Archive for the ‘Private property’ Category

On the de-facto privatization of industry in the DPRK…

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Pictured above (Google Earth): A bus depot in Rakrang-guyok, Pyongyang.  See in Google Maps here.

According to the Daily NK:

Growth and improvement is evident in some areas of the private sector in North Korea, Ishimaru Jiro of ASIAPRESS revealed on the 16th, pointing to the growth of bigger, better private transit concerns and relatively productive coal mining operations as evidence of this trend.

In the past, trains were almost the only viable means of long-distance transportation in North Korea. Then, as private business began to grow and the railways fell into a deep malaise, vehicles such as trucks and cars belonging to military bases, state security and state enterprises were pushed into service to earn money for moving people; this, the so-called ‘servi-cha’ industry.

The servi-cha industry has long been fragmented and small scale; but now transportation companies run by rich individuals (‘donju’) which purchase several buses and hire drivers, guides and mechanics, are acting just as a transit company in a capitalist state would do.

With profit-sharing and bribery as the backbone, a large number of North Korean organs and enterprises have decided to lend their name to these individuals, fuelling the growth and development of a network of sorts.

“From the early 2000s, a high-speed bus network mostly between major cities began to emerge,” Ishimaru, revealing the latest research by ASIAPRESS internal North Korean sources, commented. “The companies are packaged as an enterprise affiliated to some state authority outwardly, but they are actually operated by individuals who pay kickbacks to that authority.”

The People’s Safety Ministry affiliated 116 Task Force Team is one such transportation company, Ishimaru says. It operates buses connecting Shinuiju, South Pyongan Province and Pyongyang. Ordinarily, the bus parks at a station or major public location, and then departs when it is full of passengers going to the next destination.

Here are previous posts on the servi-cha industry.

Read the full sotry here:
Green Shoots of Private Enterprise Growth
Daily NK


Integration in the Absence of Institutions: China-North Korea Cross-Border Exchange

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Peterson Institute Working Paper WP 11 – 13
Stephan Haggard, Jennifer Lee, and Marcus Noland

Read the full paper here (PDF).

Theory tells us that weak rule of law and institutions deter cross-border integration, deter investment relative to trade, and inhibit trade finance. Drawing on a survey of more than 300 Chinese enterprises that are doing or have done business in North Korea, we consider how informal institutions have addressed these problems in a setting in which rule of law and institutions are particularly weak. Given the apparent reliance on hedging strategies, the rapid growth in exchange witnessed in recent years may prove self-limiting, as the effectiveness of informal institutions erode and the risk premium rises. Institutional improvement could have significant welfare implications, affecting the volume, composition, and financial terms of cross-border exchange.

JEL: P3, P33, F15, F36
Keywords: economic integration, property rights, institutions, transition, China, North Korea

Read the full paper here (PDF).


The secret world of North Korea’s new rich

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Andrei Lankov provides some anecdotal evidence and a taxonomy of the DPRK’s growing entrepreneurial class (perhaps one of the most interesting and least reported aspects of the DPRK).  He also gives us a glimpse of how the North Korean version of the “infant industry” mindset can impede economic reform.

Here is a great blurb from the article in the Asia Times:

Who are they – the North Korean new rich? The upper crust of this social group consists of high-level officials. Some of them have gained their wealth through illegal means, but many have seen their business activities permitted and even actively encouraged by the government. Most of the money is made in foreign trade, with China being by the far the most significant partner.

Many North Korean companies, despite being technically owned by the state, are effectively private and are run by top officials and their relatives.

That said, these people are not that frequently seen on the streets of Pyongyang. They live in their own enclosed world, of which not much is known.

But if we go one or two steps down, we will encounter a very different type of North Korean entrepreneur – somebody who has made his or her (yes, surprising many of them are women) money more or less independent of the state.

Complete independence is not possible because every North Korean businessman has to pay officials just to make sure that they will not ask too many questions and turn a blind eye to activities that are still technically illegal. In many cases, North Korean entrepreneurs prefer to disguise their private operations under the cover of some state agency.

Take for example Pak. In his early 40s, he runs a truck company together with a few friends. The company has seven trucks and largely specializes in moving salt from salt ponds on the seacoast to major wholesale markets. The company employs a couple of dozen people, but officially it does not exist. On paper, all trucks are owned by state agencies and Pak’s employees are also officially registered as workers of state enterprises.

Pak bought used trucks in China, paying the Chinese owners with cash. He then took them to North Korea where he had the vehicles registered with various government agencies (army units are the best choice since military number plates give important advantages). Pak paid officials for their agreement to “adopt” the trucks. This is so common in the North that there is even an established rate of how much fake registration of a particular type of vehicle costs at which government agency.

Kim was a private owner of a gold mine. The gold mine was officially registered as a state enterprise. Technically, it was owned by a foreign trade company that in turn was managed by the financial department of the Party Central Committee. However, this was a legal fiction, pure and simple: Kim, once a mid-level police official, made some initial capital through bribes and smuggling, while his brother had made a minor fortune through selling counterfeit Western tobacco.

Then they used their money to grease the palms of bureaucrats, and they took over an old gold mine that had ceased operation in the 1980s. They restarted the small mine and hired workers, bought equipment and restarted operations. The gold dust was sold independently (and, strictly speaking, illegally) to Chinese traders.

The brothers agreed with the bureaucrats from the foreign trade company on how much money they should pay them roughly between 30-40% and the rest was used to run the business and enjoy life.

One step below we can see even humbler people like Ms Young, once an engineer at a state factory. In the mid-1990s, she began trading in second-hand Chinese dresses. By 2005 she was running a number of workshops that employed a few dozen women.

They made copies of Chinese garments using Chinese cloth, zippers and buttons. Some of the materials was smuggled across the border, while another part was purchased legally, mostly from a large market in the city of Raseon (a special economic zone which can be visited by Chinese merchants almost freely).

Interestingly, Ms Young technically remained an employee of a non-functioning state factory from which she was absent for months on end. She had to pay for the privilege of missing work and indoctrination sessions, deducting some $40 as her monthly “donation”. This is an impressive sum if compared with her official salary of merely US$2.

The North Korean new rich might occasionally feel insecure. They might be afraid of the state, because pretty much everything they do is in breach of some article of the North Korean criminal code. A serious breach indeed – technically any of the above described persons could be sent to face an execution squad at the moment the authorities change their mind.

And before we all get our hopes up that this emergent entrepreneurial class will eventually push the leadership to adopt economic reforms, Lankov reminds us how they could just as well serve to prolong the regime’s life:

Paradoxically, the long-term interests of the emerging North Korean business class might coincide with that of the Kim regime. Unlike normal people in the North, both groups – officials and entrepreneurs – have an interest in maintaining a separate North Korean state. Unification with the South is bound to spell disaster for both groups.

A person who is now running a couple of small shops might eventually, if North Korean capitalism continues uninterrupted growth, become an owner of a supermarket chain. If unification comes, he or she would be lucky to survive the competition with the South Korean retail giants and keep the few corner shops they had.

The full story is well worth reading here:
The secret world of North Korea’s new rich
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov



DPRK food prices unstable as lean season approaches

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 10-04-28-1

The price of rice in North Korean markets, steadily declining until the end of March, saw an upswing in April. Rising prices indicate early concerns over food shortages expected during the lean crop season of May-June.

Recently, in the Nammun Market of Hyeryeong City (Satellite image here), rice that sold for 300 Won/Kg at the end of March was priced at 500 Won/Kg, and when there were no special rations delivered on the ‘Day of the Sun’, Kim Il Sung’s birthday (April 15), rumors spread that no state rations would be forthcoming, driving market prices up further.

Pyongyang itself was not immune to the rising prices. As rations were handed to Pyongyang residents in March, rice fell to as low as 200 Won/Kg in the Seongyo Market (Satellite image here), but by April 15, it had climbed back to 300 Won/Kg with rumors of upcoming shortages.

In the past, rice prices have fluctuated due to rumors of rations and/or food shortages, but since the latest currency reform, prices have been much more susceptible to people’s emotional concerns. Daily NK has been watching rice prices in Hyeryeong’s Nammun Market since February, and concluded that as rumors of price increases spread, price tags in markets shot up, at which time sellers felt the urge to dump their goods, bringing prices back down.

Immediately following last year’s currency reforms, North Korean authorities ordered the closing of markets. These markets reopened on February 5. Authorities had also dictated that rice be sold for 24 Won/Kg, but the time markets reopened, a ‘compromise plan’ allowed prices to climb to 240 Won/Kg. Within a month (March 7), prices shot up to 1,500 Won, only to crash back down weeks later (April 2) to 300 Won. Such drastic price fluctuations indicate a limited availability of food in the markets. This kind of seesawing prices reflects a lack of trust in authorities. As residents lost faith in North Korean authorities, they tried to sell their holdings, but differences in domestic prices, exchange rates, and black markets meant severe price instability.

From December to January, restrictions on the use of foreign currency, along with a sharp drop-off in rice trading, really drove up prices. However, authorities’ restrictions on foreign currency began to waiver, and this, combined with the launch of investigations into illegal hording of food supplies by businesses and foreign trading companies, led to an influx of rice into markets, bringing prices back down.

Now, with the future of rations in question even in Pyongyang and other major cities, rice prices are again on the rise. With many people predicting that economic conditions and food supplies will be lean in the near future, market prices will likely continue to increase. In North Korea, the price of rice is an important index, reflecting economic stability.


Hermit economics hobbles Pyongyang

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

Aidan Foster-Carter writes in the Financial Times about some poor decision-making coming out of Pyongyang:

Great Leader? Pyongyang’s fawning hagiography not only grates, but is singularly unearned. Even by its own dim lights, North Korea’s decision-making is going from bad to worse.

Last year saw two spectacular own goals. Missile and nuclear tests were a weird way to greet a new US president ready to reach out to old foes. The predictable outcome was condemnation by the United Nations Security Council, plus sanctions on arms exports that are biting.

Domestic policy is just as disastrous. December’s currency “reform” beggars belief. Did Kim Jong-il really fail to grasp that redenomination would not cure inflation, but worsen it? Or that brazenly stealing people’s savings – beyond a paltry minimum, citizens only got 10 per cent of their money back – would finally goad his long-suffering subjects into rioting? Forced to retreat, officials even apologised. One scapegoat was sacked – and possibly shot.

By his own admission, Mr Kim does not do economics. In a speech in 1996, when famine was starting to bite, the Dear Leader whined defensively that his late father, Kim Il-sung, had told him “not to get involved in economic work, but just concentrate on the military and the party”.

That awful advice explains much. Incredibly, North Korea was once richer than the South. In today’s world, this is the contest that counts. “It’s the economy, stupid” is no mere slogan, but a law of social science.

Having taken an early lead, Kim senior threw it all away. He built the world’s fourth largest army, crippling an economy that he refused to reform, viewing liberalisation as betrayal. His own personality cult was and is a literally monumental weight of unproductive spending.

Used to milking Moscow and Beijing, in the 1970s North Korea borrowed from western banks – and promptly defaulted. That was not smart; it has had to pay cash up front ever since.

Pyongyang also resorts to less orthodox financing. In 1976 the Nordic nations expelled a dozen North Korean diplomats for trafficking cigarettes and booze. In December a Swedish court jailed two for smuggling cigarettes. More than 100 busts worldwide over 30 years, of everything from ivory and heroin to “supernotes” (fake $100 bills), leave scant doubt that this is policy.

Yet morality aside, it is stupid policy. Pariahs stay poor. North Korea could earn far more by going straight. The Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), where South Korean businesses employ Northern workers to make a range of goods, shows that co-operation can work. Yet Pyongyang keeps harassing it, imposing arbitrary border restrictions and demanding absurd wage hikes.

Now it threatens to seize $370m (€275m, £247m) of South Korean assets at Mount Kumgang, a tourist zone idle since a southern tourist was shot dead in 2008 and the north refused a proper investigation. Even before that, Pyongyang’s greed in extorting inflated fees from Hyundai ensured that no other chaebol has ventured north. Contrast how China has gained from Taiwanese investment.

In this catalogue of crassness, the nadir came in 1991 when the dying Soviet Union abruptly pulled the plug on its clients. All suffered, but most adapted. Cuba went for tourism; Vietnam tried cautious reform; Mongolia sold minerals. Only North Korea, bizarrely, did nothing – except watch its old system crumble. Gross domestic product plunged by half, and hunger killed up to a million. Now famine again stalks the land. The state cannot provide, yet still it seeks to suppress markets.

All this is as puzzling as it is terrible. China and Vietnam show how Asian communist states can morph towards capitalism and thrive. Kim Jong-il may fear the fate of the Soviet Union if he follows suit. True, his regime has survived – even if many of its people have not. Yet the path he is on is patently a dead end. Mr Kim’s own ill-health, and a belated bid to install his unknown third son as dauphin, only heighten uncertainty. Militant mendicancy over the nuclear issue – demanding to be paid for every tiny step towards a distant disarmament, then backsliding and trying the same trick again – will no longer wash. North Korea has run out of road; the game is finally up.

What now? A soft landing, with Mr Kim embracing peace abroad and reform at home, remains the best outcome. But if he obdurately resists change, we need a plan B. The US and South Korea have contingency plans for the north’s collapse. So does China, separately. Tacit co-ordination is urgent, lest future chaos be compounded by a clash of rival powers – as in the 1890s. Koreans have a rueful proverb: when whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken.

But Beijing will not let it come to that. China is quietly moving into North Korea, buying up mines and ports. Some in Seoul cry colonialism, but it was they who created this vacuum by short-sightedly ditching the past decade’s “sunshine” policy of patient outreach. President Lee Myung-bak may have gained the Group of 20 chairmanship, but he has lost North Korea.

Nor will Mr Kim nuzzle docile under China’s wing, though his son might. As ever, North Korea will take others’ money and do its own thing. In early 2010 new fake “super-yuan” of high quality, very hard to detect, started appearing in China. They wouldn’t, would they?

Read the full article here:
Hermit economics hobbles Pyongyang
Financial Times
Aidan Foster-Carter


Threat of confiscation is lowering prices?

Monday, March 29th, 2010

According ot the Daily NK:

The current rice price downturn in North Korea has been caused by the fact that wholesalers and individuals dumped rice and corn in bulk onto the market in order to avoid it being confiscated by the authorities, according to sources inside the country.

A source from North Hamkyung Province reported on the 26th that the rice price in Chongjin had dropped even further.

Recently, the authorities reportedly announced that food distribution would be normalized and that grain stored by individuals would be confiscated. Therefore, citizens started releasing their stored food onto the market in order to avoid confiscation, generating oversupply.

The source said on a telephone conversation with the Daily NK on the 26th, “In the Youth Park Market in Shinam-district, Chongjin, rice is now 480 won and corn 210 won per kilo.

The source said, “The Army security apparatus has been confiscating food stored by foreign currency earning organizations. It is a part of the implementation of their plan to lower food prices to state-designated levels.”

One North Korean resident told The Daily NK last week, “Prices have been fluctuating since the redenomination, but now a notice has been handed down from the Cabinet saying that prices will be stabilized by April 1. It says the Cabinet will deal with this confusion in the people’s economy.”

The source added, “In inspections by the Prosecutors Department of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces and Defense Security Command, foreign currency earning apparatus affiliated with military units stationed in Chongjin and another five organizations were revealed to be storing around 260 tons of grains, which was confiscated. Around 90 tons of grain stored by the No. 9 Division was also taken and managers were interrogated by the inspections group.”

With the downturn in food prices, the exchange rate in Chongjin also went down to 690 won to the dollar.

Confiscation Threat Spurs Grain Market Flood
Daily NK
Jin Hyuk Su


The urban dimension of the North Korean economy: A speculative analysis

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Chapter 11 of North Korea in the World Economy
Bertrand Renauld

(NKeconWatch: the whole paper is worth reading in full.  Below is the introduction.  Here is a link to the chapter in Google Books.


This chapter explores the urban dimension of the North Korean economy. Few areas of economic management of centrally planned economies have met with such widespread dissatisfaction and broad popular support for reforms as housing and urban development. This dissatisfaction arises from the peculiar systemic features of the “socialist city.” Since the early 1990s we have been able to study the economics of this type of city based on data from cities of the former Soviet Union, Central Europe, and also China and Vietnam. Of course, no such access to information exists today in North Korea.

As a starting point, I ask only one question: based on the body of knowledge that we have gained from other centrally planned economies (CPE), what are the systemic features of the North Korean urban economy that we expect to find? By so doing, the chapter applies to North Korean cities the method of “rigorous speculation” used earlier by Noland et al. (2000a) on North Korean macroeconomic and trade performance. According to Noland and his colleagues, “rigorous speculation” is the incorporation of fragmentary information into a consistent analytical framework that can clarify alternative scenarios regarding current economic conditions in North Korea. The results can then suggest suitable reforms to stimulate the economy.

Using a medical analogy, the focus is how the “personal history and diagnosis” of the North Korean urban system should be conducted some day. The analysis should not be misconstrued or misused: it is not offered as an actual diagnosis of the North Korean urban system. Rather, using our body of knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the “socialist city,” it speculates about what we should expect to find in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) urban system. This “pre-diagnosis” relies on the limited yet often revealing information available on the North Korean urban system and its patterns of investment. We also can narrow the range of uncertainty about the structure of the North Korean urban system by means of international comparisons. For instance, should we expect the North Korea system of cities to have more in common with the Soviet cities of Russia than with Chinese or Vietnamese cities, both in terms of time paths of development and of institutional arrangements?

The paper contains many interesting facts and data that help us understand just how different centrally planned/socialist cities are when compared with market-based cities.  The paper also spells out some interesting implications for North Korea’s urban residents (the majority of the country’s population) once the transition from a socialist to a market-based infrastructure begins. 


North Korea’s transformation: A legal perspective

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

The Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) published an interesting paper (with the above title) on legal reform in the DPRK.  Below are some highlights.  Links to the entire paper at the bottom.

As citizens have been left without state provisions for subsistence since the state did not have the material resources to supply the people through its central rationing system, the vast majority of individuals and organizations had to support themselves. Legitimizing commercial and market activity and expanding the scope of private ownership were a part of this effort. One of the most important laws reflecting this transformation is the Damage Compensation Law (sonhae bosang-beop), which is the North Korean version of a general torts law. This law holds an individual or any legal entity liable for its tort when damage is inflicted. Monetary compensation is the rule, while restoration is allowed when possible.

Under the socialist system, where the state is responsible for the provision of a citizen’s livelihood, tort law was of little use. Even in the case of death, one’s family would not suffer economically since the state provided sustenance rations. However, with the collapse of the public distribution system, the North Korean authorities could no longer maintain their socialist system. Since an individual now has to rely on his or her own devices, the loss of the employment, for example, directly inflicts a financial burden on the individual or family. Therefore, damage to property or person should be compensated for by the responsible party. Therefore, the new damage compensation law acts as a new mechanism for the protection of private property, and strengthens individual responsibility for negligent acts that inflict damage on others.


Relaxation of law and order, along with the laxity of organizational control due to economic difficulties, changed individual attitudes toward government authorities and organizations in which these individuals were members. Individuals became more independent from the state and its organizations, since both the state and more directly engaged organizations lost important means of control over individuals in society due to the lack of resources and the inability to provide basic necessities to the people.

Under these circumstances, individual victims had no appropriate method to seek compensation for damage through an official dispute resolution process. This has led to an environment in which self-remedy has become the rule, rather than the exception. Although new criminal law punishes those who have used force in asserting their rights, there is no effective means of dispute resolution outside of taking advantage of officials willing to look the other way in exchange for favors, or hiring thugs to more directly resolve disagreements. Citizens can buy justice through bribes, and law enforcement officials are especially helpful in these endeavors when their palms are greased. This is much more economical as well as effective than bringing a case to the relevant official agency, which is generally incapable of resolving problems and instead further exploits the situation.

On courts and lawyers…

For example, the most prominent role of the court in North Korea, where other types of lawsuit are very unusual, was to handle divorce settlements, since divorce through simple agreement of the two parties was not allowed. Ordinary citizens went so far as to perceive settlement of divorce to be the most important role of the court. Criminal cases were also unusual. Political crime is handled through a non-judicial process, while many deviances are resolved through unofficial processes within more local organizations. The role of the court in resolving disputes was negligible, aside from divorce. Since the role of law enforcement agencies is to protect the state and secure the socialist system, the most important qualification for them is not legal expertise, but rather, loyalty and devotion to the North Korean ideology and system.

On the other hand, the Lawyer’s Act of 1993 prescribes the required qualifications of a lawyer. Those who are eligible to work as lawyers are those who are certified legal professionals, those who have working experience of no less than 5 years in legal affairs, or those who have a professional license in a certain area and have passed the bar examination after a short-term course in legal education. This qualification for working as a lawyer signifies that the state wants to equip the judicial system with legal professionals. Although there is no explicit professional qualification for a judge or prosecutor, we may assume that legal professionals have been elected or recruited in practice. This trend is likely to be reinforced as these social changes continue to unfold.

New provisions were also introduced to reinforce the judicial system. For example, interference with a law enforcement official’s performance of duties is now a punishable offence ; Threatening a witness or exacting revenge has been criminalized ; Non-execution of judgment will now be punished. Although the introduction of these provisions was an expression of the government’s effort to bring in a more effective judicial system, it would not be an easy task under the vague status of transformation. The state is very cautious and reluctant to undertake bold or fundamental changes due to concerns about political instability. Therefore, it takes time for various coherent mechanisms to fully support a market system.

You can download the entire paper in PDF format here.

You can read it on the IFES web page here.


North Korea – last in economic freedom in 2009

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

The purpose of these types of indexes is to put pressure on world governments to improve their economic policies.  Unfortunately, the DPRK has come in last place for as long as I have been paying attention….

From the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom:


North Korea’s economic freedom score is 2, making its economy the least free in the 2009 Index. North Korea is ranked 41st out of 41 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

North Korea does not score well in any single area of economic freedom, although it does score some minimal points in investment freedom and property rights. The Communist Party controls and commands almost every aspect of economic activity. Since the early 1990s, North Korea has replaced the doctrine of Marxism’Leninism with the late Kim Il-Sung’s juche (self-reliance) as the official state ideology. Yet the country’s impoverished population is heavily dependent on government subsidies in housing and food rations even though the state-run rationing system has deteriorated significantly in recent years.

North Korea devotes a disproportionately large share of GDP to military spending, further exacerbating the country’s already poor economic situation. Normal foreign trade is minimal, with China and South Korea being the most important trading partners. Trade with India is increasing. No courts are independent of political interference, and private property (particularly land) is strictly regulated by the state. Corruption is rampant but hard to distinguish from regular economic activity in a system in which arbitrary government control is the norm.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the world’s most oppressed and closed societies, and its Communist rulers have repressed basic human rights and nationalized all industry since the country’s founding in 1948. In the 1990s, floods and droughts exacerbated systemic shortcomings and led to severe famine and millions of civilian deaths. North Korea’s economy is mainly supported by international aid and trade with its major trading partners, China and South Korea.

Business Freedom
The overall freedom to start, operate, and close a business is extremely restricted by North Korea’s national regulatory environment. The state regulates the economy heavily through central planning. Economic reforms implemented in 2002 allegedly brought some changes at the enterprise and industrial levels, but entrepreneurial activity is virtually impossible.

Trade Freedom
The government controls all imports and exports, and formal trade is minimal. North Korean trade statistics are limited and compiled from trading partners’ data. Most trade is de facto aid, mainly from North Korea’s two main trading partners, China and South Korea. Non-tariff barriers are significant. Inter-Korean trade remains constrained by North Korea’s unwillingness to implement needed reform. Given the minimal level of trade, a score of zero was assigned.

Fiscal Freedom
No data on income or corporate tax rates are available because no effective tax system is in place. The government plans and manages almost every part of the economy. Given the absence of published official macroeconomic data, such figures as are available with respect to North Korea’s government expenditures are suspect and outdated.

Government Size
The government owns virtually all property and sets production levels for most products, and state-owned industries account for nearly all GDP. The state directs all significant economic activity. Large military spending further drains scarce resources.

Monetary Freedom
Price and wage reforms introduced in July 2002 consisted of reducing government subsidies and telling producers to charge prices that more closely reflect costs. Without matching supply-side measures to boost output, the result has been rampant inflation for many staple goods. Because of the ongoing crisis in agriculture, the government has banned sales of grain at markets and returned to rationing. A score of zero was assigned.

Investment Freedom
North Korea generally does not welcome foreign investment. A small number of projects may be approved by top levels of government; however, the scale of these investments is also small. Numerous countries employ sanctions against North Korea, and ongoing political and security concerns make investment extremely hazardous. Internal laws do not allow for international dispute arbitration. One attempt to open the economy to foreigners was North Korea’s first special economic zone, located at the remote Rajin-Sonbong site in the Northeast. Wage rates in the special zone are unrealistically high because the state controls the labor supply and insists on taking a share of wages. More recent special zones at Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong are more enticing. Aside from these few economic zones where investment is approved on a case-by-case basis, foreign investment is prohibited.

Financial Freedom
North Korea is a command-and-control economy with virtually no functioning financial sector. Access to financing is very limited and constrained by the country’s failed economy. The central bank also serves as a commercial bank and had more than 200 local branches in 2007. The government provides most funding for industries and takes a percentage from enterprises. Foreign aid agencies have set up microcredit schemes to lend to farmers and small businesses. A rumored overhaul of the financial system to permit firms to borrow from banks instead of receiving state-directed capital has not materialized. Because of debts dating back to the 1970s, most foreign banks will not enter North Korea.

Property Rights
Property rights are not guaranteed. Almost all property, including nearly all real property, belongs to the state, and the judiciary is not independent. The government even controls all chattel property (domestically produced goods as well as all imports and exports).

Freedom From Corruption
After the mid-1990s economic collapse and subsequent famines, North Korea developed an immense informal market, especially in agricultural goods. Informal trading with China in currency and goods is active. There are many indicators of corruption in the government and security forces. Military and government officials reportedly divert food aid from international donors and demand bribes before distributing it.

Labor Freedom
As the main source of employment, the state determines wages. Since the 2002 economic reforms, factory managers have had limited autonomy to set wages and offer incentives, but highly restrictive government regulations hinder any employment and productivity growth.


North Korea’s real estate black market

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Some great qualitative information on the DPRK’s underground real estate market from Radio Free Asia:

Central authorities are investigating the practice in all of North Korea’s major cities and have confiscated the homes of “dozens” of local officials in the city of Chongjin, one well-informed source who asked not to be named said.

Private ownership or sale of homes is forbidden by the North Korean state, which assigns dwellings to its citizens based on its own determination of need.

“Most government officials build their residences in the North Korean equivalent of suburbs, in areas that are close to the city but still have a rural flavor,” the source, a Chinese merchant who does business in North Korea, said.

“They sell them when they retire.”

“If someone sells a 50-pyong (1,800-square foot) house in such an upscale neighborhood, he can then buy a house that is three or four times bigger in a different area,” the merchant said.

Party and state officials receive permits and order state-run construction companies to build homes in suburban areas near the sea, the merchant said.

He added that the value of real estate privately sold in North Korean port cities is now appreciating at twice the rate of real estate sold elsewhere in the country.

High-quality materials, including expensive appliances and wallpaper, are often used in the building of officials’ homes, according to a North Korean defector originally from Chongjin but now living in South Korea.

“Small but elegant” patios are sometimes also included, he said.

To justify the construction and occupancy of a larger space, local officials build multi-unit structures and fill them with relatives or people of more modest means, the defector said. 

When the officials retire, they pay the other occupants to move and then sell the entire structure.

North Korean authorities have now sent “task forces” to each of North Korea’s major cities to investigate real estate deals by local officials, the border merchant said, adding that a 40-member group was recently sent to Chongjin, where the homes of dozens of officials were seized.

An official in the city’s Songpyong Ward has reportedly been demoted and reassigned to a more backward part of the country, and fines equal to the actual value of transactions have been imposed on citizens who bought or sold homes.

Some thoughts:
1. IFES reported that private real estate transactions were quite common last september.

2. This report, combined with previous accounts, indicates that, although illegal, the DPRK’s real estate market is quite rational.  Construction quality and location influence housing prices.  According to the Daily NK, the qality of the chairman of the neighborhood people’s committee also influences the price.

3. Could the effort to crack down on these transactions be part of the plans to achieve a “Strong and prosperous nation” by 2012?

Read more here:
North Korean Economy Watch: real estate posts

North Korea’s Black-Market Housing
Radio Free Asia
Jung Young

Private sector real estate activity booming in the DPRK
Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 08-9-4-1

Who Is the Chairperson of the People’s Unit?
Daily NK
Moon Sung Hwee