Archive for the ‘Political economy’ Category

Power supply in North Korea in the age of markets

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A couple of days ago, Daily NK ran an interesting interview with a Pyongsong resident about the conditions of electricity supply in the increasingly market-based North Korean system. Pyongsong, readers may recall, is a crucial logistics hub in North Korea’s market system. People can travel there for trading activities without having to go through the often laborious process of getting a travel permit to Pyongyang, while still reaping the benefits of Pyongyang’s large demand and comparatively wealthy consumers. It sits right on the way to Pyongyang from Sinuiju, North Korea’s main connecting city for trade with China. In 2009, in one of Kim Jong-il’s more blatant anti-market measures, a large wholesale market in Pyongsong was closed down. Several major markets, however, operate in the city and it remains a significant hub for market trade.

The Daily NK interview tells us several interesting things about the way electricity supply functions in North Korea today. Below are a few clips, with added annotation.

The foundation for North Korea’s policy on electricity clearly states that electricity is the driving force behind the people’s economy and it needs to be developed ahead of other sectors so that industry and agriculture can not only exercise their capabilities, but also strengthen national defense.

In theory, electricity should be supplied to state-owned enterprises and other productive units of the central plan according to their needs, basically for free. This creates massively distorted incentives – soft budget constraints, if you will – since enterprises have no reason not to overestimate and over-use electricity. In practice, today, however, with North Korea’s lagging electricity production, in combination with increasing autonomy for state enterprises, it seems that many or most have to pay for whatever electricity they use in the production process.

According to North Korean defectors, some hydroelectric power plants generate power, but most of the-small to-medium sized plants are unable to produce power because the facilities are too old.

It is said that Pyongyang’s power situation has improved but a resident of Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province with whom Daily NK recently met in China said that the power situation in provincial cities remains unsatisfactory.

As is often the case, the situation, like Daily NK points out, is far better in Pyongyang. There, electricity supply appears to have increased as sanctions on coal exports bite, since coal prices have gone down enough for power plants to use more of it.

Daily NK (DNK): Compared to a month or two ago, has the power situation improved?

Pyongsong Resident (PR): Until 2015, electricity was supplied in the evening for two to three hours per day but it was gradually cut off. Since 2017, electricity is only supplied on holidays or when there’s an important news report.

The timing mentioned here is interesting, since there’s little else to suggest that North Korea’s economic situation drastically declined in any significant way specifically in 2015. Rather, it may be a question of increased competition and a higher opportunity cost of supplying residents with electricity essentially free of charge. As enterprises are increasingly free to control their own operations, and source production inputs more freely from institutions such as power plants, the opportunity cost for the state (loosely used here) in providing ordinary residents with electricity increases increases.

[…]

DNK: Can you buy electricity?

PR: If there’s an important occasion like a wedding, people can ask the distribution department and pay them to use electricity. Until a few years ago, you had to have a personal connection or pay a bribe to use electricity, but these days you can pay 50,000 won and they will supply the electricity at the time you want. In some areas, there’s only one power supply line, so if one household buys electricity, other neighbours are happy because they get to use the electricity for free. The authorities are using the national electricity infrastructure to line their own pockets.

A well-known pattern from other parts of the North Korean economy: what starts out as mere corruption soon turns into an institutionalized mechanism in the system, more or less.

DNK: How do party cadres use electricity?

PR: State factory cadres, state security officials and police plug a separate power line into state enterprises and secretly send electricity to their own homes.

Despite the vast changes over the past few years in how the North Korean economy operates, it’s still highly advantageous for several reasons to be a party member and/or state official. Often, not least to gain favors within the market economy.

Since the central government no longer supplies electricity, people are using solar power for television and other leisure activities. About 80-90% of households have already installed their own solar panels. A panel costs US $30 to 80 dollars depending on the size.

The 80–90% figure may not be numerically accurate,  but the vast increase of solar panel use in North Korea over the past few years is well documented, not least by foreign travelers. In any case, though solar panels may not be the most technologically efficient or cheap way to generate power for individual household use, in the case of North Korea, it’s an interesting example of how behavior to cope with shortages lead to more viable, sustainable supply methods, as the state’s electricity supply was usually unreliable and spotty at best for the past few decades.

Full article here:
Pyongsong resident sheds light on persistent regional power supply issues
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2018-09-24

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The economic side of the Moon-Kim summit

Friday, September 21st, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The economic aspect has been continuously front-and-center throughout the Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang (September 19–20). From a diplomatic standpoint, this is not all that surprising. Moon and Kim are pursuing what appears to be a rather classical Sunshine 2.0 pattern, with roughly the same contents as the predecessor. As Yonhap reports:

Earlier in the day, the leaders of South and North Korea agreed to work together for balanced economic development on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to break ground on a joint project to connect railways and roads across their border this year and vowed diverse cooperative projects to deepen their friendly ties and foster a reconciliatory mood.

The agreements were reached during summit talks held in Pyongyang between Moon and Kim.

“We will prepare for (inter-Korean economic cooperation) in a calm and orderly manner,” Finance Minister Kim Dong-yeon said in a meeting with reporters here.

“But inter-Korean economic projects can gather speed if circumstances improve,” he said.

The minister said any inter-Korean economic projects should need support from the international community, and there are still many things to be done in advance.

The latest agreement came months after the leaders reached a deal during their April summit to modernize and eventually connect rail and road systems across their divided border.

Field surveys have been carried out to examine the state of some sections of the North’s rail and road networks, but the process has not moved fast enough, apparently due to stringent sanctions imposed on the North for its nuclear program.

Railways and infrastructure are both less politically touchy than outright trade, and potentially mutually beneficial, even though the south will carry the economic burden:

“The South and the North agreed to explore practical measures aimed at increasing exchange and cooperation and seeking balanced development,” read a joint statement they signed after the summit.

“The two agreed to hold a ground-breaking ceremony this year for connecting railways and roads running along their eastern and western coasts,” it also stated.

The decision came months after the leaders reached a deal during their April summit to modernize and eventually connect rail and road systems across their divided border. The Seoul government has set aside nearly 300 billion won for next year to carry out those projects.

Field surveys have been carried out to examine the state of some sections of the North’s rail and road networks, but the process has not been fast enough, apparently because of global sanctions on the North.

The second point of the Pyongyang Declaration promises more economic cooperation for “balanced” growth, and vows to reopen projects such as the Kumgangsan tourism zone, and the Kaesong Industrial Park, according to Moon, “when conditions allow“. Here’s an English-language full-text version of the declaration. A particularly interesting but understudied point is 2.3, on ecological cooperation.

Kim Jong-un’s forestry interest has been a recurring theme throughout his tenure, and as this blog has covered, he’s spoken about the problems associated with excessive tree-felling – the root cause of which is North Korea’s planning failures of the 1990s – in more honest terms than his father did. At the very least, there’s been strong hints of both pragmatism and understanding of North Korea’s structural problems in the way that Kim has talked about the forestry issue (and many others too for that matter). Indeed, the Korea Forest Service chief accompanied Moon to Pyongyang, and he hopes to get to work soon following the summit:

“Forests surrounding populous urban areas were heavily destroyed, but forests in less populated regions were well-preserved,” Kim Jae-hyun said in a meeting with reporters at a government complex in Daejeon. “I saw enough hope.”

He was speaking after accompanying South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to North Korea from Tuesday to Thursday.

As the first step, Kim said the Korea Forest Service will explore ways to create tree nurseries in much-destroyed regions.

“The North Korean side wants large-scale tree nurseries, but it would be more practical to start with small nurseries in regions suffering from deforestation the most,” he said.

In regard to disease and insect control efforts, the official said the use of machinery could be limited as the North is under U.N. sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests, while pesticides are allowed.

“I think (the disease and insect control measures) should start immediately to build trust between the two Koreas,” he said.

The forest expert said his North Korea visit as part of the official entourage showed Moon’s “willingness” to pursue inter-Korean cooperation in the forest sector.

“Looking down from an airplane along the western coastline, North Korea’s forests were very impressive,” Kim said. “There were few trees on hills near Pyongyang, while trees were well-maintained on the way from Sunan Airport to Baekhwawon guesthouse.”

Mountains near Yalu River on the North Korean border with China were denuded, but Mount Paekdu showed off all colors of beautiful trees, he said.

Moon and Kim aren’t the only ones who have talked about economic cooperation. The mayor for Busan, South Korea’s second most populated city, for example, has announced projects that his city will spearhead. Yonhap again:

Busan’s envisioned projects, unveiled in time for President Moon Jae-in’s historic visit to North Korea, call for boosting the city’s cooperation with the North in the fields of fisheries trade and processing, modernization of fishing vessels and equipment, shipbuilding, exhibitions and conventions and smart city technology, the city said.

The city will push to invite North Korean filmmakers and actors to the Busan International Film Festival and hold an inter-Korean film festival.

Nikkei Asian Review also reports that the Moon government has put pressure on Samsung and its head, Lee Jae-yong, to present a large-scale investment plan for North Korea. Samsung has manufactured TV:s in North Korea before, but this time around, the company hasn’t appeared as eager as its other chaebol-counterparts to draft up implementable blueprints for investments up north. Politically, it makes sense. Samsung’s PR hasn’t exactly been superb as of late, with the arrest and later release from prison of its CEO relating to corruption charges tied to the Choi Soon-sil/Park Geun-hye-scandal.

South Korea’s main steelmaker Posco is also hoping for opportunities following the summit:

The executive was part of the business delegation that accompanied President Moon Jae-in on his trip to North Korea earlier this week. Choi and other businessmen discussed various inter-Korean economic cooperation projects that can be pursued going forward if conditions are right.

“It will be a big opportunity not only for POSCO but for the steel industry as a whole,” Choi said. “I think POSCO will be able to find chances for growth.”

The company recently created a new task force to prepare for potential business opportunities in North Korea. POSCO Daewoo, POSCO Engineering & Construction Co. and POSCO Chemtech Co. are participating in the task force.

The steelmaker said it wants to play a key role in railroad and other infrastructure projects in line with the changes in the geopolitical environment in Northeast Asia.

My five cents on what all this entails for the North Korean economy:

Of course, as of yet, nothing. Most of the plans and visions are routinely accompanied by the caveat “when conditions allow”. The infrastructure plans may be able to go ahead even with sanctions in place, at least the rhetoric from the Moon administration, and the timetable for breaking ground on the railway connections before this year is over, seems to suggest so. I’m no expert on the judicial side of the sanctions, but it’s hard to imagine that this will be fully uncontroversial from that standpoint.

In any case, North Korea is in dire need of infrastructure improvements and if they are extensive enough, they should hopefully not just connect South and North Korea with Russia and China for cheaper freight, but also make domestic goods transportation simpler and more efficient, with positive impacts for the markets and private manufacturing in the country.

On re-opening Kaesong, things are a bit more complicated. In its nature, Kaesong is a manufacturing zone mostly cut off from the rest of North Korea. Sure, the incomes of the workers did enter the North Korean economy, and arguably, the fact that South Korean consumer goods could to some extent enter North Korean markets through Kaesong spurred competition for more high-quality goods on the North Korean market as well. But Kaesong is hardly the only, and perhaps not even the main route through which such products enter the country. These are also pretty weak arguments when you look at the entire economic picture.

The problem with Kaesong isn’t so much what it was/is/will be, but the missed opportunities. The hope with special economic zones tends to be that institutional frameworks that are tried there first can later spill over into the rest of the country. In the case of North Korea, the arrangement made pretty sure that that didn’t happen, at least from what we can tell. Had inputs been sourced from North Korea, that could also have spurred wider economic growth, at least in some regions. In theory, there are lots of opportunities for synergy and cooperation between South Korean companies and smaller North Korean ones, not just the state. If the goal is economic development in North Korea more broadly, and not just economic profit on the southern side and incomes for the north, there are lots of models that carry far greater potential.

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Explaining North Korea’s exchange rate stability: it’s all about the companies

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein and Peter Ward 

The stability of the market exchange rate for won-to-US dollars has been one of the most puzzling features of the economy over the past few years, and particularly so during the so-called period of “maximum pressure” and heavy sanctions by the international community. The market exchange has not once moved out of its ordinary – also remarkably stabile – territory over the past few years, as the following graph shows with clarity:

Won for USD-rates on the markets, 2009–September 2018. Data source: Daily NK. Graph: NK Econ Watch.

Thus far, to my knowledge, there have been two main, potential explanations:

(1) Maximum pressure is not having a meaningful impact on the North Korean economy as a whole. Even though it can’t export coal, minerals or textiles under current sanctions, its main sources for foreign currency revenue, the sanctions aren’t being enforced strictly enough to impact the economy as a whole, and foreign currency keeps flowing into the economy.

This explanation is pretty easy to dismiss offhand, since we know with more or less certainty that North Korea’s exports of these goods have plunged as Chinese sanctions enforcement has been fairly strict since the late summer/early fall of last year, even though it’s waxed and waned as it always does.

(2) The second explanation, most notably put forward by Bill Brown, is that Pyongyang is much better at monetary policy management than they’re given credit for. Chiefly (but not solely) through decreasing the amount of won in circulation, by giving state-owned enterprises (SOEs) smaller loans and credits in won, the government is able to keep the exchange rate stabile.

Speaking with my friend and colleague Peter Ward, a researcher of North Korean economic policy under Kim Jong-un and avid reader of North Korean economics journals, he explained a third possibility, partially in line with the latter hypothesis posed above. Ward visited North Korea twice in the past year, and was able to confirm many of the economic policy developments he had first detected in the literature from Pyongyang.

In short, Ward’s explanation is as follows: the main holders and users of foreign exchange in North Korea are not individual citizens, but state-owned enterprises, which legally (since 2013) use foreign exchange in transactions amongst themselves. The quantities of foreign exchange held by SOEs make them, and not the foreign currency markets that individual citizens access and use, the main determinant of the market exchange rate for foreign currency. Therefore, most of the foreign currency in circulation has been there for several years, not entering or exiting monetary circulation.

I asked Ward to share some of his thoughts with the readers of North Korean Economy Watch. Below is a brief Q&A of sorts.

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein (BKS): first, when did this practice of SOEs trading in foreign currency become common and legally permissive?

Peter Ward (PW): probably around early 2013. This is when the “policy to make domestic production and exports one” came into force. The idea is to align domestic input prices for manufacturing, and consumer goods prices, with prevailing prices on international markets. This is literally what North Korean economics literature says that they aim to do, despite ostensibly being a socialist system in theory.

BKS: How is the FX-market price in North Korea determined? And where do the FX-market for SOEs and that for private citizens intersect?

PW: We don’t know, but one could imagine that there are major foreign exchange markets in North Korea – regional markets, both markets on the ground, so to speak, and between enterprises within regions. How does the center know the prevailing price? The regional price department of the regional People’s Committee price office and market management office (they may either be separate or the same) probably simply calls the local People’s Committee, who supposedly gathers this information from the local market management offices. At any rate, there’s reporting of the prevailing local exchange rate throughout the system.

Major enterprises will also know how much their inputs costs in foreign exchange, and a sense of how much their products would sell for on the world market. In that way, they’re able to assess the costs of their inputs in the world market (or at least China), and know how much they need to charge to make a profit or break even.

The market for individual citizens and SOEs intersect at several levels. SOEs likely source much of their inputs from wholesale markets, and from domestic private traders. They also obtain some of their foreign exchange from loans from private individuals. Private citizens can legally lend money to SOEs, but investments in SOEs by private citizens also happen, though they’re technically not legal, and both these investments and loans probably happen quite often in foreign exchange.

So the market price equilibrium happens through all these conduits, and as on any market, it is determined by countless instances of bargaining between traders, SOEs, and to a proportionally smaller extent, private citizens.

BKS: so where is the FX coming from, to begin with?

PW: if most inter-enterprise contracts and transactions are denominated in foreign currency, they’d be insulated from any sudden, exogenous trade shocks, such as sanctions. They’re still trading amongst themselves with whatever FX-holdings they have. For all intents and purposes, foreign currency inside North Korea is the principal legal tender – that’s what’s likely used for all major transactions inside the country, so exogenous shocks such as sanctions, from the outside, don’t necessarily impact the market price for foreign currency inside the country.

BKS: Is it likely, in your view and judging from your observations in North Korea, that the government maintains a price ceiling on the market exchange rate?

PW: Yes, it is. The government maintains price ceilings on a range of commodities, at least that’s what people inside the country say. They probably have an informal peg to the RMB, since China is their principal trade partner. It looks like it, but we don’t know for sure if they do. One possibility is that have significant cash reserves of RMB…

BKS: is it possible that China is simply helping North Korea keep the won stabile, by simply funneling RMB in?

PW: that’s certainly a possibility. The North Korean government keep a very close eye on the exchange rate, both in terms of physical cash in circulation and deposits in bank accounts, which SOEs have – both domestic and foreign currency bank accounts. They’ll keep a tight control over domestic currency-denominated loans to SOEs – that’s certainly one way of doing it. State banks will probably be encouraged to denominate such loans in foreign currency.

The government can also keep a pretty tight rope around money in circulation, since enterprises now have their own individual accounting system. The central government isn’t constantly borrowing money from the central bank to pump into SOEs, so the amount of money created by the central bank to lend to SOEs has gone down a lot.

That, at least partially, explains how the government manages to keep domestic currency circulation down. It doesn’t look like they’re printing much money overall, I saw bills from the pre-2009 currency re-denomination being used as late as July this year. And the highest denomination of North Korean won in circulation is the 5,000 won note, which has a market value of around 60 US cents, hardly appropriate for anything more groceries.

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Electricity supply in Pyongyang keeps getting better as sanctions drag on

Wednesday, September 5th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As North Korea’s economically crucial minerals exports are massively down (coal exports by over 70% in 2017 as compared with 2013, for example), some in the country see positive side effects. With coal not being exported, it is instead sent to the part of the country with the highest purchasing power after the previous exports recipients: Pyongyang, as the following article in Daily NK notes (as of now only in Korean, I believe). Electricity supply, indoor heating and warm water supply have all reportedly improved, at least in parts of the city, as a consequence.

This illustrates a crucial point on sanctions. They don’t hit all North Koreans equally, and whatever one may think of the efficiency and political justification of sanctions, the northeastern coal-producing regions are undoubtedly harder hit than the capital city. Daily NK:

최근 북중 접경지역으로 나온 평양의 한 주민은 5일 데일리NK와의 통화에서 “우리가(북한이) 여태까지 중국에 석탄을 수출하다보니 (화력)발전소를 제대로 못 돌렸었다”며 “하지만 이젠 동평양 화력발전소하고 평양(평천) 화력발전소에서 전기를 꽝꽝 만들어 평양으로 보내고 있다”고 전했다.

대한무역투자진흥공사(KOTRA)에 따르면 2017년 북한 광물 수출액은 대북제재가 본격적으로 시작되기 전인 2013년에 비해 64.7% 감소한 것으로 나타났다. 같은 기간 무연탄은 70.8% 감소한 것으로 조사됐다.

또한, 통계청에 따르면 북한의 화력발전 발전량은 2013년 이후 82억kWh에서 2016년 111억kWh로 37.9% 늘어난 것으로 나타났다. 2017년 북한 발전량에 대한 정확한 통계가 조사되지 않았지만 전반적인 발전량 상승 추이로 볼 때 2017년 북한 화력발전소 발전량도 상승했을 것으로 예측된다.

석탄의 내수용 전환과 전력 사정 개선은 난방 및 온수공급에도 영향을 미친 것으로 보인다.

평양의 대다수 가구는 열병합발전에 의한 난방으로 설계됐지만, 그동안 화력발전소들이 제대로 가동되지 않아 난방 문제는 항상 골칫거리였다. 그러나 최근 발전소 사정이 나아지면서 일부 세대에 난방이 공급되고 있는 것이다.

소식통은 “려명거리 같은 최근에 지어진 집들은 발전소 사정이 좀 나아져 온수 난방이 어느 정도 돌아가고 있다”고 말했다.

Full article:

Pyongyang resident: as sanctions stop coal exports, the electricity situation is improving [평양 주민 “석탄 수출길 막혔는데 전력 사정은 좋아져”]
Moon Dong-hui
Daily NK
2018-09-05

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Red Cross warns of heatwave threatening North Korea’s food production

Friday, August 10th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Full press release:

Beijing/Geneva, 10 August 2018 – A heatwave in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will have serious health consequences for children and elderly people unless urgent action is taken.

There has been no rainfall in DPRK since early July and temperatures are averaging 39 degrees C (102.2 degrees F) across the country. The next rain is expected in mid-August. Any threat to food security will have a serious effect on an already vulnerable and stressed population – a similar dry spell in 2017 caused a 7.2 per cent drop in food production at a vital point of the harvest cycle.

Joseph Muyambo, Programme Manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Pyongyang, said: “This is not yet classified as a drought, but rice, maize and other crops are already withering in the fields, with potentially catastrophic effects for the people of DPRK.

“We cannot and must not let this situation become a full-blown food security crisis. We know that previous serious dry spells have disrupted the food supply to a point where it has caused serious health problems and malnutrition across the country.

“It’s children aged under 5 who will suffer the most. High levels of malnutrition can cause impaired physical and cognitive growth, and this is completely unacceptable. The lives of elderly people and those already suffering from illnesses are also at risk during this heatwave.”

Today, IFRC released 213,474 Swiss francs from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to help the DPRK Red Cross to support more than 13,700 of the most vulnerable people at risk from the heatwave.

The Red Cross has deployed emergency response teams and 20 water pumps to irrigate fields in the hardest-hit areas, while staff and volunteers are helping to raise awareness of the signs, symptoms and treatment of heat-related illnesses.

Even before the current crisis, more than 10 million people – 40 per cent of DPRK’s population – needed humanitarian assistance. This worrying situation has been exacerbated by the impact of international sanctions on DPRK, which have made it difficult for aid and supplies to get into the country and to reach people who desperately need support.

The press statement can be found here, on the IFRC website.

International bodies have previously warned of looming food shortages and poor harvests in North Korea, only to later see crop yields come out larger than expected. Let’s hope that’s the case this time as well. It’s also worth remembering that it’s not bad weather per se that threatens North Korean food production, but poor institutions and bad agricultural policies that lay at the core of the problem.

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North Korean state security agents fine Chinese visitors for making phone calls abroad

Thursday, August 9th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

North Korean Ministry of State Security (MSS) agents have been ramping up the issuance of monetary fines for Chinese business people and drivers in the country for various infractions.

“Chinese business people and truck drivers are being fined for taking calls from China while they are in North Korea,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK on August 7. “A surveillance agent stationed near the Wonjong Border Customs Office is stopping vehicles driven by Chinese business people and truckers who are detected receiving calls and issuing them with fines.”

“Chinese tourists have their phones confiscated by travel agencies so they cannot make calls, but business people and truck drivers are under no such restrictions and could previously receive calls from China without issue,” he continued, adding that international calls to China are permitted within a radius of one kilometer of the customs office.

Chinese nationals affected are responding with incredulity at the 1,000 yuan fines for taking calls from China but “they are forced to pay the fine, however, because they depend on good relations with the North Korean authorities to conduct cross-border business.”

MSS agents have long forced North Koreans to pay bribes in exchange for letting them off the hook for making international calls. But these agents are now more pressed than ever to find ways to earn money and it appears that Chinese nationals are now in their crosshairs.

The North Korean government keeps a watchful eye over the activities of its agents, but corruption has such deep roots within the MSS that agents have no qualms with taking advantage of Chinese nationals.

One of the driving forces behind the push to earn more money is the nationwide requirement to pay “loyalty funds,” which is aimed at supporting development of the Wonsan-Kalma marine tourist zone and the Samjiyon area.

On top of their surveillance of cellphone users, MSS agents are also fining Chinese vehicles that carry North Korean passengers.

‘There are cases where Chinese truck drivers take on North Korean passengers to make a little extra cash, but MSS agents are cracking down on this activity and fining the drivers 500 KPW for each male passenger and 1,000 KPW for each female passenger. Chinese drivers are now increasingly ignoring hitchhikers on the road,” a source in North Hamgyong Province added.

“The fines are causing Chinese business people to be more watchful of their activities in North Korea. Some are even questioning whether they should even be doing business in the country.”

Article source:
MSS agents fine Chinese nationals for infractions to earn money
Mun Dong-hui
Daily NK
2018-08-09

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Daily NK interviews a state security agent on sanctions, defectors, and life in North Korea

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

As changes to the political situation on the Korean Peninsula continue in the wake of the inter-Korean, US-DPRK (abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name) and Sino-DPRK summits, Daily NK recently met with an official from North Korea’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) in China to talk about international sanctions toward North Korea and the inter-Korean relationship. The MSS officer displayed a clear anti-American bias with his own ideological convictions, but also offered some objective evaluations of the North Korean regime.

Following is a transcript of the full interview.

Daily NK (DNK): International sanctions are still in effect for North Korea, as you know.

Ministry of State Security official (MSS): They are hard to accept. I’m not sure whether South Korea is trying to make itself look good in the eyes of Trump as it accepts the continued sanctions against North Korea, but in any case, they [the sanctions] are an irritant. There are many [North Korean] restaurants in China. The sanctions have made it impossible for new workers for these restaurants to enter China, and those who are here must return to North Korea next year.

I can understand [the international community] criticizing North Korea for not living as well as capitalist countries after moving away from socialism and operating in the international market like other countries. However, I’m angry that China, Russia and the South have come together to sanction us and that the US makes us a very poor country by preventing our goods from entering the international market.

If you ask anyone in North Korea – young or old – they will respond that North Korea must fight and drop a nuke on America. I think that Chairman Kim Jong Un got rid of nuclear weapons so that the sanctions would be lifted and our lives would improve, but personally speaking, I think we should drop a nuke on New York or Washington, D.C.

Why are South Koreans so angry about us making intercontinental ballistic missiles? We are seeking peace by destroying our [nuclear] underground facilities, but the US has simply stopped its military exercises. They could restart them again [at any time]. They claim they will get rid of the sanctions eventually but it’s hard to believe that.

DNK: The inter-Korean atmosphere, however, is focused on continuing exchanges and cooperation.

MSS: The sanctions must be lifted first for anything to really happen. With the sanctions still in effect, I could accept that President Moon Jae-in is the “trailblazer of the Korean people,” but he continues to look to America for guidance. We could ask South Korea to lift the sanctions, but they just do what America tells them to do. We are a brave people made up of the worker class, who form the basis of the socialist revolution. We have nothing to lose from a war. South Korea would hate to go to war, but the majority of us [North Koreans] would go to war without hesitation.

DNK: Have you ever watched South Korean dramas before?

MSS: Yes, I’ve watched them in secret in China. I have seen defectors on South Korean dramas like ‘Now on my way to meet you’ and ‘Moranbong Club.’ They don’t necessarily lie about everything; they get some things right. It is true life in North Korea is hard and that there are almost no rations from the government. There are some places that only give two-weeks worth of rations and people make up for the lack of food by going into business and cooking corn porridge, and some people even die due to the lack of food.

However, some defectors say that residents just walk by dead bodies on the street. How could that even be possible in a place inhabited by human beings? Even during the Arduous March [widespread famine of the mid-1990s], that wasn’t the case. Soldiers and inminban [neighborhood watch-like units] dug graves to bury the dead. That [walking by dead bodies] wouldn’t have even happened in Korea’s feudal period.

When I asked someone why the defectors lie like that, I was told that they are given money to appear on such TV shows. They received free education and healthcare in North Korea, but now they turn around and spit on their own country. They talk trash about their own country. I can acknowledge that life is tough in North Korea, and that people are hungry and there is no electricity so it’s difficult for factories to operate. But they [defectors] exaggerate too much.

Generally speaking, the women that go to South Korea end up living fairly well and the reality is that people [North Koreans] go to South Korea. However, half of them have committed some type of crime. They have fled because they have the police on their tail. At least half of them are in this situation. They have run away because they have committed a crime like borrowing money from people, and being unable to pay the money back, they have run away before getting caught by the police and being sent to a labor camp.

It is these types of people who come out on TV, crying and telling lies. I would be extremely upset if I lived [in the type of country they are describing]. There are difficulties in North Korea, but real people live there.

DNK: Does the North Korean state still have ironclad control over the country?

MSS: It is still difficult for people to move around freely. Nobody can go from the provinces into Pyongyang. You must have a pass to do that. I hope that the country will soon become like China where you only need a residence card to travel. We have a lot of problems. I hope that these problems will be resolved.

In China, people can send instant messages to those living in Germany or England. North Koreans can take pictures with their cellphones, but cannot use the internet. North Koreans cannot make international calls, either. They couldn’t even dream of it.

The state is worried about the impact of bringing in ‘capitalist-related things’ into the country because they could dampen the people’s ideological stance. I think in some ways the state’s restrictions on foreign things has helped keep North Korea’s ideological stance free of contamination.

Article source:
North Korean state security agent shares thoughts on sanctions, defectors and life in North Korea
Kim Song Il
Daily NK
2018-08-08

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Regime takes two thirds of worker’s salaries for ‘loyalty funds’

Wednesday, August 8th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

As the North Korean authorities shift the financial burden of preparing for the anniversary of North Korea’s establishment on September 9 and the development of the Wonsan-Kalma Marine Tourist Zone, residents are increasingly voicing their complaints over the inherent unfairness of the situation.

“Employees at a joint Sino-North Korean enterprise [name redacted for the safety of the source] located in Rason usually receive 300 yuan (around 50,000 South Korean won) per month, but this month they were only paid 100 yuan,” said a source in North Hamgyong Province on August 6. “Without any prior notice, 200 yuan was taken out of their salaries to be used as funding for regime projects.”

The North Korean authorities have placed great importance on the development of the Wonsan area along with events surrounding the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the nation on September 9. State officials are forcibly taking money from the pockets of ordinary citizens to pay for these projects, according to the source.

“In the past, the state took some money from people’s salaries but never a full two-thirds,” he said. “It’s difficult enough surviving on 200 yuan, so people are very worried about how to survive off a measly 100 yuan.”

One family working at the enterprise typically earns 400 yuan a month but received just 200 yuan this month, he said, explaining that “it’s not enough to even get them through the month […] They have no money saved up and are worried that more money will be taken out of their salaries next month as well.”

Overseas workers are also being forced to contribute part of their salaries to what is referred to as a “loyalty fund.”

“There is money that we have traditionally given to the state each month, but now they have told us we need to give them 2,000 yuan more per month […] Business is difficult these days, which forces us to take money out of our employees’ salaries to pay state officials,” the manager of a North Korean restaurant in China’s Liaoning Province said.

The manager also noted that the authorities were asking for more money to be paid at ever more frequent intervals of time. “Our employees are usually forced to give money [to the loyalty fund] each month, but our employees are up in arms about the amount taken out by the state this month,” the manager said, expressing concern that feelings of discontent among their employees could lead to them running away or even defecting to South Korea.

Full article and source:
Regime takes up to two-thirds of salaries from workers for ‘loyalty funds’
Ha Yoon-ah
Daily NK
2018-08-08

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North Korea exports coal as ‘Russian’ to get around sanctions

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Radio Free Asia:

In a move aimed at evading U.N. sanctions, North Korea is exporting coal to foreign buyers by sending shipments first to Russian ports, where the coal is falsely labeled as Russian-origin, North Korean sources say.

The export of North Korean coal is strictly banned under international sanctions punishing Pyongyang for its illicit nuclear weapons program, but North Korea has now opened new routes for trade with Russian help, a trade worker in North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service.

“As sanctions on North Korea came into effect a couple of years ago, export routes for coal were blocked,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“So North Korean trading companies have been shipping coal to the ports of Nakhodka and Vladivostok in the southern part of Primorsky Krai, in Russia. North Korean coal is then disguised as having come from Russia and is sent on to other countries under fake documents,” he said.

Loading ports for North Korean coal were formerly at Nampo and Songrim, on North Korea’s west coast close to China, but have now been moved to Chongjin and Wonsan, on the country’s eastern coast close to Russia, he said.

“When North Korean coal arrives at Nakhodka, a Russian company records its time of arrival, the length of the ship’s stay in port, and the amount of coal taken off. They then create false papers including a statement of the coal’s quality,” he said.

With these documents declaring the coal to be of Russian origin, “North Korea now has no problem exporting coal to other countries,” he said.

“The name of the Russian company that my company has been working with is Greenwich, and is located at the port in Nakhodka,” RFA’s source said. “They ask for two dollars per ton to disguise North Korean coal as Russian, and the North Korean trading company pays them right away.”

Still in demand

Also speaking to RFA, a North Korean trade worker based in the Chinese border city of Dandong said that North Korean representatives based in South and North Pyongan provinces collect information on countries needing coal and act as brokers for its export.

“Coal from these western-district mines is very high quality, so there is still a demand for it from other countries even though sanctions are in force,” he said.

A 30 percent deposit from the buying countries is required before the coal begins to move, with 30 percent of the balance due when the coal leaves its Russian port. The remaining 40 percent is then paid when the coal arrives at its final destination, the source said.

“For this three-step payment process, the money is deposited in a “borrowed” Chinese bank account, with the North Korean trading company paying banking fees,” he said.

Some of the coal sent from Russia now goes to South Korea and Japan, RFA’s source said.

“But North Korean company names don’t appear on the shipping papers, so the North Korean trading firms aren’t worried at all,” he said.

Resolve questioned

South Korea’s foreign ministry on Tuesday dismissed allegations that a foreign-flagged ship seen earlier at Nakhodka had delivered North Korean coal to South Korea’s southeastern port of Pohang, claiming the ship’s cargo was of Russian origin, according to an Aug. 7 report by the Yonhap news service.

“Critics here question the left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration’s resolve to curb the transport of North Korean coal,” a source of hard currency for the sanctions-hit Pyongyang regime, Yonhap said.

“But the government has stated that it remains committed to strictly abiding by U.N. mandates despite inter-Korean reconciliation,” Yonhap added.

The United States has meanwhile pointed to what it calls credible reports that Russia is in violation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Aug. 4 urging full compliance with measures aimed at forcing the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.

Article source:
North Korea Exports Coal as ‘Russian’ in Bid to Beat Sanctions
Hyemin Son
Radio Free Asia
2018-08-07

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The economics of coal trade, sanctions, and rice prices in North Korea

Monday, August 6th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This may just be one piece of anecdotal evidence, but it’s interesting to note that sanctions haven’t necessarily leading to coal exports stopping – as we know from the multitude of evidence that North Korean coal ships have still been making their transport rounds – but primarily to drastically slashed prices, and surely to significantly smaller volumes being shipped as well. This reinforces the point that even if trade continues, sanctions put a large premium on trading with North Korea. Importers of North Korean coals, simply put, have to get charged less because of the risk they’re taking, and those exporting North Korea need to be paid more for the endeavor to be worth it.

(UPDATE on August 12th): I realized I may have read the article – the source that Daily NK spoke with appears to be referring to domestic prices for coal, not export prices. Still, since we know that coal is in fact being exported through various evasion methods (albeit in fairly small quantities, perhaps), the point stands.

The article also makes an interesting point about the market prices for rice. It is remarkable how little prices have changed through the past year, when sanctions have been in place and enforced by China to a much greater extent than before. Still, according to this piece, prices aren’t dropping even though people’s incomes in fact are going down significantly, at least in parts of the country. So it may be that prices were already at or close to the “reservation price” for suppliers, i.e., the lowest point at which they’re willing to sell at all. Hard to confirm or check, but it is a plausible partial explanation for the strange dynamics of market prices in North Korea over the past year.

Daily NK:

As coal exports have slowed to a crawl due to international sanctions, North Korea’s coal country of Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, and Kujang County, North Pyongan Province, have been suffering under intense economic difficulties. Most residents in these areas were dependent on the export of coal and are directly feeling the effects of the trade stagnation.

“When coal was being exported, it went for up to 130,000 won (16 US dollars) a ton, but now due to the sanctions the price has fallen to 50,000 won (around 6 US dollars) a ton […] The coal must be sold for workers to get paid. The halt in  exports has even led to someone starving to death,” said Kim Woo Chul (alias, male resident of Kujang County), who was traveling in China on August 1.

“In April or May this year a fifty-year-old man died of starvation,” he said, nothing that while corn is provided by the government in July and August, “it lasts for less than two months.”

Kim also said that rice is being sold in the market but most people in the region can’t afford it. “Food is not scarce in the Kim Jong Un era, but people have no money so they can’t buy it,” he emphasized. Kim also noted that there were many empty food stands at the markets because demand has fallen due to the lack of money.

Another resident from Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, named Ri Sung Rim (alias) added, “There is a lot of rice at the markets, and people would buy it if they had money, but they don’t have money because coal is not being sold anymore […] People who ran private businesses selling coal are having a particularly bad time and are starving because they can’t even make corn porridge.”

She explained that a small amount of corn is given to those actually producing coal by the state, but teams that are not producing anything receive no food rations. “They have nothing to eat so there are even people who are taking their children and leaving the region,” she said.

The two interviewees also talked about the chronic electricity shortages in North Korea. While Pyongyang and other major cities are supplied with a relatively steady supply, the rural areas receive very little. People cannot watch television because of the lack of electricity, which means that many in these areas only recently found out that Kim Jong Un had met with the leaders of South Korea and the US.

“Electricity is only supplied for an hour or less in Pyongsong, while those who are wealthy siphon off electricity from factories or use car batteries,” said Kim. “Some of the wealthier people use car batteries to watch KCNA on television sets, but most cannot afford that.”

“Production teams get electricity, but residents don’t get electricity in their homes […] Car batteries need to be recharged to supply electricity at home, but there are no places to recharge them. People get them recharged if they know someone at the factories, but they are out of luck otherwise,” Ri said.

“I only found out about Chairman Kim Jong Un visiting China when I visited the country […] People need electricity to see the news and, since they can’t, they don’t know what’s going on.”

Article source:
Export sanctions lead to hard times for those in coal-producing regions
Ha Yoon-ah
Daily NK
2018-08-06

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