Archive for the ‘General markets (FMR: Farmers Market)’ Category

What to make of the panic buying in Pyongyang and beyond

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

There’s been a few reports over the past few weeks about panic buying in Pyongyang, particularly of imported goods. The foremost reason appears to be the government’s restrictions of imports, aside from essential goods (whatever these are). A quick thought:

On the one hand, on a closer reading beyond the term “panic buying”, it’s apparent that we aren’t really talking about fundamental, daily necessities for the most part, but about imported items such as batteries and certain vegetables. When we monitor economic developments for social stability, such analyses tend to focus on items like rice and, at least in countries other than North Korea, fuel, and not least the stability of the currency. So it may not matter all that much if people in a northern province cannot buy lighters imported from China, or if Pyongyangites can’t buy imported pepper and other non-staple goods. (As you will see in one of the articles below, Daily NK has not heard reports of panic buying in Hyesan at all.)

At the same time, however, these imported goods are quite essential in the everyday lives of many people. We don’t know how much of imported goods the average person consumes, and I suspect it’d differ greatly between provinces. Since at least a significant proportion of the population consumes imported goods on a regular basis, these difficulties in acquiring items imported from China would in many cases cause great annoyance and, in others, disrupt production processes of firms and industries, although some exceptions are granted for “essential” items. Who determines what’s essential is likely hinges on political and economic clout, and it certainly won’t be the mom-and-pop-shops of the backstreet markets.

I’ve gathered a few related articles here. AP wrote about the topic on May 7th, 2020, with intelligence sources in Seoul confirming the news:

The NIS said it cannot rule out a virus outbreak in North Korea because traffic along the China-North Korea border was active before the North closed crossings in January to try to stop the spread of the virus, according to the lawmaker.

The NIS declined to confirm Kim’s comments in line with its practice of not commenting on information it provides to lawmakers. Kim did not discuss how the NIS obtained its information.

Last Friday, Kim Jong Un ended his 20-day public absence when he appeared at a ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang. His time away triggered rumors about his health and worries about the future of his country.

The NIS repeated a South Korean government assessment that Kim remained in charge of state affairs even during his absence. His visit to the factory was aimed at showing his resolve to address public livelihood problems and inject people with confidence, Kim Byung Kee cited the NIS as saying.

The NIS said the virus pandemic is hurting North Korea’s economy, mainly because of the border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and aid provider. China accounts for about 90% of North Korea’s external trade flow.

The trade volume between North Korea and China in the first quarter of this year was $230 million, a 55% decline from the same period last year. In March, the bilateral trade volume suffered a 91% drop, the NIS was quoted as saying.

This led to the prices of imported foodstuffs such as sugar and seasonings skyrocketing, Kim Byung Kee quoted the spy agency as saying. He said the NIS also told lawmakers that residents in Pyongyang, the capital, recently rushed to department stores and other shops to stock up on daily necessities and waited in long lines.

The NIS said prices in North Korea “are being stabilized a little bit” after authorities clamped down on people cornering the market, Kim said in a televised briefing.

(Source: “Seoul reports panic buying in N. Korea amid economic woes,” AP/Mainichi, May 7, 2020.)

NK News was one of the first outlets to cover the topic, in an article on April 22nd:

“Panic buying” sprees have been spotted taking place in some of Pyongyang’s stores and groceries since Monday, multiple informed sources told NK News, resulting in increasingly empty shelves and a growing shortage of key staples.

It’s unclear what’s led to the sudden surge in demand, with one source describing empty shelves and a sudden absence of staples like vegetables, flour, and sugar.

Locals have been buying “whatever is there,” one expat said, saying that “you can hardly get in” to some stores.

Both the expat and another person in Pyongyang said the surge was particularly notable on Wednesday.

Another source said large groups of locals were seen buying big amounts of mostly-imported products in some grocery stores, resulting in abrupt shortages.

(Source: Chad O’Carroll, “North Koreans “panic buying” at Pyongyang shops, sources say,” NK News, April 22nd, 2020.)

Daily NK, of course, has reported extensively on the topic, from both Pyongyang and the provinces. Imported goods are not only consumed in Pyongyang:

“The prices of Chinese goods have risen sharply in markets across the province, including the Yonbong and Wuiyon markets in Hyesan,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on Apr. 28.

According to the source, the price surge has mainly affected Chinese products, including daily necessities such as sugar, flour, and other cooking products.

For example, the price of Chinese seasoning has increased fourfold to a KPW 40,000 (around USD 6). Flour, rice and other grain prices have also increased. Two weeks ago, imported Chinese rice was being sold at KPW 4,400 per kilogram but is now being sold at KPW 5,500.

The price hikes have not just affected food. Chinese cigarettes have also increased in price: a box of Chinese-made Chang Baishan cigarette packs, for example, which used to cost KPW 12,000, is now KPW 17,000.

“Even Chinese lighters, which usually cost around KPW 700, have seen a price hike of nearly threefold and now cost KPW 2,000,” the Hyesan-based source added.

The main reason for these price surges is the halt in Sino-North Korean trade following the closure of the North Korean-Chinese border in late January. The effects of the steep fall in Sino-North Korean trade were made clear in recent data published by China’s General Administration of Customs. According to this data, Chinese-North Korean trade in March dropped by 91.3% compared to the same period last year to just USD 18.64 million.

“Just two weeks ago merchants were feeling more optimistic given the improved situation in China. Now, they’ve lowered their expectations quite a bit,” the Hyesan-based source told Daily NK, adding, “Prices are rising because business people are intentionally sitting on their stocks with the hope that prices will increase even more.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Daily NK is unaware of any reports of panic buying in Hyesan [emphasis added].

(Source: Kang Mi Jin, “Ryanggang Province witnesses price spikes,” Daily NK, April 30th, 2020.)

And, more recently, a report from Pyongyang:

“There are a lot of ordinary stores that have closed or are unable to sell anything because they have no stock left,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK on Apr. 30. “Right now 100 grams of imported pepper costs KPW 40,000, 450 to 500 grams of MSG costs KPW 48,000 and sugar can’t be found at all.”

PRICE SPIKES

The prices of imported food items nearly doubled after Apr. 17, when the North Korean government announced restrictions on imported goods deemed “unnecessary” for the North Korean economy. Prices began to rise rapidly once more before the publishing of this article in Korean on May 1.

According to Daily NK’s Pyongyang source, the price of imported pepper was just KPW 8,000 per 100 grams before the announcement, but doubled to KPW 16,000 after the decision was released. Now, the price has reportedly risen to KPW 40,000.

“The price of watch batteries and other small batteries for common household appliances like remote controllers for TVs have tripled or quadrupled,” the source further reported. “The price of batteries had remained stable even after the announcement, but several days ago it started to rise suddenly. The spike is probably because so many people began hoarding them.”

Although the price of batteries has risen to an unprecedented degree, Pyongyang residents reportedly continue to buy them in bulk, in boxes of 50, and as much as 10 boxes at a time. The hoarding is likely due to concerns that the price will only continue to rise and that soon there may not be any batteries left to buy.

“Many of the electronics stores throughout the city have closed down,” the source said, adding, “Stores that still have stock have closed perhaps because of rumors that Chinese products will no longer enter the country.”

In short, the source’s report suggests that state-run electronics stores, which command 20% of the market, have no stock left, while privately-run stores that take up the remaining 80% of the market have closed up despite still having stock on hand.

Based on the source’s report, owners of privately-run stores may have closed down their shops with the intent to sell their goods at prices even higher than they are now. The owners are likely under the belief that the recent import restrictions announcement means that various electronics accessories will no longer enter the country from China for some time.

(Source: Ha Yoon Ah, “Pyongyangites continue to hoard as prices keep rising,” Daily NK, May 4th, 2020.)

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North Korea strengthens internal travel restrictions to keep the coronavirus in check

Friday, February 28th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK  has reported on the travel restrictions inside the county before, as this blog has covered here and here. This recent report goes into greater detail:

“The No. 2 departments in local Ministry of People’s Security [MPS] offices are placing further restrictions on the issuing of travel documents, and the authorities are cracking down on vans shuttling people around for money,” a Kangwon Province-based source told Daily NK today.

“No. 10 sentry posts [managed by the Ministry of State Security, or MSS] are cracking down on buses and other vehicles moving people. Even local police stations have setup temporary checkpoints to conduct crack downs on vehicles transporting people,” the source added.

It seems like we’re not talking about a blanket ban on travel across provincial borders per se. Rather, the state is banning and heavily restricting certain forms of transportation, especially unauthorized kinds (which otherwise are often  tacitly tolerated, not least through institutionalized bribery). This, too, impacts market trade since the transportation sector is crucial to shuttling goods around the country.

The authorities are thoroughly preventing any vehicles or people from transiting from the border region to the interior of the country and the other way around, sources told Daily NK.

Sources said that anyone who has entered the country from abroad but doesn’t have a document certifying they have been tested for the coronavirus are restricted from travelling. Merchants without proper travel documentation are also reportedly being targeted by the authorities. Even work units involved in construction projects are being restricted from moving around, sources said.

[…]

No. 2 departments in local MPS offices are restricting the issuance of travel documents to everyone unless they are on government orders, Daily NK sources further reported.

Even factory officials who need to travel to other places of the country to collect raw materials have been told to wait until “later” (after the COVID-19 crisis passes over), sources said.

The authorities are also carefully checking container trucks and the baggage compartments of buses for people hitching a ride in these hidden spaces, they added.

There are gaps, however, in the lock down on travel that the authorities are trying to implement.

“Some vehicles, including taxis, are cleverly selecting routes to avoid checkpoints,” the Kangwon Province-based source said.

“People are wearing masks just to avoid getting stopped by the authorities,” he added.

The border regions are of course especially targeted. The state knows it cannot fully close the border shut and thus needs internal controls to be forceful. The mention of certification of testing is interesting and implies that there are ways individuals can take action to test themselves. Perhaps it refers to the medical test teams reportedly dispatched to the border to China.

“There are a lot of ‘storm troopers’ in Kangwon Province who hail from all over the country, which means there’s a lot of people moving around,” the Kangwon Province-based source said. “The authorities can’t completely shutdown the province from the outside because the shock troops need to move supplies into the area for construction projects, but they are setting up multiple check points to block as much traffic as they can.”

The state still needs to continue running its daily affairs, and it’s unclear to what extent construction projects and other things that may be hampered by internal controls have been put on hold. This must be a bureaucratic nightmare to coordinate and often, one hand of the state doesn’t know what the other is doing.

Article source: Kang Mi Jin, “N. Korea further strengthens restrictions on domestic travel,” Daily NK, 27 February 2020, accessed 28 February, 2020.

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How the coronavirus may impact the North Korean economy (Updated 18/2/2020)

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yesterday (February 12th), North Korea announced it is prolonging its self-imposed isolation to protect the country from the coronavirus. KCNA:

The spread of the epidemic comes to be a serious problem with the possibility of international disaster.

In this regard, the Non-Permanent Central Public Health Guidance Committee of the DPRK discussed the issue of prolonging the isolation period and strictly enforcing it in order to completely cut off the inroads of Covid-2019 and ensure the life of the people and safety of the state, and submitted it to the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly

The Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK examined, approved and decided the proposal of the Non-Permanent Central Public Health Guidance Committee according to the law on prevention of epidemics.

According to the decision urgently adopted at the SPA Presidium, the isolation period in the territory of the DPRK shall be prolonged to 30 days for the time being.

All the institutions and fields of the state and foreigners staying in the DPRK should obey it unconditionally.

The KCNA website doesn’t allow for direct links, but the above was published on February 12th at their website. The country’s quarantine seems to amount to a near-total shutdown of cross-border traffic. So far, North Korea has not confirmed any deaths from the virus, but sources from inside the country have claimed that at least a handful of people have died from the virus. It seems highly doubtful that these sources could know for sure that the coronavirus, and not regular pneumonia, was the cause.

The government’s measures are rather stern, but a border shutdown is perhaps the most reasonable measure the government can take since it doesn’t have the resources to properly monitor the situation inside the country. KCNA also reported on February 12th that the local Red Cross “organized training courses for Red Cross volunteers and sent them to relevant areas.” A press statement (not on their website) from the Red Cross confirms this and says that the “Red Cross has also sent volunteers on bikes to these remote areas to share coronavirus awareness messages.” (Updated Feb 15 2020 with link to the press statement.)

How is all this impacting the North Korean economy? We don’t know for sure, but here are some possibilities:

The markets appear to be under a great deal of pressure. The border trade shutdown isn’t exactly total, as items such as fuel is likely still coming through pipelines. Certainly, some other goods are getting through as well, we just don’t know how much. But most consumer goods are kept out, and the authorities are even cracking down heavily on smuggling that it usually turns a blind eye to, resulting in drastic price rises over the past few weeks. According to some reports, perhaps exaggerated, economic activity is at a virtual standstill along the border. Prices have not reacted this strongly to any sanctions-related measures throughout “maximum pressure”, or really any international event that I can recall. All this points to the border closure measures being seriously and strictly enforced. The ban on tourism is also a significant blow to the economy. Tourism from China has been growing steadily as a source of income for the past few years and it’s a particularly crucial revenue stream of foreign currency at a time when many others have dried up in the wake of sanctions.

In addition to the international border crossing, the government has also banned travel between regions inside North Korea, to prevent the virus from potentially spreading through the country. One has to assume that this ban is at least as strictly enforced as the one on the Chinese border. If so, internal market trade may well be  severely hampered, as traders can no longer easily move goods between regions. This would obviously be a big problem, particularly for agricultural goods but also for the manufacturing sector. The North Korean market economy, which a majority of North Koreans are in some way dependent upon for their consumption, needs a well-functioning transportation network to operate with even a minimum level of efficiency. It is no coincidence that transportation as a sector has gone ahead of many others in North Korea’s marketization process. The government has now reportedly instituted price controls. These are unlikely to be respected perhaps even in the short run, and certainly will not be in the longer run. More traders will sell on the black markets, which will grow perhaps beyond any scope they’ve been since the early 2000s when the state began incorporating the markets into the official system.

One North Korean source quoted by Radio Free Asia puts the government’s dilemma regarding the virus and the economy brutally but clearly:

According to the third source, the poor are angry that the rich care about their health, but don’t seem to care if they have eaten.

“They say they might die from a disease, but they could also die from starvation because they are unable to make enough money to support themselves for a day,” said the third source, adding that the working class say there is no difference between the two because they are dead either way.

At the end of the day, there will come a time when keeping the border shut and domestic travel and transportation paralyzed just won’t be worth it or even possible, at least without massive humanitarian aid coming in to compensate. Something will have to give eventually, and when it does, the real challenge of virus containment may truly begin.

Update 18/2/2020:

Reuters reports that North Korea seems to be planning to hold the Arirang mass games by August, counting on the virus crisis to have eased by the summer:

The Mass Games are due to return on August 15, which is celebrated as Liberation Day on the anniversary of Japan’s defeat at the end of World War Two, Young Pioneer Tours, which runs tours to the North, said in a statement.

Despite the name, the Mass Games are large performances involving tens of thousands of dancers, gymnasts, martial artists and singers acting out familiar propaganda themes.

Another firm, Koryo Tours, quoted sources in North Korea as saying the games were expected to be held over major holidays, perhaps starting on August 15 and including October 10, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea.

No further details were known, and tickets are always sold on site rather than in advance, said Koryo Tours general manager Simon Cockerell.

“Tourists still can’t enter North Korea but when the virus issue dies down the border will open again,” Cockerell told Reuters. “It’s a reactive policy, so it will depend on what happens in China, basically.”

North Korea revived the Mass Games in 2018 to sell an image of international engagement and peace while raising much-needed foreign currency.

Source: Josh Smith, “North Korea looks to hold ‘Mass Games’ this year despite coronavirus fears: tour companies,” Reuters, 18/2/2020.

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Market fees may be lowered on some North Korean markets

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

“Merchants working in the markets feel that business this year is worse than last. I’m not sure if the authorities were thinking about the merchants when they made the decision, but it’s good that they have reduced the taxes in Pochon, Sinpa and Kimhyongjik County,” said the source in Ryanggang Province during a telephone interview.

According to the source, market fees in Pochon and Sinpa County are relatively low compared to other areas. The fees for industrial goods were reduced from 1000 won to 500 won. Fees charged to vendors of food and ice cream were lowered from 500 won to 300 and 200 won, respectively.

The market fees are determined based on the size of the city, the size of the stall and the type of product being sold. The rough national average fees being charged per day as of early this year was 1500-2000 KPW for meat stalls, 1000-1500 KPW for industrial products (clothes) and 500-1000 KPW for food and vegetables.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ analysis of markets in North Korea, the authorities collect over $56 million USD per year from the markets. The largest market in North Korea, Sunam Market in Chongjin, generates an estimated $840,000 USD for the government.

Before the markets were formally recognized, market fees were 3-5 won until the early to mid 1990s, before being raised ten-fold in 2001, to 30-50 won. After the regime legalized the country’s private markets in 2002 with its ‘New Economic Management Improvement Measures,’ the fees rose another ten-fold.

Source:
Market fees in North Korea set for reduction in parts of border region
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-07-30

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Taxes increase on some North Korean markets

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This sort of news is very interesting, particularly in context: I’ve heard from people who deal with North Korean firms that some of them have received orders to tighten up their accounting, and report their assets to the state in greater detail. Taken together, these snippets of information suggest an overall difficult economic situation, though not desperate or in crisis-mode, where the state is taking more and more measures to drive in cash from the public.

Daily NK:

Sales fees levied on private distributors have risen in some areas of North Korea. The fees are managed by North Korea’s collection agency and essentially provide a source of tax revenue for the state. Private distributors are expressing discontent over the changes as many are suffering under the country’s already poor economic conditions.

“The authorities recently began demanding outrageous and unfair selling fees from private distributors,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on April 25. “Collection offices (i.e. tax offices) attached to local people’s committees are required to pay varying fees depending on the product, and the number of fees have been doubled.”

These de facto tax offices were established in each city and county as part of the July 1 Economic Management Improvement Measure in 2003 and are managed by the Ministry of Financial Administration. The offices collect fees for land use, market stalls, and various other reasons.

“The authorities are demanding a huge amount of fees to gain control over and restrict the activities of private business people who live in Pyongsong but bring in products from Sinuiju, Rajin-Sonbong, Nampo and Hyesan,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province.

“Soybean oil sellers, for example, had to pay 3% of their income before, but now have to pay twice that amount.”

The skyrocketing fees are likely due to the fall in tax revenue arising from the economic difficulties the country is facing.

“The government increased the fees they were collecting just as incomes fell among private business people,” she said. “The authorities are simply taking money from the people to make it seem like the state is self-sufficient.”

North Korean authorities have made the fee system more sophisticated while raising fees as part of efforts to generate more income for the regime.

Article source:
North Korea doubles de facto sales tax levied on distributors in some areas
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-05-03

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North Korea’s economic situation, going into Hanoi: a roundup of the data

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Hanoi summit is under a week away, Daily NK recently put out new market price data, and I’ve finally had time to update my dataset. There seems like no better time than the present to take a look at some of the numbers we have available for the North Korean economy, thanks to outlets such as Daily NK and Asia Press/Rimjingang.

Currency

Let’s start with the exchange rate. A few weeks ago, the (North Korean) won depreciated quite significantly against the USD, which I wrote about here. At 8,500 won/1usd, the USD-exchange rate on the markets hit its highest point since the inception of “maximum pressure”. The graph below is shows the average market exchange rate in three North Korean cities for won-to-USD.

Graph 1. Average won-USD exchange rate on markets in three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–February 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

As the graph shows, the won rebounded somewhat after the initial spike in early January. According to the latest data point, the exchange rate stands at 8190 won, still somewhat higher than the average for the period, 8136, but barely.

What could have caused this spike? One possibility is that the government has started to soak up more foreign currency from the market, because the state’s foreign currency coffers are waning. After all, given the vast trade deficit, the continued necessity of spending hard currency on things like fuel (bought at higher prices through illicit channels to a greater extent) and other factors, it would make a great deal of sense. Currencies fluctuate all over the globe, sometimes based even on loose rumors that fuel expectations. One anonymous reader who often travels to North Korea for work heard from Korean colleagues that accounting conditions for firms had gotten stricter, likely because the government wants to be able to source more foreign currency from the general public.

It is also noteworthy that while the Daily NK price index reports that the USD-exchange rate has gone back to more normal levels, the Rimjingang index remains at very high levels. Its latest report (February 8th) has the USD at 8,500, and on January  10th, it registered 8,743 won, a remarkably high figure that the Daily NK index hasn’t been near since early 2015. The difference between the two may simple come from the figures being sourced from different regions, or the like. North Korea’s markets still hold a great deal of opportunity for arbitrage, not least because of the country’s poor infrastructure.

So, it does seem like there may be some unusual pressure on the won against the dollar. What it comes from is less clear, but the state demanding more hard currency from the semi-private sector and others may be one important factor. In any case, we shouldn’t be surprised if the trend continues, unless sanctions ease soon.

At the same time, while the RMB has appreciated against the won over the past few weeks, it hasn’t really gone outside the span of what’s been normal over the past few years.

Graph 2. Average exchange rate for won to RMB, average of three North Korean cities, late 2015–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

The average exchange rate for RMB since the start of Daily NK’s data series in late 2015 is 1228 won. The latest available observation gives 1241 won/RMB, and the RMB has appreciated against the won over the past few weeks. The Rimjingang data, here, too, gives a higher FX-rate for RMB than Daily NK, at 1250 won. Their index, too, shows the FX-rate for RMB going up over the past few weeks, but not to levels out of the ordinary. Still, if the won continues to depreciate against both the dollar and the RMB, it may be a sign of a more persistent foreign currency shortage.

Food prices

Rice prices remain as stabile as ever, in fact, even more so than this time last year. They continue to hoover between 4,500–5,000, with the latest observation being at 4,783.

Graph 3. Average rice price for three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

This should not necessarily be taken to mean that North Korea’s current food situation is not problematic. Even with increasing harvests in the past few years, it’s always been fragile. The past year’s drought reportedly took a toll on the harvest. Though market prices aren’t suggestive of any shortages as of yet, that could change in the months ahead. The latest harvest was likely lower than those of several previous years and difficulties in importing fertilizer may have contributed, but the dry weather was the main factor.

Even with a slightly lower harvest than in previous years, it seems that structural changes in agricultural management has improved agricultural productivity to such an extent that food safety isn’t severely threatened even with a reduced harvest.

Gasoline

Gas prices appear to have stabilized around a sanctions equilibrium, of sorts, since a few months back. The past year hasn’t seen any spikes near those of the winter in 2017, when prices went above 25,000 won per kg. For the past year, the price has mostly hovered between 13,000 and 15,000 won per kg. The last observation available from Daily NK, is at 15,200 won per kg. This is slightly higher than the average of the past 12-month period, 13,500 won per kg. A more recent report from Rimjingang puts prices at 13,750 won per kg, so perhaps prices have declined over the past few weeks.

What’s likely happened is that China has settled on a comfortable level of enforcement of the oil transfers cap, for now. (For a detailed look at fuel prices in North Korea and Chinese sanctions enforcement, see this special report.)

Graph 4. Average gasoline price, three North Korean cities, early 2018–winter 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

There is lots to be said about gas prices and their impact on the economy, but for now, it looks like supply of gasoline in North Korea is restricted, but stabile.

Hard currency reserves

I unfortunately don’t have any data to present on this issue, but it’s too important not to mention. We don’t know how large North Korea’s foreign currency reserves are, but all throughout “maximum pressure”, people have been speculating that they’ll soon run out. One South Korean lawmaker said in early 2018 that by October that year, North Korea would be out of hard currency. That clearly didn’t happen.

The lack of stabile foreign currency income may still be a problem for the regime, as mentioned above. It’s hard to imagine how it couldn’t be a huge headache. Look at the following graph for example, showing North Korea’s trade (im)balance with China, throughout 2017 and the first few months of 2018.

Graph 5. North Korea’s trade balance with China, in $1,000 terms. Data source: KITA.

Let’s assume that China is simply letting North Korea run a trade deficit, with only some vague future promise of payment in the form of cheap contracts for coal and minerals. Or, let’s say that China is even just sending North Korea a bunch of stuff without requiring any form of payment whatsoever. It seems highly unlikely to me that even a government like China would support the full extent of these imports. Even if North Korea is only paying in hard currency for a relatively small proportion of what it imports from China, that’s still a lot of money that’s just leaving the vaults, with virtually nothing coming in to replenish them. How long can this go on for? Probably longer than many estimated at the onset of “maximum pressure”, but certainly not forever.

Summary

In sum, judging by the numbers, North Korea’s domestic economic conditions appear stabile but quite difficult. No sense of widespread, general crisis is visible in the data. Nonetheless, the regime is likely under a great deal of stress concerning the economy. How much is hard to tell, but definitely enough for some form of sanctions relief and/or economic cooperation to be high on their agenda for Hanoi.

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North Korean officials disheartened over this year’s harvest

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

As North Korea continues to reel from an unprecedented heat wave, the authorities are conducting a nationwide assessment of the damage that has been inflicted on crops as well as on-site farm visits, report sources in the country.

“The temperature has risen daily and there’s no rain, so crops all over the country are drying out,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on August 6. “The authorities are investigating the damage done to the agricultural fields.”

The source said that the authorities have sent investigative teams to farms throughout the country who are taking photos of the damage and sending them back to central headquarters.

The roots of the corn crops have yellowed because they have dried out from the lack of rain. North Koreans consider the agricultural season to be “finished” this year. Farmers have suffered from both the double impact of intense heat and drought.

In Musan County, where mining activities have stopped, many miners have sought to obtain land after facing significant difficulties. The intense drought has created concerns about how they will feed their families.

“There are many people saying that the ‘weather is killing us’ while beating their fists against their chest in front of their dying crops,” said a source in Ryanggang Province.

“The authorities likely wanted to show people that they are keeping an eye on things and making an effort to improve the situation.”

Officials who are part of the investigation teams, however, are reportedly saying that there is no hope in recovering from this year’s agriculture troubles.

“Officials have dwindling hope about this year’s harvest, and some even say the only thing to do is wait for the intense heat to end,” the Ryanggang-based source added.

Meanwhile, the state-run publication Rodong Sinmun has reported, “Farmers are taking it upon themselves to conduct a powerful campaign to prevent damage [to the crops] from high temperatures and drought.” The state authorities are emphasizing “self-sufficiency” as a tool to combat damage to crops, which also hints that the authorities have little in the way of clear cut measures to deal with the situation.

Article source:
Disheartened North Korean officials label this year’s harvest ‘dead in the water’
Kim Yoo-jin
Daily NK
2018-08-08

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North Korean market update

Monday, February 5th, 2018

I recently provided this information to Radio Free Asia (in Korean), so I thought I would do a quick blog post about it in English.

I have documented over 480 official markets in North Korea. Some two-dozen are new in the Kim Jong-un regime. Hundreds more markets have been moved, renovated, or expanded since KJU took over. Below are just two recent examples (I have published quite a few in the Korean media via RFA’s Korea service).

This new market is in Kwanhun-dong, Kaesong City:

This market area is probably an expansion of the incumbent Kwanhun-dong market since it is located in the same 동. I can’t imagine that there would be two official markets in the same 동, but I can’t say for certain. Along the river, on the northern side of the market, there appear to be numerous individual stalls, so it is possible that food is sold here (this would seem to make sense since it is next to the river). This particular market area was built sometime after 2015-8-16. It was constructed in increments, but appears to have been completed 2017-4-1.

This second new market is in Phyongsan, North Hwanghae Province. Phyongsan already has an official market (most towns only have one), so it is possible that this new market is meant to replace the old one (a fairly routine occurrence in recent years). We will have to wait and see in subsequent imagery if this new market will replace the old one. The new market was built between 2016-10-5 and 2017-5-2.

And just as a reminder to readers, these are not “black markets,” “grey markets,” or “informal markets”. These are formal markets. They are legal operations carried out under explicit authorization by the state. Employees (all female) are legally employed in the markets, and have ID badges that list their employer as the local market.  Vendors pay fees and taxes to sell in these markets (they are integrated into the public finance system).

Also, the sign over the entrance to these markets uses the Korean word 시장.

 

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North Korean merchants resisting price controls on markets

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

Food prices in the past closely mirrored the ups and downs of rice prices in North Korea. For example, if rice prices climbed by 1,000 KPW per kg, then corn prices could also be expected to rise by approximately 500 KPW. But that trend is beginning to change.
In addition, North Korean rice prices used to exhibit sensitivity to currency exchange rates, but rice prices have recently been falling and climbing independently of the exchange rates.
To calm volatility, the authorities have entered the markets and attempted to control prices, but merchants have widely rejected these measures. Merchants who sell similar products have been collaborating with one another to set prices or decide when to withhold products from sale.
Merchants know that the authorities attempts to crackdown on the marketplace usually fizzle out over time, said a separate source in Ryanggang Province. The vendors will pretend to agree and listen to the authorities, but then they will secretly raise the prices.
As rumors spread that large shipments of pork were being smuggled in, shrewd merchants refrained from putting pork up for sale because they were expecting the price to rise. They then sold large quantities at a higher price, before the prices gradually began to fall again, she continued.
One expert believes that this development signals how prices have moved out of the domain of the authorities and under the influence of the black market.
The price volatility we are currently seeing in North Koreas markets is a common element for underdeveloped countries, said Professor Lim Eul Chul, from the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) at Kyungnam University. He went on to explain that pricing decisions by individual actors involved in market activity are becoming increasingly relevant, but the authorities are having trouble keeping up with the information.
In the past, market agents carefully watched the authorities reactions when setting prices, but the markets have developed and now it is the authorities who are following behind. Big merchants have the power and sway to move the market and control prices. We can expect this trend to continue, he concluded.
Full article:
Merchants resist price controls
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2017-03-20
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North Korean rice prices have dropped drastically one year after the sanctions. Why?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Prices for rice have fallen in North Korea. Daily NK, which tracks prices of rice and foreign currency in three North Korean cities, reported in the beginning of this week that rice prices have fallen thanks to continued development of the market economy and a steady flow of goods to and from China. This has happened despite expectations that the sanctions that the UN passed one year ago would cause inflation.

In theory, the sanctions were supposed to curb trade with China because they targeted North Korea’s crucial minerals trade. In practice, a steady stream of news from the border suggests that trade has continued, albeit with periodic squeezes, following a familiar pattern of China’s sanctions implementation waxing and waning.

This makes a lot of sense. A better functioning and more efficient market should logically lead to lower prices, as should increased trade with China, given the increase in supply. But neither of these two factors explains the timing. There are several other elements to take into consideration when analyzing price changes in North Korea. I am not making any certain claims here about the relatively drastic shift in prices, but rather, pointing to a few factors that may have contributed.

First, one must ask: how big is the drop? The short answer is: pretty big, but not unprecedented. The following graph shows the last and first price observations in the Daily NK market prices database for every year since 2010–2011. (I’ve excluded 2009–2010 because of the distortions that the 2009 currency reform creates in the data.) It shows that a similar price drop happened between 2011 and 2012 as well.

Graph 1: rice prices in North Korea, last and first year observations. Graph by NKeconwatch.com. Data from Daily NK.

This latest price point, however, is not a historic low-point. We’ll see if prices continue to drop over the weeks, but as of now, there are fairly near time points when prices have been lower, such as April 2014 (see graph further down).

Prices are seasonal to a degree. Though the market system and the public distribution system (PDS) obviously function under very different mechanisms, the following graph from the World Food Program’s 2013 food and crop assessment (the latest exhaustive one they published, to my knowledge) underscores the point that supply varies depending as the harvest draws farther and closer, and suggests that overall supply tends to be particularly good in December and January in other years as well:

Figure copied from World Food Program Food and Crop Assessment in the DPRK, November 2013, showing seasonal variations in government grain distribution.

Overall, the story under Kim Jong-un’s tenure seems to be one of price stability. Since around the spring of 2014, prices have moved in a fairly delineated fashion (as visible in the right half of this graph):

Rice prices, average of three cities, 2012–2017. Data from Daily NK, graph by NKEconwatch.com.

Second, though it would be intuitively easy to conclude that the drop in prices was caused by better functioning market mechanisms and agricultural management changes, this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Again, such changes are crucial and may well have played a large role in the greater price stability of the past few years. But they would not explain this sudden shift.

Instead, the story seems to partially be the opposite, one of government action. A few days ago, Voice of America reported that PDS distributions in January of this year have, according to a World Food Program official, gone up by around ten percent as compared to the same period last year. Both in September and November, the North Korean government imported significantly larger quantities of rice than usual. These imports presumably go out through state channels rather than the private markets.

So while it’s impossible to isolate different effects from one another, it looks like the state can still have a significant impact on the food economy, even with the strong and continuously evolving market sector. This impact seems particularly likely this time around, given the sudden drop in prices. Only time will tell whether drop continues, or if prices continue to bounce within the limits of the past few years.

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