Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

Gasoline prices in North Korea up by 52 pct in first week of April

Friday, April 8th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports some interesting (albeit anecdotal) price data from North Korea:

Firm sanctions imposed by the UN on North Korea have now been in effect for over a month. Although rice prices and the exchange rate in North Korean markets have remained relatively stable, the price of fuel has skyrocketed.

On April 4, Daily NK spoke with a source in Ryanggang Province who confirmed these facts. The price of 1 kilogram [the kilogram is the standard measurement of gasoline and diesel fuel in North Korea, though the liter is often used colloquially] of gasoline, which was 7,000 KPW [0.86 USD] at the end of March, increased in the first week of April to 10,700 KPW [1.32 USD].

This represents a 52 percent price increase in just a week.

Sources in North Hamgyong Province and Pyongyang have corroborated this news, reporting that prices in their regions are reflecting the trends prevailing in Ryanggang Province.

Diesel fuel prices have increased in tandem with gasoline. In Hyesan, 1 kilogram of gasoline is going for 6,350 KPW [0.78 USD] at the markets, a 1,000 KPW [0.12 USD] increase over last month’s prices.

This is a much smaller prices change — an 18 percent increase — but still significant.

A major factor behind the price spike is thought to be the large-scale construction projects that are underway, the source said, further noting that, “Workers mobilized for construction projects are saying that their worries are increasing at the same rate as fuel prices.”

Concerns that these prices will only continue to rise are widespread. Of particular importance, because planting season is just around the corner, farmers are also trying to procure fuel supplies for themselves, increasing demand and further exacerbating the situation. This has been made more difficult by the fact that fuel previously supplied to the markets through smuggling is comparatively harder to come by due to intensified crackdowns on these activities.

Furthermore, April and May are the prime months for catching mackerel, and June is when squid season gets underway. In anticipation of this busy period, fishermen are anxious to get their hands on fuel. “As the saying goes,” the source said, “fishing is survival, and the fishermen anticipate huge losses this year if they fail to secure an adequate supply of fuel right now.”

Citizens are divided over whether or not the sanctions are responsible for driving the increase in fuel costs, the source added. Although some believe that this is the sanctions beginning to show their effects, others are blaming the military for siphoning off supplies, pointing out that prices for other goods have remained constant.

As is often the case, it seems the price increases cannot be attributed to one single factor such as the sanctions. Aside from the factors cited above, it would not be surprising if expectations play a role and hoarding has increased, out of anticipation that sanctions may sooner or later impact prices.

Full article here:
April brings fuel price hike
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2016-04-07

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China to halt half of coal imports from North Korea, according to Chinese newspaper

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Dong-a Ilbo recounts the story from Global Times:

The Chinese government will suspend half of trade with North Korea, China’s official Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) daily reported Tuesday. It said that China will stop importing North Korean coals, which account for 42.3 percent of the China-North Korea trade, next month. The Huanqiu Shibao is a sister paper of the Renmin Ribao, the organ of the Communist Party of China, with a circulation of 2.4 million copies.

The Huanqiu Shibao quoted a trader in Dandong, Liaoning Province that China’s coal trade with North Korea will be suspended, starting March 1 and that it is probably because of the financial sanctions following the North’s satellite launch. The trader was also quoted as saying that China’s Ministry of Commerce or the customs authorities sent an order to Liaoning Province about the trade ban and that half of China-North Korea trade will be halted.

The trade also stressed that while the China-North Korea trade will likely recover from May, it depends on Pyongyang’s attitude. An informed source on China-North Korea trade also told the Dong-A Ilbo in a telephone interview that a Chinese businessman attempted to remit cash to the North via a Chinese bank in Shenyang, Liaoning Province to pay for North Korean iron ores but was informed that he was not allowed to do so. It has yet to be confirmed whether Beijing actually put a ban on imports of North Korean minerals.

Full story here:
China halts half of imports of N. Korean coals
Dong-a Ilbo
2016-02-25

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Progress in North Korea’s renewable energy production

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

North Korea has announced long-term plans to raise energy production up to 5 million kilowatts (kW) in 30 years utilizing a variety of renewable energy. The plan includes to secure 15 percent of necessary electricity through wind power and to raise renewable energy generation capacity up to 5 million kW by 2044.

The production goal of 5 million kW is an ambitious plan considering North Korea’s total output of the recently constructed Chongchon power plant which took three years to complete and has a total output of 430,000 kW. This plan was revealed by the internal resources of the ‘Natural Energy Institute’ which was established in November 2014 to develop pollution-free energy resources under the instructions of Kim Jong Un.

This renewable energy plan appears as one part of Pyongyang’s active exploration into the development of renewable energy to help resolve the country’s power shortages, in addition to the current measures of adopting energy resources from Russia and China and construction of large hydroelectric power plants. The plan entails measures to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels such as coal and oil while expanding development of renewable energy resources.

North Korea has promoted various investment and measures to expand the use of renewable energy since Kim Jong Un came to power. First, North Korea enacted the ‘Renewable Energy Law’ to provide legal guarantee for the development and use of renewable energy in August 2013. The law aims to “revitalize the renewable energy industry to continuously improve the economy and to protect the environment of the homeland.”

The Renewable Energy Law consists of six chapters and 46 provisions. The law includes the definition, purpose and basic principle for research, development and use, as well as planning, promotion, and strengthening of material and technical basis of renewable energy. The law also stipulates legal requirements necessary for guidance and control of the renewable energy sector. The law defines renewable energy as energy sources with reduced environmental impact such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and marine energy.

Second, North Korea seems to be making considerable progress in developing its own industry-specific technology. The Green Energy Joint Venture company displayed solar panels at the Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair held last year and at the 15th May 21 Architectural Festival, North Korea released the design plans of green homes that utilized solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources. In addition, solar energy-powered buses and small passenger ships were unveiled at the festival.

The Natural Energy Research Institute of the National Academy of Sciences was established in 2013 as a specialized research institute to develop technology for alternative energy resources such as wind, geothermal, solar, biomass, methane hydrate and hydrogen. In 2014, Natural Energy Research Institute Director Lee Myong Son revealed that, “among the wind turbine currently in use, 71.4 percent are in the 300w range while 28.6 percent are above that range,” indicating that most products used in solar and wind power generation are domestically produced.

In addition, North Korea established the Kwangmyong LED and Solar Cell Factory to domestically produce solar energy products. Since the enactment of the ‘Energy Management Law’ in 1998, North Korea has placed the development of wind, solar, tidal, biomass, fuel cell power as a top research priority and appears to have made considerable advancement over the years.

 

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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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North Korea considers nuclear test a driving force of economic development

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Following North Korea’s self-proclaimed hydrogen bomb test on January 6, 2016, which highlighted the fact that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state, daily mass rallies have been held in order to stimulate economic development and cement national unity. The Korean Worker’s Party (KWP) mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun proudly announced on January 8th that the fourth nuclear test had been a ‘success’. It has been reported that mass rallies were held in North Phyongan Province, Jagang Province, Kangwon Province, North Hamgyong Province, Ryanggang Province, Rason City, and other regions as part of the effort to continue building a strong and prosperous nation.

Each of these mass rallies included discussions on how to develop the economy so as to “achieve a golden age through the building of a strong and prosperous nation.” The purpose behind these daily mass rallies can be interpreted as both taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the nuclear test to strengthen solidarity of the people while also paving the way to maximize economic productivity ahead of the upcoming 7th Party Congress that is scheduled for May.

In fact, the North Korean media is asserting that the recent nuclear test was a measure to deter war in order to bring about a domestic economic revival. A front page editorial in the Rodong Sinmun encouraged the nation, saying “We will go full-speed ahead to raise North Korea’s human dignity, vigor, and glory, which are already well-known in the international community. With the success of our hydrogen bomb test as the main driving force, we will show off the mighty power of our nation, and we must aggressively take on the struggle of improving the lives of the people and building an economically strong nation.”

The Chosun Sinbo, which is the mouthpiece of Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) serving as the representative for North Korea in Japan, emphasized that, “We must have a powerful deterrent to endless warfare in order to have a peaceful environment that will enable us to build up our economy. Focusing all of our efforts on building an economically powerful nation and creating a new paradigm shift in which to develop our economy and improve the lives of the people is the most important task of this year.”

Meanwhile, North Korea’s propaganda outlets are stating that food processing plants and other sectors are producing a flood of globally competitive products. North Korea’s propaganda website aimed at the outside world (Chosun Today) stated on January 7th that “Recently, many North Korean food processing plants have been modernizing their manufacturing processes to produce foodstuffs that meet global quality standards, actively contributing to the improvement of the living standards of the Korean people.”

The Sonhung Food Processing Plant was introduced as a model case example. According to North Korean media, the foods produced at this plant are all globally competitive goods, and the best products of the country. Although the plant has only been in operation for 10 years, the media claims that current annual net operating profits per employee are a staggering 350 times higher than those of their first year of operation, and the plant is known for this remarkable record-setting achievement.

These formidable efforts also encompass the development of approximately 90 health products with high nutritional value over the past four years, including healthy danmuk. The news outlets also boasted that nine North Korean factories have received ISO 22000 (food safety management system) certifications.

In addition, 60 products were registered as ‘February 2nd products’, and not long ago five food products, including fruit bread, coffee sweetener, and healthy danmuk, received ‘December 15th quality medals’.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address emphasized “improving the lives of the people” and encouraged various factories to achieve success. The propagation of these successes through the North Korean media outlets demonstrates Kim Jong Un’s intentions of inspiring loyalty from the people through intensive efforts to increase the quality of their diets.

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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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North Korea’s self-assessment of its economy in 2015

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

The Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korea newspaper of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, released an article on December 18 that evaluated North Korea in 2015 and commended it for “achieving a remarkable leap that reached 10 years achievement in just one year.”

The newspaper commented that many monumental works had been created in 2015 that changed the country. The newspaper also introduced the recently completed constructions of Mt. Paekdu Hero Youth Power Station, multi-tier power stations on the Chongchon River, Future Science Street, Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace, Pyongyang Nursing Home, Mansudae Fountain Park, and “Mujigae” ferry on the Taedong River.

In addition, the Sonbong region in Rason City which had suffered severe flood damages in August was reported to have achieved great changes in only 30 days, turning the village into a “socialist fairyland.”

The newspaper added that “this year, Choson [North Korea] embarked on the advancement of science and technology and emphasized ideology, weapons, and technology as three pillars for constructing great and powerful socialist nation.” It also stated that “in accordance with the party’s policy to turn all people into science and technology talents, institutions, factories, enterprises, and cooperative farms across the country were equipped with over 2,000 science and technology resource rooms.”

A corn processing plant and a catfish farm were discussed as examples: “Pyongyang corn processing plant has achieved automation, and dust and bacteria-free conditions in the entire production process, from raw material to the packaging stage”; “Pyongyang Catfish Farm established the comprehensive production system that integrated intellectualization, informatization, and magnetization in the factory.”

In particular, the newspaper mentioned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s onsite field guidance visit to the Pyongyang Catfish Farm where he emphasized the modernization of farm, noting that “the modernization of the catfish plant did not simply bring in power and technology from outside but is based on our independent technology and facilities.”

Moreover, the newspaper said, “This year, measures were devised to improve the dietary level of the people through focusing on advancing livestock, agricultural, and marine products.” It further announced that “Vegetable Science Institute of the Academy of Agricultural Science succeeded in cultivation methods of producing 300 tons per chongbo (1 chongbo = 9,917 square meters) through vigorous research that concentrated on scientification of greenhouse vegetable cultivation.”

In addition, the newspaper added that “scientification” was promoted in other sectors including education, sports, and culture.

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