”. Hopefully things will become clearer over the coming days and weeks, as more information may be published, in which case I’ll update this post.

In sum, the actual food available in North Korea is, in all likelihood, much lower than the 4.95 million tonnes-figure quoted by the UN and the North Korean government. As the following graph shows, even using the North Korean government’s figures, the drop from last year doesn’t appear all that massive. But on closer inspection, the actual quantity of food available may be significantly lower than the figure the North Korean government states, as I’ve tried to show in this post.

Graph 2. Food production in North Korea, from the UN’s “2019 Needs and Priorities” report on North Korea.

Finally, a note on the issue of the markets and the public distribution system. I maintain that it’s impossible to get a sense of total food availability and circulation in North Korea as a whole, without taking the markets into account. According to most studies we have, the majority of North Korea’s population rely on these markets, rather than the public distribution system, for their sustenance.

But one has to acknowledge that just like the UN and North Korean government figures may not reflect the whole situation accurately, there may be a fair bit of bias in the data on the prevalence of the markets too. Most of this data comes from surveys done with defectors in South Korea. They overwhelmingly tend to come from the northern provinces of the country, closer to China, where market trade has traditionally been more prolific. Most sources for news from inside North Korea are based in the northern parts of the country, where one can get access to Chinese cell phone network coverage.

There’s likely another form of bias present in these surveys, too. Most people who are reliant on the PDS for their sustenance are likely underrepresented among defectors. People in state administration and security organs, for example, are less likely to leave North Korea, though that of course happens too. And in any case, we’re talking about a quite large demographic of people, whose livelihoods would be significantly impacted by cut rations. Such cuts are already happening, Daily NK reports, with some professional groups receiving only 60 percent of  what they otherwise would. The PDS may have changed shape and function quite drastically since the early 2000s, but it may also be more important to the North Korean public than the currently available survey data and reports from inside the country tells us.

Conclusion

North Korea’s food situation, though not at famine-time levels, does appear to be dire. The figures, in combination with reports from inside the country, gives serious cause for concern. Government numbers may not tell the full story since they likely underestimate the role of the markets. Nonetheless, things do look serious. The government could easily alleviate the situation by changing its spending priorities and policies. Chances are that it won’t.

Footnote:

*I’m borrowing here a footnote from a 38 North piece by the late scholar Randall Ireson, whose archive of articles remain one of the best sources for information on North Korean agriculture:

The FAO has consistently used grain equivalent (GE) values for the major crops to compensate for varying moisture and energy content. Thus, husked rice (GE) is .66 of the paddy weight, potatoes (GE) are .25 of the fresh weight, and soybean (GE) is 1.2 times the dry weight because of the high oil and thus calorie content.

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While Kim goes to Hanoi, anti-corruption crackdown continues at home

Sunday, February 24th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

While Kim Jong-un is off to Hanoi, sources in North Korea report that the anti-corruption crackdown at home, on the ground, is becoming increasingly intense. Anti-corruption campaigns are nothing unusual in North Korea in general, and they certainly haven’t been under Kim Jong-un’s tenure. He’s talked publicly about the importance of eradicating corruption several times. But this campaign seems particularly intense and lengthy, according to Daily NK’s reports:

An inspection team from the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s Central Inspection Committee has been deployed to North Pyongan Province to investigate corruption among local government officials. The inspection will reportedly be longer and more comprehensive than previous investigations.

“The inspection team arrived on December 20 and is continuing to investigate local government officials,” said a source in North Pyongan Province. “The team is looking at officials working in customs bureaus, factories and enterprises, and even in storage facilities.”

The WPK Inspection Committee is tasked with investigating party officials who have committed offenses against the party or anti-revolutionary activities, or who have failed to follow policies and rules. The organization is run by former Organizational Guidance Department (OGD) First Director Jo Yon Jun, who is considered one of North Korea’s most powerful figures.

“The inspections being conducted by the central government are much more intense than those conducted by the provincial party apparatus,” said the source. “There’s a rumor that two customs agency officials in Sinuiju, the manager of a City Management Center, and the party secretary of an enterprise have been fired due to the inspection.”

“Most inspections last around 20 days, but this one has been going on for more than three months,” said the source. “It seems like the longest one of its kind.”

During his New Year’s Address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un emphasized the “eradication of corruption” and an editorial published in the Rodong Sinmun in December labeled corruption a “traitorous act”.

North Korea watchers believe that Kim’s emphasis on eradicating corruption is due to its negative impact on his key goal of economic development.

Locals, however, are reportedly very tense due to the atmosphere brought on by the inspections in the area.

“People are saying to each other that the inspection is really intense and scary. They’re warning each other not to get caught,” said a separate source in North Pyongan Province. “Smugglers are making every effort possible to avoid getting caught up in the crackdown.”

Full article and source:
Elite inspection team to crack down on corruption in North Korea
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-02-25

Now, there’s always an imperative for the North Korean government to crack down on corruption. Like the article mentions, the goal of economic growth and development is a sufficient reason alone. Corruption is probably also one of the most common causes of discontent among the citizens, while at the same time, it’s a crucial source of income for public officials at all levels of the system.

At the same time, one might speculate that at a time when foreign currency reserves are likely becoming increasingly scarce, the anti-corruption drive is also a way of tightening accounting. With closer inspections in the name of anti-corruption, the government will gain a better sense of what assets firms and other entities in the country have, possibly in order to demand that more of it be handed over. It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but in any case, these inspections are always done for a reason.

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Is North Korea’s food situation as bad as the government says? Probably not.

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(Updated 27/2: see below for clarification on the nature of the North Korean memo; the appeal was never meant to be publicized. Another minor clarification below done on 11/3.)

During the past week, both the UN and the North Korean government has made claims that its food situation is bad enough for the country to need international emergency aid. AP:

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday that food production figures provided by North Korea show “there is a food gap of about 1.4 million tons expected for 2019, and that’s crops including rice, wheat, potato and soybeans.”

Dujarric says the U.N. has “expressed and will continue to express our concern about the deteriorating food security situation” in North Korea.

He says the U.N. “at various levels” is consulting with the North Korean government “to further understand the impact of food security on the most vulnerable people, in order to take early action to address the humanitarian needs.”

A few days ago, North Korea’s UN ambassador distributed a memo (presumably to UN officials) saying that because of sanctions and unusually warm and dry weather last summer, this year’s harvest was worse than expected. NBC reported some of the contents:

Kim’s claims are difficult to verify, and his government has not always been a reliable source of internal statistics. He said a food assessment, conducted late last year in conjunction with the UN’s World Food Program, found that the country produced 503,000 fewer tons of food than in 2017 due to record high temperatures, drought, heavy rainfall and — in an unexpected admission — sanctions.

The food agency could not immediately confirm that the organization conducted an assessment with North Korea or the conclusions the country shared in the memo.

In a plea for food assistance from international organizations, however, the memo states that sanctions “restricting the delivery of farming materials in need is another major reason” the country faces shortages that has forced it to cut “food rations per capita for a family of blue or white collar workers” from 550 grams to 300 grams in January.

“All in all, it vindicates that humanitarian assistance from the UN agencies is terribly politicized and how barbaric and inhuman sanctions are,” the memo says.

The memo is worth reading in its entirety.

There are a lot of things that are strange about this memo and its contents. I’ll try to deal with as many of them as possible here. But first: how bad is the food situation, really?

This question is virtually impossible to answer accurately, because no one really knows how much food is being produced in North Korea. The World Food Program that works with the North Korean government to estimate harvest yields does what it can under difficult circumstances to accurately measure harvest yields in the country. But these measurements are severely restricted by the fact that much of food supply and production in North Korea still completely lacks transparency. For one, we know that most citizens get the majority of their food through state-administered private markets.

International agencies, however, still cannot survey these markets or study their role in food provision, because the government’s attitude to the market’s very existence remains somewhat ambivalent. The crop surveys conducted with the North Korean government simply cannot answer how much food is available throughout the system, because the markets, the most important node, cannot be assessed and studied accurately. Surveying the markets would let the WFP study the situation in its entirety,  since that way, they could take into account both imports, private plot farming, and the like.

But taking the numbers provided by North Korea and the UN at face value, it’s clear that if these numbers reflect reality, domestic food production is down since the past couple of years, but not by disastrous amounts. There’s no second “arduous march” lurking behind the corner, judging from these figures. In fact, harvests have been growing for several years, largely thanks to changes in agricultural management under Kim Jong-un.

Food production in North Korea, in millions of tons. Harvest data is usually given in “marketing years”; figures here partially based on full-year estimates earlier in the respective year. Data source: World Food Program/Food and Agriculture Organization. Graph by North Korean Economy Watch.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, market prices for rice have remained stabile. So the markets don’t seem to think there really is a true food shortage coming, even though things do seem to have gotten more difficult due to the drought. I cover this in more detail in this post, but the following graph speaks its clear language.

Average rice price for three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

At the very least,  had there been major signs of stark shortages, it would have been visible in the price data. Reports from North Korea do confirm that food production seems to be down overall, but remember, that’s from a fairly high level and after several years of increases. Over the past few years, the North Korean government and UN agencies have made similar appeals, but in the end, fortunately, no major crises seem to happen.

The strangest part about the North Korean memo is that it speaks of reduced rations of grains to  “a family of blue or white collar workers” as a result of the drought  and  sanctions. The thing is, only relatively few people and almost no civilians in North Korea actually get  their food through these government rations. The Public Distribution System (PDS, or 식량배급제도) essentially only operates for the military, shock work brigades (돌격대), and within the judicial administration (more accurate would be to say “government administration”; this is a rather nebulous category in North Korea, including large numbers of civil servants within both the central state, local government level, and policing organs). So this “white or blue collar worker” likely wouldn’t necessarily get her or his rations anyway. As far as we know, they’d go and buy their food at the market with cash instead, in most cases.

It’s often believed that North Korea doesn’t admit weaknesses such as food shortages out of political principle, but over the past few years, the government have been very public with claims of shortages on the horizon, and in asking for aid. Not because the state can’t afford to compensate for the shortfall, but because it simply has other priorities.

Reading the North Korean memo, it’s easy to suspect a connection with next week’s summit in Hanoi and the sanctions situation. By getting news stories out that civilians are starving because of sanctions – a highly questionable claim of causality – the North Korean government may be trying to create more bad press for the sanctions as such.* How can the US argue that they should be preserved, if they’re even preventing North Koreans from getting access to food? There are certainly troubling humanitarian aspects of the sanctions, but it’s difficult to imagine how they could have directly caused the harvest to dwindle.

None of this is to say that North Korea shouldn’t get food aid, that’s a different question. But the government’s basis for the appeal is rather dubious, to say the least. Hopefully, one day international humanitarian agencies will have good enough access to actually get to evaluate the country’s food situation, without constraints.

*Apparently, the memo from North Korea’s UN ambassador was leaked, not intentionally distributed. A person with insight into the issue and appeals process tells me the appeal was never meant to be publicized. This makes my interpretation above far less likely, though the direct impacts of sanctions on the harvest is still questionable.

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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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South Korean banks preparing for inter-Korean improvements

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Korea Herald had an interesting article about South Korean banks and Kaesong the other day, not least about the blurred lines between the public and private spheres in South Korea’s financial sector:

Fired up by the thawing peninsular mood built on the latest inter-Korean summit, banks here have buckled down on establishing business in the North in the near future, their initial focus fixed on the resumption of the Kaesong industrial park and Kumgangsan tours.

Steering the move are the state-run banks that strive to win an upper hand in infrastructure financing, as well as Woori Bank and NH NongHyup Bank, which had operated businesses in the joint operations zones in the past.

On Wednesday and the second day of the three-day summit, President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that they will resume inter-Korean projects at Kaesong and Kumgangsan as soon as conditions are met.

Rejoicing at the news was Woori Bank, currently poised to kick off banking operations at any given time in the Kaesong industrial park, according to officials Thursday. The bank had operated in the zone for eight years from 2004, providing deposits, withdrawals, remittances and all other basic banking services to resident companies and workers.

It once withdrew in April 2013, upon Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, but soon resumed business in September that year, until the final termination in February 2016.

Even after Seoul’s government shut down the industrial facilities amid heightening inter-Korean conflicts in 2016, the bank maintained a temporary bank window of the Kaesong office on the basement floor of its headquarters, in the hopes of resuming business in the North Korean region.

This special corner is in charge of the follow-up financial management of the companies that evacuated from the now-deserted industrial zone.

“Woori Bank’s qualification as the bank in charge (at Kaesong) remains valid to this day. It is just the geopolitical situations that have been keeping us off over recent years,” said an official of the bank.

“The resumption of the banking business in Kaesong is for the Unification Ministry to decide, but once the government approves, we are fully ready to take the related computing system and database and start operations.”

Another hopeful is NH NongHyup Bank, which had provided currency exchange, deposit and loan services at Kumgangsan from 2006-2009, when the tourist business was active.

Full article:
Banks ready for inter-Korean economic cooperation
Bae Hyun-jung
Korea Herald
2019-02-20

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North Koreans swamped with state-mandated work after Kim’s New Year’s Speech

Friday, January 18th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Janaury 16 that “people are busy carrying out the social tasks that began earlier this year.” The tasks focus on manure collection and material support in an effort to boost production numbers in time for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s upcoming birthdays.

“Members of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea who conduct business in the markets rather than a formal workplace have to contribute a total of 1 ton of manure, or 150 kilos each per day,” she added. “Those working in companies have to meet their own manure targets of each collecting 10 kg of human waste, 30 kg of dog/cow/lamb or other animal droppings, and 50 kg of humus soil.”

If they fail to meet their quotas, they are forced to work night shifts. Many are having to continue working in their day jobs while also trying to meet their ‘manure battle’ quotas.

That being said, the total amount of manure authorities are targeting for collection this year is 200-500 kg (per adult). This marks a reduction from last year, and is a development that residents have expressed some relief about.

Even Socialist Women’s Union of Korea members are noting that the “situation has improved.” In the past, the government set quotas for specific types of manure to be collected, but this year it has only presented a total quota requirement. The government may be aiming to prevent any interruptions in the market activities of union members.

A separate source in South Pyongan Province said that while high school students were each given 300 kg and middle schoolers 100 kg manure collection quotas, elementary students were not given any quotas to fulfill despite previously being “unconditionally mobilized” into such drives in the past.

“Carrying sacks or backpacks, inminban leaders are going around and collecting two eggs and 7,000 won from each person within their districts for the manufacture of gifts to be handed out to children on Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung’s birthdays (February 16 and April 15, respectively),” he added.

In some cases in the past, residents would avoid opening their doors to the inminban leaders, anticipating that the officials were going to request donations.

Full article:
North Koreans swamped with “state-sponsored tasks” in the new year
Ha Yoon Ah
Daily NK
2019-01-18

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North Koreans react negatively to KJU’s speech, says Daily NK

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Daily NK reports on popular reactions to Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Speech:

“It’s winter, but those who failed to prepare for it are not going to work nor are they going to any criticism sessions, lectures or study sessions,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK. “Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) and Propaganda Department officials are not sure how to respond to the situation.”

A lecture about nuclear weapons was recently held at a farm in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province, but only 80 out of the farm’s 500 employees attended. The lecture was held again the next day after another announcement, and then only 50 people showed up for it, according to the source.

Daily NK reported in November that the North Korean authorities had begun holding lectures to commemorate the first anniversary of the state referring to it as the “day nuclear weapons were completed” and emphasize Kim Jong Un’s achievements.

According to a December 2018 article in the Rodong Sinmun, the Party Committee of the Jagang Province’s Forestry Management Department held a “commentary” and a “very emotional propaganda speech” to encourage logging during the winter, while Jagang Province’s Usi County held a number of ideological and political activities aimed at showing off the superiority of the North Korean state and encouraging greater production.

It is rare for North Koreans to deliberately avoid attending lectures held by the WPK’s Propaganda and Agitation Department in such numbers. The situation may be partly due to the fact that many factory and farm workers pay fees in order to avoid official work duties assigned to them by the state.

Fees can be paid to receive an exemption from work, allowing citizens to conduct their own private business activities. The practice took off after state-run companies and other organizations became unable to pay proper wages. Private business activities can rake in significantly more money than official wages.

Moreover, North Koreans who actually attended the lectures reacted negatively to them, saying that the lecture content is out of touch with reality.

“Those who attend the lectures don’t really listen to what’s being said – rather, they just talk about their own business and concerns about getting food and surviving the winter,” said a source in Ryanggang Province. “The lectures about nuclear weapons are so far from what concerns people that no one even listens to what’s being said.”

Article source:
Many North Koreans react negatively to state lectures
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-01-16

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Chinese sanctions enforcement on North Korea: don’t jump to conclusion

Friday, December 7th, 2018

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Is China enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea? Is “maximum pressure” still on and working? How much is China really trading with North Korea?

None of these questions can really be answered with the open-source information available at the moment. In fact, I doubt that any sources exist that could provide a conclusive answer. Much of the relaxation in Chinese implementation of the various bans and limitations on trade with North Korea likely comes from the Chinese authorities simply turning a blind eye, and how do you record trade that happens because you’re looking away?

The best information we have, unsatisfactory as it may be, comes from anecdotal observations along the border between China and North Korea. Nikkei Asian Review recently visited the border area and gives us an interesting and informative look at what the situation is like in the region. However, the information given through reports such as this one is not enough to jump to the conclusion that China has stopped enforcing sanctions on North Korea. As I explain further below, until we see significant, meaningful amounts of coal and textiles crossing the bridge, North Korea is still suffering immense losses in its export incomes from Chinese implementation of sanctions.

The problem is that this is, of course, hard to see with your own eyes when you visit the border areas. After all, you can’t see what’s not there. To be sure, report such as this one matter a great deal, and I’m not at all discounting its value. The fact that there’s immense, vibrant and dynamic economic activity going on by the Sino-Korean border is interesting in its own right, as it dispels the notion that North Korea is fully isolated economically. As Nikkei shows, that’s just not the case:

The number of trucks making their way across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge increased sharply in November, according to an executive of a housing materials supplier in the border city of Dandong.

Many carry plywood flooring, elevator components and other materials to construction projects in North Korea, while seafood heads in the other direction.

I saw similar goods transported over in great quantities in the summer of 2016, another point in time when China was supposed to be squeezing North Korea economically, according to the sanctions frameworks in place.

“These days, the bridge gets jammed with traffic, which is something we rarely saw after the sanctions resolution” in 2017, the executive said.

This is a similar impression to what we’ve seen in other news reports. Traffic declined drastically during the US-North Korea tensions of 2017, and the during the late summer and fall of that year in particular, when round after round of sanctions were levied on the country.

However, that traffic has increased from a relatively extreme low point is itself not evidence that sanctions no longer have any effect. Traffic alone does matter as an indication, but not much more. We need to know what is being shipped as well.

Increased bilateral trade serves both countries’ aims. Beijing wants to strengthen its influence over Pyongyang, while the Kim Jong Un regime needs to develop a struggling economy. Activity at the border area highlights attempts to rebuild ties.

About 70% of China-North Korea trade passes through Dandong. In late November, construction work could be seen getting underway in Sinuiju on the other side of the Yalu River, which separates the two countries.

A large, cylinder-shaped building is taking shape close to the bridge, in an area that also hosts an amusement park. According to local rumors, it is a hotel that will target Chinese tourists.

About 10 km to the south lies the New Yalu River Bridge, which is expected to replace the older crossing as the main cross-border artery when it opens. Many structures that look like new apartment buildings can be seen close to it on the Korean side.

The North Korean leader has shifted his focus to economic policy amid improving relations with China and South Korea.

Sinuiju will potentially be crucial to driving economic growth through trade with China. This past summer, Kim inspected cosmetics and textile plants in the city, and many believe Pyongyang has stepped up the development of nearby areas.

And just a few weeks ago, Kim Jong-un oversaw the Sinuiju grand redevelopment plan.

The sanctions imposed on the Kim regime over its nuclear and missile programs make it difficult for the country to rebuild its economy on its own.

China, which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s total trade in value terms, is backing efforts to revitalize the city.

Black North Korean clams are easily distinguished from the yellow Chinese variety, claimed a middle-aged woman at the Donggang Yellow Sea market as she hooked some out of a net and sorted them by size.

The Chinese authorities toughened controls on imports of clams, crabs and other seafood from North Korea immediately after the sanctions were imposed, but several wholesalers said smuggling in the Yellow Sea had picked up again this past spring.

North Korean seafood at the market, they claimed, was simply being packaged as if it came from China. The clams served at a restaurant in the city were all black.

The sanctions also restrict the acceptance of North Korean workers.

At a garment factory in suburban Dandong, however, there were a number of female laborers from across the border, and what appeared to be a North Korean merchant was seen staying at a luxury hotel in the area, neither of which would have been common sights just after the sanctions were imposed. These people most likely enter China on short-stay permits, rather than working visas.

Guest workers appear to have been one of the first areas in which China began relaxing control, shortly after Kim Jong-un’s spring 2018 visit to Beijing.

Chinese influence in North Korea’s construction sector also appears to extend well beyond the supply of materials.

“It is hard to imagine they have the technology to construct a round building,” said a senior official of a construction materials company in Dandong, speaking about the supposed new hotel on the other side. What is less hard to imagine, he assumed, is where the technical support was coming from.

Locals claim that a Chinese inspection team had gone over to look at the construction of roads linking the new bridge with the nearby town.

Full article and source:
China-North Korea border trade thrives again, despite sanctions
Daisuke Harashima
Nikkei Asian Review
2018-12-06

Again, all of this matters. But the question is just how much it matters when North Korean can’t export nearly the same quantities of coal and minerals to China that it has over the past few years. Some might argue that this trade, too, could simply be hidden and kept off of China’s books. I doubt it. Some, perhaps, but absolutely not all or even most of it, simply given the quantities we’re talking about here. I would think you’d have to do quite a few nighttime runs by ship across the Yalu river to get any meaningful quantities across hidden.

Consider the mere magnitude of the numbers we’re talking about here. I unfortunately don’t have time to dig up the latest data right now, but for a sense of proportion: in July of 2017, China imported only 2.7 million tonnes of coal from North Korea, a downturn of 75 percent. To my knowledge, this number hasn’t climbed significantly since, aside from some outlier months before various sanctions have taken effect, and the like. Chinese imports of North Korean coal account for 42.3 percent of total Chinese imports, according to one figure.

The point isn’t that North Korea is under perfectly applied “maximum pressure” by China. But that trade may be somewhat more porous than a year and a half ago doesn’t mean that North Korea’s economy isn’t experiencing immense difficulties under sanctions at the present moment. I’ll finish this post with a graph showing total volumes of North Korean exports of anthracite and iron ore to China between 2009 and 2015, a period of immense growth in these exports, based on UN Comtrade data. These incomes have been crucial for Kim Jong-un’s ability to orchestrate the massive infrastructure updates and construction projects we’ve seen under his tenure.

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Ri Yong Ho’s visit to Vietnam (or: the futile guessing game of North Korea’s developmental model of choice)

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho recently visited Vietnam, prompting speculation about economic reforms in North Korea. KCNA (whose website is impossible to link to for individual texts):

Pyongyang, December 3 (KCNA) — The government delegation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea led by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited the Socialist Republic of Vietnam from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2.

During the visit Ri Yong Ho paid a courtesy call on Nguyen Xuan Phuc, prime minister of Vietnam, had talks with Pham Binh Minh, deputy prime minister and foreign minister, and was invited to a welcome reception given by the deputy prime minister and foreign minister.

During the courtesy call and talks both sides had an in-depth exchange of views and reached consensus on the issue of further developing the relations of friendship and cooperation between the two countries, provided and boosted by President Kim Il Sung together with President Ho Chi Minh, in various fields as required by the new era and other issues of mutual concern.

With the risk of sounding like a broken record: it seems that every time a North Korean official visits or mentions another country, especially those in the region, speculation follows about whether North Korea is soon to adopt the “model” of the country in question. It’s often unclear, however, what this would mean in practice. Would North Korea simply look at one, specific country’s institutions and laws, translate them to Korean and adopt them wholesale? Would North Korea adopt the same sort of sequencing of economic reforms, in the precise order in which the country in question adopted them?

Of course not.

Kim Jong-il, in his time, visited both Russia and China, and made comments to the effect that North Korea could learn from the countries’ economic systems. Kim Jong-un has visited not just China, but Singapore too. He may even come to Seoul before the end of 2018, and if so, he’ll likely visit construction sites and perhaps even factories operated by one or several of South Korea’s major conglomerates.

The point is that North Korean government officials and policy planners, like those of all countries, will naturally look for inspiration from around the world, from whatever country may have achieved the goals that the North Korean regime aspires to.

For now, that appears to be economic growth under continued one-Party rule. There are a number of countries that fit that description. Arguably South Korea does too, in a way, given that its economic growth miracle first began under harsh political oppression. There is simply little sense in debating what “model” North Korea will choose, because there is no reason to believe the country would adopt any one “model”, because that’s simply not how countries work.

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[Updated] Kim Jong-un oversees master plan for Sinuiju facelift and construction

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A couple of weeks ago, KCNA carried a report of Kim Jong-un’s oversight of a grand, general reconstruction plan for Sinuiju, North Korea’s most important hub for trade with China.

North Korea, it seems, expects that trade primarily with China will continue to grow and remain the country’s most important source of foreign currency revenue for the foreseeable future. This is something to keep in mind through the speculations about US and other western investments in North Korea in the event that sanctions are lifted and denuclearization (whatever version of it) comes through.

The plans for Sinuiju are also notable simply because Sinuiju is not Pyongyang. There has been quite a bit of work done in the past few years, under Kim Jong-un, at extending the renovations drive and infrastructure construction to smaller, provincial cities (mostly provincial capitals). One message seems to be that Kim Jong-un’s ambitions and promises of economic development aren’t just for the elite, but for the population as a whole.

It’s unclear how the plans that Rodong speaks of are related to the Sinuiju International Economic Zone. An issue of the quarterly North Korean magazine Foreign Trade in 2015 indicated that renovations of Sinuiju would focus on infrastructure renewal, but as the example of the bridge to nowhere shows (see below), it’s unclear what actual progress is being made in reality on this.

Some specific thoughts and annotation below (my emphasis, except on the leader’s names, that’s all standard KCNA):

Pyongyang, November 16 (KCNA) — Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, examined and guided the master plan for Sinuiju City together with leading officials of the party, administration and design organs of North Phyongan Province.

Learning about the implementation of the behests of President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il for the construction of Sinuiju City and examining in detail the master plan for the construction of Sinuiju City and a diorama of the future city, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un set forth the tasks and ways of successfully sprucing up Sinuiju City to meet the demand of the present era.

“The present era” = likely, the era of a growing middle class with demands for consumption and entertainment, many of which make their money through the markets and semi-private business.

He said that it is necessary to form the center of Sinuiju City deep up to the southern Sinuiju area with the statues of

Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the center square of the city as the axis, arrange high-rise apartments and public buildings at provincial and city levels in its surroundings in a dimensional way, successfully arrange the blocks of high-rise and skyscraper apartment buildings along the main axis and arterial road of the city and the bank of the Amnok River in formative artistic way and build many parks within the dwelling area and thus turn the city into the one in the park.

This all sounds very expensive. Meanwhile, North Korea faces largely unfunded humanitarian needs, which could be met relatively cheaply. In fact, the equivalent of one-sixth of North Korea’s total luxury goods imports in 2017 would be enough.

Saying that it is necessary to build many modern and majestic architectures rich in national character in order to build the city befitting to a gateway city of the country, he called for successfully arranging the public buildings such as theatre, cinema, sports village, ice rink and sci-tech library and service facilities including hotel and department store in a rational way and to be of modern taste.

Books have been written about the concept of “rationality”, so I won’t go into what the use of that phrase means in this context. But it does sound like what Kim is talking about is simply making Sinuiiju “modern”, with all of what that entails. These days, there’s quite a bit of reporting and chatter around about how Pyongyang, and other North Korean cities, have undergone stark modernizations during Kim’s tenure. This is clearly true, but it’s worth remembering the reason why these things are news: the presence of “service facilities”, “department store[s]” and the like, things taken for granted in much of the world, is still not widely spread in North Korea outside of Pyongyang. (This is also true for Wi-fi.)

He also gave a direction of sprucing up the present industrial areas and remodeling the railway station of the city and Uiju Airport in a modern way.

Speaking of infrastructure: this is the only part of the article where infrastructure is mentioned. It is interesting and notable that despite the attention and grand plans for Sinuiju, the new bridge connecting the city to Dandong had still not been connected to North Korea’s road network as of mid-February this year, as far as I can tell from satellite imagery. This is the most recent date for which imagery is available.

The end of the new bridge from Dandong, on the North Korean side. Photo: Google Earth.

Underlining the need to pay deep attention also to the creation of cultural environment including urban greening, he called for creating green belts near the city’s main road and around the industrial area to make sure that one citizen has 50 square meters of green tract of land, and for building city park, botanical garden and recreation ground in a cozy and peculiar manner to suit the specific conditions of the local city.

Again, that’s going to cost a lot of money, and not least, human effort. Citizens might be happy about green spaces, but they’ll be less so at having to go out and construct them through “voluntary” labor.

Noting that it is most important in urban construction to make sure that citizens don’t feel any inconvenience, he said that it is necessary to increase electricity production and make a maximum use of natural energy so as to round off the city electricity supply network system, perfect the heating system, put the water supply on an international standard and properly establish the system for purifying industrial waste water and sewage as the city has dense arrangement of residential quarters and industrial establishments.

Electricity and energy supply is one of the main achilles heels for the North Korean economy, and its industry is highly vulnerable to shortages in electricity supply. “Maximum use of natural energy” sounds like hydrogen power to me, which is North Korea’s most plentiful source of electricity. Aside from coal, that is, but given the export value of coal, its use for domestic electricity production comes with a high opportunity cost. In any case, the North Korean administration is clearly aware (and has been for decades) that energy is a big problem, and bringing it up in conjunction with a city plan inspection is likely a way of sending the message that the authorities are working on it. How exactly that is being done is less clear.

On the theme of energy in Sinuiju, it might be worth noting that the city is home to one of the country’s main oil refineries, the Ponghwa Chemical Factory, south of the city.

Ponghwa Chemical Factory, south of Sinuiju. Photo: Google Earth.

As I keep stressing all the time, the provincial party committees should pay special attention to the work of intensifying the provincial design organs and construction forces and put constant efforts on it and thus decisively raise the level of the building in the construction projects of local areas, he pointed out.

Calling for reviewing the master plan for Sinuiju City and the long-term goals for city construction in cooperation with powerful design organs of the country, remapping it out to be realistic and submitting it within a few months, he said that the Party Central Committee would discuss and decide on the plan after going through relevant procedures, and the construction of the border city would be conducted year by year and phase by phase with the state backing after setting the goals of 5-year plan.

Noting that the work of remodeling Sinuiju City for which President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il gave instructions dozens of times is a very important task of carrying out their behests, he stressed the need to gain good fruition within a few years to come.

Article source:
Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Guides Master Plan for Construction of Sinuiju
Political News Team
Rodong Sinmun
2018-11-16

[Updated 2018-12-6: I added a few details throughout the post, as well as satellite imagery.]

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