Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

How bad is the Kaesong shutdown for the North Korean Economy?

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The Ministry of Unification in Seoul announced today that the industrial park in Kaesong be closed as a form of retaliation for North Korea’s recent rocket launch, alleging that funds from the park have been used to finance the north’s arms buildup. Wall Street Journal (with my emphasis):

A representative of South Korea’s Unification Ministry said that the move to shut down Kaesong was an effort by South Korea, “as a key party, to show leadership in taking part in these moves.”

Kaesong is an important source of income for Pyongyang. The regime received $120 million last year, and a total of $560 million since 2004, in workers’ wages directly from the South Korean side, according to the Unification Ministry. Those payments are made directly to the regime, which is then charged with paying the workers themselves, a system that critics say allows the regime to pocket most of the money.

“It appears that such funds have not been used to pave the way to peace as the international community had hoped, but rather to upgrade its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles,” the Unification Ministry said on Wednesday.

Naturally, this is bad news for the North Korean economy. But how bad exactly?

Here are a few other figures to give some sense of the proportions:

  • The volume of trade between North Korea and China only in the January-May period of last year totalled $1.1 billion, with North Korean exports accounting for $954 million.
  • Between January and November last year, the value of North Korea’s exports to China was $2.28 billion.
  • Textile exports to China from North Korea brought in around $800 million in 2014.
  • North Korean guest workers in China’s border provinces are estimated to be raising between $140-$170 million per year.

In the overall context, it seems like losses from the closure of Kaesong could be potentially bad, but not catastrophic.

UPDATE 1: Here is the full statement from the Ministry of Unification:

Government Statement regarding the Complete Shutdown of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex

North Korea has pushed ahead with the extremely provocative act of launching a long-range missile on the heels of its 4th nuclear test, showing disregard for the repeated warnings of the international community and the suffering of its people.

North Korea’s provocations are a direct challenge to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the international community and its actions are absolutely unacceptable. Notwithstanding international efforts to deter North Korea from developing its nuclear capabilities and long-range missiles,

North Korea has declared that it would follow up on its recent provocations with additional nuclear tests and missile launches, thereby not even showing the slightest intent to forgo the development of its nuclear and missile capabilities.

The status quo is not static, as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will be upgraded, all but leading to a catastrophic disaster. If left unattended, North Korea’s nuclear and missile development will lead to a fundamental imbalance in and threat to the security landscape of Northeast Asia, not to mention the Korean Peninsula, and the countries of this region will be left with no choice but to take measures to ensure their own survival and shore up their security, and there are concerns that this could eventually even lead to a nuclear domino effect.

Under these grave circumstances, it is clear that the existing approach will not work in discomfiting North Korea’s nuclear and missile development plans. Accordingly, what is in order is a vigorous response together with the international community that, for sure, exacts a price for North Korea’s misguided actions, as well as extraordinary measures that compel North Korea to give up its nuclear capabilities and change its ways.

At a time when the international community is seeking sanctions in the wake of North Korea’s violation of UN Security Council resolutions with its nuclear test and long-range missile launch, there is a need for Korea, as a key party, to show leadership in taking part in these moves.

Over the years, our Government has been working to continue maintaining the Gaeseong Industrial Complex despite North Korea’s repeated provocations and under extreme state of affairs, all with a view to assisting the lives of the North Korean people, providing impetus to lifting up the North Korean economy, and achieving the shared progress for both South and North Korea. We have also made every effort to move the Gaeseong Industrial Complex forward under the position that it should be developed in conformity with international norms.

However, such assistance and the efforts of our Government have ultimately been wrongly harnessed in the service of upgrading North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

To date, the total amount of cash that flowed into North Korea through the Gaeseong Industrial Complex is 616 billion won (560 million dollars), with 132 billion won (120 million dollars) in cash having flowed into North Korea last year alone, and the Government and the private sector have invested a total of 1.019 trillion won. It appears that such funds have not been used to pave the way to peace as the international community had hoped, but rather to upgrade its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

This tramples on the efforts of the Korean Government and the 124 businesses that have set up shop in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, and puts at risk the lives and safety of the Korean people.

Today, in order to stop funds of the Gaeoseong Industrial Complex from being used to support the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, and to prevent our businesses from suffering, the Government has decided to completely shut down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex.

We have notified the North Korean authorities of this decision and called on them to extend such cooperation as is rendered necessary by the complete shutdown of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex, including the safe return of our citizens.

The Government will move expeditiously forward with all steps to ensure the safe return of our citizens, and will set up a Government Task Force under the Office for Government Policy Coordination to provide the necessary whole-of-government assistance to our businesses.

We ask for the full understanding of our people that the Government’s complete shutdown of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex is an unavoidable decision, which takes into account the seriousness of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and we call upon the people to stand with us as we seek to overcome such challenges.

UPDATE 2: Kent Boydston at the Peterson Institute offers this graph, and notes we can expect to see the trend reverse:

DPRK-China-ROK-trade-2015

Full reference to the Wall Street Journal article quoted above:
South Korea, Japan Take Steps to Penalize North Korea
Wall Street Journal 
Jonathan Cheng
02-10-2016

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The economy in Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address: what’s there and what isn’t

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The supposed hydrogen bomb test has come to dominate the news on North Korea over the past few days, for obvious reasons. Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address has naturally ended up in the shadow of the nuclear test, but it is worth going back for a closer look. Overall, it is a speech that appears to contain few major announcements or indications. Perhaps more surprising than what themes are there, are the themes that are absent.

Stephan Haggard pretty much sums up how economic matters are treated in the speech, as they often are in North Korean rhetoric on economics: “As usual, the economic components of the speech rely more on exhortation than any clear policy message, confusing results with the means of achieving them.”

That is, in much of the speech, Kim simply talks about what will be achieved but leaves out how to get thereTake the following paragraph, for example (my emphasis added):

The Cabinet and other state and economic organs should decisively improve their economic planning and guidance. Leading economic officials should fully equip themselves with Party policy, work out plans of the economic work in an innovative way and give a strong push to it on the principle of developing all the sectors at an exponential speed by relying on the inexhaustible creative strength of the working people and by dint of modern science and technology. They should accurately identify the main link in the whole chain of economic development and concentrate efforts on it while revitalizing the overall economy, especially when the conditions are not favourable and many difficulties arise. They should be proactive in organizing and launching the work of establishing on a full scale our style of economic management method which embodies the Juche idea, thus giving full play to its advantages and vitality.

And:

All the sectors of the national economy should set ambitious goals and maintain regular production by tapping every possible internal reserve and potentiality.

Those who are more savvy at reading between the lines and interpreting rhetorical symbolisms can perhaps draw out meaningful signals from quotes such as these. But at face-value, they seem to give little indication of policy changes. Or of any policy at all, for that matter.

What are the areas that Kim hold up as economic priorities, then? Stephan Haggard points out heavy industry as one such theme. It is also the one mentioned first in the speech. Infrastructure and power supply also features fairly prominently (and is mentioned early on), with specific references to several power station construction projects. Kim also mentions IT and the “knowledge-driven economy” (emphasis added):

Our working class, scientists and technicians, true to the instructions of the great leaders, made a big stride in making the metallurgical industry Juche-based, built model, standard factories of the era of the knowledge-driven economy in various parts of the country and put production lines on a modern and IT footing, thus opening a new road of advance for developing the overall economy and improving the people’s standard of living.

Presumably, this is what North Korean media mean when they talk about the H-bomb test as an economic boost: that such capabilities show North Korea’s strength as a knowledge-based economy.

Domestic production capabilities are highlighted all the way through. This theme isn’t new. Kim Jong-un has often emphasized the importance of goods diversity and local production. This lies well in line with the basic economic tenets of the Juche doctrine. Here is one example of how domestic production capacity is highlighted in the speech (emphasis added):

The flames of the campaign to implement the Party’s ideas and defend its policies have unfolded a proud reality of our indigenous plane flying in the sky and our indigenous subway train running under the ground, and rich fish and fruit harvests were gathered, their socialist flavour bringing pleasure to the people.

One theme that features relatively prominently is construction. In one paragraph, Kim even states that “Construction is a yardstick and visual evidence for the strength of a country and the quality of its civilization”, and continues to urge the country to build more:

The construction sector should launch a general offensive to implement the Party’s construction policy and grand plan. By doing so, it should build important production facilities, educational and cultural institutions and dwelling houses on the highest possible level and at the fastest possible speed, so that they serve as standards and models of the times. In this way it can make sure that the great heyday of construction continues without letup.

Perhaps this is an indication that the building boom in Pyongyang of the past few years will continue. Priorities such as this one primarily benefit those political classes that live in Pyongyang. With few exceptions, as far as I’m aware, most other cities have seen little of the construction boom that the capital city has experienced.

There is also a reference to the coal mining industry. On the one hand, it may be interesting because North Korea’s main export destination for coal is China, and these trade flows have been volatile over the years, and there have been signs that North Korea isn’t getting a good deal in this trade. But on the other hand, this may be reading too much into one small reference in the speech (emphasis added):

In order to achieve breakthroughs for a turning point in building an economic giant the electric-power, coal-mining and metallurgical industries and the rail transport sector should advance dynamically in the vanguard of the general offensive.

Later, coal mining appears only in reference to the domestic power supply (emphasis added):

All sectors and all units should wage a vigorous campaign to economize on electricity and make effective use of it. The sector of coal-mining industry should raise the fierce flames of an upsurge in production to ensure enough supply of coal for the thermal power stations and several sectors of the national economy.

There are two themes that are surprisingly absent. One is agriculture. Agricultural policy is barely present, and when it is, management methods aren’t mentioned. For example:

The agricultural sector should actively adopt superior strains and scientific farming methods, speed up the comprehensive mechanization of the rural economy and take strict measures for each farming process, so as to carry out the cereals production plan without fail.

This is a little surprising, because regime sources have claimed that agricultural production has been boosted during the year, and management reforms with greater incentives for farmers have been touted as the reason. (A close look at the numbers indicates that agricultural production has declined slightly during 2015, moving it towards the average of the 2000s.) If agricultural reforms have indeed been a central tenet of Kim Jong-un’s economic policies, one could at least have expected a reference to these reforms in the speech.

The second theme that is strangely absent is forestry policy. It is only mentioned in one sentence:

The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should buckle down to the campaign to restore the forests of the country.

During the past year, Kim Jong-un has highlighted forestry policy as a key area. He has talked openly and frankly about the role of tree felling in causing floods and subsequent food shortages, and promoted reforestation, albeit not in a way that is likely to work very well. North Korean media has singled out tree nurseries for not doing their job properly. In sum, forestry has been relatively high on the agenda, but the topic still barely made it into the speech.

All in all, from an economic policy standpoint, this year’s New Year’s Address did not contain any major bombshells. The fact that economic issues appear right after the section on the upcoming party congress may be a hint that such issues will be high on the agenda, but then again, it might not mean much at all. Moreover, it is unclear how much can really read into the New Year’s Address for hints about regime policies and priorities. After all, the speech contained virtually no allusions to the H-bomb test that was to come only days later.

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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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Hydrogen bomb test will give economic boost, North Korean state media says

Friday, January 8th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Today’s Rodong Sinmun carries an article hailing the (claimed) hydrogen bomb test as a step towards turning North Korea into an economic powerhouse, UPI reports:

Pyongyang’s state-controlled newspaper Rodong Sinmun published an article Friday that exalted North Korea’s military-first policy, stating, “The first successful hydrogen bomb test forcefully demonstrated the power of self-reliant [North Korea], [now] we must boldly struggle to build an economic powerhouse and to enhance the people’s livelihoods.”

North Korea stated the regime’s nuclear power has the capacity to strike “any strong enemy” and “seize absolute control.”

“A path has opened, where we can devote all our energies into building an economic powerhouse,” Pyongyang said in statement.

Read the full article:
North Korea hails hydrogen bomb test as path to economic power
Elizabeth Shim
UPI
2016-01-08

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North Korea’s H-Bomb Test: The (Impossible) Economic Context

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Who decides what in Pyongyang? Do fierce political battles rage between hardliners and reformers, where the former group struggles to replace nuclear belligerence with liberal market economics and trade? Whenever a purge or suspicious death occurs in Pyongyang, speculations come alive about potential policy changes by the regime.

It is a fool’s errand to make guesses about how North Korea’s claimed (but unlikely) hydrogen bomb test fits into the speculative dichotomy of modernizers versus conservatives. After all, such simple divisions are rare in the political life of any country. But looking at the test in the context of the past year makes it clear that Pyongyang is pursuing a messy mix of policies that are mutually exclusive.

At the same time as one “hand” of the regime attempts to draw foreign investment, diversify its investor base to include other countries than China, and take its industrial zones from plans to reality, the other “hand” is actively working against economic progress by nuclear tests and diplomatic belligerence. Either the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, or it does, but just doesn’t want it to succeed.

Perhaps this is the way that Byungjin – Kim Jong-un’s strategy of parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy – was intended to work. (If so, the regime seems to be dedicating much more resources and energy to the nuclear part, while the economic one still mostly consists of words.) In any case, Pyongyang is trying to achieve two goals at the same time, and it isn’t working.

For example, in 2013, the North Korean regime announced the creation of over ten special economic zones, with more added in both 2014 and 2015. Progress has been uneven. Still, the North Korean regime has continuously indicated that the zones are a priority and will continue to be improved. Just in November last year, new regulations were announced for the special economic zones. Visitors and analysts report that elite businesses have been doing better and better in North Korea, and that the economic environment has become increasingly freer.

Whatever the list of Pyongyang’s priorities may look like, January 6th was not a good day for those North Koreans tasked with planning, building and administering the country’s special economic zones and projects. North Korea is already an unlikely destination for most foreign investors. Many low-wage competitors already sit relatively close by the country, such as Vietnam and Cambodia. North Korea’s comparative advantages are really quite few. Things are already difficult and the claimed H-bomb test certainly won’t help.

The international sanctions are just one part of the problem. Even with knowledge of what the current sanctions regime permits investors to do, the test is a stark reminder that legal hurdles will keep being added as nuclear and missile tests continue. This should deter any investor without special connections, political motives or a financial death wish. Not to mention the terrible PR and public criticism that would follow any (at least western) company deciding to invest in North Korea.

And then, there is of course the China factor. Sure, Beijing doesn’t comply with sanctions the way it is obligated to do. Moreover, as the Choson Exchange blog points out, North Korean and Chinese businesses tend to find a way to get around the sanctions. Last but not least, to a large extent, Chinese investment and cooperation with North Korea is a regional issue, with much of it driven by the northeastern border regions that depend on trade and exchange with the country.

But this doesn’t mean that Beijing won’t ever take concrete action felt by Pyongyang. China’s worries about North Korea’s nuclear tests are arguably more warranted than those of any other country. Residents in Yanji, a Chinese city on the North Korean border, even felt tremors from the bomb test, and teachers and students were reportedly evacuated from schools near the border. A trend is only a trend until it is no more. At the very least, events like the nuclear test don’t exactly make Chinese officials more prone to want to facilitate economic cooperation and infrastructure investments for North Korea.

It’s almost painful to think of all those hours spent in the North Korean administration, drawing up plans for new economic development zones and projects, new laws for investments and other institutional changes to improve the economy, only to see their colleagues in another part of government work in the opposite direction. If (and this is a big “if”) there are indeed policy factions in the government, with modernizers and conservatives, the latter have scored a victory on January 6th, at the expense of the former.

UPDATE 2015-01-07: James Pearson and Ju-Min Park at Reuters have done a very interesting overview (with Michael Madden of NK Leadership Watch) of the people behind North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s an important illustration of the fact that interest groups are not just a thing of business, but also of politics and ideas. Read it here.

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DPRK’s domestic sales of wind turbines

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

According to the Pyongyang Times:

New type of wind turbines go on sale

A new type of small wind turbines made by the Aeguk Magnet Factory attract an increasing number of customers.

The new turbine with its blades spiral and conical in shape proves to be more advantageous than the three-blade propeller turbine.

Its utilization rate of wind is over two times as high as that of the three-bladed turbine, so it can be set up everywhere—both seaside and inland where the wind blows above two metres per second. And it can also be installed on top of public buildings and on the balconies of multi-storey flats.

With its blades relatively short, the turbine requires only one third of the previous area for installation and generates little noise and vibration.

All parts of the turbine are domestically made including the essential permanent magnet, and the cost is at least 75 per cent lesser despite better stability, said Kim Chol Song, manager of the factory.

Just a few months after the turbines went on sale, the products find growing demands in Haeju of South Hwanghae Province, Phyongwon of South Phyongan Province and other plain areas.

The factory has established a technical process for turbines with a capacity of 100-300W, which are widely thought to cost much less than solar panels in production.

Read the full story here:
New type of wind turbines go on sale
Pyongyang Times
2015-10-28

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China – DPRK open new shipping route

Friday, September 25th, 2015

According to Xinhua:

A bulk cargo and container shipping route between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been put into operation, focusing on coal import from DPRK and grocery export from China, authorities said on Friday.

The route, linking Longkou port of east China’s Shandong Peninsula to Nampo port of western DPRK was the first scheduled shipping line for bulk cargo and container between the two countries. It is serviced by seven ships, which complete one circuit of the ports every ten days, according to Longkou Port Group.

The route was jointly established by Longkou Port Group, Liaoning Hongxiang Industrial Group and a shipping company in DPRK in a bid to promote international trade under China’s “Belt and Road” initiative.

Located at the Bohai Sea coast and built in 1914, Longkou port handled 75.07 million tonnes of cargo and 550,000 TEU of containers last year.

“The opening of the route can help improve the service function of the port and is of great significance for the port’s transformation and upgrading,” said Zhang Haijun, general manager of Longkou Port Group.

Read the full story here:
Bulk cargo and container shipping route links China, DPRK
Xinhua
2015-9-25

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North Korea’s domestic impacts of lower coal prices

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea is seeing some interesting impacts domestically from the lowered coal exports. DailyNK reports that market trade has picked up in intensity as a result of the lower exports of coal:

Amidst the growing private economy in North Korea, a number of people are growing wealthy by cashing in on the expanding distribution industry. Recently, a growing number of these newly rich are purchasing China’s Jinbei brand of small 2-3 ton load trucks to facilitate business operations, Daily NK has learned.

“Recently, Jinbei trucks coming in from Dandong Customs House through to the Sinuiju customs office in North Korea are becoming very hot items in the transportation market,” a source in North Pyongan province reported to Daily NK on September 16th. “Foreign-currency earning enterprises are importing these smaller Jinbei trucks which are quite different from the 20-30 ton load trucks that were previously the norm.”

This information was cross-checked via an additional source in the same province and a source in South Pyongan Province.

As North Korean coal exports have decreased and domestic market activity has picked up, the small trucks have become more useful for delivering goods to local markets. “Ordinary men use bicycles or motorbikes to distribute goods, but the rich are able to buy these small 2-3 ton load trucks and use those instead,” he explained.

These trucks, as with most vehicles in North Korea, are first imported by foreign-currency earning enterprises and sold unofficially to individuals with the cash to pay up front and in full–i.e. the donju. Because possession of vehicles is still officially forbidden in North Korea, the car remains registered under the name of the affiliated enterprise’s name; the entrepreneurial individual utilizing it kicks back a portion of his–or, less frequently, her– profits to the company.

Read the full article:

DailyNK 

Jinbei trucks roll in, ‘donju’ distribution operations rise

2015-09-18

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DPRK – China Trade in 2015 (UPDATED)

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

UPDATE 2 (2015-8-17): Marcus Noland weighs in on the H1 2015 KDI report.

UPDATE 1 (2015-8-11): KDI reports that DPRK-China trade continues to fall in 2015. According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s trade with China plunged more than 10 percent in the first five months of 2015 due mainly to a drop in raw material prices, a report showed Tuesday.

North Korea’s outbound shipments to its neighbor sank 10.3 percent on-year to US$954 million in the January-May period, while imports plunged 14.3 percent to $1.09 billion, according to the report by the Korea Development Institute (KDI).

“Bilateral trade was down 12.5 percent compared to the year before with exports of anthracite coal and iron ore affecting overall numbers,” KDI said. “Compared to the year before, when trade fell 4.8 percent, this year’s drop is more pronounced.”

The think tank based its assessment on data provided by the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the Korea International Trade Association.

North Korea’s exports of coal to China declined 1.6 percent in dollar terms, with the number for iron ore nosediving 70.3 percent.

Falling exports and a subsequent drop in earnings were probably felt by Pyongyang, which will have to consider other means of generating hard currency.

Compared to 2013, when the North’s exports of coal reached its peak, this year’s numbers represent a 24.6 percent drop.

“The contraction is noteworthy because the North actually diversified the places it shipped coal to in China,” the KDI said.

In regards to iron ore, exports declined, both in terms of volume and prices, with the weakening of China’s steel industry directly impacting trade. Exports stood at 600,000 tons, down from 1.11 million tons, with the value standing at $22.96 million.

The KDI said Pyongyang’s No. 1 import item from its neighbor was filament yarn, followed by cargo trucks and petroleum products. Imports of yarn and petroleum products were down, while shipments of cargo trucks rose.

In bold above I have highlighted what appears to be bad news for North Korean coal exporters. I was surprised to see this because an earlier report by Bloomberg indicated that North Korean coal exports to China had increased by 25% this year (over 2014).  However, it is worth pointing out that the Bloomberg report focuses on the actual quantity of coal crossing the border and KDI  reports on the value of the coal crossing the border. The only way both reports can be true is if the North Koreans are again taking lower prices from the Chinese for their coal compared to their international competitors. Another explanation for the conflicting reports could arise if there was a significant difference between Chinese customs data (Bloomberg) and that used by the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the Korea International Trade Association (KDI). I don’t have enough experience with these data sets to know how consistent they are.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein offers a link to the report here (in Korean only).

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s trade with China tumbles this year: KDI
Yonhap
2015-8-11

ORIGINAL POST (2015-4-26): Yonhap reports that DPRK – China trade has fallen in the first quarter of 2015:

Trade between North Korea and China, its economic lifeline, slipped 13.4 percent on-year in the first three months of this year amid frayed bilateral ties, data showed Sunday.

Bilateral trade volume fell to US$1.1 billion in the January-March period, compared with $1.27 billion for the same period last year, the Beijing unit of South’s Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) said, citing Chinese customs data.

China is North Korea’s top economic benefactor, but its political ties with Pyongyang have been strained since the North’s third nuclear test in February 2013.

No crude oil was officially sent to North Korea from China for all of last year.

China’s shipments of crude oil to North Korea were also absent during the first quarter of this year.

South Korean diplomatic sources in Beijing, however, have cautioned against reading too much into the official Chinese trade figures because China has provided crude oil to North Korea in the form of grant aid in the past and such shipments were not recorded on paper.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s trade with China dips 13.4 pct in Q1
Yonhap
2015-4-26

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DPRK coal shipments to China 2015

Sunday, July 19th, 2015

Back in 2014, Kevin Stahler argued that the DPRK’s anthracite coal exports were falling due to Chinese environmental and trade policies. This year Bloomberg reports that coal exports are showing heavy growth:

China-DPRK-Anthracite-2015

North Korea was the only country to boost coal shipments to China this year as Vietnamese supply slumped.

Chinese coal imports tumbled 40 percent in the five months through May, according to customs data. North Korean shipments jumped 25 percent, overtaking Mongolia and Russia to become China’s largest foreign source of coal after Australia and Indonesia, as Vietnamese imports dropped 91 percent.

An expanding power sector means Vietnam is preparing next year to start importing coal, ending its role as the world’s biggest supplier of a high-quality grade known as anthracite. North Korea’s benefiting from the rising exports as it needs foreign income amid a three-month drought that’s threatening harvests and raising the possibility that it will need to import food.

“It may be a replacement for the lack of exports from Vietnam,” Guillaume Perret, founder and director at Perret Associates, a coal research company in London, said by phone Friday. “It could be that some power plants or industrial sectors need high-quality anthracite for blending. There’s not so much anthracite in the world, so they may be replacing Vietnamese exports with North Korea.”

Vietnam Shipments

China’s shift to a more consumer-driven economy from heavy industrial investment has damped the nation’s demand for commodities from iron ore to copper. The country imported 7.5 million metric tons of coal from North Korea in January through May as Vietnam’s shipments fell to 180,000 tons and total foreign supplies dropped to 62 million tons. The customs data doesn’t distinguish between grades of thermal coal.

“North Korea is the new No. 1 exporter of anthracite,” Georgi Slavov, head of basic materials research in London at Marex Spectron, said Friday by e-mail. “Vietnam held the No. 1 spot for many years before that.”

Australia and Russia’s coal sales to China dropped as much as 45 percent in the period, while South Africa and the U.S. made no shipments at all in 2015, the customs data show. North Korea produced 43 million short tons (39 million metric tons) of coal in 2012, the last year for which the U.S. Department of Energy has estimates. That’s about 1 percent of Chinese output.

Anthracite in China closed unchanged on July 14 at 604 renminbi ($97.27) a metric ton, according to weekly data from the China National Chemical Information Center. Prices slid 12 percent so far this year.

NK News followed up with a separate story. You can read it here.

Here are comments by Marcus Noland.

Read the full story here:
North Korea Gains in China Coal Exports as Vietnam Bows Out
Bloomberg
Alessandro Vitelli
2015-7-19

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