Archive for the ‘Political economy’ Category

North Korea reportedly suspends public bond program

Tuesday, October 27th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This blog has followed as closely as possible, over the past few months, the issue of North Korea’s public bonds program. It was in April of this year that news first surfaced of the North Korean government having issued public bonds, to drive in more cash to the state. The central worry with all this was that the state would use coercive methods to force people to purchase bonds, thereby creating significant distress among the public, and sucking out resources from the private economic sector.

For months, however, little subsequent reporting came on the bonds. This indicated that the state was perhaps not moving forward with the program all too aggressively.

It turns out this seems to have been what happened. Some days ago, Daily NK, who originally broke the story, reported that the North Korean government appears to have abandoned the project around early September, after what some claim was some initial success:

While the halting of the scheme appears to signal its overall failure, some North Korean officials believe that the bonds helped to quickly bring in funds the state needed to continue building the Pyongyang General Hospital and prepare for the Party Foundation Day celebrations on Oct. 10.

A Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK yesterday that the Central Committee’s Economic Affairs Department issued an order early last month to the Cabinet and its subordinate agencies that concerned “suspending the issuance of the bonds.”

The order noted that the “distribution of the state agency public bonds and state trade public bonds” would “temporarily be suspended”; that there would be a review of the bonds that were sold and those in stock by the State Planning Committee’s Financial Affairs Board; and, that bonds allotted to “each agency” would be collected, then gathered and “frozen” at the Central Bank. In short, the order stated that all bonds – except for those already in distribution or sold – will no longer be considered valid.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Daily NK that the order further stated that “in accordance with an order from the central [leadership], a review of the current financial status of agencies that have used the public bonds will be conducted and [their] planned quotas for this year may be adjusted.” This suggests that the leadership is willing to “eliminate difficulties” faced by “lower-ranking work units” that “loyally” took part in the bonds scheme and that they may receive unspecified “benefits.”

The Economic Affairs Department’s order was reportedly issued after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged the failure of his country’s economic policies at a Workers’ Party plenary session in August.

“[The] economy was not improved in the face of the sustaining [sic] severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges,” Kim reportedly said during the plenary session. He also announced during the meeting that a new five-year economic development plan would be presented at the Eighth Party Congress next January.

It appears that after Kim acknowledged the failure of the country’s existing “five-year economic development strategy” and presented plans to establish new economic goals the Central Committee’s Economic Department discussed revising the scale of the public bonds scheme.

According to the source, the Economic Affairs Department order stated that it “permits the revision of tasks related to the five-year people’s economic plan of last year and this year due to the distribution of public bonds.”

As part of efforts to increase the country’s foreign currency stores, North Korean authorities gave members of the donju, North Korea’s wealthy entrepreneurial class, and private business people “business rights” in return for having them purchase the bonds in foreign currency. Now that the bonds are not longer being issued, it appears that the Economic Affairs Department has been forced to revise its plans.

[…]

An internal investigation by the Central Committee in August found that less than 20% of the bonds earmarked for the donju (“state trade public bonds”) were sold off.

The authorities tried to woo the donju and private business people to buy the bonds by offering them “patriotism awards” and “business rights”; when that did not work, the authorities resorted to “forced allocations.” All of these efforts apparently had little effect in getting the bonds sold. The failure to sell the bonds seems to have been a major factor in the Economic Affairs Department suspending the sale of the bonds.

Within the Economic Affairs Department, however, some argue that the public bond scheme has not “completely failed” and that it “significantly helped” the country prepare for the Party Foundation Day celebrations despite facing unexpected obstacles such as the COVID-19 pandemic, typhoons, and floods. They also claim that the public bonds scheme was an “experimental yet daring attempt.”

In contrast to this assessment, the source argued that the “public bonds [scheme] was a measure that completely failed to consider the realities of the people’s economy [civilian economy].”

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea suspended public bonds scheme in early September,” Daily NK, October 23, 2020.)

The allocation of “business rights” sounds an awful lot like an attempt to more strongly formalize practices on which the economy already runs…

In any case, this signals a comforting sense of pragmatism among North Korean economic policy makers on this particular issue. It’s impossible to rule out, however, that the idea might come up again should the economic situation continue to deteriorate, and perhaps, regrettably, with stronger methods of coercion to back it.

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Kim Jong-un announces 80-day speed battle until 2021 Party congress

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Kim Jong-un announced an 80-day speed battle today, in the run-up to the 2021 Party congress. KCNA:

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

The meeting discussed, as its first agenda item, the issue of successfully greeting the Eighth Congress of the Party by waging a dynamic 80-Day Campaign of the entire Party, the whole country and all the people.

A report on the first agenda item was made.

The report referred to the subjective and objective requirements for launching a fresh offensive under the current situation.

Today all the Party members and working people are dynamically waging the final all-out campaign to celebrate the 75th founding anniversary of the Party as a great festival of victors.

Now we are faced with a heavy and responsible task to grandly hold the celebrations for the 75th founding anniversary of the Party we have prepared with much effort and greet the Eighth Congress of the Party to be convened at the outset of the new year with proud labor successes.

We have only 80 odd days until the Eighth Congress of the Party to be etched as an important political event of epochal significance in the development of our Party and revolution.

(Source: “19th Meeting of Political Bureau of 7th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, 6/10/2020.)

Not to toot my own analytical horn, but I did predict around the time of the congress announcement that a speed battle campaign may be afoot. The reason is simple: North Korea is in large economic difficulties and there are few tools in the toolbox that the government can realistically use at this time. Speed battles like this one are a common temporary solution to long-term problems, sort of like those 1,000 houses recently built that may well wash away again during the next flooding season.

There isn’t much to say about the economic rationale of these speed battles. If the state forces people to put in a large amount of labor hours, that will certainly lead to more production for the moment, but it doesn’t change anything in the long run.

Many North Koreans I’ve spoken to point to such “voluntary”, extra labor as one of the most exhausting, irritating parts of everyday life in North Korea. No doubt many sighs could be heard through the country at this announcement.

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How fast can you build 1,000 houses in North Korea?

Sunday, October 4th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A couple of days ago, KCNA followed Kim Jong-un to Kimhwa county (in Kangwon province) for a flooding damage reconstruction inspection visit. It’s a standard activity with fairly standard reporting, but what caught my eye was the timespan the article speaks of (my emphasis):

Vividly recalling the day in the mid-August when a helicopter was used to learn about the situation of the disaster after over 900 mm disastrous downpour cut off even the roads and when he was shocked to hear the horrifying report that more than 1 000 dwelling houses were destroyed, he said that they all seem to have happened just yesterday.

Hearing the report that about 88 percent of the total construction project has now been done for nearly 1 000 families- several-storey dwelling houses in township area and single-storey dwelling houses in the ri of the county, he said with great satisfaction that the People’s Army is making world-startling achievements under the energetic leadership and meticulous guidance of our Party.

(Source: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Inspects Sites of Reconstruction in Kimhwa County,” KCNA, 2/10/2020.)

So — flooding in mid-August. 1,000 dwelling houses swept away. Fast forward to early October, about a month and a half later, and 88 percent of these houses are now reconstructed?

Something sounds quite odd here, because that’s an awful lot of houses in a very short period of time. For a comparison, the average construction house in the US takes 7.7 months from construction start to finish.

I am by no means knowledgeable in engineering or housing construction, so if any readers can think of how this can all be squared, do please send an email.

What is possible is that many new houses have been built, but with speed rather than quality being the number one priority. Such houses would likely have a hard time withstanding future flooding, which will occur, because it does almost every year. Aid workers I spoke to for this article pointed to poor housing construction as one of the main causes for the high rates of material destruction and fatalities in flooding in North Korea.

That’s the thing about politically motivated deadlines and speed pressures — something has to give in the process, and often, it’s quality.

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September, 2020: the Latest UN Panel of Experts Report and the North Korean Economy

Tuesday, September 29th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The latest UN Panel of Experts Report is out. Some points relating to the overall state of the North Korean economy, after a quick read:

  • Ship-to-ship-transfers of fuel (“refined petroleum products”) continue. This is nothing new. Only between January and May 2020, North Korea is estimated to have broken the sanctions-mandated ceiling of 500,000 barrels per year. As I have argued elsewhere, many times, even with STS transfers and other illicit methods to flout sanctions, they are taking a toll on the North Korean economy since they are expensive. North Korea has to compensate sellers for the added risk of smuggling somehow. So sanctions, in this sense, are certainly not without impact.
  • Coal deliveries are also happening via STS and other transportation means. Again, this is not new, and rather, is part of the steady state for North Korea under sanctions. As with oil and fuel products, North Korea must be taking a financial hit to compensate buyers for the added risk of violating sanctions. The report says that coal exports resumed, after a Covid-19-pause, in March of this year.
  • The report does note that illicit tanker deliveries decreased thus far in 2020 as compared to 2019. Whether that means that less fuel was actually supplied is unclear. Indeed, according to the report, the delivery tankers had higher capacity than in the past.
  • Overall, it seems that judging from the PoE estimates, North Korea may not be suffering from fuel shortages at all, on the whole. Of course, we know next to nothing about how the illegally imported fuel is used and distributed within the country. Fuel prices have, however, not really been outside the span of the generally normal (or at times even lower), suggesting that the amounts coming in are roughly similar to normal times.

One quick reflection on the exports issue, particularly of coal and other sanctioned export goods: it’s clear that coal trade is happening, seemingly relatively undisturbed, on a scale that is troubling from a sanctions-implementation perspective. What’s tricky, though, is that we know fairly little about proportions. How much coal is North Korea actually able to sell, and to what prices?

As of now, all we know is that coal is being exported on a substantial scale. From an analytical perspective, that leaves a lot to be desired.

However, it is crucial to note the myriads of ways in which the government is able to at least partially compensate for the loss in export income stemming from sanctions. The report details several of these, including a wide range of cyber crime.

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What tighter Party membership requirements may say about North Korean society

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to reporting by Daily NK, requirements have gotten stricter for membership candidates to the Korean Worker’s Party (WPK). This says several interesting things about the role of the Party and North Korean society more broadly. A few snippets:

In what appears to be a move aimed at “steadying the foundations” of North Korea’s communist party before Party Foundation Day on Oct. 10, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, recently ordered a new set of guidelines aimed at raising party membership requirements to be handed down to party committees and party cell organizations nationwide.

“About a month ago, the North Pyongyan Province Party Committee chairman submitted a petition to the Central Committee saying he thought the situation surrounding the recruitment and expulsion of Party members in the province is serious,” a source in North Korea told Daily NK on Tuesday. “Following this, Comrade Kim Yo Jong ordered the Organization and Guidance Department [OGD] to ensure that the Party is made up of [only] the most loyal of members, and then the OGD recently issued a set of guidelines to Party committees and Party cell organizations nationwide on raising the standards for joining the Party.”

[…]

Notably, the OGD ordered that party membership candidates must wait three years, instead of the normal one year, to become full party members. The source explained that party rules denote a one-year period for being promoted from candidate to full member, but a three-year period is currently being applied even though the rules were never amended. This suggests that rules pertaining to membership may be partially amended at the Eighth Party Congress set to be held in January next year.

“The three-year waiting period has [actually] been in place since March for members joining the Party from the Korean People’s Army,” the source said. “Since 80% to 90% of Party members have served in the military, the new rule was first tested on the military before it was recently expanded to all Party committees and Party cell organizations.”

(Source: Ha Yoon Ah, “Kim Yo Jong tightens party membership requirements nationwide,” Daily NK, September 18, 2020.)

The report speaks to something interesting, more broadly, regarding Party membership and North Korean society. In speaking with people from North Korea, particularly those born prior to, say, the 1980s, it’s often clear that you can hardly overestimate what it means to be a Party member. For social success, marriage, wealth, virtually anything — Party membership was always key.

Now, since the famine and the breakdown of the planned economy, many expected the Party to lose in significance. If money-making opportunities aren’t to be found within the state anymore, surely the Party’s social and political power should begin to wane?

However, there have been relatively few signs of any such change over the past few years. The Party is still, perhaps now more because of the money-making opportunities it gives in the (semi-)private sector, an extremely important institution for social and political advancement, marketization or none. That the market economy has gained in prominence, size and significance does not necessarily mean that the power of the state and the Party has diminished; rather, it may above all have changed. Even though the market may be the chief avenue to truly get rich, Party membership still provides crucial opportunities and access within  the market realm as well.

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The 8th WPK congress announcement: strengthened economic control to come?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

So, the news are out: the central committee of the WPK has formally decided that the Party will hold its 8th Congress in January 2021:

8th Congress of WPK to Be Convened
Pyongyang, August 20 (KCNA) — A decision of the 6th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea was made on August 19.
The decision is as follows:
Our Party and people are carrying out the historical task set forth at the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea while breaking through head-on all the barriers to our advance by organizing and launching an arduous revolutionary struggle.

Through this indomitable struggle for implementing the decision made at the Seventh Congress of the WPK the dignity and position of our state has been remarkably raised, the single-minded unity of the Party and the people further consolidated and a great revolutionary turn made in the building of the Party and its overall activities.

On the other hand, economy was not improved in the face of the sustaining severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges, thereby planned attainment of the goals for improving the national economy have been seriously delayed and the people’s living standard not been improved remarkably.

The plenary meeting, after analyzing and reviewing the experience and lessons from the work of the past five years for building a powerful socialist country, decided to convene the Eighth Congress of the WPK as follows to set forth a correct line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies on the basis of the new requirements of our developing revolution and the prevailing situation:

1. The Eighth Congress of the WPK will be convened in January, Juche 110(2021).
2. The agendas of the Eighth Congress of the WPK are as follows:
1) Review of the work of the Central Committee of the WPK
2) Review of the work of the Central Auditing Commission of the WPK
3) On revising the rules of the WPK
4) Election of the leadership organ of the WPK Central Committee
3. One delegate with the right to vote to the Congress will be appointed among every 1 300 Party members and one delegate with the right to speak among every 1 300 candidate Party members. -0-

Kim Jong-un’s speech, however, was far more interesting than the announcement of these agenda items. In my opinion, there are hints in his speech that the Party will continue down the road of strengthening state and Party control over the economy. That doesn’t necessarily spell a return to central planning, but it does mean more restrictions and stronger demands that enterprises and other economic actors adhere to state “goalposts”; perhaps targets of production, and sectors of priority. More like a developmental state than a Stalinist command economy, at least in theory.

Look, for example, at the following two paragraphs from the summary of his speech (my emphasis):

Calling for regularly convening the congresses of the Party, the supreme guidance organ of the Party, in order to confirm the line, strategic and tactical measures for steering the development of the times and the revolution and adjust and reinforce the leadership body for guaranteeing their execution, he advanced the important guidelines for the operation of the congress.

And:

The Supreme Leader stressed the need for all the sectors and units including the Party organizations at all levels, power organs and organs of the armed forces to regularly in time sum up the results of the work so as not to deviate from the implementation of the Party’s basic lines, policies and decisions. He also said that they should encourage and develop good successes, overcome shortcomings and take rectification measures at the double and thus achieve new progress in advancing the revolution and construction and in strengthening the Party.

This fits well with the simultaneous announcement of another five-year plan for economic development. This also doesn’t mark a return to central planning, necessarily, but rather, the state asserting its right to set forth the main guidelines of economic development. The last one, adopted in 2016, was subsequently abandoned, and we should also not expect this coming strategy to be entirely written in stone.

The agenda item about the central auditing commission is also interesting. In these contexts, auditing often entails the state scrutinizing the books of various organs, looking for off-the-books resources and other ways to bring in more cash to the state.

An agenda item for the central auditing commission is nothing unique in itself, but substantially, it may relate to the current push of the state to take in more resources from wherever they can be found.

Over the past couple of years or so, as its funds have run increasingly low, the state has been pushing private and semi-private economic actors to hand over more of their resources to the government. Strengthening auditing practices may be a way of institutionalizing this push more regarding finances related to the Party.

(Update 20/8/20: I clarified the text somewhat above about the central auditing commission after this came up in a twitter discussion.)

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

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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What explains North Korea’s puzzling price stability?

Friday, July 17th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Looking at the latest market price data from North Korea, things do not look like external conditions dictate that they should. Food prices are…low. Very low. In fact, for the July 1st price report, the average rice price for the three North Korean cities was the lowest on record since April 2019. Gasoline prices haven’t been this low since June of 2018. (Click for larger graphs.)

Average rice prices for Pyongyang, Sinuiju, and Hyesan. Data source: Daily NK.

Average gas prices for Pyongyang, Sinuiju, and Hyesan. Data source: Daily NK.

 

By themselves, these prices are not so surprising. Prices generally fluctuate with seasonal variation, in North Korea as everywhere else. Both gas and rice prices tend to drop around this time of year, at least over the past few years.

But there is nothing normal about 2020. In addition to harsh sanctions, Covid-19 has made almost everything more difficult to acquire from abroad, from fertilizer and food, to machine parts for industry. So these lower prices are puzzling, in a way because they would seem to indicate stability and normalcy at a time when there is nothing stabile and normal about the situation.

There are (at least) two possible explanations:

One is that North Korea’s external conditions are indeed steadily improving, and returning to some sort of normalcy. Strong signs suggest that trade between North Korea and China is picking back up, as relations deteriorate between the US and China and the North Korean issue becomes less and less central on the global stage. As Daily NK has reported, North Korea has been importing items such as construction materials and food from China, both in June and July. Gas prices, moreover, may partially be untouched by Covid-19 because much of the trade goes through a pipeline near Dandong.

Another possibility is that prices are going down because people simply cannot afford higher prices. This report on train ticket prices is perhaps instructive. In the words of one source inside North Korea: “Despite the fall in the number of train passengers, [black market vendors] seem to believe that raising prices would [make it harder to sell tickets],” the source said. “In other words, you could say that a ‘market price’ [for tickets] has appeared that train riders are willing to accept.” In other words, if consumers on a given market have a reservation prices – the highest price they’re willing to pay – underneath what sellers would really charge given the supply at hand, sellers can either cut down on their profit or minimize their losses by selling at a lower prices than those dictated by economic conditions.

As always, information is in short supply, and these market prices raise more questions than they answer.

Update, 23/7/2020:

Part of what’s so puzzling about all this is that reports keep suggesting that the regime is cracking down continuously and with growing vigor against cross-border smuggling and the like. According to this report by Daily NK, Pyongyang recently ordered provincial authorities to intensify their border monitoring.

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North Korea gearing up for hard times

Friday, July 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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More anti-smuggling measures by the North Korean government

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The North Korean government is reportedly clamping down even further on smuggling across the Chinese border. As Daily NK notes, it’s a measure partially directed against corruption, which will most likely just increase bribery amounts. It’s also part of a broader state drive to assert its power over economic activity. Daily NK:

North Korean authorities recently ordered that ships travelling near the Sino-North Korean border must have a security official on board as part of efforts to crack down on smuggling, Daily NK has learned.

“The order concerns ships travelling along the Yalu River and states that they must have a Ministry of State Security [MSS] agent on board,” a source in China told Daily NK on June 25. “The order applies to all ships, regardless of whether they are container ships or fishing boats, and irrespective of their affiliation or purpose.”

Earlier this month, the MSS announced that anyone caught engaging in criminal activity near the border, including smuggling and attempting to defect, will be subject to strong punishments rather than rehabilitative measures, such as time at a forced labor camp.

The announcement of several measures pertaining to illegal activity near the border in the space of a month demonstrates how sensitive North Korean authorities are to smuggling and information leaks in the area.

BREAKING CORRUPTION

The order is also aimed at preventing corruption between local security officials and smugglers, according to the source.

Since it is common for smugglers to bribe local security officials, the MSS will reportedly send agents from the central government rather than local officers to work on the ships.

Smugglers say that the new order will only lead to more expensive bribes.

“You can earn up to RMB 10,000 [around USD 1,412] a day taking goods across the Yalu River,” the source said. “Because there’s so much money to be made, the measures won’t stop the smuggling. Smugglers will just have to pay higher bribes to the security officials.”

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea focuses on ending ship-based smuggling on border,” Daily NK, June 29, 2020.)

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