Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

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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Rajin – South Korea water shipment

Monday, December 7th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

Containers carrying bottled water produced near North Korea arrived in South Korea on Monday via a North Korean port as part of a three-way logistics project involving the two Koreas and Russia, government officials said.

Ten containers full of bottled water produced at Erdaobaihe in northeastern China arrived at Busan, South Korea’s southeastern port city, earlier in the day after leaving from the North Korean city of Rajin bordering Russia, officials said.

The mineral water was produced at a factory run by Nongshim, South Korea’s largest noodle maker, in Erdaobaihe, a town close to Mount Baekdu in North Korea, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula.

The shipment is part of the two Koreas’ third pilot operation of the project, which calls for shipping some 120,000 tons of Russian coal to three South Korean ports from the North Korean port city of Rajin.

The coal, which was transported from Russia’s border city of Khasan on a re-connected railway, arrived in South Korea in late November.

The so-called Rajin-Khasan logistics project is a symbol of three-way cooperation and an exception to Seoul’s punitive sanctions against Pyongyang following the North’s deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010.

In November 2014, the first shipment carrying 40,500 tons of Russian coal arrived in South Korea without incident in the first test run of the project. The second test was conducted in April.

The project is also part of President Park Geun-hye’s vision for a united Eurasia, known as the Eurasia Initiative, which calls for linking energy and logistics infrastructure across Asia and Europe.

Read the full story here:
Containers carrying bottled water arrive in S. Korea via N. Korean port
Yonhap
2015-12-7

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Koreas, Russia start third test run for Rason coal shipments

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

South and North Korea kicked off another test operation Tuesday of their joint logistics project to ship Russian coal to the South through a port near the border with Russia, government officials said.

Some 120,000 tons of Russian coal will be delivered to three South Korean ports on a ship from the North Korean port city of Rajin after being transported from Russia’s border city of Khasan on a re-connected railway in the third run of the so-called Rajin-Khasan logistics project. The trilateral project will be carried out until Nov. 30.

It is a symbol of three-way cooperation at a time when inter-Korean exchanges have become stagnant following the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship by the North in 2010.

In November 2014, the first shipment carrying 40,500 tons of Russian coal smoothly arrived in South Korea in the first operation of the project. The second test was conducted in April.

The initiative involves three South Korean firms — top steelmaker POSCO, shipper Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. and state train operator Korail Corp.

A group of some 20 government and company officials are set to cross the border between Russia and North Korea on a bus later in the day after they departed from Vladivostok a day earlier, according to the Unification Ministry.

They will stay in the North’s city till Friday to check the Rajin port’s capacity to handle shipments and to see how smoothly vessels can be berthed there, the ministry said.

The South Korean firms will decide on whether to clinch a formal contract based on the outcome of the pilot operation. It is highly likely that the signing of a formal deal could be delayed into next year.

“It is unclear when the formal contract could be signed,” said a ministry official, asking not to be named.

The project is also part of President Park Geun-hye’s vision for a united Eurasia, known as the Eurasia initiative, which calls for linking energy and logistics infrastructure across Asia and Europe.

The project is regarded as an exception to South Korea’s punitive sanctions on the North, which has suspended almost all trade and exchange programs, apart from a joint factory park project in the North’s border city of Kaesong.

Read the full story here:
Koreas, Russia start third test run for logistics project
Yonhap
2015-11-17

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Some Huichon Power Stations go operational on Chongchon River

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Huichon-power-station-8

Pictured Above (Google Earth): Huichon Power Station No. 9, site of the opening ceremony

According to Rodong Sinmun (2015-11-9):

Multi-tier power stations on the River Chongchon went operational.

The stations are the labor gifts the Korean people presented to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) with loyalty.

The 10 multi-tier power stations in the 80 km-long section of the River Chongchon would contribute to the building of an economic power and improvement of people’s living standard.

An inaugural ceremony of the power stations was held at Huichon Power Station No. 9 on November 17.

Present there were leading officials of the party and state, the ministers of electric power industry, metal industry, railways, construction and building-materials industry, electronics industry and machine-building industry, the president of the State Academy of Sciences, the chief secretaries of the provincial committees of the WPK, officials and members of shock brigades who took part in the construction of the power stations and others.

A congratulatory message from the Central Committee of the WPK to the builders, officials and helpers who performed shinning labor feats in building the power stations was conveyed by Pak Pong Ju, member of the Political Bureau of the C.C., the WPK and premier of the DPRK Cabinet.

O Su Yong, member of the Political Bureau and secretary of the C.C., the WPK, said in his inaugural speech that the completion of the 10 multi-tier power stations on the River Chongchon in a short span of time as monumental structures in the era of Marshal Kim Jong Un is of great significance in demonstrating the rapid development of Songun Korea.

The speaker called upon the builders of power stations on the River Chongchon to demonstrate their heroic stamina once again in the all-out drive for presenting a labor gift to the 7th Congress of the WPK with loyalty.

UPDATE: Note that the article does not claim that ALL of the hydro power plants on the Chongchon River are operational. In the March 2016 Korea pictorial magazine, did a feature on Huichon Power Stations Nos. 3, 4, 8, 9, and 11. 1 and 2 were previously constructed. There are construction sites available on Google Earth for plants 5,6,7, and 10, but I am not sure about specific names for each. I am also unsure if the Hyangsan Army-People Youth Power Station near Hyangsan is being renamed and included in the Chongchon River plants.

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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 slowdown hits North Korea’s exports

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Alastair Gale writes in the Wall Street Journal:

China’s economic slowdown and a plunge in coal prices are depriving North Korea of critical foreign currency, threatening to stir discontent among the small, elite class that the nation’s mercurial dictator relies on for support.

The drain on income comes as North Korea continues to plow its limited resources into its armed forces. On Saturday, the isolated state is set to hold a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its ruling party. It has also declared plans to launch satellites, seen by the U.S. and others as a way to test ballistic missile technology.

The value of North Korean exports to China, by far Pyongyang’s biggest trade partner, fell 9.8% through August from the year-earlier period, Chinese data show, accelerating from a 2.4% decline last year.

Adding to the pressure on Pyongyang is China’s attempt to scale back its bloated steel industry, the main customer for North Korea’s biggest export product, coal.

The scenario leaves North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, vulnerable. North Korea depends on China to buy most of its exports, but ties between the longtime allies have become strained over North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. To boost exports, Pyongyang has little option but to turn to its only other significant trade partner, South Korea.

All of this means Mr. Kim has less foreign currency to underwrite the lifestyles of the North Korean elite whose support is essential to maintaining his grip on power.

“Raising living standards for the North Korean apparatchik class is extraordinarily dependent on trade with China in a single commodity,” said Marcus Noland, executive vice president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington research group. “A slowdown in revenues will create discontent.”

The depth of possible repercussions is hard to gauge because of North Korea’s opaque economy and political system. There are no clear outward signs of government instability, and prices of daily necessities such as rice—often an indicator of economic shocks—remain steady, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

North Korea continues to press ahead with infrastructure projects, such as the recent opening of a new international airport terminal near Pyongyang. The emergence of semiprivate businesses such as taxi companies in recent years has provided the state with fresh sources of income, said Go Myung-hyun, an expert on North Korea at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank.

And China’s ban starting this year on highly polluting types of coal somewhat shields North Korea’s coal exports from a fall in demand because they are mostly high-quality anthracite, a type that produces little smoke.

Still, the fall in trade revenue increases the challenge for Mr. Kim, who has said economic development is a top policy priority despite his reluctance to embrace Chinese-style economic reforms, such as privatizing state businesses. In 2012, Mr. Kim said in a speech that citizens should “not have to tighten their belts again,” and North Korea’s state media frequently tout the construction of apartment buildings and leisure facilities as examples of progress.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, says the regime has been trying to reduce its dependence on China, which now absorbs as much as 90% of Pyongyang’s exports, compared with around 50% in the early 2000s, according to the Korean International Trade Association in Seoul. The value of those exports last year was $2.9 billion, Chinese customs data show.

One sign of that concern came in late 2013 when Mr. Kim executed his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek, an official who was widely seen as a proponent of closer trade links with Beijing. State media blamed Mr. Jang for “selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.”

Pyongyang’s diplomats have traveled extensively around the world over the past year, including a rare foreign ministry visit to India in April. Still, many nations remain wary of boosting trade links as North Korea continues a nuclear standoff with the U.S. and other nations.

Last year, North Korea and Russia signed an ambitious economic development agreement, but while Pyongyang and Moscow have warmed politically—reflecting shared hostility toward the U.S.—few economists see much potential for significant growth in bilateral trade; North Korea’s exports to Russia totaling just $10 million in 2014.

U.S. and South Korean diplomats say that greater international scrutiny has crimped another North Korean revenue stream: illicit arms and drugs.

Many economists say South Korea is the North’s only near-term option to offset declining trade income from China and may have motivated Pyongyang in August to reach an accord to end a confrontation after the two sides exchanged artillery fire.

“South Korea is the one potentially interested partner that could provide a significant boost to North Korea’s economy,” said Troy Stangarone, senior director for congressional affairs and trade at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington.

The South imposed economic sanctions on the North in 2010, blocking most bilateral trade, in response to the sinking of a warship that killed 46 sailors. Trade has since edged up and Seoul says it is willing to discuss increasing economic cooperation if progress is made in other areas, such as reuniting families separated by the Korean War.

Lee Jong-kyu, a research fellow at the Korea Development Institute in Sejong, South Korea, said the North may also seek new revenue by ramping up its exports of manual laborers to places such as Russia and the Middle East, try to boost tourism or build up light industry. North Korea also has tried to reboot plans for foreign investment in special economic zones—with little success, say foreign officials.

Ultimately, while Chinese diplomats express frustration with the regime in North Korea, it is unlikely that Beijing would allow its volatile neighbor to become destabilized by a fall in trade and spark a humanitarian disaster on its doorstep, observers say.

“If Beijing is a generous uncle, this will not prove to be a perilous problem because uncle will send more allowance,” Mr. Eberstadt said.

Read the full story here:
Cash Crunch Hits North Korea’s Elite
Wall Street Journal
Alastair Gale
2015-10-8

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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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China announces Longkou-Nampho container shipping route

Friday, September 25th, 2015

According to Reuters:

China has launched a bulk cargo and container shipping route connecting it to North Korea that will focus on importing coal and exporting groceries, state news agency Xinhua said on Friday, citing a Chinese port authority.

The route will connect China’s Longkou port in eastern China’s Shandong province with the North Korean port of Nampo, and will be serviced by seven ships, it said.

Though China’s coal imports have slumped 32 percent in the first eight months of the year, deliveries from North Korea have surged 33 percent to 13.4 million tonnes, making it China’s third biggest foreign supplier.

“This big rise is probably down to North Korea’s industrialisation, which should have spurred an increase in production,” said Yao Yao, a coal analyst with China’s Guangfa Securities.

The new route was established by the Longkou Port Group, Liaoning Hongxiang Industrial Group and a North Korean shipping company, Xinhua reported. It said the Longkou Port handled 75.07 million tonnes of cargo and 550,000 TEU of containers in 2014.

Here is the original story in 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:
China Launches North Korean Shipping Route
Reuters
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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