Archive for the ‘Health care’ Category

North Korea’s convenient but remarkable admission of likely Covid-19 case

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

So, it finally happened: North Korea has officially admitted the suspected existence of a Covid-19 case in the country. State media claims the virus was brought over by a so-called re-defector, who first left for South Korea a few years ago only to return now, reportedly by swimming across the Imjin river. Some South Korean media speculation seems to confirm that a re-defection did happen, reportedly by someone swimming across the Imjin river, though none of this is confirmed. Here is the North Korean statement in full:

Pyongyang, July 26 (KCNA) — Amid the intensified anti-epidemic campaign for thoroughly checking the inroads of the world’s threatening pandemic, an emergency event happened in Kaesong City where a runaway who went to the south three years ago, a person who is suspected to have been infected with the vicious virus returned on July 19 after illegally crossing the demarcation line.

The anti-epidemic organization said that as an uncertain result was made from several medical check-ups of the secretion of that person’s upper respiratory organ and blood, the person was put under strict quarantine as a primary step and all the persons in Kaesong City who contacted that person and those who have been to the city in the last five days are being thoroughly investigated, given medical examination and put under quarantine.

The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea convened an emergency enlarged meeting in the office building of the Central Committee of the WPK on July 25 as regards the dangerous situation in Kaesong City that may lead to a deadly and destructive disaster.

Kim Jong Un, chairman of the WPK, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and supreme commander of the armed forces of the DPRK, was present at the meeting.

Attending the meeting also were members and alternate members of the Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK.

Present there as observers were members of the Central Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters.

Party and administrative leading officials of the Cabinet, ministries and national institutions, members of the executive committees of provincial Party committees and senior officials of the leading institutions at provincial level were present in the video conferencing rooms as observers.

Upon authorization of the Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un presided over the meeting.

Despite the intense preventive anti-epidemic measures taken in all fields throughout the country and tight closure of all the channels for the last six months, there happened a critical situation in which the vicious virus could be said to have entered the country, the Supreme Leader said, adding that he took the preemptive measure of totally blocking Kaesong City and isolating each district and region from the other within July 24 afternoon just after receiving the report on it.

To tackle the present situation, he declared a state of emergency in the relevant area and clarified the determination of the Party Central Committee to shift from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system and issue a top-class alert.

He specified tasks for each sector to be immediately implemented by Party and working people’s organizations, power organs, public security and state security institutions, anti-epidemic and public health institutions.

The meeting unanimously adopted a decision of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK on shifting from the state emergency anti-epidemic system to the maximum emergency system.

He instructed all the participants to immediately conduct follow-up organizational work to carry out the decision of the Political Bureau of the Party Central Committee in their fields and units, and party organizations at all levels and every field to ensure and guarantee the most correct implementation of the directions and assignments of the Party Central Committee with a sense of boundless responsibility, loyalty and devotion.

He underscored the need to thoroughly maintain tough organizational discipline and ensure the unity in action and thinking throughout the Party and society, to keep order by which everyone absolutely obeys and moves as one under the baton of the Emergency Anti-epidemic Headquarters and the need for party organizations at all levels to perfectly perform their role and duty.

Saying that everyone needs to face up to the reality of emergency, he appealed to all to overcome the present epidemic crisis by not losing the focus of thinking and action, practicing responsibility and devotion to be faithful and true to the leadership of the Party Central Committee, being rallied closer behind it so as to defend the welfare of the people and security of the country without fail.

The meeting sternly took up the issue of the loose guard performance in the frontline area in the relevant area where the runaway to the south occurred, and decided that the Central Military Commission of the WPK would get a report on the results of an intensive investigation of the military unit responsible for the runway case, administer a severe punishment and take necessary measures. -0-

(Source: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Convenes Emergency Enlarged Meeting of Political Bureau of WPK Central Committee,” Korean Central News Agency, July 26th, 2020.)

This is of course makes for extremely convenient optics for the North Korean regime, and raises lots of questions.

First, to state the obvious: this would make for an extremely convenient way for the regime to admit the existence of Covid-19 in the country. I have written previously about how unlikely the regime claim of zero cases is. The message is: our anti-epidemic measures, such as closing the northern border, were flawless. But one case still slipped through the cracks. Having a first confirmed case coming in from the south relieves the regime of any awkwardness vis-a-vis China.

Second: this is all still very strange. How can the political and strategic cost be smaller of admitting a glitch in the southern frontline defenses? Look at the text in the statement: “loose guard performance in the frontline area” is not a small thing to admit. It’s far from unprecedented criticism, but still. What does it say about morale and readiness within the army that even at a time of relatively high tensions, “loose guard performance” can happen?

Third and relatedly: this is a lot of fuss for a suspected case. Kim Jong Un not only called an emergency politburo meeting, a major event in its own right. The state has also placed all of Kaesong under lockdown and required anyone that traveled to the city within the past five days to go into quarantine. Just imagine how many people in North Korea must be going around with symptoms that should cause suspicion of Covid-19. The sniffles and a subpar sense of smell and taste should be enough. And yet, this is the first time we’ve seen this sort of alarm.

Fourth: how was this detected, and why was this person specifically taken in for testing? Judging from the statement, he was able to slip back into North Korea undiscovered, only to proceed to move around freely in Kaesong and potentially spread the virus. Was he brought in for testing because he came in from South Korea, or because of specific symptoms? What happens to the undoubtedly more numerous arrivals from China – are they all placed under stringent quarantine? Kaesong is far less connected to the outside world than are other parts of North Korea. The chances of it spreading there but not in the north are…extremely, incredibly slim, at best.

In short, it’s very difficult to buy this as a credible explanation or excuse for a Covid-19 outbreak in North Korea. The virus has most likely been around for some time, perhaps something has now prompted the authorities to need to make an official admission. As always, all we can do is await more information and hope that some questions are answered.

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The Pyongyang General Hospital and Kim Jong Un’s “Benevolent Dictator” Economics

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

On Monday (July 20th), Kim Jong Un visited the construction site for the Pyongyang General Hospital and unleashed some rather scathing criticism against the management of the project. An excerpt from KCNA:

Noting that it is making a serious digression from the Party’s policy in supplying equipment and materials to go against the intention of the Party which initiated the construction for the people and mapped out its operation, he severely rebuked it for burdening the people by encouraging all kinds of “assistance”.

Saying that the construction coordination commission failed to solve all the problems in conformity with the Party’s policy line, he said in the strong terms that if such situation is left to go on, the noble plan and intention of the Party which initiated the glorious and worthwhile construction for the good of the people could be distorted and the image of the Party be tarnished.

He instructed the relevant departments of the Party Central Committee to investigate the performance of the construction coordination commission as a whole and replace all the officials responsible and make strict referral of them.

Pointing out that though the construction work of the hospital was being pushed ahead thanks to the patriotic zeal and devoted efforts of the builders […].

(Source: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Gives Field Guidance to Pyongyang General Hospital under Construction,” Korean Central News Agency, July 20th, 2020.)

The Pyongyang General Hospital project was destined for hurdles from the very beginning, as this article explores. Kim has personally emphasized how central it is to finish hospital construction by the deadline of October 10th this year, when the Korean Worker’s Party will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

With such time pressure for construction, worksite conditions were always going to be problematic. The politically motivated deadline, moreover, increases the risk of shoddy construction work. Rather than serve the general public at large, the hospital, whenever finished, is likelier to cater to the sociopolitical elite who can pay their way and, perhaps, to medical tourism.

Kim’s criticism against construction officials, however, is about much more than the hospital construction project itself. It relates to the very structure of the North Korean system, and of communist economies in general. This sort of criticism really is a standard performance in a decades-old genre, where the supreme leader shows himself to be on the side of the people by pinning the blame for any problems and suffering among the population on lower-ranking officials.

Kim’s public criticism of the construction management officials is, in other words, not exceptional, but a standard mechanism and a feature of North Korea’s economic system. Much in North Korean governance may be subject to dynamic change, but the one constant is that the leader can hardly ever be at fault.* To hold this constant, someone else must be blamed when economic plans don’t go the way they should. Never mind that the leader often rules by directives that are often vague and given in off-the-cuff-statements, left to subordinates to interpret and implement as best as they can. Problems like this are almost inevitable in an economy like North Korea’s, still in structure very much a command economy despite significant relaxations over the past few decades.

Thus, when the Soviet Union’s industrialization plan didn’t proceed as intended, it had to be the fault of wreckers working for foreign powers. Stalin himself could never be at fault. In the same way, it cannot, by definition, be Kim’s fault that people are overburdened with requests for “assistance” to help build the hospital. Lower-level bureaucrats have to be the ones to blame, for overburdening the people, because the leader can never be associated with direct pain and suffering in people’s daily lives.

In fact, such “assistance” – often termed “voluntary” – is a mainstay of the North Korean economic system and pretty much has been ever since the beginning. Kim surely cannot have missed the pictures and news reports in his own state media about “active support” from “the people”, and different localities sending construction materials. This sort of “voluntary labor” to gather materials for state projects or work on construction sites is of course not voluntary at all, as staying away would be punishable.

It is a facet of everyday life in North Korea that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves, as it often takes up a substantial number of hours. It is also not a new phenomena. The North Korean state has always demanded such “voluntary” contributions from the people to make up for materials and labor that the state cannot produce. Naturally, officials will use whatever means required to make their deliveries, even if these means are forcible. This applies to financial assets as well. The wealthier the trading middle class grows, the more the state will subject them to loyalty payments and the like.

In North Korea’s current situation, what choice does Kim really have but to blame lower officials for failures, and admonish them to do better? The Pyongyang General Hospital is not the only grandiose, heavily publicized project that is doing poorly. The Wonsan-Kalma resort has also been plagued by shortages and delays. The government needs these projects not least for propaganda value, to show to the country that although difficulties abound, all is not hopeless, the economy is still making progress, and people’s living standards will improve. So when none of the projects carrying this message are working out, the government has a problem.

In normal times, the state could have dismantled more economic regulations to make it easier for people to conduct trade and private economic activity. Indeed, though it is difficult to quantify, the state giving room for market mechanisms has been the most important factor for the significant improvements in the North Korean economy over the past few years.

Right now, this is difficult to do, because the state needs to extract more resources, not fewer. Over the past few years, the state has grown increasingly short of foreign currency and other assets, first because of sanctions, and later because of the Covid-19 border shutdown (which has partially ended). As a result, we’ve seen the state cracking down more and more on private business and market actors, to bring in resources as other avenues dry up.

The more difficult things get for the North Korean economy, the more demands increase for “loyalty payments” from private citizens, to fund the mega-projects that Kim has staked so much credibility on. We can expect to see more officials lose their jobs in the future in the same manner as those who got axed after Kim’s hospital construction field guidance.

 

*Such self-criticism does of course happen, but its rarity is attested to by the fact that it (rightfully) makes news headlines. One recent example is Kim Jong Un’s 2017 New Year’s Address.

 

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North Korea gearing up for hard times

Friday, July 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

An editorial in today’s Rodong Sinmun emphasizes that fighting the “global pandemic” is more important than economic construction. For Korean-speaking readers, the message comes near the end of the editorial on Friday July 10th, and reads:

그것은 인민들의 생명과 건강을 보호하고 증진시키는것을 최급선무로, 가장 영예로운 혁명사업으로 간주하고있기때문이다.그 어떤 경제건설성과보다 대류행전염병의 침습을 막는것을 더 중요하게 여기고 이 사업에 최선을 기울여야 한다는것이 우리 당의 요구이다.

(Source: 김병진, “인민의 생명안전을 굳건히 지키는것은 우리 당의 제일중대사,” Rodong Sinmun, July 10th, 2020.)

This is not a new message, and it’s been re-stated in various forms in North Korean state media over the past few months. As I write in this article at 38 North, the recent emphasis on the chemical industry carries the same message: don’t expect any major changes in the external economic environment anytime soon, whether it be in conditions relating to sanctions or Covid-19.

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Trends in the time of Corona: North Koreans increasingly gifting each other cell phone minutes

Thursday, June 11th, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports on an interesting trend:

North Koreans in Pyongyang are increasingly sending mobile phone minutes to others as gifts instead of attending birthdays or weddings as the country continues to restrict face-to-face meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With restrictions on movement, events and meetings due to the coronavirus, it is becoming commonplace for people to send others ‘mobile money’ as a celebratory gift,” a source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on June 8.

“Mobile money” refers to a service where users can exchange minutes with other mobile phones users, essentially allowing people to “top-up” others who do not have enough minutes for voice calls.

“Students in Pyongyang who come from areas outside Pyongyang can’t return home due to the coronavirus and are unable to see their friends,” the source told Daily NK. “While confined in their dormitories, students began sending mobile money instead of gifts for various celebrations at home or their friends’ birthdays, and this practice is spreading to other areas of the country.”

AS SIMPLE AS CAN BE

Sending mobile money is relatively simple. Anyone with a mobile money card, which is akin to a checking card for mobile phone charges, can send minutes to others by entering the phone company’s three-digit ID number, the amount to be sent, the phone number of the recipient, and the six-digit password on the card.

For example, a subscriber of Koryolink, the most popular telecommunications provider in Pyongyang, can transmit mobile money to another individual by entering *999* followed by the amount of funds to be transferred, the phone number of the recipient, the six-digit phone money card password and then “#.” Kang Song NET customers would enter *929* instead of *999*.

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “‘Mobile money’: an increasingly popular way of gifting to others,” Daily NK, June 11th, 2020.)

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Update on North Korea and Covid19: June 7th, 2020

Sunday, June 7th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A little over a week ago, I wrote an essay for Foreign Policy Research Institute about Covid-19 in North Korea. The long-term challenge of Covid-19, combined with sanctions, of course poses a major economic challenge for North Korea. However, as I attempt to lay out, there’s another issue. Much of Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy and policy focus has been tied up with economic construction and raising the people’s living standard. That looks like an increasingly distant prospect. With “just” sanctions, trade could have resumed and even expanded depending on the political moods in Beijing, and to a lesser extent, Moscow. Now with Covid-19, considerations are totally different:

Over the past few months, however, the tone of state rhetoric has changed. While before it breathed optimism, North Korean state propaganda now speaks much more—and more realistically—about problems and obstacles to economic development and about the old themes of autarky and economic self-reliance. For the time being, any plans to lift North Korea to a higher plane of economic development have largely been put on hold.

What does this mean politically for Kim Jong-un, who staked much of his credibility on delivering economic progress? The truth is that no one really knows. On the one hand, North Korea is perhaps the harshest dictatorship in the world, and the regime crushes even the slightest hint of dissent with an uncompromising iron fist. Over 100,000 people are estimated to be imprisoned in labor camps, many for crimes of political nature (or “speaking mistakes” as the Korean term goes), some for life. Kim Jong-un was in fact absent not just for one period of several weeks—the initial one that drew so much international attention—but for two different periods, and only appeared in North Korean media four times in all of April and May. Kim may be recovering from a medical procedure, but his absence may also be caused by caution against COVID-19. He may simply not want to conduct public visits or meeting sessions due to the risk of infection. In a system where so much power is centered around one single leader, his health is a top priority for national security in the eyes of the state, and will always be strongly guarded.

On the other hand, no dictatorship can truly function sustainably without any sense of at least tacit support from part of the population, such as the privileged, political core class. Kim has catered to this class in North Korea by overseeing their access to an essentially Western upper-middle class lifestyle in many respects, such as luxury department stores and a water park. The provinces have seen little of this development, and the massive and growing cleavage between the capital city and everywhere else is another long-term problem for the regime. Even so, life in the countryside has improved overall, albeit more marginally, thanks to the growth of the market system.

What happens when, over the course of a longer period of time, things not only cease to improve, but become markedly more difficult? The general public may heed the state’s call to get ready for some difficult times ahead for a while, but in the longer run, it may lead to widespread discontent. What that will mean for the North Korean regime, which has already survived challenges that seemed impossible, only time will tell.

(Full article here.)

In North Korea, it seems the regime is letting up on some of the strongest restrictions. For example, it will – and this says a great deal about the country’s complex economic system, where boundaries between illegal and legal trade are often unclear – “permit” smuggling to a greater extent:

North Korean authorities have decided to permit smuggling activities across some portions of the Sino-North Korean border from mid-June on the condition that smugglers pay foreign currency to purchase trade permits, Daily NK has learned.

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on May 29, North Korea decided to allow traders in Sinuiju, Ryongchon, Uiju and Nampo Special City to conduct their activities from June 15. Traders who fall within the purview of the new measure include those working for trade companies affiliated with the military, Cabinet and other government agencies along with individual smugglers registered with companies.

WAKU BACK TO YOU

Traders must fulfill two conditions to restart their activities: 1) pay for their trade license (waku) in foreign currency; and, 2) in addition to their own imports, import items designated by the state and donate half of these imports to the government.

Even companies or individuals that already possess a waku must buy new permits with foreign currency because the permitted import lists on their trade permits must be changed to accommodate the import needs of the state.

North Korean authorities have reportedly ordered smugglers to include rice, flour, oil (cooking oil), sugar, MSG and other foods on their list of imports. Even traders who previously specialized in electric appliances or clothes must now include food items in their imports to be allowed to begin trading again.

The inclusion of these food items is likely the result of a measure handed down by the country’s Central Committee and Cabinet on Apr. 17 that restricted all “unnecessary” imports until the end of the year.

Following the announcement of the import restrictions, the prices of MSG, soybean oil and flour skyrocketed; there now appears to be great discontent among North Koreans about the scarcity of certain food products and the generally higher prices of food items. Daily NK’s source said that the addition of these food items to import lists is a direct result of this discontent.

North Korean officials have also announced that smugglers who hand over 70% of the food products – more than just the minimum of 50% – they import to the state will be given so-called “patriotic donation certificates.”

All in the all, the latest measure to open up smuggling across the border is aimed at both acquiring foreign currency (through the sale of trade permits) and stabilizing market prices by importing food items in demand.

UNEQUAL FOOTING

The decision to open up smuggling in certain areas is likely due to difficulties in controlling smuggling activities in places like Ryanggang Province and North Hamgyong Province.

Smugglers in those regions are reportedly faced with the significant burden of having to move their operations to North Pyongan Province or Nampo.

Moreover, they have to submit a “letter of intent” to a North Korean agency saying they will be importing items from a particular Chinese trader and the existence of these traders in China must be confirmed by the North Korean embassy in China. These traders also have to compete with traders already based in North Pyongan Province and develop trading routes from scratch.

Ryanggang Province-based traders have mixed opinions on the move to open up smuggling across the border. Some believe that they need to take the opportunity to start trade again, while others think they should wait until the authorities officially permit smuggling across the border in the province.

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea to permit smuggling over parts of Sino-NK border,” Daily NK, 1/6/2020.)

Meanwhile, schools are now open, with video clips to show it:

Schools in North Korea were supposed to start new semesters in early April, but the vacation period was extended repeatedly due to the coronavirus pandemic, though some colleges and high schools were allowed to open in mid-April.

In the footage, students were seen wearing masks, as were parents and teachers. Masks stayed on inside classrooms.

The resumption of schools might suggest concerns over the coronavirus have recently eased in North Korea or it could be aimed at projecting Pyongyang’s the country’s ability to contain the virus.

(Source: “N. Korean schools reopen during pandemic,” Yonhap, 3/6/2020.)

Meanwhile, news continue to come out of the country about deaths from symptoms similar to Covid-19, though of course, everything remains unconfirmed:

Dozens of people in two South Pyongan Province hospitals recently died after suffering symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19 infections, Daily NK has learned.“The dozens of people who died recently were all patients at a facility caring for tuberculosis patients and the hepatitis care center at the Pyongsong City Hospital,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on June 4.

The Pyongsong City Tuberculosis Care Center and the Hepatitis Care Center at the Pyongsong City Hospital are both focused on treating patients with infectious diseases. Patients in these facilities are typically discharged only after receiving permission from their doctors.

The patients who died were all being hospitalized for preexisting conditions, but expired while receiving intensive care after they began showing signs of COVID-19 infections.

Both hospitals quickly blamed tuberculosis or hepatitis for the deaths and hospital workers were ordered to stay silent about the dead patients, the source said.

The sudden spike in deaths led some patients in the hospitals to run away from the facilities out of fear of COVID-19.

“Groups of patients left the hospitals out of fear that they could die if they stayed there any longer,” the source told Daily NK, adding, “Local authorities along with hospital managers were alarmed by this.”

Local and hospital authorities were reportedly concerned that the runaway patients might infect broader society with their diseases.

Local rumors about the runaway patients reportedly focused on the reaction of the authorities, which suggested that officials are still concerned about COVID-19.

Late last month, public health authorities in South Pyongan Province reportedly conducted a province-wide survey of people who showed symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19 infections.

According to the source, the survey found that there are around 1,500 people quarantined either at home or at medical facilities in the province after complaining of high fevers, coughing, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms. Most of them are self-quarantining at home, while only a few with severe symptoms are in medical facilities.

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “Source: Dozens recently died at two Pyongsong hospitals,” Daily NK, 5/6/2020.)

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Rural provinces provide food and construction materials to Pyongyang General Hospital construction

Thursday, May 7th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

To be fair, in theory, hospitals such as Pyongyang General Hospitals are supposed to provide care for rural residents with difficult medical problems too. That’s quite unlikely to happen, but still. It’ also essential to understand that this is how  the system is designed. North Korean media has publicized images of provincial localities “donating” construction materials for the hospital project. RFA:

North Korean residents are being forced to chip in with food aid for construction workers building a new hospital in Pyongyang, creating resentment among provincial residents who are not permitted to freely travel to the capital, sources in the country told RFA.

“Neighborhood watch units in each district of the province are holding meetings to discuss providing food to Pyongyang,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Regular events scheduled in March and April were all canceled [due to the coronavirus], but the neighborhood watch unit meetings go on as scheduled to solicit food aid for the construction workers in Pyongyang,” the source said.

Every neighborhood watch unit held such meetings on April 22, and the source attended one of them. “The meeting emphasized participation in the food aid campaign to complete the Pyongyang General Hospital as one of the nation’s top priorities,” the source said.

“As far as I know, these meetings to help out with Pyongyang’s food situation have been held in every neighborhood watch unit nationwide,” the source said.

According to the source, many of the provincial residents, who are themselves struggling to make ends meet due to COVID-19, resent that they are being asked to give to Pyongyang, a city where only the wealthy or well connected are granted permission to live.

“Some residents expressed their antipathy to the food aid request, asking why they must provide food for the Pyongyang General Hospital as it won’t even be usable by residents in the provinces,” the source said.

“In response, the neighborhood watch unit leaders argue that supporting the construction of the hospital is a top priority for the nation and has been ordered by the party amid a food situation that is bad all over the country,” said the source.

The watch leaders even went as far to say that the provincial people had it better than the privileged city-dwellers.

“They said that we have many ways to make money through our own businesses and side jobs, but Pyongyangers are tied to a very strict organizational lifestyle, so they have no means to get food or extra money,” the source said.

“In the end, the main point of the neighborhood watch meeting was that local residents should step up and feed Pyongyang because the situation in Pyongyang is difficult,” the source said.

Similar meetings were held in the North Hamgyong’s largest city Chongjin, according to another resident who also requested anonymity.

“[The meetings] are to force residents of the provinces, cities and counties all across the country to provide food aid for the construction workers at Pyongyang General Hospital,” the second source told RFA on April 28.

“The Supreme People’s Assembly is making each household give five kilograms (11 pounds) of rice or the equivalent in cash,” the second source said, adding, “The food situation is bad all over the place because of the coronavirus crisis, but I cannot understand how the people here in the provinces are supposed to feed Pyongyang.”

According to the second source, many of the residents were actually relieved when the coronavirus hit, because it meant they could get out of being mobilized for civic projects as happens every April.

“Just when we were relieved that there were no orders [to mobilize us] due to the coronavirus crisis, our moods soured when we were suddenly ordered to provide food for this construction site in Pyongyang.”

(Source and full article: Jieun Kim, Eugene Whong (transl.: Leejin Jun), “Rural North Koreans Forced to Provide Food Aid to Privileged Pyongyang,” Radio Free Asia, May 7th, 2020.)

For more on this, feel free to check out my recent 38 North article on health care in North Korea and the ongoing hospital construction.

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April 27th, 2020: Worrying signs of distress in the North Korean economy

Monday, April 27th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Readers of this blog know that market prices have risen over the past few weeks, largely as a result of North Korea’s anti-COVID19-measures. Over the past few weeks, however, other signs than market prices have surfaced that the economic situation may be getting more difficult, unrelated to Kim Jong-un’s health situation.

  • On April 17th, the Cabinet and WPK Central Committee reportedly announced a ban of all non-essential imports. The reason, ostensibly, is anti-COVID19-protections. One can also imagine it has to do with keeping the country’s hard currency base in place.
  • This measure, and perhaps combined with the overall mood, led to panic buying of import products in Pyongyang shops.
  • Prices on imported goods have increased drastically, Daily NK reports, with the price of imported soybean oil going from 45 RMB to 100 RMB for 5kg.
  • We should also view the issue of the public bonds in this context. In mid-April, the state issued public bonds which it ordered the bureau in charge of constructing the Pyongyang General Hospital to use to pay suppliers. This may be a sign that the state lacks cash of its own to fund the project, and it may expand the bonds issuing program. Moreover, the state may require entrepreneurs to purchase them. If the state begins exerting pressure on economic actors to purchase these bonds, such policies could become measures to essentially confiscate the assets of private economic actors, because the state lacks funds of its own.

Lots of uncertainties as always, but these trends are well-worth keeping an eye on.

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North Korea needs to counter the economic impacts of COVID19, but what can it really do?

Friday, April 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Many countries are adopting stimulus measures to counter the economic impacts of the drastic economic slowdown resulting from measures to counter the COVID19 outbreak. North Korea, too, badly needs to counter the likely devastating impacts of its border shutdown to China, but it has no funds to adopt measures even nearly comparable to ordinary stimulus measures. As Yonhap speculates here, the Supreme People’s Assembly today (Friday April 10th) are scheduled to meet and may announce policies to counter the economic impacts, but it’s unclear what they can really do:

North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature was to hold a once-or-twice-a-year session on Friday, with economic and public health issues expected to take center stage amid its ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus.

The Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) usually meets in April every year to address the state budget and Cabinet reshuffling, but it has been closely watched from outside for any glimpse into the reclusive state’s stance on foreign affairs, including its stance on denuclearization talks with the United States.

Friday’s meeting, however, is expected to center on discussions of major domestic issues, given that Pyongyang has been making all-out efforts to block the outbreak of COVID-19 on its soil.

North Korea is among just a few countries in the world that claim to have no coronavirus infections, generating speculation that it might be hushing up an outbreak.

Pyongyang has tightened control of its borders with China, where the coronavirus originated in late December. It has also toughened quarantine criteria and restricted the movement of people and goods.

In particular, the border closure with China could weigh on its already moribund economy long crippled by global sanctions, as it depends heavily on the neighboring ally for its trade.

It is unclear whether leader Kim Jong-un will attend the SPA meeting. Observers say that he is unlikely to be present as he was not among deputies elected in March last year to the parliament.

Kim attended last year’s meeting to give a policy speech at the session.

Earlier in the day, state media reported that Kim has supervised a mortar firing drill. It did not provide details on when and where the drill took place, but such military activity is usually reported a day after it happened.

But there have been no state media reports on a politburo and a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, which used to be held with Kim in attendance ahead of an SPA session.

Experts say that the North could announce an increase in its budget to improve public health infrastructure and unveil measures aimed at cushioning the impact of its anti-virus campaign on its economy during the SPA meeting.

(Source: “N. Korea set to hold parliamentary meeting amid nationwide virus fight,” Yonhap News, April 10th, 2020.)

The North Korean government doesn’t entirely lack resources, but it doesn’t have the sort of budgetary flexibility that a government needs to launch serious stimulus programs. It could theoretically ease up on restrictions on economic activity, such as decrease fees for market traders (markets are themselves problematic given the risk of the virus spreading there), ease up on permit regimes for various sorts of economic activity, lower mandatory fees and taxes, and the like. This is unlikely to happen, since the state itself already faces serious economic woes, and local-level government institutions likely will not be content with having a crucial source of income curtailed. More to follow after the SPA meeting results are announced.

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North Korean public health expert claims zero coronavirus cases

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In an interview with Kyodo earlier this year:

Pak Myong Su, president of North Korea’s State Hygienic Control Board, made the remark in an interview with Kyodo News and other foreign media outlets.

“If such a virus spreads in our country with a small population and a small territory, a serious disaster could not be avoided, in which thousands or tens of thousands of people are deprived of their lives,” Pak said in Pyongyang.

In mid-March, Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, said at a press conference that North Korea “is a closed-off nation, so we can’t say emphatically that they have cases, but we’re fairly certain they do.”

South Korean media have also reported that many North Koreans have died from the pneumonia-causing virus currently sweeping the world.

Late last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters in Tokyo, “If there is no infected person in North Korea, which is contiguous with China and South Korea, it is extremely miraculous.”

Pak stressed that North Korea has stepped up measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, including cutting off traffic to and from China and Russia since earlier this year.

He added that citizens have been urged by the country’s health authorities to wear masks when they go outside.

(Source: “N. Korea has no infected people with new coronavirus: expert,” Mainichi/Kyodo, April 2nd, 2020.)

I’ve written here about why this is extremely unlikely to be true, bordering on the impossible.

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April 1st, 2020: Latest market prices in North Korea

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In the past few days, Daily NK updated their market price index. The latest price data was sourced on March 20th, but posted at least a couple of weeks later. A few quick observations:

In general, rice prices continue to decline, although not by very much. The average rice price went down by 1.4 percent from the previous price observation, on March 7th. This is hardly enough to be truly significant. As I wrote on 38North recently, the price drop may not be caused by an increase in supply only, but also by increasing enforcement of price controls by the government.

Foreign exchange rates have appreciate significantly since before the coronavirus border closure, and continue to climb still. The RMB has, interestingly, appreciate much more than the US dollar. The dollar climbed by 1.4 percent in the last price observation compared with late December last year, while the RMB went up by almost ten percent during the same time period. Between March 7th and March 20th, the USD appreciate by 0.55 percent, and the RMB by 1.2 percent. North Korea thereby goes counter to the international trend, where the dollar has appreciated significantly over the RMB. This makes sense, however, since the border closure has cut the supply of Chinese goods drastically, thereby raising their price. A significant share of trade in these goods occurs in RMB, and it is only logical that the price would go up.

More on this during the weeks to come…

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