Archive for the ‘Black markets’ Category

What to make of the panic buying in Pyongyang and beyond

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

There’s been a few reports over the past few weeks about panic buying in Pyongyang, particularly of imported goods. The foremost reason appears to be the government’s restrictions of imports, aside from essential goods (whatever these are). A quick thought:

On the one hand, on a closer reading beyond the term “panic buying”, it’s apparent that we aren’t really talking about fundamental, daily necessities for the most part, but about imported items such as batteries and certain vegetables. When we monitor economic developments for social stability, such analyses tend to focus on items like rice and, at least in countries other than North Korea, fuel, and not least the stability of the currency. So it may not matter all that much if people in a northern province cannot buy lighters imported from China, or if Pyongyangites can’t buy imported pepper and other non-staple goods. (As you will see in one of the articles below, Daily NK has not heard reports of panic buying in Hyesan at all.)

At the same time, however, these imported goods are quite essential in the everyday lives of many people. We don’t know how much of imported goods the average person consumes, and I suspect it’d differ greatly between provinces. Since at least a significant proportion of the population consumes imported goods on a regular basis, these difficulties in acquiring items imported from China would in many cases cause great annoyance and, in others, disrupt production processes of firms and industries, although some exceptions are granted for “essential” items. Who determines what’s essential is likely hinges on political and economic clout, and it certainly won’t be the mom-and-pop-shops of the backstreet markets.

I’ve gathered a few related articles here. AP wrote about the topic on May 7th, 2020, with intelligence sources in Seoul confirming the news:

The NIS said it cannot rule out a virus outbreak in North Korea because traffic along the China-North Korea border was active before the North closed crossings in January to try to stop the spread of the virus, according to the lawmaker.

The NIS declined to confirm Kim’s comments in line with its practice of not commenting on information it provides to lawmakers. Kim did not discuss how the NIS obtained its information.

Last Friday, Kim Jong Un ended his 20-day public absence when he appeared at a ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang. His time away triggered rumors about his health and worries about the future of his country.

The NIS repeated a South Korean government assessment that Kim remained in charge of state affairs even during his absence. His visit to the factory was aimed at showing his resolve to address public livelihood problems and inject people with confidence, Kim Byung Kee cited the NIS as saying.

The NIS said the virus pandemic is hurting North Korea’s economy, mainly because of the border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and aid provider. China accounts for about 90% of North Korea’s external trade flow.

The trade volume between North Korea and China in the first quarter of this year was $230 million, a 55% decline from the same period last year. In March, the bilateral trade volume suffered a 91% drop, the NIS was quoted as saying.

This led to the prices of imported foodstuffs such as sugar and seasonings skyrocketing, Kim Byung Kee quoted the spy agency as saying. He said the NIS also told lawmakers that residents in Pyongyang, the capital, recently rushed to department stores and other shops to stock up on daily necessities and waited in long lines.

The NIS said prices in North Korea “are being stabilized a little bit” after authorities clamped down on people cornering the market, Kim said in a televised briefing.

(Source: “Seoul reports panic buying in N. Korea amid economic woes,” AP/Mainichi, May 7, 2020.)

NK News was one of the first outlets to cover the topic, in an article on April 22nd:

“Panic buying” sprees have been spotted taking place in some of Pyongyang’s stores and groceries since Monday, multiple informed sources told NK News, resulting in increasingly empty shelves and a growing shortage of key staples.

It’s unclear what’s led to the sudden surge in demand, with one source describing empty shelves and a sudden absence of staples like vegetables, flour, and sugar.

Locals have been buying “whatever is there,” one expat said, saying that “you can hardly get in” to some stores.

Both the expat and another person in Pyongyang said the surge was particularly notable on Wednesday.

Another source said large groups of locals were seen buying big amounts of mostly-imported products in some grocery stores, resulting in abrupt shortages.

(Source: Chad O’Carroll, “North Koreans “panic buying” at Pyongyang shops, sources say,” NK News, April 22nd, 2020.)

Daily NK, of course, has reported extensively on the topic, from both Pyongyang and the provinces. Imported goods are not only consumed in Pyongyang:

“The prices of Chinese goods have risen sharply in markets across the province, including the Yonbong and Wuiyon markets in Hyesan,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on Apr. 28.

According to the source, the price surge has mainly affected Chinese products, including daily necessities such as sugar, flour, and other cooking products.

For example, the price of Chinese seasoning has increased fourfold to a KPW 40,000 (around USD 6). Flour, rice and other grain prices have also increased. Two weeks ago, imported Chinese rice was being sold at KPW 4,400 per kilogram but is now being sold at KPW 5,500.

The price hikes have not just affected food. Chinese cigarettes have also increased in price: a box of Chinese-made Chang Baishan cigarette packs, for example, which used to cost KPW 12,000, is now KPW 17,000.

“Even Chinese lighters, which usually cost around KPW 700, have seen a price hike of nearly threefold and now cost KPW 2,000,” the Hyesan-based source added.

The main reason for these price surges is the halt in Sino-North Korean trade following the closure of the North Korean-Chinese border in late January. The effects of the steep fall in Sino-North Korean trade were made clear in recent data published by China’s General Administration of Customs. According to this data, Chinese-North Korean trade in March dropped by 91.3% compared to the same period last year to just USD 18.64 million.

“Just two weeks ago merchants were feeling more optimistic given the improved situation in China. Now, they’ve lowered their expectations quite a bit,” the Hyesan-based source told Daily NK, adding, “Prices are rising because business people are intentionally sitting on their stocks with the hope that prices will increase even more.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Daily NK is unaware of any reports of panic buying in Hyesan [emphasis added].

(Source: Kang Mi Jin, “Ryanggang Province witnesses price spikes,” Daily NK, April 30th, 2020.)

And, more recently, a report from Pyongyang:

“There are a lot of ordinary stores that have closed or are unable to sell anything because they have no stock left,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK on Apr. 30. “Right now 100 grams of imported pepper costs KPW 40,000, 450 to 500 grams of MSG costs KPW 48,000 and sugar can’t be found at all.”

PRICE SPIKES

The prices of imported food items nearly doubled after Apr. 17, when the North Korean government announced restrictions on imported goods deemed “unnecessary” for the North Korean economy. Prices began to rise rapidly once more before the publishing of this article in Korean on May 1.

According to Daily NK’s Pyongyang source, the price of imported pepper was just KPW 8,000 per 100 grams before the announcement, but doubled to KPW 16,000 after the decision was released. Now, the price has reportedly risen to KPW 40,000.

“The price of watch batteries and other small batteries for common household appliances like remote controllers for TVs have tripled or quadrupled,” the source further reported. “The price of batteries had remained stable even after the announcement, but several days ago it started to rise suddenly. The spike is probably because so many people began hoarding them.”

Although the price of batteries has risen to an unprecedented degree, Pyongyang residents reportedly continue to buy them in bulk, in boxes of 50, and as much as 10 boxes at a time. The hoarding is likely due to concerns that the price will only continue to rise and that soon there may not be any batteries left to buy.

“Many of the electronics stores throughout the city have closed down,” the source said, adding, “Stores that still have stock have closed perhaps because of rumors that Chinese products will no longer enter the country.”

In short, the source’s report suggests that state-run electronics stores, which command 20% of the market, have no stock left, while privately-run stores that take up the remaining 80% of the market have closed up despite still having stock on hand.

Based on the source’s report, owners of privately-run stores may have closed down their shops with the intent to sell their goods at prices even higher than they are now. The owners are likely under the belief that the recent import restrictions announcement means that various electronics accessories will no longer enter the country from China for some time.

(Source: Ha Yoon Ah, “Pyongyangites continue to hoard as prices keep rising,” Daily NK, May 4th, 2020.)

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Of price controls and panic: North Korean market prices under Corona

Friday, March 27th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(Note: the graphs in this piece are from a shortly forthcoming article on 38 North.)

It’s almost like those mandatory disclaimers that often follow advertisements in the United States, but the statement that all information from inside North Korea is uncertain can sometimes not be repeated often enough. This is especially true in a situation like the current one, where the country’s borders are virtually shuttered, and global anxiety is high to begin with.

With that, let’s take a look at some numbers…

With North Korea’s border closing earlier this year, market prices quickly shot up as consumers most likely hoarded goods in anticipation of future shortages. Particularly curious was the fact that prices seemed to differ so widely between cities, as I wrote about here. This suggested that internal restrictions on movement between localities, a measure the state took to control the spread of coronavirus, were working. A few weeks later, however, both market prices and the differences between cities seemed to go down again.

Differences in rice prices, in percentage, between three North Korean cities, until March 7th. Data source: Daily NK.

So did market prices in general. In the latest price data observation from Daily NK, from March 7th, average rice prices are about 25 percent higher than a year ago, and 29 percent higher than in early December, before the border closure. That’ a lot, but somewhat less than the initial 36 percent increase when the border was closed initially. Even the slightly lower price increase would spell severe difficulties for many North Koreans in buying food. Note: the latest price observation is from March 7th, that is, several weeks ago.

Average rice prices in North Korea, until March 7th. Data source: Daily NK.

So, what happened here? There are two possibilities that I think are more likely and realistic than others. One is that markets overreacted in their initial anxiety. Put simply, people may have thought that supply would become much lower than it ended up being. This is a common mechanism in markets in general. People often react more strongly than called for to anticipated, future changes, and then adapt their economic behavior once it’s clearer what actual conditions of supply and demand are. It’s also possible that the government let up on conditions for imports and trade, easing the burden on supply.

But there is another possibility. Both Rimjingang and Chosun Ilbo have reported that the government has instituted price controls to prevent prices from rising. This was only to be expected, as it is one of the few tools the state has at its disposal to control market anxiety. Price controls, however, are rarely (if ever) effective in the long run in countries such as North Korea. Either trade moves to the black market, or sellers run out of goods as they are forced to sell for less than consumers are willing to pay.

Aside from the two aforementioned reports, there are other potential signs that price controls may be in place. The price difference between Hyesan and Pyongyang/Sinuiju went down to a conspicuously low level, one that is actually lower than normal, a very odd coincidence. It got there only over the span of a few weeks, getting close to the 5,000 won-level reported by Chosun as the price ceiling. As far as currently available information can tell, no conditions changed on the ground. It would be reasonable to assume that at some point, the government may let up on restrictions on trade to ease conditions, but we don’t know whether that has happened yet. Reports of harsh measures against smuggling continue, and such measures would signal to the markets that state enforcement of the border closure remains and will remain harsh. So while in theory it makes sense that prices would go down somewhat after the initial spike, conditions on the ground have not changed noticeably, as far as we know.

So, what might have happened is that at least around March 7th, the government was still somewhat successful at enforcing its price ceiling, at least in parts of the country. One of Chosun’s sources reports that as of March 18th, rice cost 6,300 won per kg in Hyesan, much closer to the initial price level after the border closure. Price ceilings can usually only be enforced for a limited period of time, particularly when real shortages loom of essential products. Prices either rise beyond the ceiling, goods run out, or a black market arises. If the regime is indeed enforcing a price ceiling, and it continues to do so for a long time, perhaps we will see an increase in back-alley markets and other type of economic activity that the government has been relatively successful at curbing by integrating the markets into the official economic system over the past decade and a half or so.

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North Korea strengthens internal travel restrictions to keep the coronavirus in check

Friday, February 28th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK  has reported on the travel restrictions inside the county before, as this blog has covered here and here. This recent report goes into greater detail:

“The No. 2 departments in local Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] offices are placing further restrictions on the issuing of travel documents, and the authorities are cracking down on vans shuttling people around for money,” a Kangwon Province-based source told Daily NK today.

“No. 10 sentry posts [managed by the Ministry of State Security, or MSS] are cracking down on buses and other vehicles moving people. Even local police stations have setup temporary checkpoints to conduct crack downs on vehicles transporting people,” the source added.

It seems like we’re not talking about a blanket ban on travel across provincial borders per se. Rather, the state is banning and heavily restricting certain forms of transportation, especially unauthorized kinds (which otherwise are often  tacitly tolerated, not least through institutionalized bribery). This, too, impacts market trade since the transportation sector is crucial to shuttling goods around the country.

The authorities are thoroughly preventing any vehicles or people from transiting from the border region to the interior of the country and the other way around, sources told Daily NK.

Sources said that anyone who has entered the country from abroad but doesn’t have a document certifying they have been tested for the coronavirus are restricted from travelling. Merchants without proper travel documentation are also reportedly being targeted by the authorities. Even work units involved in construction projects are being restricted from moving around, sources said.

[…]

No. 2 departments in local MPS offices are restricting the issuance of travel documents to everyone unless they are on government orders, Daily NK sources further reported.

Even factory officials who need to travel to other places of the country to collect raw materials have been told to wait until “later” (after the COVID-19 crisis passes over), sources said.

The authorities are also carefully checking container trucks and the baggage compartments of buses for people hitching a ride in these hidden spaces, they added.

There are gaps, however, in the lock down on travel that the authorities are trying to implement.

“Some vehicles, including taxis, are cleverly selecting routes to avoid checkpoints,” the Kangwon Province-based source said.

“People are wearing masks just to avoid getting stopped by the authorities,” he added.

The border regions are of course especially targeted. The state knows it cannot fully close the border shut and thus needs internal controls to be forceful. The mention of certification of testing is interesting and implies that there are ways individuals can take action to test themselves. Perhaps it refers to the medical test teams reportedly dispatched to the border to China.

“There are a lot of ‘storm troopers’ in Kangwon Province who hail from all over the country, which means there’s a lot of people moving around,” the Kangwon Province-based source said. “The authorities can’t completely shutdown the province from the outside because the shock troops need to move supplies into the area for construction projects, but they are setting up multiple check points to block as much traffic as they can.”

The state still needs to continue running its daily affairs, and it’s unclear to what extent construction projects and other things that may be hampered by internal controls have been put on hold. This must be a bureaucratic nightmare to coordinate and often, one hand of the state doesn’t know what the other is doing.

Article source: Kang Mi Jin, “N. Korea further strengthens restrictions on domestic travel,” Daily NK, 27 February 2020, accessed 28 February, 2020.

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North Korea and the coronavirus: why internal controls may be working

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At this point, it seems unlikely that not a single case of the coronavirus would have reached North Korea, despite government media claims. The border to China is quite porous even when controls are tight, and the provinces bordering North Korea had seen, as of last week, some 200 cases. The government has ordered schools shut for one month starting five days ago, on February 20th. Unsurprisingly, it has taken special care to protect Pyongyang from the virus, and face mask distribution goes first to the one percent.

The economic effects of all this are very troubling. As this blog has previously noted, markets and society overall seem to be taking the border closure much more seriously than sanctions, and have reacted with much more anxiety than when new rounds of sanctions measures have been levied by the international community in the past. Prices have climbed quite drastically, as we shall look at in some detail in this post. They have risen by much more in Hyesan than in the rest of the country, which tells us something interesting about the government’s internal controls. That differences in market prices are increasing could be a sign that internal controls on travel across provincial boundaries are being enforced quite effectively. When traders cannot as effectively move their goods to where demand is the highest, prices will increase. One also has to bear in mind that Hyesan is very dependent on trade with China to begin with, and we should therefore expect prices there to increase disproportionately.

(My apologies for the awkward look of the graphs — please click for full size!)

In normal times too, prices tend to be higher in Hyesan than in other cities. But usually not by that much. Notice what happens around  January, though: prices skyrocket all over the country but they do so by much more in Hyesan.

This is particularly evident when we look at price differences. Normally, prices are between 5–10 percent higher in Hyesan than in both Pyongyang and Sinuiju. Since the border closure, however, they have gone beyond 20 percent over both cities, according to price observations from the past few weeks. 
Again, the border closure to China may be a central part of the explanation. But rice itself isn’t typically a good that North Korea relies so much on Chinese imports for. We don’t know the precise proportions, but likely, most rice consumed in North Korea in an ordinary year is grown within the country. A likely conclusion is, therefore, that the closure of provincial borders within North Korea is being enforced with some efficiency, making it much more difficult for market traders to transport goods such as rice between different markets in the country. This adds to the already stark economic difficulties from the closure of the border to China. Many other prices have risen drastically as well: gas prices in Hyesan are now 46 percent higher than in late December of last year, and 38 percent higher in the country as a whole. The government has attempted, reportedly with some success, to institute price controls on the markets, but as the story goes with such state attempts in general, they are unlikely to last as black markets arise to respond to shortages.

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Daily NK on foreign currency shortages

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This is an interesting article by Daily NK. It highlights how little we actually understand about how the exchange rate works in North Korea. Basically, their sources say that foreign currency is available in increasingly short supply, but confirm that despite reports to the contrary, exchange rates haven’t moved noticeably:

Sources report that sanctions have reduced the flow of foreign currency into and out of the country, while the amount in circulation has further fallen because residents are hoarding it. While foreign currency is still being used to pay for major transactions, residents are increasingly using local currency to pay for daily items in the local markets.

“North Koreans are using local currency more often to buy things at the market. They’d prefer Chinese yuan or US dollars, but there’s just not enough of it in circulation to use,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

“There are concerns that the situation could lead to an increase in counterfeit bills circulating in the country.”

“International sanctions have definitely led to a fall in circulating foreign currency,” added a North Hamgyong Province-based merchant in his 40s. “The authorities implement measures to entice people to use foreign currency at particular shops and restaurants, or demand that the wealthy make donations to the regime’s loyalty fund, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the circulation of foreign currency has fallen compared to a couple of years ago.”

“There are rumors that the Arduous March [widespread famine of the mid-1990s] is returning, so people are trying to save up and not spend anymore,” he said, adding that broader forces are at play.

Despite the developments, the exchange rate remains relatively stable. Generally, a fall in foreign currency in the market would lead to an increase in the value of foreign bills and a rise in the exchange rate. But the exchange rate between the US dollar and North Korean won has fluctuated only slightly at 1 USD to 8,000 North Korean won, while the exchange rate between the Chinese yuan and North Korean won has remained at 1:1200.

However, if there is an increase in the use of foreign currency in the markets while the overall circulation of foreign bills continues to fall, it could lead to a significant impact on exchange rates.

Article source:
North Koreans turn to local currency due to foreign currency shortages
Ha Yoon Ah
Daily NK
2019-08-06

I’ve written quite a few times about how all this is possible. Logically, it is. That doesn’t make it less of a mystery.

If current conditions continue, I’d be very surprised if we don’t see a sharp fall in the won soon enough. But then again, the market has defied a lot of reasonable, logical expectations already…

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Regime cracks down on “grasshopper markets”

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It has been reported that the North Korean authorities in Ryanggang Province have initiated a crackdown on so-called grasshopper vendors who conduct unregistered business near state-sanctioned General Markets.
“The number of people selling goods in the town streets near the markets and bridges has declined noticeably because the Provincial People’s Committee has issued instructions to crack down on grasshopper vendors. There are many of these sorts of vendors, who opt to pay bribes in return for being excused from agricultural mobilization during the harvest season,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on September 18.
“The residents who used to conduct business on the streets are now moving around to avoid the crackdowns that begin early in the morning. Some residents who used to trade under the Uiyeon Baekchol bridge have become fed up with running away and have moved to rural areas.”
“The grasshopper vendors often say that it’s ‘doubly tiring’ as they have to stay constantly on the move to avoid the crackdowns.”
The regime has previously refrained from crackdowns on independent traders, while promoting Kim Jong Un’s image as a leader for the people who allows free market activities. It has also enabled the government to generate revenue with a quasi-income tax income leveled at these traders at the same time. The tax has also been applied to all grasshopper vendors outside the markets, who are required to pay 50-70% of the ordinary market tax.
However, the measures have proven to be a double-edged sword for Kim Jong Un, as these vendors have acquired greater freedom of movement, residence, and even occupations that were once strictly controlled by the authorities.
“The crackdowns on grasshopper vendors may have been implemented in haste to prevent a perceived ideological weakening which has arisen from the increase in market activity,” the source said.
Full article:
Regime begins crackdown on ‘grasshopper’ vendors
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2017-09-26
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Gas prices volatile in Pyongyang as tensions run high

Monday, September 25th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

DailyNK reports:

Following the country’s sixth nuclear test on September 3, fuel prices in North Korea have been subject to unusual volatility. The price of fuel soared in April and rose again slightly in September. But it has been reported that gasoline coupons have not been influenced by the price fluctuations, and are being actively traded on the North Korean black markets.
“As fuel prices have been fluctuating, gasoline coupons have become popular items in Pyongyang’s black markets. The merchants who previously bought dozens of coupons have started offering them for sale as the prices began to rise,” a source familiar with North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on September 20.
And opportunities are ripe for arbitrage:
According to the source, gasoline can be purchased for the same price at the time that the coupon was issued. For example, if a 15 kg gasoline coupon was previously purchased for 30 USD, the same amount of fuel can be obtained even if the price rises suddenly to 35 USD. In this way, the dealers can make a profit by selling the coupon for 32 USD.
“The coupons are especially popular when the gasoline prices are unstable. The merchants are selling the coupons on the black markets as the fuel prices rise,” the source said.
Originally, gasoline coupons were issued from North Korea’s central government organizations and were sold to officials or foreign embassy staff in Pyongyang. But now the foreign currency earning companies are issuing the coupons themselves. The authorities have actively encouraged new strategies to earn foreign currency.
The black market is ever the present factor:
These foreign currency earning companies are said to be profiting from the fluctuating fuel prices, regardless of efforts to limit the sales of coupons.
“If the authorities move to restrict the sales of coupons, the companies will just sell the coupons on the black market. Despite strong sanctions being imposed on fuel, the major companies that are still holding a large amount of fuel become more powerful in times of fuel crisis,” a source in South Pyongan Province explained.
“Even the Pyongyang cadres have no choice but to purchase coupons on the black market.”
Full article here:
Volatile gasoline prices in Pyongyang
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-09-25
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North Korean merchants resisting price controls on markets

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

Food prices in the past closely mirrored the ups and downs of rice prices in North Korea. For example, if rice prices climbed by 1,000 KPW per kg, then corn prices could also be expected to rise by approximately 500 KPW. But that trend is beginning to change.
In addition, North Korean rice prices used to exhibit sensitivity to currency exchange rates, but rice prices have recently been falling and climbing independently of the exchange rates.
To calm volatility, the authorities have entered the markets and attempted to control prices, but merchants have widely rejected these measures. Merchants who sell similar products have been collaborating with one another to set prices or decide when to withhold products from sale.
Merchants know that the authorities attempts to crackdown on the marketplace usually fizzle out over time, said a separate source in Ryanggang Province. The vendors will pretend to agree and listen to the authorities, but then they will secretly raise the prices.
As rumors spread that large shipments of pork were being smuggled in, shrewd merchants refrained from putting pork up for sale because they were expecting the price to rise. They then sold large quantities at a higher price, before the prices gradually began to fall again, she continued.
One expert believes that this development signals how prices have moved out of the domain of the authorities and under the influence of the black market.
The price volatility we are currently seeing in North Koreas markets is a common element for underdeveloped countries, said Professor Lim Eul Chul, from the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) at Kyungnam University. He went on to explain that pricing decisions by individual actors involved in market activity are becoming increasingly relevant, but the authorities are having trouble keeping up with the information.
In the past, market agents carefully watched the authorities reactions when setting prices, but the markets have developed and now it is the authorities who are following behind. Big merchants have the power and sway to move the market and control prices. We can expect this trend to continue, he concluded.
Full article:
Merchants resist price controls
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2017-03-20
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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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Is North Korea’s food situation really getting worse? The markets don’t think so.

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Since early 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has been sounding the alarm bells on North Korea’s food situation. In an interview a few weeks ago with Voice of America’s Korean-language edition, FAO-official Christina Cosiet said that this years’ harvest would be the worst one in four years. One question, dealt with before by this blog, is how bad this really is. After all, the past few years seem to have been abnormally good in a long-run perspective.

But another obvious question is: why do market prices in North Korea tell the opposite story about food supply?

Prices for both rice and foreign currency (US-dollars) have remained remarkably stable for a situation where people should be expecting a worse-than-usual harvest. It is important to bear in mind that prices are largely seasonal and tend to increase in September and October. But unless prices somehow skyrocket in a couple of months, things do not look that bad.

There seem to be two possibilities here: either official production and food supply through the public distribution system simply does not matter that much, because shortages are easily offset by private production and/or imports. Or, the FAO projections simply do not capture North Korean food production as a whole.

For an overview of food prices in the last few years, consider the following graph (click here for larger version):

graph1

Graph 1: Prices for rice and foreign currency, in North Korean won. Prices are expressed in averages of local prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. Data source: DailyNK market prices.

As this graph shows, both the exchange rate and rice prices have remained relatively stabile over the past few years. Thus far, this summer has been no exception. The following graph shows exchange rates and rice prices from the spring of 2015 till July 2016 (click here for larger version):

graph2

Graph 2: Prices for rice and foreign currency, April 2015–July 2016, in North Korean won. Prices are expressed in averages of local prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. Data source: DailyNK market prices

This does not look like the behavior of a nervous market where supply is declining at a drastic rate. Of course, a number of caveats are in order: again, prices are likely to rise through September and October, as they have in the past. Moreover, markets may react to any harvest declines at a later point in time, as they become more apparent.

Even so, it seems inconceivable that market prices would remain so stable if North Korea was experiencing a steep dive in food production. After all, farmers would be able to see signs fairly early on, and their information would presumably spread through the market as a whole. In short, it is logically unthinkable that markets simply would not react to an unusually poor harvest.

This all begs the question of how much market prices tend to correlate with the FAO:s harvest figures overall. The short answer appears to be: not much. The graph below (click here for larger version) shows the average prices for rice and foreign exchange per year on the North Korean market since 2011, and harvest figures drawn from reports by the FAO and the World Food Program (WFP). (See the end of this post for a more detailed explanation of the underlying calculations.)*

graph3

Graph 3: Yearly average market prices for rice and US-dollar (in North Korean won), and FAO food production figures. Data source: DailyNK market prices

As this graph shows, there is generally fairly little correlation between market prices and harvests as calculated by the FAO. Harvests climbed between 2009 and 2015, while market prices climbed and and flattened out from 2012, around the time of Kim Jong-il’s death. Exchange rates and rice prices unsurprisingly move in tandem, but appear little impacted by production figures as reported by the FAO.

It is possible that prices react in a delayed manner to harvests, and that the price stabilization on the market is a result of increased harvests over time. But the consistent trend over several years, with prices going up as harvest figures do, is an unlikely one. Again, it is also difficult to imagine market prices not reacting relatively quickly to noticeable decreases in food production.

So what does all this mean?

It is difficult to draw any certain conclusions. But at the very least, these numbers suggest that the FAO food production projections are not telling the full story about overall food supply in North Korea. Moreover, market signals are telling us that food supply right now is far from as bad as the FAO’s latest claims of lowered production would have it. Rather, prices seem normal and even slightly more stabile than in some previous years with better harvests. In short, the narrative that this year’s harvest is exceptionally poor seems an unlikely one.

 

*A note on graph 3:

 For market prices per year, I calculated an average price from all observations in a given year. The DailyNK price data is reported for three cities separately: Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. I have used an average of these three cities for each data observation as the base for calculating yearly averages. This is a somewhat tricky way of measuring, as the amount of data observations, as well as their timing, sometimes varies from year to year. The steep decline in 2009–2010 is primarily caused by the currency denomination, and should not be taken for a real increase in supply.

The FAO food production figures are not reported by calendar year, but published in the fall and projected for the following year. Since these figures best indicate available supply for the year after they are reported, I have assigned them to the year following the reporting year. That is, the figure for 2014 comes from the WFP-estimate for 2013/2014, and so on and so forth.

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