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

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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Real estate prices up in Pyongsong

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to DailyNK, prices of real estate are skyrocketing around the wholesale market in Pyongsong, whose trade is tightly connected to that of the richer Pyongyang:

“The price of a unit in this building near Yokchon-dong, located near the railway station and a major road leading to Pyongyang and Sinuiju, has sharply risen to 60,000 USD from 40,000 USD. Although the building is not in the center of the city, many wholesale vendors want to buy these homes, resulting in the price jump,” a source in South Pyongan told Daily NK on January 4.
“The residential property is attractive to major market heavyweights even though it wasn’t built recently. Ease of transportation seems to be the major pulling factor.”
Pyongsong City is home to Doksan Farmers’ Market (formerly Pyongsong Market),  the largest wholesale market in the nation. The market is constantly busy with merchants from other regions because it not only offers trade in commodities but also deals with the labor market, foreign currency, and the services sector.
Previously, the real estate trade was prohibited in North Korea, but the authorities have tacitly permitted it since the 1990s, with an increasing number of people now purchasing houses. Due to restrictions in North Korea that make it difficult to move about freely, merchants prefer to reside closer to the market.
“In the past, Okchon-dong was more popular because the General Market was located in it. But there were many problems because it was difficult for the wholesale merchants with big vehicles like trucks to come and go along the narrow roads. For this reason, Yokchon-dong became more popular because they can directly unload their cargo near the residential area, which is located at a major transportation hub,” an additional source based in Pyongsong said.
Full article:
Pyongsong prime real estate prices are skyrocketing
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-01-07
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Musan Market damaged in flooding

Thursday, December 8th, 2016

Other outlets have already covered the recent flood damage using satellite imagery (see here and here).  I added one small contribution in Radio Free Asia today…Here is a satellite image of the Musan Market (무산시장) taken before and after the recent flooding:

Images: Google Earth. Top: 2014-1-13, Bottom: 2016-9-14

Nearly half of it was washed away when the river rose.

I will have more to say on this topic after the holidays.

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Where do North Korea’s nuclear scientists go shopping?

Sunday, November 27th, 2016

yongbyon-market-2016-8-21

Pictured Above (Google Earth): A 2016-8-21 image of the general market (종합시장) at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center residential complex.

Needless to say, security at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center is tight, and not much is known (publicly anyhow) about the lives of the people who live there. However, with commercial satellite imagery (and a little know-how), we can get a glimpse of life inside the security perimeter.

No doubt the residents of the compound live in “gilded cages,” enjoying above-average standards of living but under greater control and surveillance. However, in June of 2003, the year that the DPRK legally converted decades-old “farmers’ markets” to “general markets” (a change that involved not only a change in name, but also a change in administration), the DPRK constructed a new general market for residents of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center which appears to have replaced the smaller outdoor farmers’ market.

yongbyon-market-2003-6-2

Pictured above (Google Earth: 2003-6-2): Construction of the new general market outlined in yellow. Structure of the former farmers market that was torn down in orange.

The market appears to be composed of four warehouses each with a floor-space of appx 550 square meters (2,200 square meters total). It is possible that each building specializes in some form of commerce (food, household goods, etc). In some of the historical imagery of the market we can see people outside meandering between the buildings.

It is interesting to think that there are vendors here who are probably not related to the nuclear program. No doubt these individuals would have to be granted security clearances to work in this market.

But perhaps most notably about the residential quarter, we can see 15 new apartment buildings being constructed over the last couple of years.

yongbyon-housing-2014-9-24

(Google Earth: 2014-9-24)

yongbyon-housing-2015-11-9

(Google Earth: 2015-11-9)

yongbyon-housing-2016-8-21

(Google Earth: 2016-8-21)

I do not know if these new apartments are for scientists or janitors, but their construction marks a not-so-subtle signal that employment in the area is on the increase.

Here is coverage of my work on this post in RFA and KBS (English, Korean).

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North Korean food prices after the floods

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A recent report by Radio Free Asia/Asia Press (and recapped below by Yonhap) claimed that food prices had doubled in northern North Korea as a result of the floods last month:

Food prices in North Korea’s northeastern region, which has been hit by devastating floods, have doubled due to the slow pace of recovery and poor distribution networks, U.S.-based media Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported Thursday.

Citing a report by Japanese media outlet Asia Press, the RFA said the country’s northern cities of Hoeryong and Namyang are experiencing a spike in rice and corn prices which soared to 8,000 won (US$7.24) and 2,000 won per kilogram, respectively, from 4,300 won and 1,000 won before the worst-ever floods in decades. The flooding caused severe property damage with many people being reported dead or missing.

The Japanese media said there is a likelihood that other commodity prices will likely soar following rice.

Jiro Ishimaru, who heads the Osaka office of Japan’s Asia Press, told the RFA that rice prices rose rapidly as the transportation situation in the flood-damaged area is very serious, with the railroads and overland routes being almost blocked. The official said the lack of transportation means is leading to poor distribution of food and commodities.

Ishimaru, in addition, warned that water shortage and sanitary problems will also follow due to a shortage of personnel equipment needed to speed up recovery.

Full article here:
Food prices in N. Korea’s flood damaged area doubles: report
Yonhap News
2016-09-22

According to DailyNK, the government has therefore started implementing price controls to keep the market prices for food from skyrocketing:

북한 당국이 ‘60년 만의 대재앙’ 수해 피해를 입은 함경북도 지역의 물가 안정을 위해 총력을 기울이고 있는 것으로 전해졌다. 인민보안성(경찰) 인력을 동원해 쌀 사재기와 가격 인상을 통제하면서 내부 안정화를 꾀하고 있다고 소식통이 알려왔다.

함경북도 소식통은 27일 데일리NK와의 통화에서 “현재 쌀 가격 등이 큰물 피해 이전과 거의 차이가 없다”면서 “보안원과 순찰대가 출동해서 쌀 사재기 및 가격을 올리는 행위 등을 강력하게 막았다”고 전했다.

소식통은 이어 “(수해가 일어나고 얼마 되지 않아) 어떤 장사꾼은 1킬로(kg)에 5000원, 5300원하던 쌀을 8000원에 팔려고 하기도 했다”면서 “하지만 보안원들의 통제 때문에 눈치만 보다가 그렇게 하지 못했다”고 설명했다.

그러면서 소식통은 “회령시의 경우 한때는 쌀 가격이 6000원까지 폭등하기는 했으나 지금은 5000원 대로 하락했다”면서 “돼지고기 가격도 1kg에 13000원 등 원래 가격과 같다. 물가가 전반적으로 차분하다(안정돼 있다)”고 덧붙였다.

Full article:
North Korea making efforts for price stability in flood damaged areas…”Don’t raise rice prices”
Kang Mi-jin
Daily NK
2016-09-29

Yonhap offers a summary of the article in English:

North Korea is going all out in blocking the cornering and the skyrocketing of rice prices in its flood-devastated northeastern areas, a Seoul-based news outlet specializing in the North reported Wednesday.

This summer, six areas in North Hamkyong Province in the North were devastated by heavy rains accompanied by Typhoon Lionrock, with the United Nations having estimated that 138 North Koreans were killed and 400 others are missing by the floods, with about 20,000 houses destroyed.

“Security agents and patrolmen are strongly cracking down on activities of cornering rice and raising rice prices (in flooded areas),” the Daily NK quoted a source from the North’s North Hamkyong Province as saying.

Therefore, there’s no big difference in rice price before and after the worst-ever flood hit the region, the source said.

“A merchant was trying to sell 1 kilogram of rice at 8,000 won shortly after heavy rains flooded the area, but was unable to do so due to strict control by security agents,” the source said.

Rice price once soared to 6,000 won from 5,000 won per kilogram before the floods, and now remains at the 5,000 won level, according to the source, adding that pork prices also showed no noticeable change, selling at 13,000 won per kilogram as before.

“Prices in the deluged areas are stable, in general,” the source said.

Full article:
N.K. strongly controls prices in flood-stricken areas
Yonhap News
2016-09-28

Several things are worth noting here. First, historically, it is common for food prices to rise as a result of seasonal flooding in North Korea. After the severe floods in 2012, rice prices shot up from 4866 won/kg in July to 6533 won/kg in late September. Second, the rise in prices reported by RFA/Asia Press might have been a temporary shock. The DailyNK price graph, last updated in early September, shows very moderate increases in prices after the floods hit in late August. Perhaps prices stabilized quickly as supply did (i.e., deliveries coming in from other areas; this is only speculative though). Third, price controls are difficult to maintain under pressure. Had there been a massive pressure for prices to go up due to drastically decreased supply, it is hard to see that the government would have been able to effectively keep market prices at a certain level across the board. I will try to keep this post continuously updated as market price information gets updated.

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Book review recommendation: Philip Park’s Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is unfortunate that books published in South Korea are often difficult for reader’s in the United States and Europe to get a hold of without waiting out the very long waiting times for online purchases or library orders. Readers of this blog may well be familiar with Kyungnam University professor Philip H. Park’s work on the institutional side of the North Korean economy. One of professor Park’s books on the North Korean economy was recently translated into English and published under the name of Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy. Sadly I have not yet personally been able to read the book for reasons stated at the beginning of this post, but a review in Daily NK summarizes some of the core arguments:

“Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy” is a detailed history of the evolution of North Korea’s economic institutions. It is a newly published English translation of the original Korean work. The author is a professor of political science and diplomacy at Kyungnam University. The book details how a series of crises stimulated a procession of changes in North Korea’s economic strategy. Each new strategy reacted to and attempted to amend the problems created by its predecessor. However, each policy also sowed the seeds for future crisis by creating new inefficiencies.

The Argument
Phillip Park’s central contribution is to correct a common misconception about marketization and the decentralization of North Korea’s economy. Park argues that North Korea did not begin its process of marketization with the July 1st Measures in 2002 – as is commonly believed. Instead, he presents evidence that North Korea actually started spinning the gears of this process much earlier, most significantly with the adoption of the Ryonhapkiopso System (Complex Industrial System) in 1986. In theory, this economic approach allowed limited market mechanisms and practical planning to replace more ideological economic initiatives. The system’s implementation was largely a response to stagnated growth and the impending collapse of one of North Korea’s key sponsor states, the Soviet Union. Aside from inefficiency, North Korea’s principal economic problem has always been striking a balance between sectors while also pursuing self-sufficiency. The Complex Industrial System aimed to address that problem.
The author uses North Korean economic journals as his primary sources. He admits that separating the useful information from the propaganda was a laborious task. So, while the information does need to be taken with a grain of salt, we can still learn a lot about the state of North Korea’s economy by observing how academic discussions and policy recommendations have evolved over time. The book does a good job contrasting policy dialogues with the results of subsequent implementations (or lack thereof). The book’s sources help dispel the myth that North Korea’s political economy is purely monolithic. Indeed, through the book, we witness key players – academics and officials alike – arguing over milestone policies.
One note of caution: Park dives headfirst into the North Korean understanding of economics. Yes, this means a heavy dose of Marxist concepts and five-syllable jargon. But those with a rudimentary understanding of socialist politics know that seemingly obscure theoretical points are sometimes used to justify sweeping changes. In particular, changes to North Korea’s economic institutions are often motivated by theoretical assumptions about how to best transition to a fully communist state. This is actually one of the book’s major charms. After we digest the dense vocabulary, we are presented with a reasonable framework for understanding the decision making of one of the world’s most opaque and incomprehensible dynasties. That in itself is a laudable achievement.
Let’s address a few downsides. Considering that the original Korean work was published a few years ago, it would have been nice to get an expanded forward with some new observations on Kim Jong Un’s performance as an economic manager. Also, abbreviations and technical jargon are used thoroughly in the book. A glossary of terms would have been a handy reference.
Although Park’s main argument may seem technical at first glance, the repercussions of this work are vast. The most immediate and profound impact is that it forces us to reconsider the history, nature, and trajectory of North Korea’s economic transformation. Marketization is typically described as a bottom-up process of slowly expanding black market activity. But Park gives us a reason to think that the picture is slightly more nuanced. It gives us a view into the thinking of North Korean economic planners. Readers are prompted to think more deeply about how institutions shape incentives in North Korea, and how these institutions have changed over time.
Full article here:
Light and shadow: A review of ‘Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy’
Daily NK
2016-09-20
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North Korea’s smallest market?

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

Sometime between 2015-5-25 and 2016-6-27 a new candidate for what may be North Korea’s smallest formal market (시장) was built in remote Komsan-ri, Hyesan City, on the Chinese border.

Komsan-ri-Market-2016-6-27

The Market is approximately 17m x 12m and consists of a central table and possible vending space around the perimeter.

There may be a smaller formal market somewhere in the DPRK, but I can’t think of one at the moment.

Here are some other recent changes that have taken place in Hyesan (new customs office, orphanages, renovated railway line progress (to Samjiyon) and some renovated train stations.

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Is North Korea’s food situation really getting worse? The markets don’t think so.

Friday, July 22nd, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Since early 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has been sounding the alarm bells on North Korea’s food situation. In an interview a few weeks ago with Voice of America’s Korean-language edition, FAO-official Christina Cosiet said that this years’ harvest would be the worst one in four years. One question, dealt with before by this blog, is how bad this really is. After all, the past few years seem to have been abnormally good in a long-run perspective.

But another obvious question is: why do market prices in North Korea tell the opposite story about food supply?

Prices for both rice and foreign currency (US-dollars) have remained remarkably stable for a situation where people should be expecting a worse-than-usual harvest. It is important to bear in mind that prices are largely seasonal and tend to increase in September and October. But unless prices somehow skyrocket in a couple of months, things do not look that bad.

There seem to be two possibilities here: either official production and food supply through the public distribution system simply does not matter that much, because shortages are easily offset by private production and/or imports. Or, the FAO projections simply do not capture North Korean food production as a whole.

For an overview of food prices in the last few years, consider the following graph (click here for larger version):

graph1

Graph 1: Prices for rice and foreign currency, in North Korean won. Prices are expressed in averages of local prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. Data source: DailyNK market prices.

As this graph shows, both the exchange rate and rice prices have remained relatively stabile over the past few years. Thus far, this summer has been no exception. The following graph shows exchange rates and rice prices from the spring of 2015 till July 2016 (click here for larger version):

graph2

Graph 2: Prices for rice and foreign currency, April 2015–July 2016, in North Korean won. Prices are expressed in averages of local prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. Data source: DailyNK market prices

This does not look like the behavior of a nervous market where supply is declining at a drastic rate. Of course, a number of caveats are in order: again, prices are likely to rise through September and October, as they have in the past. Moreover, markets may react to any harvest declines at a later point in time, as they become more apparent.

Even so, it seems inconceivable that market prices would remain so stable if North Korea was experiencing a steep dive in food production. After all, farmers would be able to see signs fairly early on, and their information would presumably spread through the market as a whole. In short, it is logically unthinkable that markets simply would not react to an unusually poor harvest.

This all begs the question of how much market prices tend to correlate with the FAO:s harvest figures overall. The short answer appears to be: not much. The graph below (click here for larger version) shows the average prices for rice and foreign exchange per year on the North Korean market since 2011, and harvest figures drawn from reports by the FAO and the World Food Program (WFP). (See the end of this post for a more detailed explanation of the underlying calculations.)*

graph3

Graph 3: Yearly average market prices for rice and US-dollar (in North Korean won), and FAO food production figures. Data source: DailyNK market prices

As this graph shows, there is generally fairly little correlation between market prices and harvests as calculated by the FAO. Harvests climbed between 2009 and 2015, while market prices climbed and and flattened out from 2012, around the time of Kim Jong-il’s death. Exchange rates and rice prices unsurprisingly move in tandem, but appear little impacted by production figures as reported by the FAO.

It is possible that prices react in a delayed manner to harvests, and that the price stabilization on the market is a result of increased harvests over time. But the consistent trend over several years, with prices going up as harvest figures do, is an unlikely one. Again, it is also difficult to imagine market prices not reacting relatively quickly to noticeable decreases in food production.

So what does all this mean?

It is difficult to draw any certain conclusions. But at the very least, these numbers suggest that the FAO food production projections are not telling the full story about overall food supply in North Korea. Moreover, market signals are telling us that food supply right now is far from as bad as the FAO’s latest claims of lowered production would have it. Rather, prices seem normal and even slightly more stabile than in some previous years with better harvests. In short, the narrative that this year’s harvest is exceptionally poor seems an unlikely one.

 

*A note on graph 3:

 For market prices per year, I calculated an average price from all observations in a given year. The DailyNK price data is reported for three cities separately: Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan. I have used an average of these three cities for each data observation as the base for calculating yearly averages. This is a somewhat tricky way of measuring, as the amount of data observations, as well as their timing, sometimes varies from year to year. The steep decline in 2009–2010 is primarily caused by the currency denomination, and should not be taken for a real increase in supply.

The FAO food production figures are not reported by calendar year, but published in the fall and projected for the following year. Since these figures best indicate available supply for the year after they are reported, I have assigned them to the year following the reporting year. That is, the figure for 2014 comes from the WFP-estimate for 2013/2014, and so on and so forth.

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New market construction and renovation in North Korea

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

New-nampho-Market-2016-5-19

Pictured Above (Google Earth, 2016-2-2): Construction of what I believe to be a new market in Nampho.

I have identified a few other smaller examples in this Radio Free Asia article.

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New figures on markets in North Korea

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The last few months have seen quite the trickle of quantitative estimates on North Korea’s markets. A while back, South Korean intelligence said North Korea has 380 markets in total. Curtis Melvin counts them to 406. And then, a few days ago, Professor Lim Eul-chul of Kyungnam University put them at 750 (including street vendors).

It is unclear whether this is another intelligence branch or institution speaking, but what Yonhap terms “South Korea’s intelligence authorities” today claims that there are 306 markets. They also estimate that 1.8 million people use them every day, although those numbers are probably guesstimates more than anything else. Even though survey studies can say a lot about how often people use markets on average, it would seem almost impossible to weight these properly by region given the variation.

The report also includes a count of markets in each province:

By region, South Pyongan Province is home to the largest markets with 37, followed by South Hamgyong Province with 36 and North Pyongan Province with 34. North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang has 23 markets, the authorities said, without elaborating on how they obtained the information.

It is difficult to know what is meant by “markets” here: in other words, whether street markets are included or only formal ones. In any case, it isn’t particularly surprising that South Pyongan Province comes out as number one: the province has a major advantage for market trade in that it is close to Pyongyang. Traders that don’t have entry permits to Pyongyang can come and sell their goods to Pyongyang citizens who only live a relatively short bus ride away, or to other traders that will ship the goods for sale there.

Read the full article here:
S. Korea says up to 1.8 mln N. Koreans use markets per day 
Yonhap News
2015-12-27

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