Archive for the ‘International trade’ Category

“Maximum pressure” and the North Korean economy: what do market prices say?

Friday, March 9th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

With the news today about a summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump tentatively planned for the end of May, there has been much debate about the role of the US policy of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions.

The efficacy of the policy is difficult to evaluate, particularly since it often takes many months or even years for the full effect of sanctions to play out. Whether the policy has been effective or not depends on, well, how you judge success or failure. There is little doubt that North Korea’s exports have taken a significant hit not primarily from the sanctions themselves, but from China’s enforcement of them. This is the single biggest difference between how sanctions have hit the North Korean economy during the past year, versus previous years. It seems fairly indisputable that sectors of the economy have suffered, with export industries taking the biggest hit.

But what has been the impact on the economy as a whole? It’s difficult to say, but we have two important indicators: prices of rice and foreign currency on North Korean markets. The data on these two indicators is far from perfect, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw firm conclusions from it. (For an explanation of this data, and the rationale for using rice prices in lieu of the formal goods basket used to measure inflation in other countries, see this article, for example). Nevertheless, neither of the two indicators suggest a situation out of the ordinary on North Korean markets during the period that “maximum pressure” has been applied.

First, a look at rice prices. If sanctions were truly devastating the North Korean economy, there is a whole host of reasons why one should expect rice prices to increase.

One of them is expectations of worse times to come as importing inputs for agriculture as well as food becomes increasingly difficult. Another is that if importing food products in general* becomes more difficult, perhaps because Chinese traders anticipate that their North Korean counterparts won’t be able to pay, consumers would be expected to switch more of their consumption to domestically sourced goods, increasing demand and thus prices. In general, anxiety about worsening times often leads to inflation.

This does not seem to have happened. In fact, rice prices have been remarkably stable over the past year (if the graph looks strange, click for full image):

There may well be other forces at work, too. Increased smuggling of cheaper Chinese rice, for example, may well have contributed to the price stability. But this is in itself a sign of the resiliency of the North Korean economy; when some supply decreases, there are ways of compensating through other means.

Exchange rates are another important metric. If the inflow of foreign currency (in this case US dollars) decreases, its price – the exchange rate – should go up. Expectations matter here, too: if the market expects that foreign currency supply will dry up in the future, it tends to act in the present and make purchases today to hedge for tomorrow. As with rice prices, exchange rates have been remarkably stable over the past year (again, click for better image):

In sum, we have little or no hard evidence that the North Korean economy, on the whole, has suffered significantly and harshly from sanctions thus far. That may itself not be an argument against sanctions, since again, it may take much longer than just a year for their full impact to play out. But it does call into question the claims that “maximum pressure” is the chief reason for Kim Jong-un’s outreach to Donald Trump.

*This likely holds true regardless of the level of self-sufficiency in North Korea’s agricultural production.


North Korean markets insulated from sanctions, but not forever

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

Posted by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Analysis at Daily NK:

In 2017 alone, the United Nations Security Council passed four major sanctions resolutions against North Korea: Resolutions 2356, 2371, 2375, and 2397. Under the measures, the North’s crude oil imports were restricted, and coal and mineral exports were banned. Additionally, the North was prohibited from sending its laborers to work abroad – one of the key ways in which the regime earns foreign currency.
“One cannot say that, on a macro level, sanctions against North Korea have been ineffective,” said Lee Seok Ki, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET). “Since around August or September of 2017, the North’s exports have dropped significantly, and we have seen a major impact from sanctions on their industrial output. The country’s anthracite (coal) exports are down 66% compared to the previous year, which is a devastating hit to their mining sector, and the trend is expected to continue.”
Lee added that while most indicators point to declining imports, it remains difficult to conclude that sanctions have had the same effect on the North Korean manufacturing sector. Despite this, Lee noted that “sanctions are having an effect on the trade sector and we will continue to see both quantitative and qualitative effects in the long term.”
Other experts support the opinion that sanctions are working against the North’s overall trade. “North Korea’s exports to China are down 37%, which has led to a further 1.8% drop in growth for the North’s economy over the last year,” said Kim Byung Yeon, a professor at the Department of Economics at Seoul National University.
“If the North is unable to get sanctions lifted, the growth rate for their economy could drop to as low as minus 5% in the next year,” Kim added, explaining that the effects on economic growth will be significant due to the structure of the North’s economy and the relatively high proportion that exports contribute to it.
Kim said that citizens working in the trade sector have been most affected by sanctions, though he points to the government as taking the most damage. “Most trade has been conducted by state-owned and party- or military-run companies, meaning that the elite class and government officials take a big hit from sanctions,” Kim said. “Kim Jong Un relies heavily on trade as a source of income (for his regime), which means that the person most impacted by sanctions is none other than Kim Jong Un.”
But while sanctions appear to be having a significant effect on the North’s trade and industry, experts are noting that the local markets in the country have not been affected as heavily.
“When you look at the price of rice or the exchange rate over time, it’s hard to see any major effect of sanctions (on local markets),” KIET researcher Lee said.
Daily NK’s own research has come to the same conclusion, finding that the price of rice in North Korea’s markets has remained steady at around 4,000 to 5,000 KPW per kg since the beginning of the recent surge in international sanctions.
“People have been relying on themselves, actively participating in the markets and smuggling since the end of the Arduous March (great famine of the 1990s), which means that sanctions do not yet seem to be having an effect on the markets,” said a source in North Hamgyong Province, pointing to the steady availability of consumer goods as evidence.
“Kim Jong Un has instituted improvements in the quality of domestic-made goods, leading to these products in many cases pushing out Chinese versions from the markets,” said Lee Geun Young, Professor at the Yanbian University Department of Political and Public Administration. “There are now fewer items being brought in from China, so these products are having less influence on market prices.”
However, experts also believe that the damage inflicted by sanctions will inevitably reach the markets. “It’s not easy to precisely predict when the effect of sanctions will reach the markets,” Professor Kim said. “But one thing is clear: because many items rely on some form of importation, the long-term effects of a continuing decline in trade will inevitably lead to a reduction in the volume of available goods and a decrease in consumer purchasing power.”
Article source:
North Korean markets insulated from sanctions, though not forever
Jang Seul Gi
Daily NK

International sanctions to reported to hit DPRK economy harder

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

According to Yonhap:

A series of international sanctions will likely plunge the North Korean economy into a deeper slump this year and sharply worsen the living conditions of its citizens, a report said Wednesday.

The United States, the United Nations and other nations imposed tough economic sanctions on the reclusive country in retaliation for its nuclear and missile tests last year.

Lee Suk, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Development Institute (KDI) and one of the report’s authors, said the international sanctions clearly dented North Korea’s trade last year, stalling or contracting its industrial activity and agricultural output.

“The impact of the sanctions doesn’t appear to have spilled over into the market yet, but there is a possibility that North Korea may suffer further setbacks in production, trade and consumption, sharply aggravating the welfare of economic actors.”

Kim Young-hoon of the Korea Rural Economic Institute estimated North Korea’s grain output for 2017 at 4.71 million tons, down 2 percent from the previous year.

“Pyongyang’s farm production didn’t increase last year, despite a series of agricultural reform measures since 2012,” Kim said. “It is difficult to paint a positive picture of North Korea’s food supply and demand this year.”

Lee Jong-kyu, a KDI researcher, said North Korea’s coal exports to China, its chief ally and economic benefactor, tumbled 78.5 percent on-year in 2017, with their dollar value sinking 66 percent.

The plunge contributed nearly 80 percent to the decrease in the value of North Korean trade with China last year, Lee said, predicting tougher international sanctions will give Pyongyang less leeway in its policy options this year.

Lee Suk-ki, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade, estimated that North Korea’s mining, agricultural and construction sectors stalled or contracted in 2017, compared with the previous year.

The sectors’ slack or weaker activity probably resulted from a severe drought, a decline in trade stemming from international economic sanctions and a correction following the previous year’s push to ramp up production, the economist said.

This article is derived from the  February 2018 issue of the monthly KDI Review of the North Korean Economy. See page 45 of this PDF (in Korean).

Read the full Yonhap story here
Int’l sanctions to hit N.K economy harder: report


US prepares maritime interdiction to stop North Korean sanctions evasion

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As the Winter Olympics with all its inter-Korean contacts wind down, the US is preparing to place Coast Guard forces to stop and search vessels in Asia-Pacific waters, to prevent North Korean sanctions circumvention. Reuters:

Washington has been talking to regional partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, about coordinating a stepped-up crackdown that would go further than ever before in an attempt to squeeze Pyongyang’s use of seagoing trade to feed its nuclear missile program, several officials told Reuters.

While suspect ships have been intercepted before, the emerging strategy would expand the scope of such operations but stop short of imposing a naval blockade on North Korea. Pyongyang has warned it would consider a blockade an act of war.

The strategy calls for closer tracking and possible seizure of ships suspected of carrying banned weapons components and other prohibited cargo to or from North Korea, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Depending on the scale of the campaign, the United States could consider beefing up the naval and air power of its Pacific Command, they said.

The U.S.-led initiative, which has not been previously reported, shows Washington’s increasing urgency to force North Korea into negotiations over the abandonment of its weapons programs, the officials said.

North Korea may be only a few months away from completing development of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, despite existing international sanctions that, at times, have been sidestepped by smuggling and ship-to-ship transfers at sea of banned goods, according to officials.

“There is no doubt we all have to do more, short of direct military action, to show (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un we mean business,” said a senior administration official.

The White House declined official comment.

The effort could target vessels on the high seas or in the territorial waters of countries that choose to cooperate. It was unclear, however, to what extent the campaign might extend beyond Asia.

Washington on Friday slapped sanctions on dozens more companies and vessels linked to North Korean shipping trade and urged the United Nations to blacklist a list of entities, a move it said was aimed at shutting down North Korea’s illicit maritime smuggling activities to obtain oil and sell coal.

Tighter sanctions plus a more assertive approach at sea could dial up tensions at a time when fragile diplomacy between North and South Korea has gained momentum. It would also stretch U.S. military resources needed elsewhere, possibly incur massive new costs and fuel misgivings among some countries in the region.

The initiative, which is being developed, would be fraught with challenges that could risk triggering North Korean retaliation and dividing the international community.

China and Russia, which have blocked U.S. efforts at the United Nations to win approval for use of force in North Korea interdiction operations, are likely to oppose new actions if they see the United States as overstepping. A Chinese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such steps should only be taken under United Nations auspices.

China’s Foreign Ministry, in a statement to Reuters, said they did not know anything about the plan, but that in principle China believes U.N. resolutions on North Korea should be fully and thoroughly implemented.

“At the same time, we hope relevant countries act in accordance with Security Council resolutions and international law,” it added, without elaborating.

Full article:
Exclusive: U.S. prepares high-seas crackdown on North Korea sanctions evaders – source
Phil Stewart, David Brunnstrom

I won’t go into the strategic and political implications, but when it comes to sanctions circumvention, a plan like this, thoroughly executed, would likely raise the costs of North Korean sanctions circumvention. Even with what sanctioned trade still goes on, there’s likely a substantial premium charged by traders that deal with North Korea because of the risks involved. As those risks go up, so should the premium. No measures can make circumvention fully impossible, but it can get a whole lot more expensive.


Are DPRK hard-currency reserves expected to dry up by October?

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s hard currency reserves are expected to dry up around October if international sanctions on the communist nation hold, the chairman of the parliamentary intelligence committee said Wednesday.

Rep. Kang Seok-ho of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party said during a party meeting that the North’s recent peace overtures toward the South, including its invitation to President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang, are aimed at overcoming such economic hardship.

“I received an analysis that, if international sanctions against the North continue like this, all of North Korea’s foreign currency earnings and overseas assets will be frozen, and its dollar (reserves) will dry up around October,” the lawmaker said.

Kang didn’t say where the analysis came from, including whether it’s from the National Intelligence Service.

He said it is an assessment he drew after discussions with intelligence authorities, concluding that as a result of international sanctions North Korea held out an olive branch, including its invitation to Moon to visit the North for what would be a third inter-Korean summit.

“At a time like this, our government should further strengthen cooperation with the international community on sanctions against the North,” Kang said.

He also said the government should send a special envoy to the North and work actively to help resume talks between the U.S. and the North.

A similar prediction was made in the Joong-Ang Ilbo a couple of weeks ago:

In 2017, the North’s exports to China — the only remaining market it officially trades with — plunged by 37 percent on-year. This year, they could plummet more than 90 percent if China fully complies with the sanctions.

Despite a sharp fall in exports, imports remained unchanged, suggesting a thinning of foreign exchange reserves.

Pyongyang is estimated to have about $3 billion in foreign exchange reserves. The unregistered sum could be higher when including foreign currency hoarded away by the elite. The coffers will fall further this year. By the second half, North Korea could be short on foreign exchange.

The Joong-Ang Ilbo article offers additional data and is well worth reading.

$3 billion seems low to me, but I can’t prove it. The black market value of the won has not moved much (since 2012!), and I have to suspect that the currency traders in the DPRK have a better idea of the country’s foreign exchange reserves than I do.

I suppose we will see in the later half of this year? It is interesting to think about think about the implications of North Korea running out of foreign exchange…

Read more here:
N. Korea’s hard currency reserves expected to dry up by October: lawmaker

The effect of sanctions
Joong-Ang Ilbo
Kim Byung-yeon


UNICEF warns of child malnutrition in North Korea following sanctions

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Few or no policies come without unintended consequences. For aid institutions such as UNICEF, sanctions have led to goods being more difficult to bring to North Korea, since both banks and transportation companies are reluctant to have anything to do with the country:

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, humanitarian supplies or operations are exempt from sanctions, Omar Abdi, UNICEF deputy executive director, said.

“But what happens is that of course the banks, the companies that provide goods or ship goods are very careful. They don’t want to take any risk of later on being associated (with) breaking the sanctions,” Abdi told a news briefing.

“That is what makes it more difficult for us to bring things. So it takes a little bit longer, especially in getting money into the country. But also in shipping goods to DPRK. There are not many shipping lines that operate in that area,” he said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sanctions on fuel have been tightened, making it more scarce and expensive, Abdi added.

Reuters, citing three Western European intelligence sources, reported exclusively last week that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

“We are projecting that at some point during the year 60,000 children will become severely malnourished. This is the malnutrition that potentially can lead to death. It’s protein and calorie malnutrition,” said Manuel Fontaine, director of UNICEF emergency programs worldwide.

“So the trend is worrying, it’s not getting any better.”

In all, 200,000 North Korean children suffer from acute malnutrition, including 60,000 with the most severe form that can be lethal, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF had projected 60,000 children would suffer severe acute malnutrition last year, and reached 39,000 of them with therapeutic feeding, spokesman Christophe Boulierac said.

“Diarrhoea related to poor sanitation and hygiene and acute malnutrition remains a leading cause of death among young children,” it said in Tuesday’s appeal to donors that gave no toll.

UNICEF is seeking $16.5 million this year to provide nutrition, health and water to North Koreans but faces “operational challenges” due to the tense political context and “unintended consequences” of sanctions, it said.

It cited “disruptions to banking channels, delays in clearing relief items at entry ports, difficulty securing suppliers and a 160 percent increase in fuel prices”.

“It’s a very close, and tightly monitored intervention which is purely humanitarian in its essence,” Fontaine said.

Full article:
60,000 North Korean children may starve, sanctions slow aid: UNICEF
Stephanie Nebehay


Is North Korea scaling back winter exercises because it lacks fuel and food?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Much has been made of North Korea’s apparent decision to scale back its annual winter military exercises. Some have concluded it’s a sign that sanctions are working: the army lacks both fuel and food, and has therefore had no choice but to change the scale of the exercises.

While this may be true, I haven’t seen anything in the data that proves it. Take food prices, for example. The average rice price among three North Korean cities, according to the latest observation by Daily NK, is 4853 won per kg. It’s declined pretty strongly over the past few months, which isn’t unusual for this time of year. In the comparable period last year, the same price was exactly 800 won lower. In other words, food prices, as measured by rice prices, often used instead of a CPI-basket for the North Korean market, are 20 percent higher today than they were in the comparable period last year.

That isn’t negligible, but I would still say a large part of the price difference falls within the margin of error. Prices can fluctuate heavily on the North Korean market, and the results might have been different even had prices been measured on a different day. And for most of the past few months, prices have pretty much looked seasonally normal.

Lack of fuel is a much more plausible explanation. Prices have steadily climbed since early 2017 and according to data from NK PRO continue to rise. But part of the reason for the increased prices is, likely, that the military has been soaking up more fuel than usual from the market. I don’t think there’s much reasonable doubt that fuel has been more difficult to acquire since sanctions began to be enforced more strictly by China. But we also know that North Korea has continued to import fuel by circumventing sanctions. Some of these methods have been publicly exposed by US intelligence but there’s likely much more going on that we don’t see. If full-scale military exercises were a priority for the leadership, I doubt that it would be impossible for agents and enterprises further down the line to somehow acquire the fuel it needs.


N Korean seafood still sold in China

Monday, January 8th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports NHK:

North Korean seafood is still being sold in China’s northeastern regions despite UN sanctions resolutions banning such trade.

Chinese retailers at a market in Jilin province near the border with the North were advertising “North Korean seafood”, including live crabs.

Market sources say prices for crab smuggled from the North are less than half of those from Russia. Snow crabs were priced at about 18 dollars per kilogram and hairy crabs at around 24 dollars.

Seafood retailers on another street in the province shut down immediately after the UN Security Council adopted the sanctions resolution in August. But some have since reopened.

A shopkeeper said it was initially difficult to obtain North Korean seafood after the sanctions, but he can now purchase it every day. He said the products come from ports in Liaoning Province.

Traders say the seafood is transferred from North Korean fishing boats to Chinese vessels at sea and mainly smuggled into the city of Donggang in Liaoning Province.

The Chinese government insists it has been strictly implementing the sanctions resolution, so there is likely to be renewed attention on whether it will thoroughly crack down on the smuggling.

Article source:
N.Korean seafood still being sold in China
NHK World


The December 2017 sanctions on North Korea: business as usual?

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Many of the steps in the additional sanctions added by the UN Security Council resolution 2379 on December 22nd, 2017, were expected. Targeting oil and petroleum, export incomes, as well as revenues from foreign workers, are all natural steps if the international community wants to pressure North Korea. It’s still rather unclear what the end-goal is, but if sanctions are intended to make things more difficult for the North Korean economy, they can certainly have an impact to that end. These are the main points:

  • Exports of refined petroleum products will be capped at 500,000 barrels per year.
  • Crude oil transfers will be limited to 4 million barrels/year.
  • Within two years, UN member states are to have expelled all North Korean workers and managers.

When analyzing how this will impact North Korea, there are two sides to the story. On the one hand, as with all sanctions against North Korea, China (and to some extent, Russia) would likely not have agreed to them if they had believed that they created a real risk of severe social instability in North Korea that would risk spilling over its own borders. At the same time, it seems like the US intention is to create economic difficulties so severe that the North Korean regime will crack and agree to negotiate the existence of its nuclear deterrent, at least according to the official, outward line. These two objectives appear to be mutually exclusive in the long run.

Moreover, China and Russia appear to have extracted some significant concessions in negotiating the resolution. North Korean workers are to be expelled no later than within two years, which is not an insignificant time frame. Perhaps by then, things will have changed enough for sanctions to be renegotiated. The cap of 4 million barrels is close to what China is commonly estimated to be transferring in terms of crude oil per year to North Korea (3.64 million). So North Korea will hardly be fully starved of oil. Fuel has never been in abundant supply in the country.

Last but not least, smuggling routes are already well-established. Recall Ri Jong-ho’s claims that North Korea buys 300,000 tonnes of fuel products from Russia each year through brokers abroad, largely under the radar. Such transfers are not impossible, but very difficult, to track and stop. Both Russia and China can claim with some truth that they cannot control all sanctions breaches by entities within its borders, particularly enterprises who aren’t all too law-abiding in normal times. Particularly given the poor state of relations between the US and Russia, and the US and China, it is unlikely that either of the two countries will dedicated significant resources to fully track and prevent sanctions breaches, beyond normal procedure. Also, North Korea has been under various forms of sanctions since at least 2006, and even before that, was never an integrated part of established and open world trade. They’ve existed under harsh conditions long enough to learn and adapt their strategies.

On the other hand, North Korea is not immune to sanctions pressure. No country is. Even if smuggling and other ways of getting around sanctions can compensate for some of the losses, transaction costs likely increase. In other words, those who still choose to sell items like fuel to North Korea now have space to demand a higher mark-up for the additional risk. There are also presumably added transaction costs liquefying coal to generate oil.

The government has the resources and the know-how to largely get what they need, but North Korean businesses at the mid- or lower levels will find it much more difficult to keep up with the added costs and effort needed. This is has been true for each sanctions round through this year and last.

Ordinary North Koreans have been impacted by sanctions for long — this did not start with the sanctions that target goods such as oil and fuel. The opportunity cost of what could have been without them was still present. Of course, one can reasonably argue that the fault lies with the regime, for continuing its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, and not with the international community. But that sanctions would somehow not effect North Korean society while hitting against the regime seems implausible.

Lastly, we can note that both exchange rates and rice prices on North Korean markets have decreased over the past few weeks. There may be additional stress present among some spheres of society, but it seems like no major sense of crisis is at hand.



US asks China to cease all oil shipments to North Korea

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In response to yesterday’s missile test, Trump has asked Xi Jinping to cease all oil shipments to North Korea from China. “All” presumably includes the crude oil that China ships, in unknown but presumably large amounts, via the pipeline that runs from Northeast China through Dandong and to the Ponghwa refinery in Sinuiju in North Korea’s northeast.

It seems unlikely that China would fully cease shipments of oil to North Korea, especially over a longer term period. Should oil shortages get serious to the degree that vital industries, agriculture and other sectors cannot function properly, China would eventually grow concerned over social instability in North Korea that would risk spilling over its own borders.

Should China cut off crude oil shipments, it would mean that North Korea’s ability to acquire oil and fuel products is severely limited. Sanctions cap the amount that UN member states can ship to the country, and gasoline prices have risen to very high levels during the year. Oil imports through channels that go unnoticed in international trade records are probably much bigger than often estimated. Recall Ri Jong-ho’s famed estimate that North Korea purchases 300,000 tons of oil products each year from Russia. Overall, it is not entirely unfeasible that Russia could grow as a source of North Korean oil imports in the future. North Korea also has some capacity to transform domestically sourced coal products into synthetic liquid fuel.

The drastically increased fuel prices in North Korea during the year also suggest that the state may have been grabbing much of what fuel has been available for its own needs, likely to store for military and other uses, suggesting that North Korean strategists have long seen an oil embargo on the horizon. After all, the markets only exist at the mercy of the state, and will always come secondary. Therefore, we don’t know whether military and state storage might currently be larger than estimated in normal times.

At the end of the day, however, should crude oil flows from China be cut off entirely, there’s no denying it would be problematic for North Korea. Though China is unlikely to entirely cut off all crude oil shipments for a prolonged, long-term period, much pain can be caused in the meantime.

For more on this, I wrote about North Korea’s connections to, and reliance on, China in matters such as infrastructure, energy, and telecommunications earlier this year in IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review.


An affiliate of 38 North