Archive for the ‘International trade’ Category

More North Korean coal shipments going into China, says VOA/Yonhap

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As in the past, Chinese sanctions enforcement appears to have been a waxing and waning phenomenon. Yonhap reports, citing Voice of America:

China seems to have resumed imports of North Korean coal by lifting a temporary ban on them which it employed early last month, a U.S. broadcaster, monitored here, reported Wednesday.

On Dec. 11, China’s Commerce Ministry announced that it would ban imports of North Korean coal through the end of that month to comply with the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321 adopted on Nov. 30 to punish the North for its fifth nuclear test. Coal is the North’s single largest export item, and China accounts for nearly 40 percent of the shipments.

Three North Korean vessels — Kumreung No. 5, Kumsan and Wonsan No. 2 — are confirmed to have moored in seas about 10 kilometers off the China’s leading coal port of Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province, from Sunday through Tuesday, the Voice of America said, citing MarineTraffic, which provides live ship tracking intelligence worldwide.

On top of that, North Korean ships Kumhae and Kumho No. 1 berthed at the ports of Longkou and Penglai, Shandong Province, respectively, and Susong and Jonwun No. 68 were also on standby for entry near the ports, the broadcaster said.

Eight other North Korean boats were anchored in seas near Yantai, Rizhao and Lanshan, Shandong Province.

The ships, which are believed to have left the North starting Sunday and arriving in the Chinese ports on Monday or Tuesday, are bulk carriers capable of transporting coal, the broadcaster said, citing MarineTraffic.

Satellite images show heaps of black objects at the Chinese ports without exception, it said.

The Resolution 2321 is aimed largely at significantly curtailing the North’s coal exports — a source of hard currency for its nuclear program — by putting a cap on its total export amount.

The cap, set at whichever is lower between 7.5 million tons or US$400 million, is aimed at cutting the North’s annual coal export revenue by more than 60 percent or about $700 million, a huge sum that accounts for nearly a quarter of its total exports estimated at $3 billion.

Article source:

China appears to have resumed imports of N. Korean coal: VOA
Yonhap News
2017-01-04

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Summer trailings along the Sino-North Korean border, in search of sanctions: photo essay

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This November, just like every  time that new sanctions are levelled on North Korea, the first question tends to be: what will China do? Unsurprisingly, the same question followed after UN resolution 2270 in March this year, when the international community adopted the strongest sanctions against North Korea to date, most crucially targeting its minerals exports. This time, some believed, would be different. China was finally fed up and would take measures to hit North Korea’s economy, and official; statements and some bureaucratic action reinforced this impression. Now, some hope that the “cap” measure on imports of North Korean coal will remove the loophole created by the “humanitarian exemption” in the previous sanctions.

By now, after the THAAD, other geopolitical developments and the sheer passing of time, the question of China’s degree of sanctions enforcement has almost faded into the background. As the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield showed in a dispatch from Dandong a few weeks ago, sanctions are at most one factor among many that impact trade between China and North Korea.

This summer, I visited Dandong, Yanji and Hunchun, three Chinese cities along the border. I got a very similar impression: sure, some people involved in border trade told me, things had gotten a little more complicated, though not much. But sanctions were rarely mentioned as the reason for any added difficulties or downturns in trade.  At the time, China’s enforcement of sanctions was very much a topic of debate, and most analysts were skeptical of any squeezing going on, while some claimed trade had virtually ceased. At my visit, on the contrary, I saw fairly vigorous trading activity, and few people I spoke to thought any changes had occurred since sanctions were enacted. Posting these impressions and pictures has been a project in the pipeline for a while, so while much has happened since this summer regarding China-DPRK relations and trade, I hope that the reader will find it interesting to see how things looked at a time when some concluded that China was finally squeezing North Korea in a way that hurt. To be clear: all impressions and pictures below are from late June of 2016.

Trailing the China-DPRK border, in search of sanctions

Dandong 

Entrance to the Dandong customs inspections area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Earlier this year, the UN Security Council adopted the strongest sanctions that North Korea has faced to date. As with previous rounds of sanctions, one of the major questions is China’s degree of enforcement. Going back a few months, some suggested that major shifts had taken place, and that trade between North Korea and China had declined radically.

By the actual border, this summer, things looked very different. In contrast to the image of a desolated trading environment, I encountered bustling traffic during a visit earlier in the summer. During one morning in late June, around 85 trucks crossed the border from North Korea into China in only about one and a half hours. Virtually all trucks were registered to northern Pyongan province, the home province of Sinuiju. In addition, 19 cars and buses, one long freight train and one passenger train crossed the bridge during the same time. After this first stint of traffic, the flow reversed and a steady flow of trucks began pouring into North Korea from China. Only during the 15 minutes when I observed the traffic going from China, into North Korea, 35 trucks and 13 buses and cars crossed the bridge.

The traffic flowed in sequences, one direction at a time. And this was only the morning traffic. The flow may have continued throughout the day, as the traffic moved in intervals. Walking back to the customs area from the bridge crossing in the early afternoon, what was previously a calm intersection by Chinese inner-city standards had turned busy: trucks lined the entire street leading up to the customs office and some flowed over into the adjacent street, waiting to drive into the inspection area. All in all, more than 80 trucks lined the roads waiting to cross into North Korea. Most carried Chinese license plates.

Trucks lined up on both sides of the street at one of the main intersections in central Dandong, waiting to go into the customs inspection area to cross into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks, trucks and more trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lined up for customs inspection along the streets of Dandong before crossing into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up for customs inspection before crossing into North Korea from Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Truck driving into the Dandong customs area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another picture of the never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong from Sinuiju. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is commonly estimated that around 200 trucks go between China and North Korea on a regular day. In sheer numbers, virtually nothing seemed to have changed regarding the traffic since the latest round of sanctions. Only the trucks observed in plain sight during this morning amount to a little under 200, and this merely during the first few hours of the day. At least 10–20, probably far more, were already in the customs inspection area waiting to cross. In short, things looked very regular and busy.

Trucks waiting to cross from North Korea into Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some of the trucks going into Dandong from Sinuiju looked empty. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Of course, one must be careful not to draw too drastic conclusions from one day of observations. Things may have changed throughout the summer and surely during the fall, and channels such as ship transports are not visible from the border bridge area. Moreover, according to reports from inside North Korea, the authorities have expressed concerns about potentially shrinking trade volumes as a result of sanctions, and some traders now smuggle goods that are covered by the sanctions rather than transporting them openly, as they have in the past, according to Daily NK. In short, sanctions did appear to be having some degree of impact, even during the past summer.

Most North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong were registered to North Pyongan province ( 평안북도도, here abbreviated to 평북), the province bordering Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another truck registered to North Pyongan province. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

However, the truck traffic across the Chinese border through Dandong suggested that the picture was mixed. At the very least, observations from the border area showed that even though trade in certain goods may have gotten more difficult, North Korea was by no means economically cut off from China, and still is not. Prices for food and foreign currency on North Korean markets, too, remained relatively stable through the summer from when sanctions were put in place, indicating that the economy as a whole is not feeling any drastic impact of the sanctions.

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Most trucks transporting factory materials into North Korea appeared to be Chinese-registered. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another Chinese truck transporting factory materials into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

If the North Korean economic elite was worried about the sanctions, it certainly did not show at one hotel in central Dandong. Sinuiju in North Korea is only a few minutes drive over the Yalu River, on the bridge connecting the two countries. The hotel was packed with North Korean guests, many of whom have presumably come over for purchasing and meetings with Chinese business partners. They came and went in a steady stream, wearing luxury brand clothing, watches and carrying expensive bags and wallets.

They paid everything in cash, and at least one person per travel party spoke Chinese. One man held a car key with a logo from KIA, the South Korean car manufacturer. One woman sported a Hello Kitty handbag. As some got ready to depart, bags piled up in the lobby, seemingly filled with goods from shopping sprees around town. Some of it seemed to be meant for re-sale in North Korea. Many stores around the flood banks cater specifically to a North Korean clientele, and sell items like kitchenware that are not easily accessible across the river.

Many stores in Dandong cater specifically to North Korean consumers. The sign at the left bottom of the picture reads “조선백화점,” translating into “Korea department store.” Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Travelling to Dandong, it was particularly apparent why the Chinese government would be reluctant to clamp down too hard on border traffic, even if it would want to do so. Political reasons aside, trade between North Korea and China matters for cities such as Dandong. One can see it in the flesh: the streets are packed with companies dealing in imports and exports to and from North Korea. One company trades steel; another sells construction equipment such as tractors. Several sell cars and buses, and others deal in refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers. One, called “Pyongyang Tongshin (평양통신),” judging by its name, offers cell phone services for traders travelling into North Korea. Should trade between the two countries drastically dive, the local economy would take a hit.

Advertisements for North Korean cell phone service Koryolink in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

“Pyongyang Communications.” Sign in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One could turn these observations on their head: if so many trucks were lining up and only moving slowly into the customs area, could that not mean that inspections had gotten tighter? Was the line of trucks actually a sign that Chinese authorities did what they have promised to do?

Perhaps. But not according to people around the border crossing and customs area. I asked several individuals involved in the cross-border trade about the long lines and waiting times for border crossings. No one seemed to believe that the traffic commotion and lines were anything out of the ordinary. Both Chinese and North Koreans involved in import-export business said traffic had not changed at all during the past year or so. Overall trade had declined a bit, one person said. The trucks carried a little less than they did before, but only marginally. Coal was not traded as frequently as it was before the sanctions were put in place.

This sign lists services for one Dandong firm that offers, among other things, UPS transport services and solar-powered appliances, which have become popular in North Korea in recent years. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

But the timing of the early 2016 round of sanctions made such statements difficult to assess. China had in fact been decreasing its coal imports from North Korea at different points in time several years before the latest round of sanctions. Between 2013 and 2015, for example, the value of Chinese coal imports from North Korea shrank by almost 25 percent. Only between January and February 2014, the value of trade between the countries dropped by 46 percent. The statistics are often clouded by the fact that global market prices for commodities such as coal fluctuate heavily. There may also be a variety of seasonal factors at play. In sum, isolating sanctions as a variable is notoriously difficult, and often, numbers do not tell the full story. As of June this year, North Korean coal could still be ordered through the Chinese online shopping mall Alibaba.

Moreover, even if Chinese authorities wanted to check all goods cross with minute rigidity, one can question whether it would even be practically feasible. The customs area is not particularly large and did not appear to be overflowing with staff. Checking around 200 trucks per day for their exact goods, and determining whether its revenues could be used to fund North Korea’s weapons program – the condition stated by the latest sanctions – seems like a gargantuan task in practice.

 

Hunchun

Tourists and a truck waiting by the Hunchun-Rason border crossing (Quanhae). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Dandong-Sinuiju is the main point of trade between China and North Korea, but not the only one. An one-hour drive from the Chinese city of Hunchun, trucks and people come and go to and from the North Korean northeast. At the border crossing, most seem to be going to the special economic zone in Rajin in North Korea. On one gloomy Thursday in late June, around 40 Chinese trucks waited to cross. One Chinese-Korean waiting for the gates to open to the customs area told the present author that business is going very well these days. He runs a hotel in Rajin, catering mostly to Chinese tourists and business people. He has seen no dip in customers over the past year – rather, more people are coming than before. This single testimony may not be fully indicative of trade as a whole, but it does suggest that Chinese tourism remains an important and fairly viable source of revenue for North Korean businesses in Rason.

The Quanhae border crossing from afar. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up to go into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

More trucks at Quanhae. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks at the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists lining up to have their passports checked before heading into Rason. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This was certainly the way things looked at the border crossing. Chinese tourists came and went in great numbers, many carrying North Korean shopping bags. Trucks, too, continuously crossed the border throughout the afternoon. All in all, 80­­–100 trucks drove into North Korea during this afternoon. One was adorned with a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk. A few trucks came out of North Korea as well, many seeming to carry seafood destined for cities such as Hunchun and Yanji.

A truck adorning a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk having just crossed into North Korea from Hunchun. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In addition, a large number of buses and minivans carrying tourists and traders went in from China. Many minivans carried driving permits for Rajin clearly visible through their front windows. Given the amount of truck traffic only during the afternoon, it seems a reasonable estimate that perhaps twice the amount of traffic went through during the day as a whole. One person with good knowledge of the border area estimated that around 200 trucks go through at this crossing on a regular day, though this figure is obviously neither exact nor certain.

Customs office on the North Korean side of the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists waiting to head into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The two bridges connecting Rason to China (particularly the newly constructed one in the back). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

These observations did not fully prove that China was not enforcing sanctions on North Korea during the summer of 2016. However, they did show that trade and traffic between the countries was still very much alive. Some goods may have be traded less, but neither sanctions nor souring relations between North Korea and China seemed to have reduced trade as much as some observers have claimed. The North Korean economy may be impacted by sanctions, but it is not and rarely has been fully isolated from the rest of the world.

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Korean-Chinese business delegations visit DPRK

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Various overseas groups of Koreans are visiting the DPRK to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il. Most of them are mentioned fairly regularly in the official media, but a couple of the business groups were new to me. According to Rodong Sinmun (2016-12-19):

Delegation of Korean Business Persons in China Arrives

A delegation of the Association of Korean Business Persons in China led by Chairman Phyo Song Ryong arrived here Friday to commemorate the fifth anniversary of demise of leader Kim Jong Il.

Earlier, arriving was a delegation of the Association for Economic and Cultural Exchange of Korean Nationality in Dandong City of China headed by Chairman Kim Thaek Ryong.

UPDATE: They reportedly left on 2016-12-21.

Here is a link to a PDF of the original article.

If anyone knows anything about these groups (Chinese names, affiliated businesses, etc) please let me know.

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The size of North Korea’s market economy, and why it matters

Saturday, December 10th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The other day, South Korean think-tank KINU (Korean Institute for National Unification) reportedly claimed that North Korea has 404 official markets in total. As Curtis Melvin has already pointed out on twitter, the real number is actually higher, but all this depends on what precise definition you use of markets (institutionalized and government recognized, versus operating in a legal gray zone, et cetera). As this report by the U.S.-Korea Institute laid out last year – also using satellite imagery, like the KINU report does – markets have grown significantly in size since the early 2000s.

The more interesting figures, in my opinion, are KINU’s estimates for what the markets actually generate in terms of income for the government, and how many people they employ. Below, I place these figures in a comparative perspective within the economy as a whole, and discuss the proportional weight of the markets in the North Korean economy. But first, some of the usual caveats:

As with any figures relating to the North Korean economy, a great deal of caution must be exercised in approaching these numbers. It would seem nearly impossible, for example, to accurately calculate the number of people employed by the markets. In theory, this should not be that hard. Using Google Earth, you can measure, with a fair degree of accuracy, the size of the trading grounds, and knowing the rough size of the average market stall in a North Korean market and how many people work in each one, getting a rough number for the amount that they employ should not be impossible. It would be a very rough estimate but arguably that is better than nothing. But in practice, it would still not give the full story of how many people work in the markets, since many people work there part-time, at least according to (possibly outdated) anecdotal evidence.

Moreover, it is important to remember that the market system is not the entire private sector – many other types of exchanges and transactions go on in the North Korean economy, not all recognizable from above, in complexes such as residential buildings and the like, where small business have been known to operate from. So any number for government revenues, it is important to bear in mind, will only be an estimate (again, a very rough one) for the specific type of markets that KINU has recorded. KINU does not seem to have made its report available online yet – perhaps their methodology is laid out clearly enough to answer some of these questions.

What do the numbers tell us?

Still, the numbers are interesting as starting points for a broader analysis of the proportions and size of the North Korean economy. Starting with the number of individuals employed within the market system, KINU puts the number at 1.1 million. This is about 1/25 of the entire population of the country, as derived from the 2008 census. Table 34 (page 187 and onward) gives the total working-age population as approximately 17.37 million. Subtracting the share of the population listed as “studying,” we get around 16.4 million. Further subtracting the share of the population listed as “retired,” which arguably we shouldn’t do since elderly North Koreans are known to be significantly involved in market activities, we get approximately 13.3 million individuals. I do not subtract the share listed as “doing housework” simply because it seems far too unlikely that such a category in North Korea would really be excluded from the market labor force.

Just assuming as a theoretical experiment that KINU’s figures and the census numbers are accurate, we get a 7.5 percent share of people employed in the official market sector. In reality, the share may well lower since many people in the demographic groups subtracted are known to be involved in market activities. Conversely, it may be higher if KINU’s number does not take part-time workers into account or otherwise underestimates the number of market workers. Wheher or not one thinks this to be a high or low number is a matter of perspective. For comparison, the share of the labor force employed in retail trade in the United States was 10.2 in 2014.

Another interesting figure KINU gives is that for government revenue from the markets. Again, this, too, should not be hard to estimate in theory: if you approximate the amount of market stalls through satellite imagery and multiply the amount by the fee paid by each trader to the government, it shouldn’t be impossible to get a rough estimate for how much the trade brings the government. But of course, here, too, complications abound: when looking at markets from above, it is nearly impossible to determine exactly how large the actual trading grounds are, for example, and how much is made up of administrative and storage facilities. Still, an approximate estimate is immensely valuable as a starting point for a broader debate.

According to KINU, the North Korean government collects between $13 and $17 million per day in fees from market traders. Ever since 2003, the North Korean market regime has become increasingly formalized and incorporated into the official economy. This trend has reportedly continued under Kim Jong-un as well, and arguably accelerated during his tenure. This is clearly a wise move from a policy perspective: the government needs the markets and it needs the revenue, and their depiction as a threat to the regime may not be the full story.

Using the low number of $13 million gives us a figure of $4.7 billion in revenue per year, while the higher figure of $17 million gives $6.2 billion per year. Both the low- and the high-end estimates would put government revenues from market fees at a significantly higher figure than, for example, North Korea’s trade with China. In 2015, for example, North Korea’s exports to China estimated a total of $2.95 billion. The latest sanctions additions are estimated to take off around $700 million from North Korea’s export incomes. It is important to remember that even if they were to accomplish that, which remains doubtful, North Korea still has a domestic economy that matters greatly too. And remember – these are only estimated (estimated!) figures for government revenue from a specific type of market. They do not represent the entire private sector in North Korea.

So, while the role of exports should not be underestimated, it is important to remember that North Korea has a domestic economy of considerable size. Perhaps whatever pressure the sanctions applies on the North Korean economy could serve as an argument for those in the policy bureaucracy pushing for economic reforms that could further let the private economy develop.

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The November 2016 North Korea sanctions: some perspective

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Responding to North Korea’s second nuclear test within one year in September, the United Nations adopted a new sanctions package yesterday, Wednesday November 30th. These are some of the main points:

  • By far, the most significant measure is a “cap” on imports of North Korean coal at $400 million or 7.5 million metric tons in a year, cutting its revenues by about $700 million per year. This is to supplement the current provision that coal can be imported when the proceeds go to livelihood purposes in North Korea, a provision that has proven to be a massive loophole (shocker!).
  • Four more minerals have been added to the sanctions list: copper, nickel, silver and zinc.
  • Exports of statues have been banned, targeting the somewhat peculiar North Korean practice of building statues in various African countries.
  • The resolution also limits the number of staff allowed at North Korean diplomatic missions, and forbids them from opening more than one bank account per person.

So what does this mean for the North Korean economy? Obviously, one shouldn’t speculate too much in advance. As always, China’s enforcement will be the main determinant. Here are some things worth noting:

First, while $400 million cap would certainly be a significant income loss for the North Korean regime, it might not be disastrous. It is worth remembering that North Korean government revenue from minerals exports already fluctuates heavily, since market prices do. Just for a sense of perspective, in 2015, North Korea’s export income stood at about $3 billion, and this was a decrease by 16.4 percent from the preceding year. In 2014, textile exports to China brought in around $800 million. Moreover, the $700 million revenue cut claim does not take into account the extent to which North Korea could make up for the loss through other sectors.

Second, the likelihood of full and consistent Chinese sanctions enforcement remains fairly low at best. Historically, we have seen a pattern where China will increase enforcement during certain time periods, or take single measures that receive a lot of attention (such as the Hongxiang inquiry) but where things return to normal pretty quickly. Case-in-point: the unusually strong sanctions from earlier this year, and the promises of Chinese enforcement, ending with record trade in coal. Obviously the “livelihoods” exemption provided a large enough loophole, particularly after the announcement by the US and ROK that THAAD will be deployed in South Korea. It is difficult to see why this cap would be impossible to circumvent. After all, China is (presumably) responsible for gather the data and for ringing the alarm bells when said cap is reached. (See also Adam Cathcart’s essay on the recent Sino-North Korean rapprochement at Sino-NK).

Third, and relatedly, history tells us that many, many factors other than the international sanctions regime determine Chinese imports of North Korean coal. Domestic demand is arguably far more important as a determinant than sanctions, as evident by the fact that declines in imports of North Korean coal often fluctuate much more with demand than with sanctions.

As always, we can only wait and see, but at the face of it, these new sanctions seem far from revolutionary.

(Update 2016-12-02)

Japan, South Korea and the United States have announced additional, multilateral sanctions independent from those by the U.N. Joshua Stanton over at One Free Korea argues that some of the measures potentially carry some real impact power. For example, they include North Korea’s national carrier Air Koryo. Moreover, they sanction China’s Hongxiang Industrial Development, making it the first time that a single Chinese company is directly targeted by South Korean sanctions. Yonhap:

“We have expanded the number of those subject to sanctions by adding to the list 35 entities and 36 individuals that are playing a critical role in developing weapons of mass destruction and contributing to the North Korean regime’s efforts to secure foreign currency,” Lee Suk-joon, the top official in charge of government policy coordination at the Prime Minister’s Office, told reporters.

Included in the blacklist were Choe Ryong-hae, a vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, and Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, director of the military’s general political bureau, both of whom are regarded as close aides for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The Workers’ Party and the State Affairs Commission were also added along with other entities suspected of supporting the regime’s efforts to export its coal and generate earnings.

In particular, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development and four of its executives were included on the list, marking the first time that a Chinese firm is facing South Korea’s unilateral sanctions.

The company is under investigation on suspicions that it exported aluminum oxide — a nuclear bomb ingredient — to the North at least twice in recent years. In September, the U.S. blacklisted it along with its owner and other company officials.

With the latest action by Seoul, a total of 79 individuals and 69 entities will be subject to sanctions in connection with the North’s nuclear programs. The government announced a blacklist in March as a follow-up move to the UNSC’s Resolution 2270 adopted in the wake of the North’s fourth nuclear test in January.

Any financial transactions with them will be prohibited, while their assets in South Korea will be frozen. The blacklisted people will also be banned from entering the country, which is seen as a symbolic action given that there are no exchanges between the two Koreas.

Other prohibitive measures include blacklisting the North’s state-owned airline Air Koryo on suspicions that it helps its regime transfer workers abroad, and move cash and other embargoed materials into the isolated country.

The Seoul government has also toughened its maritime sanctions by banning any ships that have traveled to the North within the past one year, an extension from the previous 180 days, from entering South Korean ports.

In addition, a watch list “tailored” to enhance the monitoring on activities related to the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missile capability will be prepared and shared with the international community, it said.

Full article:
S. Korea blacklists scores of N. Koreans, entities linked to nuke, missile program
Yonhap News
2016-12-02

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North Korea exporting sand, gravel and coal to China from Sinuiju

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

An interesting example of how the transition from state-owned to private enterprise impacts the workings of certain firms. Daily NK:

North Korean ships from Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province are reportedly exporting in excess of 100 tons of sand and gravel into China each day.
“Shipping firms from Sinuiju are earning foreign currency through contracts with private Chinese construction businesses. The North Korean authorities are supporting the operations after receiving orders to finance the export of coal and sand to China. They are also providing wages and food for the workers,” an inside source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on November 11.
Additional sources in North Pyongan Province corroborated this information.
The source added that although the city’s shipping industry was originally a state enterprise, that is no longer the case. The industry is now run by private enterprises that deal with the domestic and Chinese markets. When the operations were state owned, there were chronic shortages of capital and sailors were forced to use sub-standard vessels. The regime’s new policy – to let the industry rehabilitate itself through benign neglect – has allowed the businesses to revitalize themselves. By exporting sand across the Yalu River into China, these businesses have earned enough capital to purchase better vessels. A number of enterprises and the associated infrastructure has grown as a result.
“As the volume of sand exported continues to rise, the shipping companies are inducing more service providers and factories to participate in the industry. The Anju Country 105 Sand Factory collects sand from the Chongchon River and transports it by way of the Yalu River to the shipping firms,” the source added.
When asked about the scale of the trade, she noted, “Sinuiju Harbor sees a daily influx of Chinese boats that carry away more than 100 tons of sand and gravel. Because exports are continuing to climb, the shipping firms are using the capital to enter new industries such as coal export.”
The North Korean enterprises see sand as an inexhaustible natural resource, the source explained, adding, “The more we sell, the better quality sand we can bring in. The enterprises are doing quite well for this reason. The factory cadres are accumulating vast sums of money, and continue to look for ways to increase their profits.”
The flourishing business has also improved prospects for workers. Laborers in the sand and gravel collection factories can earn enough money to put food on the table for a family of four – with food provided to them plus approximately 50,000 KPW per month (U.S. 6.14) for extras.
“The authorities are also using the opportunity to generate propaganda about the generosity of ruler Kim Jong Un,” the source asserted.
The revitalization of the sand collection industry is a positive development from the point of view of the authorities, as all Yalu River sand enterprises are first and foremost responsible for the supply of Kim Jong Un’s pet construction projects, such as the Ryomyong Street Project.
“The authorities can simply sit back and relax as they receive money, supplies, and credit for the success of the sand business. This reveals that the solution to North Korea’s problems is freedom of the market,” she added.
As exports continue to increase, the donju (North Korea’s nouveau riche) have expanded the scope of their interests and investments. “First, they purchase a large boat. Next, under the pretense of being a shipping business, they start to branch off into other industries to make more money. The factories give the donju the authority to do the trading and receive 30% of the profits in return,” the source concluded.
Full article:
NK exports 100 tons of sand, gravel, & coal daily from Sinuiju Harbor
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2016-11-15
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Increase in DPRK companies involved in Pyongyang Autumn International Trade Fair

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (FES)

Despite the tough sanctions of the international community, Pyongyang’s Autumn International Trade Fair has opened. A standout in this year’s proceedings is that, unlike previous years, there are now more North Korean companies participating than foreign companies.

According to reports in Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper published in Japan, the trade fair was held from September 5th to 8th in Pyongyang’s Three Revolutions Exhibition Hall. A total of 15 national and 280 regional companies in fields as diverse as electronics, machinery, metals, construction materials, transport, medicine, agriculture, light industry and foodstuffs participated.

The newspaper’s reporting highlighted “the release of many processed products for export using domestically produced materials as a result of cutting-edge science and technology introduced into our country’s [North Korea] factories and workplaces, upholding the value of autonomy and self-strengthening, which is a feature of this, the 12th Pyongyang Autumn Trade Fair.”

In addition, the newspaper added that “in the recent few years, the fair has seen a rising number of domestic (North Korean) companies participate, and this time around too, there were more domestic than foreign companies involved. . . . As with previous years, domestic companies have bravely displayed many light industrial products, with the number of products from the electrical sector rising every year being particularly noteworthy.”

The newspaper especially pointed out “in recent years, research and development, and production of a variety of electrical and electronic products with our branding has been actively proceeding in [North] Korean factories. . . . There are now more than 30 brands of electrical products being produced including ‘Blue Sky’ and ‘Morning’, with 10 such brands being on display at this year’s autumn trade fair.”

These companies exhibited up-to-date consumer electronics including tablet computers, desktops, laptops and LCTVs.

Ri Gyong Sim (36), an employee of the Rakwon General Trade Company (participating for the second time in the trade fair) stated that “of late, demand has been rising amongst the people for electrical goods with our brand name. . . . this is because, first of all, our credibility is guaranteed by production units, and direct sales points also do repairs, so the consumer’s demands for convenience are satisfied.”

Ri also said that coming to the fair allowed him to check what was good about competitors’ products and this would help his company improve their offering. He also said that “there is a multiplier effect in quality terms with the products on display at the trade fair as domestic companies compete with the same products.”

What’s more, there were many participants from the Fareast including China and Mongolia, and Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Russian, German, and Italian participants were also present.

The newspaper pointed especially to the fact that “since last year, Singaporean companies, food companies in particular, have shown an active interest in trading with [North] Korea.”

This includes a Singaporean trade company called Gold Kili, a manufacturer and seller of drinks including coffee and a variety of teas. It is a famous food company in Singapore, which exports its products to 30 countries.

The company’s head, Chu Wai (44) said that of the products on display at the Trade Fair, the Korean people purchased much coffee in particular, and that he was satisfied with having a number of discussions about commercial transactions.

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A hole in the sanctions, big enough to drive missile equipment through?

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Says Daily NK (with my emphasis):

Chinese authorities are said to be questioning the head of a local trade company in Liaoning Province for allegedly smuggling materials used for nuclear and missile development into North Korea. The owner and founder of Hongxiang Industrial Development based in the border city of Dandong, Ma Xiaohong, was arrested and has been under investigation for a number of weeks,  Daily NK has learned.
“Ma was arrested by Shenyang law enforcement earlier this month and is currently being questioned on suspicions of disguising military goods and equipment banned under global sanctions and smuggling them into North Korea,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK. “Despite the more stringent screening procedures at the customs office that were introduced from March, Ma’s company continued to smuggle banned metal and tank battery components, hiding them in shipments of apple boxes [wherein some boxes contained apples and others contraband].”
The source reported that Ma’s company also sold weapons manufacturing tools, selling dozens at a price of 10 million RMB (1.5 million USD) per piece to North Korean military contacts. By aggressively exploiting the UN sanctions for its own benefit, the firm was able to rake in huge sums of money, the source asserted.
“The profits that Ma accumulated from trading with North Korean defense companies were actually smuggling payments,” the source said. “By providing sanctioned items, Ma made so much money that she even gave Toyotas and imported cars as gifts to some North Korean cadres and Chinese traders.”
The investigation comes at a time when Beijing has come under greater scrutiny for its cross-border interactions with the North after Pyongyang defied strong UN sanctions passed in March and conducted a fifth nuclear test on September 9. Due to the recent nuclear test, some believe that the Chinese government is now moving quickly to conclude the investigation and make the results public, holding Ma’s company accountable for UN sanctions violations.
“Dozens of cadres working for Dandong’s government agencies have been instigated during Ma’s testimony, so it doesn’t look like this will have a simple conclusion,” said an additional source in China with knowledge of the incident. “Seven 5,000-ton ships operated by this company have been impounded and are moored at Donggang Port, while all of the companies that were doing business with Hongxiang are also under investigation.”
In addition, the customs office in Dandong is expected to undergo an extensive reshuffle after failing to stop banned goods on the sanctions list flowing into the North. Some 30 individuals are under investigation in relation to the case, with the central government keeping close tabs on how the events are unfolding, reported the source.
On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. and Chinese officials are targeting Hongxiang Industrial Development for its suspected involvement in criminal activities while aiding the North. It reported that prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice visited Beijing last month to inform Chinese authorities of the case, citing evidence that Ma and her company had helped Pyongyang in its nuclear development and in circumventing global sanctions.
One might wonder why the Dandong customs office would only undergo such a reshuffling now. Reports of lax sanctions enforcement have been forthcoming fairly continuously since sanctions were adopted after the 4th nuclear test — perhaps the 5th changed matters, at least for the time being.
Full article:
Hongxiang Industrial Development circumvented sanctions using apple boxes
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2016-09-21
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Pyongyang under UN Sanctions

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

There has been much interest in Kyodo’s (a Japanese wire service) reports on the atmosphere in Pyongyang following the imposition of sanctions on North Korea back in March by the UN Security Council. According to Kyodo’s ‘current report’ on the subject from August 21, ‘200 Day Speed Battles’ and ‘Mallima Speed Creation’ slogans can be seen in many of Pyongyang’s streets.

While surprisingly Pyongyang appears unchanged following UN sanctions, the entire nation is subject to a general labor mobilization. The 200 day speed battle began in June and aims to raise food production. Mallima Speed Creation is a slogan created to inspire workers to engage in productive activities at the same speed as a horse that can cover 10,000 li (around 3,927 km) in a day.

Construction of the frame for a 70-storey apartment block on Ryomyong Street, which began after the announcement that the block would henceforth be a site to house educators, has almost been completed. There are large tour groups to be seen at the Nature Museum and Central Zoo (the construction of both was completed last month). The Nature Museum, with its models of dinosaurs and taxidermied animals, is particularly popular, with a member of staff reportedly saying “there is a daily limit of 6,000 on the number of visitors admitted, and we have to turn people away every day.”

The Mirae Shop, a department store refurbished and reopened in April, has a tidy display of imported cosmetics and electrical appliances, but is largely devoid of visitors. A member of staff explained that “because people are busy with the 200 day speed battle, there are not many customers.” The Kyodo report thus argues that the effect of sanctions on Pyongyang is as yet limited.

The Kyodo report also includes an interview with Kim Cheol (43), the head of the Economic Research Centre in North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences. In the interview, Kim Cheol asserts that “the North has hewed to a line of constructing a self-sufficient economy, and therefore the [UN and other] sanctions have very little impact.” Kim offered an optimistic vision: “struggles to increase the proportion of facilities and raw materials sourced domestically continue. . . . With or without sanctions, with our energy and technology we shall construct an economy with a high degree of self-sufficiency.”

With respect to last year’s food production figures, he said that “though they have not been released, the price of rice remains the same as last year, while other cereals are around 65~70% the price they were last year. . . . Given price fluctuations, it is estimated that food production has increased.”

Regarding the supply of and demand for electricity, he stated that “while we cannot fully satisfy demand, the development and introduction of coal additives in coal-fired power stations has dramatically increased production. . . . Many hydroelectric power stations making use of rich hydropower resources have been constructed.” Hence it can be inferred that while electricity supplies remain insufficient, they continue to increase.

Moreover, with respect to effect of coal export bans, Kim said that “the development of the economy is on an upward trajectory, so actually coal resources are needed more inside the country. . . . Improvements are aimed at raising the proportion of domestic production [in all areas] thus raising the proportion of resources used within the country.” At the same time though, he acknowledged that “because of a reliance on imported oil products like kerosene and airplane fuel, there certainly has been some impact.”

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North Korea’s natural resources and the “Five-year Plan”

Monday, August 29th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea’s natural resource and minerals issue runs as a clear thread throughout its economic past and present. On the one hand, they provide immense wealth (not least through export revenues), but on the other hand, the leadership has often been wary of letting their role grow too large. Moreover, it appears that the North Korean leadership, both at various times in history and in recent years, has seen individuals scrambling to amass personal wealth through mineral exports as a danger to state incomes and economic control. Recall that one of the accusations against Jang Song-taek was that he sold off the country’s natural resources to “foreign countries” for cheap.

In a brief from the beginning of the month, IFES analyzes Rodong Sinmun coverage of the role of natural resources in implementing the five-year plan for economic development, the details of which are yet to be revealed:

Kim Jong Un has appealed for all energy to be put into developing underground resources in order to implement the ‘Five Year State Economic Development Strategy’ (unveiled at the 7th Party Congress of the Workers Party of Korea held in May).

In reporting that appeared in Rodong Sinmun on July 13, 2016 it was asserted that “The task of developing and using underground mineral resources effectively to raise self-sufficiency and independence lies in front of party members and workers who are vigorously participating in a 200 day speed battle to make a breakthrough in the implementation of the Five Year State Economic Development Strategy in the country, which is known worldwide for its minerals.”

Self-sufficiency and natural resource dependence have often been highlighted in North Korean economic publications as mutually exclusive. Presumably, Rodong Sinmun advocates that natural resources be used for economic production through fuel and the like, rather than merely for export incomes.

It went on to urge that “with the close collaboration between the state resources development sector and scientific research groups, all resources must be concentrated on prospective and current surveys (surveys that measure mineral reserves) to ensure that the Five Year State Economic Development Strategy succeeds.”

It added, “energy must be put in to find more as yet undeveloped potential sites for development . . . reserves must be secured to ensure that mine production continually rises.”

It also emphasized that “all illegal extraction of underground mineral resources by [production] units, factories and collective organizations for the benefit of their own unit alone must be gotten rid of . . . [and] the role of institutions supervising and controlling underground resources and environmental protection must be strengthened.”

In other words, incomes from mineral extraction should go to the central government, and individuals trying to exploit the expanding opportunities for private business activity to generate personal profits through mineral exports should be kept under control.

Admittedly, the paper also demanded natural tourist attractions be protected: “the staff of supervisory institutions must engrave deeply in their hearts the earnest wish of the Great Leader by not developing Mount Kumgang and Mount Myohyang, regardless of how large the underground mineral deposits are there, and hand down their beautiful scenery and nature to posterity.”

At the aforementioned 7th Party Congress, Kim Jong Un unveiled the ‘Five Year State Economic Development Strategy’, and also set out to revolve energy problems and strengthen the self-sufficiency and independence of the people’s economy.

Full publication here:
Mobilizing “All Energy in Securing Underground Resources” to Implement Development Strategy
Institute for Far Eastern Studies
2016-08-01

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