Archive for the ‘2002 Economic reforms’ Category

Pak Pong-ju rehabilitated

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s former Premier Pak Pong-ju appears to have returned to power with the Workers’ Party, more than three years after he was ousted due to his economic reform drive, according to a Pyongyang broadcast report on Saturday.

The North’s Korean Central Broadcasting Station introduced Pak as the “first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” reporting on the 50th foundation ceremony of Pyongyang’s flagship Okryu Restaurant held Friday with a number of senior officials and workers.

There is no other known figure with the same name among the North Korean power-holding elite.

Pak, a long-time industry technocrat and pragmatist, was named premier of the North’s Cabinet in September 2003. He spearheaded the North’s so-called July 1st Economic Measure reform drive toward market economy, which aimed to give more autonomy to state firms and gradually reduce state rationing of food and daily necessities.

But his strong initiative triggered a backlash from the party and the military that resulted in his dismissal. Pak was suspended from duty in June 2006 on charges of fund apprehension and was fired in April the following year. Kim Yong-il, then land and marine transport minister, replaced him.

Pak is believed to have been demoted to a managerial post at a clothing factory outside Pyongyang.

Cho Myung-chul, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy who has defected from North Korea, viewed Pak’s reinstatement as a signal of a shifting North Korean economic policy toward pragmatism, following its failed currency reform last year.

“Pak is an emblematic figure of the July 1st Economic Measure that promoted pragmatism. His reinstatement could be connected with an economic policy shift back to pragmatism after the anti-market currency reform failed.”

In a bid to curb the burgeoning merchant class and strengthen its socialist system, North Korea implemented a surprise currency reform in November, knocking two zeros off its denominations. But the move backfired, worsening food shortages and triggering social unrest.

Apparently taking responsibility for the botched reform, Premier Kim Yong-il was replaced by Choe Yong-rim in June.

The broadcast report on Saturday did not specify which department of the Workers’ Party Pak joined, but it is likely that he was posted to the light industry department, considering the ceremony involving a restaurant and the fact that he was the department’s first deputy director in 1993.

Pak is believed to be a close confidante to Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and brother-in-law of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Jang is seen as the central figure in grooming Kim’s third and youngest son, Jong-un, as the next leader.

Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun reported on Aug. 15, quoting multiple sources, that Pak and about 20 other figures close to Jang had been reinstated within the past two years. The report also said Pak has risen to the second highest spot in the party’s light industry department, which is headed by Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister and Jang’s wife.

According to the New York Times:

He is the latest among senior North Korean officials whose sudden banishment and equally unexpected reinstatement have sparked outside speculation about Mr. Kim’s intentions. Mr. Pak appeared to have fallen from Mr. Kim’s favor when he was fired from the premiership in 2007 and sent to work as a factory manager in a provincial town.

“His reinstatement could signal the return of pragmatists and reformists,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst in the Sejong Institute south of Seoul. “We may be able to see him push the economic reform and openness he had once championed.”

Analysts in Seoul say that few North Korean officials wield much individual influence in Mr. Kim’s government. But they say that they can infer Mr. Kim’s plans from the way he punishes and rewards officials identified with various policy approaches.

“Pak’s reinstatement indicates that North Korea is shifting back to market reforms, even if grudgingly, after its botched attempt to re-enforce state control on the economy,” said Baek Seung-joo, the head of North Korea research at the government-financed Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

Mr. Pak, a lifetime technocrat, was best known as the architect of “Measures to Improve Economic Management Order.” Issued on July 1, 2002, they indirectly acknowledged the failure of the North’s ration system by instructing factories, collective farms and other economic units to provide their own daily necessities and give incentives for workers.

In September 2003 Mr. Pak was made prime minister, a post in charge of carrying out economic policies.

His reforms were necessitated by the collapse of the centrally planned economy after a famine in the mid-1990s. But they also coincided with — and fueled — the spread of private markets, which quickly emerged as a key source of food and other necessities for North Koreans.

But Mr. Pak’s reform programs irked the government’s old guard, especially in the hard-line military, which had grabbed the lion’s share in trade under the old system. The markets facilitated the influx of DVDs and other smuggled goods the government considered a capitalist threat.

Around 2005, North Korea began controlling markets. Its attempt to reinforce state control on the economy peaked late last year when it replaced its banknotes with a new currency, shut down markets and ordered people to buy goods only from state-run stores. The currency reform was aimed at stifling the markets by drastically reducing traders’ personal wealth in the old currency.

The moves quickly backfired. Inflation surged as traders hoarded their goods and government stores failed to meet demand. Sporadic protests were reported. Earlier this year, Pak Nam-gi, head of finance and planning who led the failed currency reform, was executed, according to South Korean news reports. North Korean markets began coming back to life, according to recent defectors.

Pak Pong-ju, the former prime minister, returns as North Korea prepares for a party caucus early next month. Officials and analysts in Seoul say they will monitor the meeting for changes in the cabinet and party leadership that might provide clues to Mr. Kim’s plans to hand over power to his third son, Kim Jong-un, who is in his late 20s.

Mr. Pak’s reinstatement adds to the growing influence of Jang Song-taek, Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law, said Mr. Baek, the researcher.

In June, Mr. Kim presided over a session of the rubber-stamp Supreme People’s Assembly where Mr. Jang, a potential caretaker for his son, was elevated to the No. 2 post in the ruling hierarchy. In the same meeting, Mr. Pak’s successor as prime minister, Kim Yong-il, who reportedly made a rare apology in February for the botched currency reform, was fired.

Mr. Pak, as first deputy director, is believed to report directly to Kim Kyong-hee, Mr. Kim’s younger sister and Mr. Jang’s wife, who works as party director in charge of the North’s light industries, Mr. Cheong said.

Read the full stories here:
N. Korean ex-PM Pak Pong-ju appears to be back in power
Yonhap
8/21/2010

North Korea Reinstates Market-Oriented Official
New York Times
Choe Sang-hun
8/23/2010

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‘Private’ real estate rentals approved, DPRK real estate management law enacted

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 10-05-19-1
5/19/2010

On November 11, 2009, North Korea enacted a ‘Real Estate Management Law’ consisting of six sub-sections and 47 articles. The new law revised the terms for sale and use of real estate, banning the unapproved rental of property and allowing the state to collect a ‘usage fee’ (rent). In addition to the law on real estate management, immediately after the North’s currency reforms at the end of last November, the government enacted or revised a total of 11 laws related to the economy, including the Food Administration Law, Agricultural Law, Goods Consumption Standards Law, and the Labor Law. This raises the question of whether the regime is strengthening its economic control mechanisms.

According to the Socialist Property Management Law of 1996, only ‘enterprises, institutes, and groups’ were allowed the use of properties, but the latest Real Estate Management Law includes individuals as those allowed to use property.

North Korea’s KCNA reported the enactment of the new law on real estate in the middle of last December, but only revealed that “basic issues of real estate’s registration and inspection, use and collection of rents are regulated,” while the more detailed contents were revealed in a three-part series of articles on the Real Estate Management Law that ran in the Minju Chosun, which was published by the Cabinet and Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly between March 17 and April 3.

In North Korea, where all real estate is property of the government, the sale or rent of properties between individuals or groups is, on principle, not possible, but after the July 1, 2002 Economic Management Reform Measure, the regime’s inability to provide housing led to significant growth in the size of the black market for real estate.

On a related note, during the 4th session of the 11th Supreme People’s Assembly, which opened in April 2006, a campaign to assess properties throughout the entire country and establish a system of rent was revealed, after which ‘property usage fees’ were included in the annual national budget.

Ultimately, the enactment of this law on real estate strengthens the state’s control over the socialist economy and over the country as a whole. From South Korea’s perspective, it appears the integrated land tax, property tax and other similar systems are North Korea’s attempt to prepare an important legislative precedent for expansion of the state coffers.

However, the portion of the newly-enacted Real Estate Management Law that really catches the eye is the authorization of ‘individuals’ to rent real estate. While it takes on the form of property leasing, it is also an expanded measure in that it permits individuals to use socialist property. Giving individuals the right to use real estate increases productivity and helps ease the North’s current economic woes.

According to the Minju Chosun, the new law “says one must not buy and sell real estate, and the nature and use of property cannot be changed without permission from the management authorities, so that property cannot be handed over to or lent to other organizations, enterprises, groups or individuals.”

The law also stipulates that a property rents will be paid to a ‘State Pricing Establishment Organization’, and that the intended use for the property must be registered, after which rents will be set in either goods or currency, and if rents are not paid in currency, they can be paid in kind.

In particular, this law stipulates, “Land is not to be abused or used in a way that makes it barren,” and that any historic or revolutionary landmark, or idolation of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il must be thoroughly protected.

Through a special measure by the Cabinet, a National Real Estate Management Committee was established, and management offices and chains of command were established for the cabinet.

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DPRK legal efforts to strengthen planned economy follow currency reforms

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Institute for Far Eastern Studies
NK Brief No. 10-04-05-1
4/5/2010

It has recently been verified that following the currency reforms at the end of last year, North Korea passed 11 laws revising and reforming the system of government control over the economy. Among these measures is a law banning the black market sales of grain.

The North’s food administration law, revised last November 3, clearly bans the black market trade and smuggling of grains, and sets the punishment for such activities as the confiscation of the grains in question. In addition, an order was passed down stating that when food supplies are rationed to a labor management office, they are to be distributed in accordance with a worker’s efforts, position, and productivity. On the same day, a new agricultural law was passed that stated if organizations and groups that were granted land for private plots failed to meet state-set harvest quotas, the plots could be confiscated.

In November and December of last year, North Korea also enacted the Real Estate Management Law, Goods Consumption Standard Law, Construction Materials Import Law, Import/Export Country of Origin Law, Waterworks Law, Labor Quantity Law, Farm Law, Sewer System Law, and the Mariner Law. Among these, the Labor Quantity Law sets the number of laborers per hourly production demands, stipulates labor contracts, and determines remuneration in accordance with worker performance. This law is unprecedented in that it allows the responsible organization or business managers or supervisors administrative and even penal authority by giving them power over labor evaluations and payment.

The Farm Law allows each farm to retain some of its harvest, and making it responsible for selling its goods to the state, while on the other hand, forbidding illegal agricultural production. This law, by strengthening state control over agricultural goods, appears to be an effort to restart the Public Distribution System.

The Real Estate Law, a mechanism to collect user fees, stipulates, “Real estate cannot be lent or left to different individuals, groups, organizations or enterprises without the permission of the applicable authority.” Along with this, the law on consumption includes a clause that links consumption of particular goods with those goods’ production in order to prevent waste, as well as a clause designed to reduce or eliminate the use of imported goods.

The law on the import of construction materials gives the government leverage in all aspects of such activity, including planning, processing, transfer, inspection, construction and testing. In addition, if someone from an enterprise or organization imports construction goods without government authorization, changes an import plan, distributes, transports, or wastes construction wares, he or she is subject to administrative punishment.

Ultimately, economic legislation enacted or revised after the currency reform appears to be aimed at strengthening the planned economic system while increasing government control over public revenue and encouraging efforts to recover without outside assistance.

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DPRK official reaffirms intention to close markets

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Ugh…I really don’t know what to say at this point.  Depressing.

According to the Associated Press (via Forbes):

“In the early days immediately after the currency change, market prices were not fixed, so markets were closed for some days,” Ri Ki Song, a professor at the Institute of Economy at North Korea’s Academy of Social Sciences, told APTN. “But now all markets are open, and people are buying daily necessities in the markets.”

Ri was provided by the North’s government in response to a request to talk to an official who could explain its economic situation. It is very rare for North Korean officials to discuss such policies with foreign media.

Impoverished yet nuclear-armed North Korea has in recent years allowed some free markets for food and consumer items, while others not sanctioned by the state have also sprung up as the public copes with declining living standards and food shortages.

“Outside Korea, many people have been talking loudly about problems that occurred during the change of currency in our country, but there wasn’t any of the social disorder that they have been talking about,” Ri said. “Now the situation is being stabilized overall, and the economy is functioning well, thanks to some of the measures that have been taken.”

Ri insisted the government’s objective is to phase out markets completely and rely on a state-controlled network of outlets to supply its citizens.

Read the full article here.

There is no shortage of posts on the DPRK government’s growing antagonism towards markets in the last several years

The Heritage Foundation reminds us all that the DPRK has languished at the bottom of the international Index of Economic Freedom for years and asks, “how low can you go?”

The Daily NK tells us that times are pretty tough for many in the DPRK right now:

A source from North Hamkyung Province confirmed as much yesterday in a telephone interview with The Daily NK, saying, “Lower class people, who live from hand to mouth through the markets, have been suffering from the most serious difficulties since the redenomination.”

This is because for around two months the markets were shut down completely, and even after the markets reopened market price ceilings were adopted, so small traders and those who lived by relying on the markets were among those hit hardest, according to the source.

“Those running street-stands, alley market traders, porters and others who live by clinging to the markets mostly lost their money in the redenomination. Although markets have started to get animated again, these people are still facing difficulties due to a lack of seed money.”

The source added, “The food situation is actually dire. Despite the authorities’ program of releasing relief rice to poor households, in reality real distribution for them is not that helpful.” This is because any such state relief program is temporary, and cannot address the poorer classes’ fundamental problems.

He emphasized, “Now, people have started worrying about spring poverty, which comes every year in around May or June. In Onsung, Hoiryeong and Musan in North Hamkyung Province, the rice price has dropped to around 400 won per kilogram, but there are still so many people who cannot even afford to eat corn.”

The source gave the example of one of his acquaintances, whom he called Mr. Lee. He used to live by trading secondhand products in Musan.

Pre-redenomination, Mr. Lee managed around 200,000~300,000 won (in old value) of assets, dealing parts and used bicycle tires with his wife. However, following the currency redenomination of November 30, 2009, he was left with 1,900 won of new currency.

To make matters worse, he had only 100 kilograms of corn, which he had obtained in October. His family has been eking out that corn over the last few months.

Since February, the Musan Market resumed operations, but since prices have been unstable, not many people have wanted to buy. Recently Mr. Lee was forced to sell his one-room house to realize some capital.

As the source concluded, “The most terrible victims of the currency redenomination, market closures and inflation are lower class people in the cities. Nowadays, city residents feel lucky when they have just coarse corn.”

“In May or June, when the spring poverty period begins, the situation of the urban poor class will become even more terrible.”

Here is a satellite image of the Musan Market.

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Behind the ecenes in North Korea’s markets

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

According to the Daily NK:

In recent days there has been a sudden decrease in both food prices and the North Korean won-dollar exchange rate, so people are looking at the activities of middlemen wholesalers, the lynchpin of the North Korean market economy, in more detail.

These wholesalers, who had been watching the market situation and waiting for the new currency to stabilize, are now making their move. The markets reopened in February, and restrictions on foreign-currency use have been eased. Rice prices, which had skyrocketed to more than 1,300 won per kilogram in late February, have reportedly fallen back below 600 won as the food which these wholesalers were hoarding entered circulation.

Meanwhile, the North Korean authorities’ plan, to take back control of the economy, came to nothing as they faced a hyperinflationary spiral. Currently, the economy seems to have simply returned to the pre-redenomination period, with markets providing most of the needs of the people, and wholesalers providing products for the market.

Until the early 1990’s, commercial distribution in North Korea was managed by executive fiat. The Ministry of Commerce of the Cabinet commanded the supply chain across the whole country via the works of the National Planning Commission. There was a central wholesale center, a commercial management center and a district wholesale center in each province, and a commerce management center in each district. The state maintained a pyramid control system beneath which each district managed its own commercial spaces.

According to size, these were classified into stores and booths, and into “general” and “special” according to the items sold.

However, after the famine of the 1990’s, state distribution ceased and North Korea’s national commercial network lost its capacity to function. From then on, North Korean people started obtaining their food and basic necessities through private distribution networks, and the jangmadang was spontaneously born.

This private distribution network soon came to include a small quantity of consumer products, so called “August 3 products,” produced in small industrial enterprises and circulated in the jangmadang, and foreign, mostly Chinese, products imported with the profits of trade.

Then, after the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure of 2002, provincial factories that produced consumer goods started bartering between themselves. During this process, the distribution system expanded and the number and scale of the wholesalers expanded with it.

A cornucopia of items, from welding rods to belts, cotton yarn to copper wire, bearings and the nuts and bolts needed in factories and enterprises were traded through these wholesalers. A paper mill which needed 10kg of welding rods, for instance, could barter 20 notebooks for them. In order to exchange soap for 10kg of welding rods, 10 bars of soap were required. In the case of soju, a traditional liquor in both Koreas, two or three liters was needed.

Provincial factories also traded their production in order to earn the necessary funds to purchase needed materials and run the factories. This was done with the approval of the state through the five percent of booths in the markets allocated to factories after the July 1st Measure. Also, it was possible because the authorities permitted the by-products of regular production to be used for handicraft production, and factory workers to sell 30 percent of production in the market.

Under the changes, the wholesalers were classified into larger ones, called “vehicle traders,” smaller ones called “runners,” and retailers representing booth merchants. They shouldered the burden of providing North Koreans all over the country with their basic necessities.

These middle men wholesalers, known colloquially as “big hands,” get their stocks through trade with foreign currency-earning enterprises. They sell the products to “runners” or directly to stores. Big hands are mostly overseas Chinese, Korean Japanese and the families of those working in foreign currency-earning businesses.

Members of the Party administrative apparatus are another kind of middle wholesaler. It is impossible for them to officially run a business in the markets, so they earn money through middle wholesale after work. They make a huge amount of profit by buying products from factory enterprises at the state price and selling them at the market price. They also sell products accumulated through bribery.

“Runners” who obtain products from the wholesalers travel the different regions of North Korea and sell them to booth retailers. Making a profit through market price differences between regions, they sell those products to retailers at a price 30 percent to 40 percent higher than the price they paid.

One defector, who ran a “runner” business between Chongjin in North Hamkyung and Sinuiju in North Pyongan, bought fabric from traders in Chongjin and sold it in Pyongsung in South Pyongan. With the money earned in Pyongsung, he bought products and sold them in Sinuiju. He went along this same Sinuiju-Pyungsung-Chungjin route back and forth. He was like an 18th century Korean peddler.

Talking of his experiences, he said, “When travelling by train, I could usually make a 30 to 40 percent profit. But there wasn’t much left after paying the necessary bribes.”

When he bought fabric in Chongjin, he paid about 500 to 550 won (in old currency) per meter. When he sold that fabric to retailers in Pyongsung market, they paid him about 800 won per meter. He made about 300 won per meter, but he spent half the money on bribes paid to gatekeepers; for documents, to army troops in charge of trains, and to train inspectors during the process of issuing travel certificates or riding the train. He also had to pay for his board and lodgings, so the final profit he made was less than 100 won per meter, he explained.

Runners like that, going between North Pyongan and North Hamkyung, usually distribute things like fabric for shoes that traders bring across the border or in through Rasun. A runner usually carries between 150 and 200 kilograms of products. When travelling on the train, one person can only carry one or two backpacks-full, because anyone carrying too much baggage will be the target of inspection and have to pay bigger bribes.

Products transported by runners are sold to retailers in the markets. Retailers sell those products at a price 20 to 30 percent higher than the original price. Therefore, the fabric Kim conveyed was sold to the final consumers at approximately 1,000 won per meter.

It seems that the figures North Korean authorities wanted to eradicate via the redenomination were these middle wholesalers, the big hands. For primary producers, paying them with adequate rations and money alone could have wrestled back state control. Retailers, meanwhile, could be controlled by locking up the markets. However, the persistent viability and energy of the middle wholesalers was uncontrollable. This is primarily because low and middle-ranking authorities are working in total collusion with them.

Now, middle wholesalers who survived the carpet bombing of the North Korean authorities, such as the 100:1 currency exchange rate, the exchange limit of 100,000 won and the restriction on usage of foreign currency, are getting ready again. The second round between the North Korean authorities and middle wholesalers with the market as its stage is about to begin. It will be interesting to see how those middle wholesalers who have grown strong will react to the actions of the North Korean authorities.

Wholesalers at Forefront of Market Battle
Daily NK
Yoo Gwan Hee
3/27/2010

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North Korea: It’s the Economy, Stupid

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Nautilus Institute Policy Forum Online 10-015A
Aiden Foster-Carter
3/4/2010

Too many Kim Yong-ils

Korean names can set traps for the unwary. Amid a multitude of Kims, almost all unrelated, North Korea adds an extra twist. German speakers, and some others, tend to mispronounce the J in Kim Jong-il as a Y. Not only is this incorrect, but currently it can confuse; for North Korea’s Premier – head of the civilian Cabinet, as distinct from the Dear Leader who chairs the more powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) – is named Kim Yong-il.

To add to the confusion, another Kim Yong-il was until recently vice foreign minister (one of several), but in January became director of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)’s international department: a post apparently vacant since 2007. As such, this Kim Yong-il met his Chinese counterpart Wang Jiarui, head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s international liaison department, when Wang visited Pyongyang in early February. Since his promotion, Kim Yong-il 2 (as it may be best to call him) has been reported as frequently at Kim Jong-il’s side. This suggests he may see far more of the Dear Leader than does anyone else involved in DPRK foreign policy, including the man hitherto thought to be the eminence grise on that front: first vice foreign minister Kang Sok-ju, who negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework with the US. It was Kang whom the current US special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, demanded to meet when he visited Pyongyang in December, rather than the North’s main nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan: a more junior deputy foreign minister.

Or is Washington behind the curve? That Kim Yong-il 2 is the DPRK’s new foreign affairs head honcho seemed confirmed on February 23, when he turned up in Beijing and went right to the top: going straight into talks with President Hu Jintao and separately with Wang Jiarui. This flurry of activity suggests two possibilities. Either Kim Jong-il will soon visit China, as he is overdue to do; or North Korea may return to the nuclear Six Party Talks (6PT), which have not met in over a year. Or perhaps both, if we are especially fortunate.

If both Kim Yong-ils are now leading players, perhaps one of them could change his name? That is not a frivolous suggestion. Some DPRK officials do this, for no clear reason. Often the change is small, so this is not a case of deception. Thus Paek Nam-sun, DPRK foreign minister – meaning chief meeter and greeter rather than top negotiator – from 1998 until his death in 2007, was originally Paek Nam-jun. Ri Jong-hyok, who as vice-chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (APPC) now handles relations with the South, was Ri Dong-hyok in the 1980s when this writer knew him as head of North Korea’s mission in Paris.

(For completeness, yet another Kim Yong-il was Kim Jong-il’s late half-brother. He died of liver cirrhosis in 2000 aged only 45 in Berlin, where he had a diplomatic posting tantamount to exile – as his elder brother Kim Pyong-il, the DPRK ambassador to Poland, still does.)

Jong and Yong both say sorry

The past month saw both Chairman and Premier Kim doing something almost unheard of in Pyongyang. Apparently they both said sorry, although some reports got the two muddled up.

On February 1 Rodong Sinmun, daily paper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), reported Kim Jong-il as lamenting his failure to fulfil his late father Kim Il-sung’s pledge, to which he had also alluded shortly before on January 9, that all North Koreans would eat rice and meat soup (everyday fare for even the poorest South Korean, be it noted). This time Kim said: “What I should do now is feed the world’s greatest people with rice and let them eat their fill of bread and noodles. Let us all honour the oath we made before the Leader and help our people feed themselves without having to know broken rice [an inferior version]”.

Given Kim Jong-il’s own notoriety as gourmet and gourmand, his professed “compassion” for his less fortunate subjects’ deprivation may induce queasiness. Yet even this not-quite-apology glosses over the truth. Broken rice? They should be so lucky. As readers of Barbara Demick’s excellent and heartbreaking new book Nothing to Envy will know, rice of any kind – whole or broken – is a rare luxury for most North Koreans. In the late 1990s a million or so starved to death; even today most remain malnourished. One refugee who fled to China saw her first rice in years in the first house she came to – in a dog’s bowl. That is the true reality.

Worse, all this was and is avoidable: the result of stupid and vicious policies, not the natural disasters that the regime blames. The real cause was the government’s failure to adapt in the 1990s after Moscow abruptly pulled the plug on aid. This hurt other ex-Soviet client states too. Cuba went for tourism; Vietnam tried cautious reform; Mongolia sold minerals. North Korea, bizarrely, did nothing – except watch its old system break down and growth plunge.

In a speech at Kim Il-sung University in December 1996, when famine was seriously biting, Kim Jong-il lashed out at the WPK and uttered this petulant but very revealing whinge:

In this complex situation, I cannot solve all the problems while I have the duty of being in charge of practical economic projects as well as the overall economy, since I have to control important sectors such as the military and the party as well. If I concentrated only on the economy there would be irrecoverable damage to the revolution. The great leader told me when he was alive never to be involved in economic projects, just concentrate on the military and the party and leave economics to party functionaries. If I do delve into economics then I cannot run the party and the military effectively.

Evidently Bill Clinton’s famously apt watchword, which helped him win the presidency in 1992, had not breached North Korea’s thick walls and heads. It’s the economy, stupid! The paternal advice was dead wrong. (The full speech can be read on the much-missed Kimsoft website. Unsurprisingly it is not part of the DPRK’s official canon of the dear leader’s works, but the scholarly consensus is that it is genuine. A slightly different version appears here.)

Redenomination disaster

Mass starvation, you might hope, would prompt some soul-searching and fresh thinking. From mid-2002 North Korea did essay cautious market reforms, but recently it has tried to squash Pandora back in her box. The latest such crass effort, a currency redenomination that deliberately wiped out most people’s meagre savings, was discussed in December’s Update.

By all accounts this has backfired badly, sparking runaway inflation (which it was supposed to stanch) and even riots. Forced on the defensive, the regime has issued an unprecedented apology. This being North Korea, it has not done so publicly; there are limits. Nor, in 2010 as in 1996, is Kim Jong-il about to take the rap, despite some newswires confusing J with Y.

But reliable intelligence claims that on February 5 Premier Kim Yong-il called all leaders of neigbourhood groups (inminban) to Pyongyang. The lowest unit in the DPRK’s still tight system of socio-political control, each comprises 20-40 households. This suggests that over 10,000 people heard the premier say what no leader had ever said to them before: sorry. In his words: “I offer a sincere apology about the currency reform, as we pushed ahead with it without sufficient preparation and it caused a great pain to the people… We will do our best to stabilize people’s lives.” The audience’s reaction is not recorded.

The situation on the ground remains confused, but markets appear to be functioning again unhindered. Good Friends, a seemingly well-informed South Korean Buddhist NGO, said on February 18 that after examining a report on food shortages and conditions nationwide by the Office of Economic Policy Review, the WPK Central Committee issued an ‘Order for Absolutely No Regulation Regarding Foodstuffs’. All markets are to reopen as they were before recent government crackdowns, and under no circumstances must local authorities try to regulate food sales – “until central distribution is running smoothly.” There may be a sting in that tail, but for now this is a complete, humiliating government U-turn and climbdown.

This is an astonishing episode, which history may record as pivotal. If the leadership learns its lesson and finally accepts that the market economy is as ineluctable as gravity, then the DPRK might conceivably survive on a reconstituted economic base and social contract, like today’s China or Vietnam. But if Kim Jong-il (or whoever) keeps trying to square the circle, under the delusion that correct politics is a substitute for sound economics, there is no hope.

Sea shells

Relations with South Korea remain an odd blend of sabre-rattling and dialogue. Four times in the past month, starting on January 25 and most recently on February 19, the North has declared a series of no-sail zones for varied time periods. Some of these adjoin two ROK-held islands close to the Northern coast, Baengnyong and Daechong. For three days (January 27-29) the Korean People’s Army (KPA) fired volleys of artillery shells near the Northern Limit Line (NLL): the de facto western sea border since 1953, which the North rejects.

Though no shells actually crossed the NLL, on the first day the South called this provocative and fired back – but again only within its own waters south of the line. By late February, a Southern defence spokesman called the latest shelling “a routine situation that is part of the North’s winter military exercise”, adding that this may go on till the end of March. Routine or not, a report submitted to the ROK National Assembly’s Defence Committee on February 19 said Pyongyang has reinforced its military along the west coast of the peninsula and has strengthened military drills.

Kaesong and Kumgang remain unsettled

The shelling did not stop the Koreas talking about their two joint venture zones just north of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). But they got nowhere, beiing far apart on the agenda, format and venue for talks. On the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) – see last month’s Update for more details – the North suggested that the South’s issues – it wants smoother cross-border passage – were best left to military-level talks, which in the past have handled issues relating to the border and security. The South agreed, proposing February 23 at the border village of Panmunjom: the venue for all military meetings hitherto. The North then counter-proposed March 2, at Kaesong; but on February 22 the South said it will insist on Panmunjom, rather than set the precedent of holding a military meeting inside North Korea. With both venue and agenda still in dispute, the chances of progress on the substantive issues looks remote.

Mount Kumgang tours remain suspended

Separately, South Korea with some misgivings accepted the North’s request for talks on resuming tours to the Mount Kumgang resort, suspended since a Southern tourist was shot dead there in July 2008. At the talks held in Kaesong on February 8, North Korea asked for tours to restart from April 1. It breezily declared that the South’s three conditions – a probe into the shooting, efforts to ensure no repetition, and a cast-iron safety guarantee – had been met. But as the North well knows, the South’s key demand is to send in its own investigating team – which the North resolutely refuses. The Northern side proposed continuing the talks on February 12, but the South declined unless the North accepts their three conditions first.

More arms are interdicted

UN sanctions imposed last June after North Korea’s second nuclear test seem to be biting. In February South Africa told the Security Council that in November it inspected a ship headed for the Congo Republic (Congo-Brazzaville). The French owners reported suspicions about cargo they took on in Malaysia from a Chinese vessel. Seizing the containers, South Africa found that what the manifest called “spare parts of bulldozer” were in fact tank components. The shipping agent, and likely origin, is North Korean. China said it will investigate its own vessel’s role in the affair. UN resolution 1874 bans almost all DPRK weapons exports.

More ambiguously, on February 11 Thailand dropped charges against the crew of a plane seized in December and found to contain 35 tonnes of weapons from North Korea, including five crates of Manpads (man-portable air defence systems) which terrorists can use to shoot down aircraft. Next day all five were put on a flight to Almaty. Four are Kazakhs, and their government had asked that they be sent home to be tried. It will be dismaying if they are not.

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Money in Socialist Economies: The Case of North Korea

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Ruediger Frank, “Money in Socialist Economies: The Case of North Korea,” The Asia Pacific Journal, 8-2-10, February 22, 2010.

Introduction
Dated January 29, 2010, the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK (North Korea) issued document No. DC033 10-004 to diplomatic missions and international organizations present in North Korea. They were informed that the use of foreign currency was to be stopped, payments were to be made in the form of non-cash cheques, and that the official exchange rate of the Euro to the North Korean Won was changed from 188.2 KPW to 140 KPW, effective January 2, 2010.

Foreign institutions and organizations now have to obtain non-cash cheques from the Foreign Trade Bank, denominated in KPW, in order to pay for accommodations, meals and service fees in hotels, fares for transport services like railways and airlines, communication charges, inspection fees, registration fees and commissions paid to institutions and enterprises in the DPRK, fuel, office materials, spare parts for vehicles, electricity, water, heating charges and rent. Bank transfers are now mandatory for any transfers between international organizations and all money paid to institutions and organizations of the DPRK (including the salary of DPRK citizens working in embassies or international organizations).

A recent visitor to Pyongyang confirmed in a talk with the author that individuals are subject to a cumbersome process if they wish to purchase anything. Rather than using a standard hard currency or exchanging it into the new Won, they now have to obtain a receipt stating the price of the good they want to buy, then present this at a desk where they exchange their money into exactly the needed amount of North Korean money, and finally return to the shop assistant, hand over the exact amount, and receive the product.

In the preceding weeks, North Korea had made international headlines related to what seems to be a concerted economic policy initiative. The domestic currency was reformed in a way that obviously aimed at reducing the amount of money in circulation (link). A few weeks later news emerged that the use of foreign currencies was banned (link).

This is no doubt a dramatic move with far-reaching consequences. Money matters for personal lives and for society, so when a country initiates a currency reform, it has significant repercussions.

But what are these consequences for the specific case of North Korea in early 2010? Are people in various sectors of society better off now, or worse? Will the economy benefit or suffer? Do the reforms promote or impede foreign trade and investment? Will the domestic political situation become more stable, or will it deteriorate? Are the economic reforms of 2002 reversed, or were they intended to be a temporary measure from the outset? Should we even interpret the currency reforms as part of the process of power succession?

(more…)

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Nicholas Eberstadt on the DPRK’s new monetary policy

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Nicholas Eberstadt has some interesting statistics in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week:

For a variety of reasons—possibly including unintended reverberations from the past decade’s nuclear drama—the remonetization [of 2002] did not work well. Too much new money was chasing too few goods, sparking significant inflation. By November 2009, the North Korean won’s black-market value in dollars was barely 5% of the level when the 2002 measures were implemented, a depreciation averaging over 3% per month.

The speed and depth of the won’s resulting plunge has been dizzying. The nominal market price of rice is reportedly higher today than it was in November 2009, before currency reform. This would imply 100-fold inflation and then some in just over one month. The won-yuan exchange rate along the North Korea-China border has reportedly dropped by almost 50% over the past month, even after discounting for the 100-to-1 currency conversion. The government apparently has no confidence in its own currency move, and is now betting against it. News reports indicate that Pyongyang this month is issuing soldiers in its public security forces twice their nominal monthly pre-reform wages (a 20,000% raise in light of the currency conversion). If the government finances more wage hikes like this by running the printing presses, it will turn the currency into a toxic asset no one wants to hold.

The botched currency reform also has revealed how little North Korean decision-makers understand their own economy, much less the outside world. On a related note, the regime’s supposed heir apparent, Kim Jong Eun, was the mastermind behind the North Korean currency reform, according to South Korean intelligence. This may just be bad intelligence or disinformation. But if accurate, it raises disturbing questions about the judgment of the rising generation of North Korean leadership.

Read the full story here:
North Korean Money Troubles
Wall Street Journal
Nicholas Ebererstadt
1/11/10

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Farmers Receive First Cash Since 2004

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Daily NK
Jung Kwon Ho
12/24/2009

The North Korean authorities apparently started paying farmers as of the 16th, starting with Migok Collective Farm in Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province.

In North Korea, the amount of work each farmer does is calculated and expressed in a numerical value, which is called “labor grade (노력공수).” After the harvest has been gathered, the state’s requirement is handed over, and then farmers are distributed food according to their labor grade, while surplus cash is also supposed to be distributed dependent upon a farmer’s labor grade and the profits of the farm as a whole.

Around the time of the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure in 2002, cash was distributed in this way, but between 2005 and 2008 there was nothing.

For office and factory workers, payment began on the 17th at approximately the level of the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure.

A source from South Pyongan Province reported to The Daily NK on the 23rd, “From the 16th, they started delivering cash to those farms which fulfilled the state’s grain production plan. For other farms, which could not accomplish the state’s plan, the authorities gave a subsidy.”

Since some collective farms have received an unusual amount of cash, it has become the talk of the town. In the case of the Migok Collective Farm in Sariwon, an average of 150,000 won per farmer was paid in cash.

Kim Jong Il conducted an onsite inspection of Migok Collective Farm in October, and it is considered a model case because it exceeded its state production target. Hence the unusually generous payments.

Farmers working for the Ryongyeon Collective Farm, which also achieved the state’s plan, got around 100,000 won each.

Despite this apparent state generosity, the source pointed out, “This cash distribution covered only those farms which accomplished state production targets. Since this year’s farming went sour, there are less than ten farms that achieved their targets across the whole country.”

Collective farms which failed to achieve the state’s goals got just 5,000 won per worker.

“This cash distribution seems to be just a one-off measure to straighten out the confusion after the redenomination and to soothe farmers,” the source also asserted.

Regardless, the cash will slow the entry of food into the markets, the source pointed out, saying, “This cash distribution and subsidies will make food circulation difficult in the short term.”

“When farmers do not hold any cash in their hands, their grain flows into the markets. For the time being farmers will not sell rice and food in the market because they have enough pocket money. It causes rising food prices.”

Additionally, the North Korean authorities still have not announced state prices since the redenomination, and they continue to heavily regulate the market. Therefore, food traders are watching the market situation without selling any food.

The logical market principle, that when harvested grain circulates in the market food prices go down, may therefore not hold true this year, and vulnerable classes’ will become more food insecure as a result.

However, the authorities are trying to assure farmers that there will be continuous measures to give them further benefits.

According to the source, “more benefits for farmers” implies a revised grain procurement policy.

He explained, “Until now, the authorities purchased rice for 20 won per kilogram from the farm and sold it for 45 won to the people. However, from now on, the procurement price will be 44 won and supply price to workers and the people will be 18-20 won.“

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North Korean labor market data (qualitative)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

I thank a reader for pointing out an interesting article in the Korean Political Science Association Journal which contains a plethora of qualitative data on the North Korean labor Market–survey data from a cross section of defectors.

Here is the citation:

Park, Young-ja, “‘Marginal Work’ and ‘Labor Market’ in North Korea after the 2003 General Market System”, Korean Political Science Association Journal Vol. 43, No. 3, September 2009

Read the full article here, or here.

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