Archive for the ‘International trade’ Category

DPRK – China Trade in 2015

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Yonhap reports that DPRK – China trade has fallen in the first quarter of 2015:

Trade between North Korea and China, its economic lifeline, slipped 13.4 percent on-year in the first three months of this year amid frayed bilateral ties, data showed Sunday.

Bilateral trade volume fell to US$1.1 billion in the January-March period, compared with $1.27 billion for the same period last year, the Beijing unit of South’s Korea Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) said, citing Chinese customs data.

China is North Korea’s top economic benefactor, but its political ties with Pyongyang have been strained since the North’s third nuclear test in February 2013.

No crude oil was officially sent to North Korea from China for all of last year.

China’s shipments of crude oil to North Korea were also absent during the first quarter of this year.

South Korean diplomatic sources in Beijing, however, have cautioned against reading too much into the official Chinese trade figures because China has provided crude oil to North Korea in the form of grant aid in the past and such shipments were not recorded on paper.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s trade with China dips 13.4 pct in Q1
Yonhap
2015-4-26

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China tries to involve DPRK in Silk Road Initiative

Friday, April 24th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

China has asked North Korea to join its ambitious Silk Road project to revive the ancient trade route between Asia and Europe.

Chinese ambassador to North Korea, Li Jinjun, made the request on Tuesday when he held a meeting with North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Trade, Ri Ryong-nam in Pyongyang, according to a statement posted on the website for the Chinese Embassy in North Korea.

With a US$40 billion fund, China has aggressively pushed the so-called “One Belt, One Road” initiative aimed at building ports, expressways, railways and other infrastructure with its neighboring countries.

“Ambassador Li introduced the concept and vision of ‘One Belt, One Road’ and hopes the two sides will work together to seize the opportunity to promote China-North Korea economic and trade cooperation,” the statement said.

Li said, “Developing friendly and cooperative relations with North Korea is the unswerving policy of the party and the government of China. China is ready to work together with North Korea.”

The statement did not say how the North Korean minister responded.

Political ties between North Korea and China remain strained due to the North’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, but China is the North’s economic lifeline and diplomatic backer at the United Nations.

Read the full story here:
China seeks N. Korea’s cooperation in Silk Road initiative
Yonhap
2015-4-24

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DPRK doctors murdered in Nigeria

Friday, April 10th, 2015

According to the Diplomat:

In February, three North Korean men were murdered in their homes in Yobe, Nigeria. Their bodies bore wounds indicative of machete blows, most likely inflicted by members of the jihadist group Boko Haram, whose bloody war has claimed up to 15,000 lives across the country since 2009. One of the men was beheaded. Two were slashed across the throats. Their wives were found hiding in the flowerbeds. The Associated Press report on the murders contained scant details about the lives of the men, who were not named, besides their profession: they were doctors. They arrived in 2005 as part of a ‘technical exchange’ with a local hospital and stayed a decade. They lived in modest homes in a quiet neighborhood and rode three-wheeled taxis around town.

You can read the full story here:
The Curious Case of North Korea’s Overseas Doctors
Poppy McPherson
Diplomat
2015-4-10

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China rejects DPRK coal shipment (Again)

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-4-4): For the second time this year, the Chinese have rejected a shipment of North Korean coal. According to the Korea Herald (Yonhap):

China has returned a shipment of anthracite coal to North Korea because it failed to meet standards for mercury emissions, according to a local report on Saturday.

This appears to be the second rejection by China of the North Korean mineral this year.

The shipment arrived at the Longkou port of China’s northern coastal province of Shandong late last month, but was returned as its quality did not satisfy China’s environmental regulations, iQiru.com, a local Shandong Internet news site, reported, citing an unnamed Longkou port official.

The report did not elaborate further or include the volume of the rejected North Korean coal.

In September last year, China announced strict regulations against the sale and import of coal with high toxic pollutants, including mercury and sulfur, to improve the country’s air and water quality.

Anthracite coal accounted for 39.8 percent of North Korea’s total exports to China last year.

China’s imports of North Korean coal plunged 53.2 percent from a year earlier to 16.78 million tons in January this year, according to Chinese customs data.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-3-9): Back in October of 2014, Kevin Stahler was the first person to point out (as far as I am aware) that the DPRK’s coal exports to China were in decline. Quoting Kevin:

However, this year North Korea’s anthracite exports to China are on course for a hard landing. The total value of imported anthracite is down 23 percent in the first half of 2014 compared to a year earlier. That’s an annualized $340 million hit to North Korea’s balance of payments. But North Korea is not alone: China has seen a double-digit decline in both the value and volume of its total world coal imports from January – August 2014.

On March 4, 2015, Yonhap reported that China returned a shipment of coal to the DPRK for reasons related to domestic environmental protection regulations:

China has rejected imports of some North Korean anthracite coal because the coal failed to meet domestic standards for mercury emissions, a local newspaper reported Wednesday, in what appeared to be China’s first rejection of North Korean minerals over environmental concerns.

The shipment was returned to North Korea on Feb. 27 from the Rizhao port of China’s northern coastal province of Shandong, the National Business Daily newspaper reported, citing an unnamed port official.

The report did not elaborate further, or include the volume of the rejected North Korean coal.

After three decades of rapid industrialization, China regularly sees hazardous air pollution with levels of particulate matter rising to nearly 40 times the limits set by the World Health Organization during the winter months.

In September, China announced strict regulations against the sale and import of coal with high toxic pollutants, including mercury and sulfur, to improve the country’s air and water quality.

Anthracite coal accounted for 39.8 percent of North Korea’s total exports to China last year.

In January, China’s imports of North Korean coal plunged 53.2 percent from a year earlier to 16.78 million tons, according to Chinese customs data.

On March 9, UPI reported on one of the key aspects of China’s new environmental policies and how it will affect the DPRK:

China’s crackdown on coal-related pollution will take a heavy toll on the North Korean economy, South Korean newspaper Donga Ilbo reported Monday.

China’s plan is to drastically reduce coal consumption by 160 million tons in the next five years. The plan, presented at the National People’s Congress in Beijing, aims to reduce the fossil energy use that is contributing to severe pollution in big cities, The Australian reported.

Countries exporting coal to China are all affected, but the plan could create an economic crisis in impoverished North Korea. Coal and iron-ore exports are two of North Korea’s biggest exports to China, its biggest trading partner.

According to the Donga Ilbo, more than 97 percent of North Korean exports are shipped to China*, and coal, iron ore comprise 60 percent of all North Korean exports.

China’s anti-pollution policy is affecting North Korean cargo. A North Korean ship delivering coal to China was turned away at the coastal city of Rizhao on Feb. 27. The Donga Ilbo reported the coal did not satisfy China’s environmental regulations.

The rising ban and other factors are placing the impoverished North Korean economy in a tight squeeze.

Anna Fifield also covered this story for the Washington Post and Guardian.

*The article reports that China accounts for 97% of the DPRK’s international trade. This is only true if one excludes South Korean trade–which South Korea does because they consider North-South trade as “inter-korean” trade.

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DPRK-Russia trade in 2014

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-3-18): Although overall trade volume between the DPRK and Russia was down in 2014, North Korea’s exports to Russia were up. According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s exports to Russia soared nearly 32 percent in 2014 from a year earlier, a report showed Wednesday, amid Pyongyang’s efforts to bolster ties with Moscow.

According to the report by the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency, North Korea’s outbound shipments to Russia reached US$10.17 million in 2014, up 31.9 percent from a year earlier.

By item, textile exports came to $4.7 million, or 46.2 percent of the total, followed by machinery with $1.6 million, musical instruments with $1.37 million and electrical equipment with $670,000.

Pyongyang also sold $250,000 worth of cars to Russia last year, 2.3 times more than the previous year, with shipments of optical devices soaring more than 60 times to $190,000.

Bilateral trade volume, however, fell 11.4 percent on-year to $92.34 million last year as Pyongyang’s imports from Russia shrank 14.9 percent to $82.17 million.

Crude imports dropped 7.9 percent on-year to $33.98 million last year, taking up the largest 41.7 percent share of the total imports.

“North Korea has been striving to strengthen economic cooperation with Moscow, though it will take time for the North to diversify its trade markets due to its heavy dependence on China in the past,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a senior research fellow at the state-run Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) in Seoul.

Last year, more than 90 percent of its exports were bound for China. Bilateral trade between North Korea and China, however, fell 2.4 percent from 2013 to $6.39 billion in 2014, marking the first annual decline since 2009, according to Seoul data.

The 2014 figure is seen as signaling that the strained political ties between the two nations, particularly after the North’s third nuclear test in February 2013, have affected their economic relations.

Amid such languid ties with Beijing, North Korea has been ramping up efforts to forge a closer relationship with Russia, with the two nations declaring 2015 as a year of friendship.

ORIGINAL POST (2014-12-4): According to Yonhap, trade between North Korea and Russia (imports and exports)dropped significantly in the first three quarters of 2014:

Trade between North Korea and Russia dropped significantly this year, despite Pyongyang’s efforts to step up economic cooperation with Moscow, data showed Thursday.

Russia’s exports to North Korea reached US$59.01 million in the first nine months of this year, down 10.1 percent from the same period last year, according to the data by the Vladivostok office of the state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA).

In particular, Russia’s exports of flour to North Korea plunged 72.2 percent on-year to $770,000.

Russia’s imports from its neighbor also fell 7.9 percent on-year to $6.46 million during the January-September period.

North Korea’s imports of electronics and coal from Russia also tumbled 61 percent and 44.6 percent, respectively, according to the data.

Russia’s imports of North Korean nuclear reactors, boilers and other machinery, meanwhile, shrank 57.1 percent on-year to reach $451,000,

Bucking the overall decline, Russia’s imports of North Korea-made clothes soared 35.5 percent on-year to $3.61 million, maintaining an uptrend of recent years.

North Korea has been intensifying efforts to expand economic cooperation with Russia, recently deciding to use the Russian ruble as a trade currency as well as launching a fledgling logistics project to link Russia’s border city of Khasan to the North’s port of Rajin.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea-Russia trade shrinks this year
Yonhap
2014-12-4

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And just how much are overseas North Koreans earning?

Monday, March 16th, 2015

Anna Fifield, in this interesting Washington Post story, actually gets a current data point:

Kim is part of the economic lifeline that is keeping North Korea afloat. He manages a factory in a small town outside Dandong, China’s commercial gateway to North Korea, where North Korean women work making clothes for a Chinese company. The women are allowed to keep one-third of the $300 a month they earn, while the rest goes back to Kim Jong Un’s regime in Pyongyang.

In a second article, she provides a little more information:

In the clothing factory, the women work 13 hours a day, 28 or 29 days a month, and are paid $300 each a month — one-third of which they keep. The rest goes back to the government in Pyongyang.

“Even though I want to pay them more, I have to send a certain amount home to my country, so this is all I can give them,” Kim said in his office at the factory. On his desk, an open laptop revealed that visitors had interrupted his game of solitaire.

North Korea is thought to have at least 50,000 workers outside the country earning money for the regime, and 13,000 of them work in Dandong.

Assuming that there are 50,000 workers earning $200 each / month for Pyongyang (a low-ball figure in my opinion), this would imply a cash transfer of $120 million per year. Not a lot of money on a national scale, but remember this is a lower-bound estimate.

At the same time in Geneva, special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman said he was launching an inquiry into the “bonded labourers” working for the DPRK. Read more about this in The Guardian.

The full articles are worth reading here:
“Talking kimchi and capitalism with a North Korean businessman”
Washington Post
Anna Fifield
2014-3-16

North Korea’s growing economy — and America’s misconceptions about it
Washington Post
Anna Fifield
2014-3-13

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DPRK, Russia declare 2015 as “friendship year”

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

According to KCNA:

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation decided to make 2015 in which fall the 70th anniversaries of Korea’s liberation and the victory in the great Patriotic War in Russia as a year of friendship between the two countries, prompted by the purpose to develop the bilateral relations onto a new higher stage in various fields including politics, economy and culture under a mutual agreement.

During the year of friendship the two countries are to invigorate exchanges of delegations and contacts between national institutions and regions and hold joint cultural events in Pyongyang and Moscow and other cities of the two countries.

Here is coverage in Yonhap:

North Korea and Russia will mark 2015 as a year of friendship and step up bilateral exchanges in political, economic and cultural sectors, the North’s official news agency said Wednesday.

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation decided to make 2015, in which falls the 70th anniversaries of Korea’s liberation and the victory in the great Patriotic War in Russia, as a year of friendship between the two countries,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a brief dispatch.

The countries will “develop the bilateral relations onto a new higher stage in various fields, including politics, economy and culture under a mutual agreement,” the KCNA said.

The two countries will also invigorate exchanges of delegations and contacts between their national institutions and regions, the report said, adding that joint cultural events will take place in Pyongyang and Moscow as well as other cities.

The designation came as the two countries are scurrying to tighten bilateral ties amid languid North-China relations.

Choe Ryong-hae, a governing party secretary, visited Russia in November as a special envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as part of efforts to improve relations.

In May, the North Korean leader is expected to attend a Russian ceremony in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. It would be the reclusive leader’s first foreign visit since taking power in December 2011.

Here are some recent Russia-DPRK engagement stories:

1. Russia-Korea pipeline development
2. DPRK and Russia set up business and exchange council
3. DPRK-Russia trade down in 2014
4. Russian investment in DPRK railway line and coal exports
5. Port No. 3 in Rason and coal shipments to South Korea
6. Russia forgives DPRK debt 

You can read the full Yonhap story here:
N. Korea, Russia declare 2015 as friendship year: KCNA
Yonhap
2015-3-11

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Korea-China FTA (as it relates to the DPRK)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-3-11): Dandong tries to position itself as gateway to North Korea via China – [South Korea] FTA. According to Yonhap:

The Chinese border city of Dandong, known for its bustling trade with North Korea, has unveiled a plan to become a “bridgehead” to boost trade between South Korea and China as the two nations work to formally sign a bilateral free trade deal.

The plan, put forward by the Dandong city government in Liaoning province on Tuesday during the country’s annual session of the Communist Party-controlled parliament, came as the bilateral trade deal between South Korea and China is expected to be signed within the first-half of this year.

“China and South Korea completed free trade negotiations. Dandong will make efforts to serve as a bridgehead of trade between China and South Korea,” the Chinese city government said in a statement.

The trade deal is expected to give a big boost to the city’s ambition to become a trade hub in the northern parts of the Yellow Sea and the Bohai Strait, adjacent to the Korean Peninsula, it said.

Details of the Chinese city’s plan are sketchy, but the city is expanding its logistics and marketing facilities to cope with rising trade if the South Korea-China free trade deal is implemented, according to the statement.

As much as 80 percent of bilateral trade between North Korea and China is conducted through Dandong.

Although China’s trade with North Korea appears largely unaffected, large-scale economic projects between the allies have made little progress as China’s leadership has been increasingly frustrated with the North’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing will spare no effort to formally sign a bilateral free trade agreement with South Korea “as soon as possible.”

The deal calls for South Korea and China to remove tariffs on about 90 percent of goods traded between the two nations over the next two decades. However, rice and cars were excluded from the deal.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-2-26): Goods at teh Kaesong Complex will be included in the China-[South] Korea FTA. According to the Joong Ang Daily:

More than 300 products manufactured in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea will be given special tariff reductions for export to China once the Korea-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) takes effect, the South Korean government said Wednesday.

This is the largest number of products from Kaesong that will be eligible for tariff reductions in a bilateral trade pact signed by Korea. Its FTAs with the United States and the European Union don’t deal with products manufactured by South Korean companies in the North Korean industrial park.

New agreements have been negotiated in the three months since President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the free trade pact last November in Beijing.

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, a newly upgraded pact was signed and exchanged on Wednesday in Beijing after follow-up negotiations were held recently.

China is the largest importer of Korean goods in the world, and trade with the country has consistently risen over the past decade.

The FTA initialing on Wednesday in Beijing came after three months of continuous negotiations in which the two sides came up with more detailed articles and resolved technical and legal details.

On Wednesday morning, commercial attaches from the Korean embassy in Beijing exchanged the initialed documents with their counterparts.

With the initialing, the two countries confirmed the English version of the FTA document, and the “substantial agreement” announced in November has gotten a step closer to implementation.

The pact still requires official signing and final ratifications from the two countries’ legislatures before going into effect.

“The two governments agreed to do our best to complete an official signing by the first half of this year so that our exporters can start benefiting from the FTA as soon as possible,” Woo Tae-hee, assistant minister for trade and chief FTA negotiator, said at a press briefing at the Sejong government complex on Wednesday morning.

Signings of FTAs are usually done by trade ministers, but an official at the Trade Ministry said this FTA is likely to be signed by the two presidents.

Under the updated agreement, Korean producers of 310 products in Kaesong will benefit from reduced or completely eliminated tariff as if the products were produced locally.

This will improve the price competitiveness of those exports from Kaesong to China.

To be eligible, at least 60 percent of each product’s raw materials should come from China or Korea. The list of 310 products will be renegotiated every year.

The Kaesong provision is a lot more generous than in Korea’s other FTAs, the Trade Ministry says.

Korea’s FTA with the European Free Trade Association (Korea-EFTA), consisting mostly of Scandinavian countries, gave tariff breaks to 267 products from Kaesong. The Korea-India FTA gave breaks on 108 products. The FTAs with ASEAN, Peru and Colombia gave breaks to 100 products.

Korea and China also inserted language into the FTA to launch a group to discuss opening more industrial complexes in North Korea.

The updated Korea-China FTA also includes an article that potentially allows other countries or offshore industrial complexes like Kaesong to join the Korea-China FTA. The article was added on China’s request.

“Through the Korea-China FTA, I think China wants to set up a new trade order within Northeast Asia, which other major Asian economies like Hong Kong and Macau can also participate in and expand this bilateral free trade pact into a larger-scale trade partnership within Asia,” Woo explained.

The two countries also decided to form a separate committee that discusses new business zones in each country to encourage the exploitation of the Korea-China FTA. Discussion of jointly operated business zones received a boost in the wake of Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang’s visit to Seoul at the end of January.

The locations of such business zones are undecided yet, but candidate regions include Yancheng, Yentai and Guangzhou, cities located on China’s southern and eastern coasts, and Saemangeum on the western coast of Korea.

The Korea-China FTA’s services and investment articles also got more specific.

As soon as the FTA goes into effect, Korean law firms with a China office can do joint projects with local law firms.

The rule will be first tested within Shanghai Free Trade Zone. Also, the Chinese government agreed to lower barriers for business licenses for Korean builders.

However, the Korea-China FTA still seems to be limited to manufacturers, and other areas remain protected by tariffs including farmers and manufacturers in weak sectors.

China excluded most of Korea’s key export items to China in auto parts, steel and petrochemical industries from the tariff elimination list.

Korea’s sensitive agricultural products like rice, meat, vegetables and fruits will still keep their current tariff levels.

The level of tariff reduction and schedule for elimination varies by the product.

But most of Korea’s top exports to China, such as displays, petrochemical products, mobile phones and auto parts, will maintain current tariff levels.

On the other hand, the tariffs on top imports to Korea from China – the list is similar, including semiconductor, mobile phones, computers and displays – will be mostly eliminated as soon as the FTA is implemented.

The details of Korea-China FTA are currently available to the public on the Trade Ministry’s website.

Read the full story here:
Korea-China FTA includes Kaesong
Joong Ang Daily
2105-2-26

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“Golden” ambassador stopped in Bangladesh

Saturday, March 7th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-3-9): According to the BBC, the ambassador has been expelled:

B

angladesh has expelled a North Korea diplomat caught trying to smuggle 27kg (59lb) of gold into the country.

Son Young-nam, the first secretary of North Korea’s Dhaka embassy, was stopped as he arrived in Bangladesh via Singapore on Friday.

He was released and has not been charged, according to diplomatic protocol, but customs officials said it was a “clear case of smuggling”.

Sanctions against North Korea tightly restrict the movement of money.

Mr Son’s bag, which he had refused to allow customs officials to inspect, was found to contain gold bars and ornaments worth about US$1.6m (£1m).

North Korea’s ambassador, Ri Song-hyon, was summoned to the foreign ministry on Monday and told to send Mr Son home.

“We told the ambassador to prosecute him in North Korea and update us about the action to be taken against him,” Mohammad Shahidul Haque, the ministry secretary, told Reuters.

“We conveyed to him that the government would take serious action if any embassy official is found to be involved in any crimes in future.”

Mr Son was reported to have left Bangladesh on Monday night.

Official figures show customs officers have seized nearly 1,000kg (2,200lbs) of gold in the past 22 months at Bangladesh’s two international airports.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-3-7): According to the Wall Street Journal:

Bangladeshi authorities said they intercepted a North Korean envoy who arrived at Dhaka’s international airport with 27 kilograms of gold—worth an estimated $1.4 million—in his carry-on bag.

Customs officials said they seized the gold and detained the diplomat, who they identified as Son Young Nam, a first secretary at the North Korean embassy in the Bangladeshi capital, on Thursday. Mr. Son was released Friday, they said.

Sales of gold have long been an important source of funds for the North Korean regime, which has been largely cut off from the global financial system by sanctions imposed to curb its nuclear-weapons program.

Kim Kwang-jin, a former banker for the Pyongyang regime, said North Korea could have been moving the precious metal in an effort to find buyers.

Bangladeshi police officials said they are also investigating whether Mr. Son was acting as a courier by a local smuggling ring. Bangladesh has become a transit point for illicit gold shipments bound for India, which has raised import duties on the metal.

Bangladeshi authorities said the North Korean diplomat had arrived from Singapore. “We tried to scan his bag, but he resisted,” said Kazi Zia Uddin, a senior customs official. “He gave in after he was told he would be arrested.”

Calls to the North Korean embassy in Dhaka went unanswered on Friday and Saturday, the weekend in Muslim majority Bangladesh.

A man who answered the phone at the North Korean embassy in Singapore and declined to give his name said he had “no idea” about the gold shipment and hadn’t heard of Mr. Son.

Bangladeshi airport officials said Mr. Son told them he had been given the bag with the gold by a man in Singapore whom he declined to identify. Mr. Son said he was to deliver it to “a friend” of the man in Dhaka, the officials said.

A police official said four North Korean diplomats came to the airport seeking Mr. Son’s release.

Gold smuggling through the Dhaka airport has risen sharply in recent months, with large quantities seized. In February, officials discovered 61 kilograms of gold in the toilet of a Bangladeshi aircraft.

Mr. Kim, the former Pyongyang banker, who defected while based in Singapore in 2003, said that North Korea may have moved the gold to Bangladesh for sale after running into problems selling it in Singapore.

North Korea has previously sold gold bullion in the Singapore market, he said. But tighter restrictions imposed by the city-state on sales of precious metals, stones and other valuable items last year have made it harder.

Singapore’s new rules, intended to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, require dealers to submit a report to the government for any cash transaction valued over about $14,000.

Gold sales help provide funds used by North Korean leaders to ensure the loyalty of senior officials by providing them with a comfortable lifestyle, according to high-level defectors.

Choi Kun-chol, a former senior North Korean official who worked at the state’s main gold-trading business, told the Journal last year that sales of gold from North Korean mines has fallen from a peak of around 10 tons in the late 1980s to around four tons in more recent years.

North Korea often uses diplomats to carry cash and other valuables, defectors and diplomats say. Increased sanctions and scrutiny of official bank accounts have increased the need for secret movement of items in this way, they say.

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North Koreans discuss curbs to outflow of natural resources

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

The Institute for Far Eastern studies (IFES) published the article below:

The Issue of Regulating Coal and Iron Ore Exports Raised in North Korea

There is a growing sense inside North Korea for a need to regulate the export of underground resources such as coal through imposing export tariffs or other trade barriers.

An overwhelming percentage of the country’s exports consist of underground resources and there is rising speculation that North Korea is pushing forward long-term transformation of its trade and industrial structure.

An article in a recent edition (published October 20, 2014) of Kim Il Sung University’s school newspaper has argued that “We need to protect the country’s precious resources by applying different tariff rates.”

The article stressed that “The subjects of export tariff first need to be selected for raw materials and energy resources that is urgently needed for the construction of a socialist economic powerhouse.”

In other words, there is a need to prevent the excessive exportation of goods through levying a high export tariff rate on underground resources.

The article specifically picked out coal and iron ore as underground resources which are important for economic development, and pointed out that “We need to do all we can to prohibit the export [of these resources].”

According to KOTRA (the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency), in 2013 the percentages of coal and iron ore among North Korea’s total exports were, respectively, 42.9 percent and 9.3 percent, which amount to over half of all exports.

North Korea’s consideration of regulating the export of underground resources in such a situation is seen as an attempt to achieve long-term industrial development, which may decrease its foreign currency earnings in the short-run.

The Kim Il Sung University newspaper article also argued that “We must actively protect our country’s resources so that we can develop a vibrant and self-reliant national economy.”

The fact that last year North Korea’s export of anthracite* to China dropped for the first time in 8 years is also thought to be a product of such a policy consideration.

North Korea’s push to regulate the export of underground resources is viewed as an effort to reduce its dependence on China, but many are skeptical regarding how effectively North Korea will implement such a policy with its urgent need for foreign currency.

The article is interesting for three reasons.

The first is that DPRK policy-makers may find it preferable to impose a tariff on exports rather than actually control the number of organizations that are legally allowed to export natural resources. This raises a government capacity point. Alternatively, this could be seen as a tool to draw resources from the privileged JVCs and trading companies that are outside the control of the cabinet. In a sense, a tariff, if effectively implemented, could improve the fiscal position of the people’s economy by “taxing” all the trading companies under the control of different sectors of the party and military.

Second, Chinese environmental policies may be inadvertently accomplishing this policy outcome without the DPRK having to actually do anything. The amount of coal being exported to China is down significantly in 2014, and there are questions as to whether 2013 numbers will be achieved again in the near-term. However, Chinese environmental policies which reduce imports from the DPRK have a negative fiscal effect for Pyongyang since no trade actually takes place. Indeed, if Chinese imports of DPRK resources continue to fall, a tariff will make less and less sense.

And third, one of Kim Il-sung’s strategic concerns was that fraternal socialist countries would not invest in industrial production in the DPRK, and it would only become a valuable member of the communist trading block as a source of natural resources. Kim Il-sung was worried about what would happen to his country when the natural resources were all gone. Perhaps imposing an export tariff can be seen as a sign that there is a coalition in the leadership that wants to move away from natural resource exports and into a greater reliance on SEZ’s, domestic production, etc.

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