Archive for the ‘Economic reform’ Category

North Korean issues more exit visas for people earning money in China

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK, with interesting details (3rd paragraph) on North Korean visa routines:

As the North Korean authorities prepare for the 75th anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s birthday (February 16), the regime has discretely issued passport visas to residents that are able to earn foreign currency in China, in order to fund the expansion of a greenhouse full of Kimjongilia (a flower named after Kim Jong Il).

“In South Pyongan Province, the regime secretly recruited individuals who can earn money for the greenhouse expansion project, regardless of whether they have connections in China. Although the process of visa issuance is usually complicated, the regime has handed out visas to anyone who is likely to earn money,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on February 7.
“The provincial governments have instructed the foreign affairs unit of the State Security Department (SSD) to distribute allotments of passport visas to each region. Those recruited are waiting for their departure to China, assigned only with the duty to ‘secure funds,'” the source added.
Visa issuance in North Korea is subject to strict regulations for ordinary citizens. Applicants must have relatives in China and a document with a confirmation seal from Chinese immigration officials confirming that the relatives have extended an invitation. The law stipulates that ▲relatives should be closer than a first cousin once removed, ▲a visit cannot exceed either 40 days or two months and, ▲visa applications can only be submitted three years following the previous visit.
Normal applications are only open to those over 55 years of age who have a spouse and children. A confirmation process by the people’s unit, town office, state enterprise, the Party, the SSD, and the Ministry of People’s Security is then needed to show that there is no problem in regards to ideology. In particular, it is important that the applicant has no relatives who are defectors or who were sent to correction camps. If all of these requirements are met, then bribes of more than 500 USD are demanded from the foreign affairs division.
However, this rigorous procedure has been thoroughly disregarded as the provincial governments dispatch individuals to China to earn money. The Workers’ Party has issued instructions that each province should prepare the materials needed for the expansion of the Kimjongilia greenhouse.
Full article:
North Korea issues more visas ahead of Kim Jong Il’s birthday
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-02-15
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North Korean rice prices have dropped drastically one year after the sanctions. Why?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Prices for rice have fallen in North Korea. Daily NK, which tracks prices of rice and foreign currency in three North Korean cities, reported in the beginning of this week that rice prices have fallen thanks to continued development of the market economy and a steady flow of goods to and from China. This has happened despite expectations that the sanctions that the UN passed one year ago would cause inflation.

In theory, the sanctions were supposed to curb trade with China because they targeted North Korea’s crucial minerals trade. In practice, a steady stream of news from the border suggests that trade has continued, albeit with periodic squeezes, following a familiar pattern of China’s sanctions implementation waxing and waning.

This makes a lot of sense. A better functioning and more efficient market should logically lead to lower prices, as should increased trade with China, given the increase in supply. But neither of these two factors explains the timing. There are several other elements to take into consideration when analyzing price changes in North Korea. I am not making any certain claims here about the relatively drastic shift in prices, but rather, pointing to a few factors that may have contributed.

First, one must ask: how big is the drop? The short answer is: pretty big, but not unprecedented. The following graph shows the last and first price observations in the Daily NK market prices database for every year since 2010–2011. (I’ve excluded 2009–2010 because of the distortions that the 2009 currency reform creates in the data.) It shows that a similar price drop happened between 2011 and 2012 as well.

Graph 1: rice prices in North Korea, last and first year observations. Graph by NKeconwatch.com. Data from Daily NK.

This latest price point, however, is not a historic low-point. We’ll see if prices continue to drop over the weeks, but as of now, there are fairly near time points when prices have been lower, such as April 2014 (see graph further down).

Prices are seasonal to a degree. Though the market system and the public distribution system (PDS) obviously function under very different mechanisms, the following graph from the World Food Program’s 2013 food and crop assessment (the latest exhaustive one they published, to my knowledge) underscores the point that supply varies depending as the harvest draws farther and closer, and suggests that overall supply tends to be particularly good in December and January in other years as well:

Figure copied from World Food Program Food and Crop Assessment in the DPRK, November 2013, showing seasonal variations in government grain distribution.

Overall, the story under Kim Jong-un’s tenure seems to be one of price stability. Since around the spring of 2014, prices have moved in a fairly delineated fashion (as visible in the right half of this graph):

Rice prices, average of three cities, 2012–2017. Data from Daily NK, graph by NKEconwatch.com.

Second, though it would be intuitively easy to conclude that the drop in prices was caused by better functioning market mechanisms and agricultural management changes, this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Again, such changes are crucial and may well have played a large role in the greater price stability of the past few years. But they would not explain this sudden shift.

Instead, the story seems to partially be the opposite, one of government action. A few days ago, Voice of America reported that PDS distributions in January of this year have, according to a World Food Program official, gone up by around ten percent as compared to the same period last year. Both in September and November, the North Korean government imported significantly larger quantities of rice than usual. These imports presumably go out through state channels rather than the private markets.

So while it’s impossible to isolate different effects from one another, it looks like the state can still have a significant impact on the food economy, even with the strong and continuously evolving market sector. This impact seems particularly likely this time around, given the sudden drop in prices. Only time will tell whether drop continues, or if prices continue to bounce within the limits of the past few years.

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North Korea Sells South Korean Cookware Seized at Kaesong

Monday, February 6th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Radio Free Asia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A complicated problem’

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

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

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

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

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

 

Full article:
North Korea Sells South Korean Cookware Seized at Kaesong
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Richard Finney.
2017-02-06

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Private ownership of cars in North Korea

Tuesday, January 31st, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap reports (citing Joongang Ilbo) that since last year, private North Korean citizens are able to register ownership of cars formally and legally. The headline is slightly misleading – visitors and pictures from Pyongyang and other large cities have long since showed a vast increase of cars in the country, so their existence there is itself nothing new. However, if a change has occurred in ownership structures to make an already prevalent practice formally legal, it follows along with a trend over the past few years where practices already taking place are further incorporated into a formal legal framework:

Under civil law, North Koreans are allowed to possess cars and bequeath or inherit them, but in reality, people register cars under the name of organizations, not under the name of individuals.

Local newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that ordinary North Koreans have been permitted to register cars in their names since late last year, a move that heralds the recognition of private ownership.

The Ministry of Unification, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said more North Koreans are moving to own vehicles for personal use.

Full article:
N. Koreans showing inclination to possess cars: unification ministry
Yonhap News
2017-01-31

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Real estate prices up in Pyongsong

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to DailyNK, prices of real estate are skyrocketing around the wholesale market in Pyongsong, whose trade is tightly connected to that of the richer Pyongyang:

“The price of a unit in this building near Yokchon-dong, located near the railway station and a major road leading to Pyongyang and Sinuiju, has sharply risen to 60,000 USD from 40,000 USD. Although the building is not in the center of the city, many wholesale vendors want to buy these homes, resulting in the price jump,” a source in South Pyongan told Daily NK on January 4.
“The residential property is attractive to major market heavyweights even though it wasn’t built recently. Ease of transportation seems to be the major pulling factor.”
Pyongsong City is home to Doksan Farmers’ Market (formerly Pyongsong Market),  the largest wholesale market in the nation. The market is constantly busy with merchants from other regions because it not only offers trade in commodities but also deals with the labor market, foreign currency, and the services sector.
Previously, the real estate trade was prohibited in North Korea, but the authorities have tacitly permitted it since the 1990s, with an increasing number of people now purchasing houses. Due to restrictions in North Korea that make it difficult to move about freely, merchants prefer to reside closer to the market.
“In the past, Okchon-dong was more popular because the General Market was located in it. But there were many problems because it was difficult for the wholesale merchants with big vehicles like trucks to come and go along the narrow roads. For this reason, Yokchon-dong became more popular because they can directly unload their cargo near the residential area, which is located at a major transportation hub,” an additional source based in Pyongsong said.
Full article:
Pyongsong prime real estate prices are skyrocketing
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-01-07
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Summer trailings along the Sino-North Korean border, in search of sanctions: photo essay

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This November, just like every  time that new sanctions are levelled on North Korea, the first question tends to be: what will China do? Unsurprisingly, the same question followed after UN resolution 2270 in March this year, when the international community adopted the strongest sanctions against North Korea to date, most crucially targeting its minerals exports. This time, some believed, would be different. China was finally fed up and would take measures to hit North Korea’s economy, and official; statements and some bureaucratic action reinforced this impression. Now, some hope that the “cap” measure on imports of North Korean coal will remove the loophole created by the “humanitarian exemption” in the previous sanctions.

By now, after the THAAD, other geopolitical developments and the sheer passing of time, the question of China’s degree of sanctions enforcement has almost faded into the background. As the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield showed in a dispatch from Dandong a few weeks ago, sanctions are at most one factor among many that impact trade between China and North Korea.

This summer, I visited Dandong, Yanji and Hunchun, three Chinese cities along the border. I got a very similar impression: sure, some people involved in border trade told me, things had gotten a little more complicated, though not much. But sanctions were rarely mentioned as the reason for any added difficulties or downturns in trade.  At the time, China’s enforcement of sanctions was very much a topic of debate, and most analysts were skeptical of any squeezing going on, while some claimed trade had virtually ceased. At my visit, on the contrary, I saw fairly vigorous trading activity, and few people I spoke to thought any changes had occurred since sanctions were enacted. Posting these impressions and pictures has been a project in the pipeline for a while, so while much has happened since this summer regarding China-DPRK relations and trade, I hope that the reader will find it interesting to see how things looked at a time when some concluded that China was finally squeezing North Korea in a way that hurt. To be clear: all impressions and pictures below are from late June of 2016.

Trailing the China-DPRK border, in search of sanctions

Dandong 

Entrance to the Dandong customs inspections area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Earlier this year, the UN Security Council adopted the strongest sanctions that North Korea has faced to date. As with previous rounds of sanctions, one of the major questions is China’s degree of enforcement. Going back a few months, some suggested that major shifts had taken place, and that trade between North Korea and China had declined radically.

By the actual border, this summer, things looked very different. In contrast to the image of a desolated trading environment, I encountered bustling traffic during a visit earlier in the summer. During one morning in late June, around 85 trucks crossed the border from North Korea into China in only about one and a half hours. Virtually all trucks were registered to northern Pyongan province, the home province of Sinuiju. In addition, 19 cars and buses, one long freight train and one passenger train crossed the bridge during the same time. After this first stint of traffic, the flow reversed and a steady flow of trucks began pouring into North Korea from China. Only during the 15 minutes when I observed the traffic going from China, into North Korea, 35 trucks and 13 buses and cars crossed the bridge.

The traffic flowed in sequences, one direction at a time. And this was only the morning traffic. The flow may have continued throughout the day, as the traffic moved in intervals. Walking back to the customs area from the bridge crossing in the early afternoon, what was previously a calm intersection by Chinese inner-city standards had turned busy: trucks lined the entire street leading up to the customs office and some flowed over into the adjacent street, waiting to drive into the inspection area. All in all, more than 80 trucks lined the roads waiting to cross into North Korea. Most carried Chinese license plates.

Trucks lined up on both sides of the street at one of the main intersections in central Dandong, waiting to go into the customs inspection area to cross into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks, trucks and more trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lined up for customs inspection along the streets of Dandong before crossing into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up for customs inspection before crossing into North Korea from Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Truck driving into the Dandong customs area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another picture of the never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong from Sinuiju. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is commonly estimated that around 200 trucks go between China and North Korea on a regular day. In sheer numbers, virtually nothing seemed to have changed regarding the traffic since the latest round of sanctions. Only the trucks observed in plain sight during this morning amount to a little under 200, and this merely during the first few hours of the day. At least 10–20, probably far more, were already in the customs inspection area waiting to cross. In short, things looked very regular and busy.

Trucks waiting to cross from North Korea into Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some of the trucks going into Dandong from Sinuiju looked empty. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Of course, one must be careful not to draw too drastic conclusions from one day of observations. Things may have changed throughout the summer and surely during the fall, and channels such as ship transports are not visible from the border bridge area. Moreover, according to reports from inside North Korea, the authorities have expressed concerns about potentially shrinking trade volumes as a result of sanctions, and some traders now smuggle goods that are covered by the sanctions rather than transporting them openly, as they have in the past, according to Daily NK. In short, sanctions did appear to be having some degree of impact, even during the past summer.

Most North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong were registered to North Pyongan province ( 평안북도도, here abbreviated to 평북), the province bordering Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another truck registered to North Pyongan province. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

However, the truck traffic across the Chinese border through Dandong suggested that the picture was mixed. At the very least, observations from the border area showed that even though trade in certain goods may have gotten more difficult, North Korea was by no means economically cut off from China, and still is not. Prices for food and foreign currency on North Korean markets, too, remained relatively stable through the summer from when sanctions were put in place, indicating that the economy as a whole is not feeling any drastic impact of the sanctions.

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Most trucks transporting factory materials into North Korea appeared to be Chinese-registered. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another Chinese truck transporting factory materials into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

If the North Korean economic elite was worried about the sanctions, it certainly did not show at one hotel in central Dandong. Sinuiju in North Korea is only a few minutes drive over the Yalu River, on the bridge connecting the two countries. The hotel was packed with North Korean guests, many of whom have presumably come over for purchasing and meetings with Chinese business partners. They came and went in a steady stream, wearing luxury brand clothing, watches and carrying expensive bags and wallets.

They paid everything in cash, and at least one person per travel party spoke Chinese. One man held a car key with a logo from KIA, the South Korean car manufacturer. One woman sported a Hello Kitty handbag. As some got ready to depart, bags piled up in the lobby, seemingly filled with goods from shopping sprees around town. Some of it seemed to be meant for re-sale in North Korea. Many stores around the flood banks cater specifically to a North Korean clientele, and sell items like kitchenware that are not easily accessible across the river.

Many stores in Dandong cater specifically to North Korean consumers. The sign at the left bottom of the picture reads “조선백화점,” translating into “Korea department store.” Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Travelling to Dandong, it was particularly apparent why the Chinese government would be reluctant to clamp down too hard on border traffic, even if it would want to do so. Political reasons aside, trade between North Korea and China matters for cities such as Dandong. One can see it in the flesh: the streets are packed with companies dealing in imports and exports to and from North Korea. One company trades steel; another sells construction equipment such as tractors. Several sell cars and buses, and others deal in refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers. One, called “Pyongyang Tongshin (평양통신),” judging by its name, offers cell phone services for traders travelling into North Korea. Should trade between the two countries drastically dive, the local economy would take a hit.

Advertisements for North Korean cell phone service Koryolink in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

“Pyongyang Communications.” Sign in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One could turn these observations on their head: if so many trucks were lining up and only moving slowly into the customs area, could that not mean that inspections had gotten tighter? Was the line of trucks actually a sign that Chinese authorities did what they have promised to do?

Perhaps. But not according to people around the border crossing and customs area. I asked several individuals involved in the cross-border trade about the long lines and waiting times for border crossings. No one seemed to believe that the traffic commotion and lines were anything out of the ordinary. Both Chinese and North Koreans involved in import-export business said traffic had not changed at all during the past year or so. Overall trade had declined a bit, one person said. The trucks carried a little less than they did before, but only marginally. Coal was not traded as frequently as it was before the sanctions were put in place.

This sign lists services for one Dandong firm that offers, among other things, UPS transport services and solar-powered appliances, which have become popular in North Korea in recent years. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

But the timing of the early 2016 round of sanctions made such statements difficult to assess. China had in fact been decreasing its coal imports from North Korea at different points in time several years before the latest round of sanctions. Between 2013 and 2015, for example, the value of Chinese coal imports from North Korea shrank by almost 25 percent. Only between January and February 2014, the value of trade between the countries dropped by 46 percent. The statistics are often clouded by the fact that global market prices for commodities such as coal fluctuate heavily. There may also be a variety of seasonal factors at play. In sum, isolating sanctions as a variable is notoriously difficult, and often, numbers do not tell the full story. As of June this year, North Korean coal could still be ordered through the Chinese online shopping mall Alibaba.

Moreover, even if Chinese authorities wanted to check all goods cross with minute rigidity, one can question whether it would even be practically feasible. The customs area is not particularly large and did not appear to be overflowing with staff. Checking around 200 trucks per day for their exact goods, and determining whether its revenues could be used to fund North Korea’s weapons program – the condition stated by the latest sanctions – seems like a gargantuan task in practice.

 

Hunchun

Tourists and a truck waiting by the Hunchun-Rason border crossing (Quanhae). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Dandong-Sinuiju is the main point of trade between China and North Korea, but not the only one. An one-hour drive from the Chinese city of Hunchun, trucks and people come and go to and from the North Korean northeast. At the border crossing, most seem to be going to the special economic zone in Rajin in North Korea. On one gloomy Thursday in late June, around 40 Chinese trucks waited to cross. One Chinese-Korean waiting for the gates to open to the customs area told the present author that business is going very well these days. He runs a hotel in Rajin, catering mostly to Chinese tourists and business people. He has seen no dip in customers over the past year – rather, more people are coming than before. This single testimony may not be fully indicative of trade as a whole, but it does suggest that Chinese tourism remains an important and fairly viable source of revenue for North Korean businesses in Rason.

The Quanhae border crossing from afar. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up to go into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

More trucks at Quanhae. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks at the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists lining up to have their passports checked before heading into Rason. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This was certainly the way things looked at the border crossing. Chinese tourists came and went in great numbers, many carrying North Korean shopping bags. Trucks, too, continuously crossed the border throughout the afternoon. All in all, 80­­–100 trucks drove into North Korea during this afternoon. One was adorned with a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk. A few trucks came out of North Korea as well, many seeming to carry seafood destined for cities such as Hunchun and Yanji.

A truck adorning a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk having just crossed into North Korea from Hunchun. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In addition, a large number of buses and minivans carrying tourists and traders went in from China. Many minivans carried driving permits for Rajin clearly visible through their front windows. Given the amount of truck traffic only during the afternoon, it seems a reasonable estimate that perhaps twice the amount of traffic went through during the day as a whole. One person with good knowledge of the border area estimated that around 200 trucks go through at this crossing on a regular day, though this figure is obviously neither exact nor certain.

Customs office on the North Korean side of the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists waiting to head into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The two bridges connecting Rason to China (particularly the newly constructed one in the back). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

These observations did not fully prove that China was not enforcing sanctions on North Korea during the summer of 2016. However, they did show that trade and traffic between the countries was still very much alive. Some goods may have be traded less, but neither sanctions nor souring relations between North Korea and China seemed to have reduced trade as much as some observers have claimed. The North Korean economy may be impacted by sanctions, but it is not and rarely has been fully isolated from the rest of the world.

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The size of North Korea’s market economy, and why it matters

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The other day, South Korean think-tank KINU (Korean Institute for National Unification) reportedly claimed that North Korea has 404 official markets in total. As Curtis Melvin has already pointed out on twitter, the real number is actually higher, but all this depends on what precise definition you use of markets (institutionalized and government recognized, versus operating in a legal gray zone, et cetera). As this report by the U.S.-Korea Institute laid out last year – also using satellite imagery, like the KINU report does – markets have grown significantly in size since the early 2000s.

The more interesting figures, in my opinion, are KINU’s estimates for what the markets actually generate in terms of income for the government, and how many people they employ. Below, I place these figures in a comparative perspective within the economy as a whole, and discuss the proportional weight of the markets in the North Korean economy. But first, some of the usual caveats:

As with any figures relating to the North Korean economy, a great deal of caution must be exercised in approaching these numbers. It would seem nearly impossible, for example, to accurately calculate the number of people employed by the markets. In theory, this should not be that hard. Using Google Earth, you can measure, with a fair degree of accuracy, the size of the trading grounds, and knowing the rough size of the average market stall in a North Korean market and how many people work in each one, getting a rough number for the amount that they employ should not be impossible. It would be a very rough estimate but arguably that is better than nothing. But in practice, it would still not give the full story of how many people work in the markets, since many people work there part-time, at least according to (possibly outdated) anecdotal evidence.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the market system is not the entire private sector – many other types of exchanges and transactions go on in the North Korean economy, not all recognizable from above, in complexes such as residential buildings and the like, where small business have been known to operate from. So any number for government revenues, it is important to bear in mind, will only be an estimate (again, a very rough one) for the specific type of markets that KINU has recorded. KINU does not seem to have made its report available online yet – perhaps their methodology is laid out clearly enough to answer some of these questions.

What do the numbers tell us?

Still, the numbers are interesting as starting points for a broader analysis of the proportions and size of the North Korean economy. Starting with the number of individuals employed within the market system, KINU puts the number at 1.1 million. This is about 1/25 of the entire population of the country, as derived from the 2008 census. Table 34 (page 187 and onward) gives the total working-age population as approximately 17.37 million. Subtracting the share of the population listed as “studying,” we get around 16.4 million. Further subtracting the share of the population listed as “retired,” which arguably we shouldn’t do since elderly North Koreans are known to be significantly involved in market activities, we get approximately 13.3 million individuals. I do not subtract the share listed as “doing housework” simply because it seems far too unlikely that such a category in North Korea would really be excluded from the market labor force.

Just assuming as a theoretical experiment that KINU’s figures and the census numbers are accurate, we get a 7.5 percent share of people employed in the official market sector. In reality, the share may well lower since many people in the demographic groups subtracted are known to be involved in market activities. Conversely, it may be higher if KINU’s number does not take part-time workers into account or otherwise underestimates the number of market workers. Wheher or not one thinks this to be a high or low number is a matter of perspective. For comparison, the share of the labor force employed in retail trade in the United States was 10.2 in 2014.

Another interesting figure KINU gives is that for government revenue from the markets. Again, this, too, should not be hard to estimate in theory: if you approximate the amount of market stalls through satellite imagery and multiply the amount by the fee paid by each trader to the government, it shouldn’t be impossible to get a rough estimate for how much the trade brings the government. But of course, here, too, complications abound: when looking at markets from above, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly how large the actual trading grounds are, for example, and how much is made up of administrative and storage facilities. Still, an approximate estimate is immensely valuable as a starting point for a broader debate.

According to KINU, the North Korean government collects between $13 and $17 million per day in fees from market traders. Ever since 2003, the North Korean market regime has become increasingly formalized and incorporated into the official economy. This trend has reportedly continued under Kim Jong-un as well, and arguably accelerated during his tenure. This is clearly a wise move from a policy perspective: the government needs the markets and it needs the revenue, and their depiction as a threat to the regime may not be the full story.

Using the low number of $13 million gives us a figure of $4.7 billion in revenue per year, while the higher figure of $17 million gives $6.2 billion per year. Both the low- and the high-end estimates would put government revenues from market fees at a significantly higher figure than, for example, North Korea’s trade with China. In 2015, for example, North Korea’s exports to China estimated a total of $2.95 billion. The latest sanctions additions are estimated to take off around $700 million from North Korea’s export incomes. It is important to remember that even if they were to accomplish that, which remains doubtful, North Korea still has a domestic economy that matters greatly too. And remember – these are only estimated (estimated!) figures for government revenue from a specific type of market. They do not represent the entire private sector in North Korea.

So, while the role of exports should not be underestimated, it is important to remember that North Korea has a domestic economy of considerable size. Perhaps whatever pressure the sanctions applies on the North Korean economy could serve as an argument for those in the policy bureaucracy pushing for economic reforms that could further let the private economy develop.

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KINU report claims North Korea has 404 markets

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

As reported by Yonhap here (I will try to find a link to the full report as soon as it is up):

North Korea currently has 404 official markets which employ some 1.1 million people, a local think tank said Friday.

The Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) came up with the figures based on an analysis of the North Korean markets using Google Earth and a survey of North Korean defectors. The total does not include unauthorized markets.

Google Earth is a Google application that lets the user look at any corner of the earth as if viewed from a satellite.

The average number of customers reaches 57,000 per market. Nine markets are larger than South Korea’s famous 14,437-square-meter Dongdaemun Market in terms of their respective size, according to a KINU report.

The institute estimated North Korea collects US$13-17 million a day in usage fees from merchants selling goods at the markets. The communist state has received the fees since it gave an official permit to the markets in 2003, it said.

The communist state also has many temporary markets that have not gotten official authorization from the state, known as “Jangmadang.” These markets are set up in vacant fields where local merchants gather to sell and trade goods.

Full article:

N. Korea operates 404 official markets: report
Yonhap News
2016-12-10

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KCNA reports on Kangryong Green Zone

Friday, December 9th, 2016

The Kangryong Green Zone was first announced on a promotional VCD given to foreign participants of a SEZ conference in Pyongyang in October 2013. However, the project was not formally announced in KCNA until July of 2014. KCNA has not mentioned it again until today.

According to KCNA:

Pyongyang, December 9 (KCNA) — The DPRK has pushed ahead with the project to develop Kangryong County of South Hwanghae Province into an international green model zone.

Kangryong County has favorable conditions for the project, as it is bound on sea rich in marine resources like sea cucumber and scallop. And its beachfront is abundant in energy resources, including wind, solar and tidal powers.

The county has circumstances favorable for sustainable development of agricultural production by means of bettering its ecosystem with organic farming method and introducing ring-shaped rotation production system.

In this regard, Hong Kil Nam, director of the Secretariat of the Korea Green Research and Development Association, told KCNA:

The county is highly potential to be a world-level green zone for its excellent natural ecological environment and good conditions for the development of fishery and agriculture.

With an increasing interest of the government in the county, a master plan for developing the whole county into an international green model zone was well matured in keeping with the reality of the DPRK and the world trend of development.

The master plan regards it as its principle to protect and improve the county’s natural ecological environment, set up a system of ecological circulation featuring the green zone, raise the utilization of resources and energy to the maximum and achieve the sustainable economic development. To this end, the plan includes such detailed projects as construction of an industrial zone for production of green goods, infrastructure and tourist zones with populated, forest and other areas.

Meanwhile, it is gaining momentum to draw up detailed plans and create a favorable environment for investment.

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Musan Market damaged in flooding

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Other outlets have already covered the recent flood damage using satellite imagery (see here and here).  I added one small contribution in Radio Free Asia today…Here is a satellite image of the Musan Market (무산시장) taken before and after the recent flooding:

Images: Google Earth. Top: 2014-1-13, Bottom: 2016-9-14

Nearly half of it was washed away when the river rose.

I will have more to say on this topic after the holidays.

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