Archive for the ‘Black markets’ Category

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

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Hydrogen bomb project may lead state to squeeze traders, some North Koreans worry

Friday, January 8th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK today carries a piece where interviewed North Koreans express their annoyance at how the hydrogen bomb test disturbed economic activity, and how it may get worse in the future:

News of the recent test has also angered people, with some openly criticizing the nuclear program and pointing out that money should go into providing for the people instead. “Market vendors don’t care if it’s an atom bomb or a hydrogen bomb. Most of them say they just want to make a lot of money and live a quiet life,” the source said.

A different source in North Pyongan Province reported that most people who watched the announcement out of curiosity were neither surprised nor interested, noting, “But market donju (newly affluent middle class) are worried that having blown up a massive ‘dollar bomb’, Kim Jong Un will now have a gaping hole in his coffers, making things busier for them since they’ll have to offer up more funds.”

“Loyalty funds had swelled because of the greater stability in the markets, so recently there weren’t a lot of purges of donju, but now with all the money that they’ve spent, it looks like donju will be under pressure or persecuted more to make up for the funds that went into the hydrogen bomb test,” he explained.

“After the first three nuclear tests, prominent donju were purged on ‘anti-socialist’ charges and their assets confiscated by the state. The leadership is likely to tighten its grip on donju again to make up for its expenses.”

Read the full article:
Nuclear test draws different set of concerns from North Koreans
Seol Song Ah and Choi Song Min
DailyNK
2016-01-08

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New figures on markets in North Korea

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The last few months have seen quite the trickle of quantitative estimates on North Korea’s markets. A while back, South Korean intelligence said North Korea has 380 markets in total. Curtis Melvin counts them to 406. And then, a few days ago, Professor Lim Eul-chul of Kyungnam University put them at 750 (including street vendors).

It is unclear whether this is another intelligence branch or institution speaking, but what Yonhap terms “South Korea’s intelligence authorities” today claims that there are 306 markets. They also estimate that 1.8 million people use them every day, although those numbers are probably guesstimates more than anything else. Even though survey studies can say a lot about how often people use markets on average, it would seem almost impossible to weight these properly by region given the variation.

The report also includes a count of markets in each province:

By region, South Pyongan Province is home to the largest markets with 37, followed by South Hamgyong Province with 36 and North Pyongan Province with 34. North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang has 23 markets, the authorities said, without elaborating on how they obtained the information.

It is difficult to know what is meant by “markets” here: in other words, whether street markets are included or only formal ones. In any case, it isn’t particularly surprising that South Pyongan Province comes out as number one: the province has a major advantage for market trade in that it is close to Pyongyang. Traders that don’t have entry permits to Pyongyang can come and sell their goods to Pyongyang citizens who only live a relatively short bus ride away, or to other traders that will ship the goods for sale there.

Read the full article here:
S. Korea says up to 1.8 mln N. Koreans use markets per day 
Yonhap News
2015-12-27

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750 markets in North Korea, one scholar says

Monday, December 21st, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

UPI reports that Lim Eul-chul of Kyungnam University puts the number of North Korean “gray” markets at 750. This number includes “alley vendors”, according to Lim, presumably another term for street markets:

There are now more than 750 “gray markets” in North Korea and one million people now make up the country’s consumer elite, a South Korean analyst said Tuesday.

Lim Eul-chul of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University said at a seminar for South Korean lawmakers grassroots enterprises in North Korea have increased, and businesses are diversifying.

“North Korean authorities also are involved in the markets,” Lim said.

On average, a North Korean city, county or region has an average of two marketplaces, bringing the national total to 500. If alley vendors are included in the tally, the total is 750, Lim said.

In larger cities like Chongjin, near the China border, there are about 12,000 vendor stalls and one city in South Pyongan Province is home to a marketplace that is more than 1 mile across, the analyst said.

The North Korean regime is an active participant in the unofficial marketplaces that began developing after the collapse of the state’s distribution system. Authorities enjoy a monopoly over the mobile phone market and related services, Lim said.

Other sought-after products in North Korean marketplaces include South Korea-made products that are smuggled into the country, as well as pizza and burgers.

It is unclear exactly how these numbers have been compiled. Lim appears to be using a very wide definition for what to count as a market. South Korean intelligence has previously put the number of markets at 380, while Curtis Melvin counts them to 406.

Read the full article:
More than 700 North Korea ‘gray’ marketplaces have emerged, analyst says
Elizabeth Shim
UPI
12-21-2015

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The limits of agriculture reform in North Korea

Friday, December 18th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Agricultural reforms in North Korea became a hot topic of discussion almost right away when Kim Jong-un took power in 2011. Only a number of months into his tenure, news began to come out of the country about attempts at agricultural reforms. It is unclear when (or even if) the June 28th Measures were finally extended to the whole country.

At the very least, three years in, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that North Korean agriculture has undergone major changes. These have been aimed at boosting production by creating better incentives for farmers to produce and sell more of their output to the state rather than diverting it to the market. The most important aspects of these reforms are the decreased size of work teams and new rules that let farmers keep 30 percent of their production plus any surplus above production targets, while the state takes the remaining 70.

These changes have been met with optimism among some. However, no one really knows exactly what impact these reforms have had. North Korean agriculture may be faring better than it used to – although this is also doubtful – but even so, it is too simplistic to assume that government reforms in agricultural management are doing all the work. As long as North Korea’s agriculture continues to be centrally planned by the state, there will be limits to how much better it can get no matter what reforms the state implements.

To see why, consider some of the news that have been coming out of North Korea in the past few months, as reported by Daily NK. In late November, the online daily reported that in despite by multilateral aid organizations, North Korea had seen relatively good harvests this year. However, the increased harvests, according to people inside the country, were not caused by changes in the agricultural management system of state-operated collective farms.

Rather, the North Koreans interviewed for the story claimed that private plot farmers had been better able to protect their crops from adverse weather impacts by using water pumps and other equipment. Even though trends like these alone probably have a limited impact, this shows that many circumstances other than state management matter.

A few weeks later, Daily NK published another interview carrying a similar message. According to sources inside the country, harvests from collective farms have declined, while private plot production has gone up (author’s emphasis added):

The amount of food harvested this year from the collective farms has “once again fallen short of expectations,” he said, adding that the farmers who work on them have criticized the orders coming down from the authorities, saying that “if we do things the way they want us to, it’s not going to work.”

Although the regime has forced people to mobilize, the source asserted that farm yields are not increasing. So, then, “the best thing to do would be to further divide the land up among individuals,” he posited.

Our source wondered if individual farms were not more successful because each person tending them personally grew and watered their plants. Currently, farmers must follow directives regarding the amount of water they can use on collective farms. He warned that if the system is not completely overhauled, crop yields will fail to improve.

In other words: as is so often the case, management orders from above often do not align with the reality on the ground.

One should be careful not to draw too many general conclusions based on individual interviews, but this is a well known general problem in all planned economies. Even with the best intentions, the state can never be fully informed about conditions and resources on the ground in an entire society.

This is one of the many reasons why economic central planning falters. We have seen this, too, with Kim Jong-un’s forestry policies. The state gives orders that have unintended consequences on the ground, because information is lacking. No central planning team can be fully informed about the reality prevailing throughout the system. The information problem becomes particularly dire in authoritarian dictatorships like North Korea, where people at the lower end of hierarchies often have strong incentives not to speak up about implementation problems when orders come from the top.

Ultimately, no matter what management reforms the North Korean regime implements, the country’s economic system remains the basic stumbling block. As long as central planning continues to be the ambition of economic and agricultural policies, there will be a limit to the success that agricultural policies can reach. We may expect to see agricultural reforms continuing, but as long as the system remains, they can hardly be revolutionary.

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A 2014 visit to Rajin’s old marketplace

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

National Unification Broadcasting (국민통일방송) published this video of the old Rajin Marketplace (filmed in Spring of 2014).

Since filming, the North Koreans have opened a new marketplace to replace this one. Here is a satellite image I published with RFA showing the old market and the new:

RFA-Rajin-Market-2015

The old marketplace is inside the yellow box on the left. The new market is inside the yellow box on the right.

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The (Market) Forces of History in North Korea

Friday, October 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Growth and Geography of Markets in North Korea

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some shameless self-promotion: the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS released a report yesterday where I (with the help of Curtis and others) study how North Korea’s formalized markets have grown over time, and how they are distributed geographically using satellite imagery from Google Earth. The report is available here. These are the main findings:

  • With a few exceptions, formalized markets have grown in North Korea over the past few years. In some cities, they have more than doubled, while other cities have seen only nominal or no changes. Only Pyongsong, the capital of South Pyong’an Province, has seen a significant decline in aggregate market space.
  • There exists only a weak correlation between population size and aggregate market space. The correlation between aggregate market space per capita and proximity to Pyongyang, a large driver for demand in the North Korean economy, is also relatively weak. 

The largest aggregate market space per capita can be found in cities in the southwestern part of the country. This suggests that trade on formal markets may be driven by other factors than those commonly assumed, such as sea route trade and agriculture.

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A new defector survey about market trade in North Korea, and what it says (maybe) about Kim Jong-un

Friday, August 28th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

In Wall Street Journal, Jeyup Kwaak reports on a new defector survey by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (08-26-2015) (added emphasis):

The Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies annually surveys more than 100 North Koreans who defected in the prior calendar year. The results provide firsthand insight into developments in the isolated state, though its researchers said they shouldn’t be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.

[…]

The latest survey, of 146 North Koreans who escaped in 2014, shows significant growth from the previous year in the number of people saying they conducted private business activities and paid bribes to enable them. A little more than half said they received no money from the state, down from last year’s survey but up from the one released in 2013.

Experts say between half and three-quarters of North Koreans’ income comes from quasi-illegal market activities, such as trade of basic goods smuggled in from China, but sporadic crackdowns by national or regional security officials lead to irregular business and bribery. Defectors say officials often collect fees when they set up a booth at a market.

The results themselves do not present a new trend. Several previous defector studies indicate that markets are perhaps the most important source of income and sustenance for many (if not most) North Koreans. However, a few things are interesting to note.

The links may not be entirely clear, but it is at least symbolic that the current survey, albeit with a very small number of interviewees, suggests that support for Kim Jong-un and the leadership may not be waning, at the same time as market activity continues unabated. This at least calls into question an assumption that sometimes occurs that market trade would lead people to become more critical of the regime.

Again, too much shouldn’t be read too much into a small study with participants that probably are not geographically or socially representative of North Korea as a whole. Defectors as a group rarely are. But perhaps one could imagine that market trade being so institutionalized and regulated by the regime would make it more synonymous with the regime itself. I.e., if market trading is seen as something positive, maybe this reflects positively on the regime as well — perhaps the market has been co-opted.

The article also reminds us of the rather peculiar combination of dynamics seen under Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, market trade seems to continue unabated domestically, and initiatives like the new special economic zones and the agricultural reforms show that there is at the very minimum some new thinking going on.

But on the other hand, border controls have been tightened to a degree rarely seen since the mid-1990s, according to defector reports. Just today, DailyNK reports (in Korean) that resident in the Sino-Korean borderlands have seen their access to the Amnok river, often used for laundry by locals, increasingly restricted as of late. As the WSJ writes,

Just 614 North Koreans made it to the South in the first half of this year, compared with 2,706 in the 2011 calendar year, according to the most recent ministry data.

The drop in North Koreans who visited China on legal visas so far this year should perhaps also be seen in this context.

Taken together, the tightened border controls on the one hand, and the seemingly changing (one could say “progressive”) rhetoric on economic matters on the other, paint a mixed picture.

In the early days of Kim Jong-un, the question was whether he was a reformer or a hardliner. A few years into his rule, it seems he might be neither and both at the same time.

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Grasshopper markets (메뚜기시장)

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

According to Reuters:

From the dark alleys of Pyongyang, the showpiece North Korean capital, tiny specks of torchlight shine carefully into the eyes of passersby, leading to bustling and illegal street markets where traders, usually women, call out “buy, buy!”

The “maeddugi shijang”, or “grasshopper markets,” get their name from the lightning-quick way traders must pack up and hop from place to place to evade authorities in a country making a grudging embrace of free enterprise.

As markets have taken hold in North Korea, the government has sporadically legalized and formalized them, while at the same time imposing new crackdowns, taxes, and bribes, forcing smaller traders back on to the streets where they set up “grasshopper markets” selling goods for cash.

“The grasshopper markets form in places near stations, on the roads to the (official) market, and around schools and parks,” said Seol Song Ah, a defector who left North Korea in 2011 and now works with the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website with sources inside North Korea.

“Wherever there are people, there are grasshopper markets.”

The markets are less well-stocked than official shops but offer convenience, carrying items from pots, socks, batteries, and cigarettes to fresh meat, according to residents of Pyongyang and defectors from the isolated country.

The informal, movable markets represent the new, grassroots driven economic reality in a country which is no longer truly collectivized, or communist – a change that began during the devastating famine of the 1990s and has since gained momentum.

‘TICK MERCHANTS’

Grasshoppers date to the 1980s, when old women started selling sweet potatoes and bean curd by roadsides, according to Seol, and have proliferated in recent years as more people, squeezed by new government regulations on the marketplace, have returned to underground trade.

In recent months, those who trade in the grasshopper markets have become known as “tick merchants” because they are hard to remove, and have therefore had restrictions on them slowly eased as security services struggle to shut them down, according to the Daily NK.

Still, because grasshopper markets are illegal, they are highly sensitive in the authoritarian country. A diplomatic source in Pyongyang who has visited grasshopper markets said he was followed by the “bowibu”, or secret police, down the dark grasshopper alleys.

“Trying to take a photo of a grasshopper market is one of the only times I’ve been seriously apprehended by the secret police,” the diplomatic source said.

A former foreign resident of Pyongyang said he had also never managed to photograph a grasshopper market.

“The one time I tried, the market ladies had vanished in the time it took me to get my camera from my pocket and raise it to take the shot,” the resident said.

“They are used to disappearing very, very quickly”.

Read the full story here:
In North Korean grassroots capitalism, ticks and grasshoppers skip
Reuters
James Pearson
2015-8-3

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