Archive for the ‘Black markets’ Category

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 Korea’s 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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KWP cadres and the donju

Friday, July 8th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some interesting snippets of practical political economy in North Korea, from DailyNK:

It seems like cadres are quite accustomed to watching each other’s backs like this. I’m curious now if there are any other arrangements that follow this pattern.
Absolutely. Cadres don’t engage in this kind of relationship exclusively with one another. The current trend is for cadres to engage in all-ssam with the donju (North Korea’s rising entrepreneurial class). But North Koreans don’t refer to close relations between ordinary people as all-ssam relationships. That being said, I’d like to explore the all-ssam culture that links cadres and the donju a bit more deeply.
In South Korea we’d call these kind of relations between government officials and business leaders as either unhealthy or flat-out collusion. I’m curious how the all-ssam relationships in North Korea break the standard political mold to create new power sharing arrangements. 
One example of how this relationship gets put into action concerns the state factories. The donju rent this space out from the cadres to make their products. But leasing the space requires more than money. To get the space, it’s also necessary to have a relationship with the managing cadres. The donju in South Pyongan Province have gotten quite cozy with the cadres there. The monthly building rental fee issued to the cadres becomes a form of profit for them.
Although this may seem like an illicit affair, the Party secretary affiliated with the factory knows about this. In fact, the secretary encourages ‘extra earnings’ through official orders. ‘Extra earnings’ refers to any profits made by the state factories that do not come from the use of raw materials and labor for the productions of goods for sale.
Moreover, the donju do not merely contribute some of the profits. They also issue a per diem including living expenses to the manager. This is a voluntary donation, and the manager usually responds by scratching the donju’s back in the form of providing extra factory facilities or making things more convenient for them. For example, in return for a per diem, a factory manager might issue an order to let the donju use a state vehicle to transport products to the market.
Seeing this, the Party secretary began to fear that his authority was becoming eclipsed by that of the managing cadres. He became worried that his title was strictly nominal and that he wielded little actual power. That’s why he began to grab up donju and bring them into all-ssam relationships with him. Those that didn’t enter into the relationship were cast out of his good graces. The more prosperous the donju, the bigger the problem for the cadres.
Full article here:
The complex ties interlinking cadres and the donju
Daily NK
2016-07-08
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North Korea and taxation: some possible causes

Friday, March 18th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The UNSC sanctions and the North Korean economy

Friday, March 11th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(UPDATE 2016-05-02): DailyNK continues to cover domestic prices in the context of the sanctions. In late April, vegetable prices rose, but rice prices remain notably stabile:

Despite these high prices, movements on the rice and foreign currency front have remained relatively stable, leading people to believe the spike in vegetables will be short lived.

“Vegetables are not export items and therefore their prices are determined by domestic supply and demand,” the Pyongyang-based source noted. “However strong the sanctions may be, rice prices have nonetheless remained the same and, under these conditions, not many will choose to eat expensive cabbages over rice,” the source added, suggesting that prices are likely to return to normal as the markets readjust for supply and demand.

Full article here:
Vegetable prices spikes, rice remains stabile 
Daily NK
Kang Mi Jin
2016-04-28

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

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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.

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

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