Archive for the ‘Political economy’ Category

Of price controls and panic: North Korean market prices under Corona

Friday, March 27th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(Note: the graphs in this piece are from a shortly forthcoming article on 38 North.)

It’s almost like those mandatory disclaimers that often follow advertisements in the United States, but the statement that all information from inside North Korea is uncertain can sometimes not be repeated often enough. This is especially true in a situation like the current one, where the country’s borders are virtually shuttered, and global anxiety is high to begin with.

With that, let’s take a look at some numbers…

With North Korea’s border closing earlier this year, market prices quickly shot up as consumers most likely hoarded goods in anticipation of future shortages. Particularly curious was the fact that prices seemed to differ so widely between cities, as I wrote about here. This suggested that internal restrictions on movement between localities, a measure the state took to control the spread of coronavirus, were working. A few weeks later, however, both market prices and the differences between cities seemed to go down again.

Differences in rice prices, in percentage, between three North Korean cities, until March 7th. Data source: Daily NK.

So did market prices in general. In the latest price data observation from Daily NK, from March 7th, average rice prices are about 25 percent higher than a year ago, and 29 percent higher than in early December, before the border closure. That’ a lot, but somewhat less than the initial 36 percent increase when the border was closed initially. Even the slightly lower price increase would spell severe difficulties for many North Koreans in buying food. Note: the latest price observation is from March 7th, that is, several weeks ago.

Average rice prices in North Korea, until March 7th. Data source: Daily NK.

So, what happened here? There are two possibilities that I think are more likely and realistic than others. One is that markets overreacted in their initial anxiety. Put simply, people may have thought that supply would become much lower than it ended up being. This is a common mechanism in markets in general. People often react more strongly than called for to anticipated, future changes, and then adapt their economic behavior once it’s clearer what actual conditions of supply and demand are. It’s also possible that the government let up on conditions for imports and trade, easing the burden on supply.

But there is another possibility. Both Rimjingang and Chosun Ilbo have reported that the government has instituted price controls to prevent prices from rising. This was only to be expected, as it is one of the few tools the state has at its disposal to control market anxiety. Price controls, however, are rarely (if ever) effective in the long run in countries such as North Korea. Either trade moves to the black market, or sellers run out of goods as they are forced to sell for less than consumers are willing to pay.

Aside from the two aforementioned reports, there are other potential signs that price controls may be in place. The price difference between Hyesan and Pyongyang/Sinuiju went down to a conspicuously low level, one that is actually lower than normal, a very odd coincidence. It got there only over the span of a few weeks, getting close to the 5,000 won-level reported by Chosun as the price ceiling. As far as currently available information can tell, no conditions changed on the ground. It would be reasonable to assume that at some point, the government may let up on restrictions on trade to ease conditions, but we don’t know whether that has happened yet. Reports of harsh measures against smuggling continue, and such measures would signal to the markets that state enforcement of the border closure remains and will remain harsh. So while in theory it makes sense that prices would go down somewhat after the initial spike, conditions on the ground have not changed noticeably, as far as we know.

So, what might have happened is that at least around March 7th, the government was still somewhat successful at enforcing its price ceiling, at least in parts of the country. One of Chosun’s sources reports that as of March 18th, rice cost 6,300 won per kg in Hyesan, much closer to the initial price level after the border closure. Price ceilings can usually only be enforced for a limited period of time, particularly when real shortages loom of essential products. Prices either rise beyond the ceiling, goods run out, or a black market arises. If the regime is indeed enforcing a price ceiling, and it continues to do so for a long time, perhaps we will see an increase in back-alley markets and other type of economic activity that the government has been relatively successful at curbing by integrating the markets into the official economic system over the past decade and a half or so.

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Rodong Sinmun on state control of economy

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A short article in Rodong Sinmun from earlier this month, emphasizing the importance of state (specifically cabinet) control over economic management:

Important Issues Arising in Putting the Economic Work System and Order
on the Right Track

What is important in straightening the economic work system and order at present is, first of all, to intensify the Cabinet-responsibility system and the Cabinet-centered system.

It is also important to adjust the state machinery as a whole to spur economic development and enhance the role of officials.

Besides, it is important to vigorously push ahead with the work of improving economic management.

Author: Ri Yong Nam, date of publication: March 7th, 2020.

 

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What explains North Korea’s exchange rate drop? How significant was it?

Sunday, August 25th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few weeks, both Asia Press and Daily NK have reported the North Korean won depreciating against the dollar on the markets.

According to the figures from Asia Press, it seems the won first fell drastically, but that the initial FX-rise was a so-called “overshoot”, a disproportionately high rise of the exchange rate, but later corrected itself to levels more reflective of actual availability of dollars. The Asia Press index rose from 8,593 won/1$ on July 19th, to 9,463 won/$1 on August 6th, to 8,625 won/$1 on August 21st. Asia Press notes that the reason for the dollar appreciation is unclear, and speculates that it may be related to sanctions. That’s true, but it’s unclear what would have changed so suddenly and drastically in sanctions implementation as to cause a sudden rise of around ten percent. All in all, discounting the sudden and very temporary rise,  the exchange rate rose by not even one percent.

Reporting by Daily NK confirms the exchange rate spike reported earlier by Asia Press:

Daily NK conducted a market survey on August 6 that found the price of US dollars in North Korea was 7,850 KPW in Pyongyang, 7,880 KPW in Sinuiju and 7,900 KPW in Hyesan. The price ballooned some 800 to 900 KPW in just two weeks.

North Korea’s currency rate regularly sees significant volatility, but the last time the rate increased by 900 KPW in just two weeks was in 2015. During the second half of 2015, the North Korean authorities conducted harsh crackdowns on Chinese-made products and heightened international sanctions came into effect. The combination of these two factors caused the exchange rate to skyrocket more than 700 KPW.

There were even areas of the country that temporarily saw a spike to more than 9,000 KPW. In Rason, North Hamgyong Province, the exchange rate rose to 9,740 KPW on August 14 but has since retreated to between 8,500 and 8,700 KPW.

A Daily NK source in North Hamgyong Province said that the rising exchange rate may be related to stagnation in North Korea’s domestic markets. “The currency rate changes every day and it rose in August again,” he said. “The spike in the currency rate this year suggests that businesses aren’t doing so well and it may also be due to external factors.”

The source suggested that the external factors include the US-China trade war and China’s recent intentional devaluation of the yuan. For the first time in 11 years, the Chinese yuan broke past seven renminbi to the dollar on August 5.

Source:
USD – North Korean Won exchange rate spikes in North Korea
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-08-22

The FX-rate spikes aren’t reported in the Daily NK price index, so it doesn’t even appear in the broader exchange rate graph. The following graph shows the exchange rate from 2015 until Daily NK’s latest report, only a few days ago:

Graph 1. North Korean won/$1, 2015–August 2019. Graph by NK Econ Watch, data from Daily NK price index.

The won has depreciated against the dollar, for sure. Particularly in the short run. The past few weeks have seen slightly more volatility than usual. But still, in the big-picture context, things look fairly stabile.

Graph 2. North Korean won/$1, September 2018–late August 2019. Graph by North Korean Economy Watch. Data source: Daily NK.

A spike such as the one reported earlier in August can happen for many reasons. There is likely so little of US-dollars in circulation in North Korea that fairly minor changes can make a big dent in the market exchange rate. Communications function so poorly in North Korea that rumors spread easily with little possibility for quick confirmations or denials.

I and Peter Ward have previously argued, among other things, that the dollar isn’t a currency of general use in North Korea. The main holders of dollars are, most likely, state-owned corporations and other non-human entities. One move by a major holder could therefore have a significant impact on the market as a whole. The RMB has held completely stabile, so it’s very likely not a matter of any general stress on the markets. Had the source been something related to sanctions implementation, upped pressure, significantly changed expectations, or the like, we should have seen changes in the won-to-RMB-rate as well. As things stand right now, the market exchange rate does not look to be out of its normal range.

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How the North Korean government manages the economy

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One of the most poorly understood aspects of policy change in North Korea in the past few years is the extent to which the North Korean government manages the economy in some ways like any government would in a market economy. Consider, for example, this story by Daily NK:

Amidst signs that housing prices in North Korea are falling due to economic stagnation, the authorities are assessing the state of the housing market in order to implement measures to stabilize the situation.

“The authorities recently began a survey of housing prices and will likely intervene in transactions and setting house prices,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told Daily NK.

The authorities have also begun to set prices for land designated for urban housing plans as part of efforts to control housing transactions, the source added.

These efforts are ostensibly aimed at setting an upper limit for house prices, but the authorities have yet to announce any official numbers.

The aim appears to be to prevent price spikes and ensure that buyers and sellers can conduct transactions within a stable housing market.

In North Korea, the state traditionally owns all land and housing by law, which is supposed to mean that the government provides housing to its citizens without any monetary transactions.

After the widespread famine in the 1990s, however, residents acquired the “right to use” housing and began conducting housing transactions on the basis of market prices. Even before the economic crisis, North Koreans in the upper class engaged in housing transactions on the black market, although such transactions could typically be considered a form of housing “trade.”

These changes came about because North Koreans began proactively taking advantage of the “right to use” housing. Essentially, the authorities gave them the right to inherit and transfer the ownership of the houses they lived in, and North Koreans actively bought and sold these rights on the market.

“The authorities have invested a massive amount of money in building new housing and these efforts have led to an increase in ‘donju’ who have made money out of the projects,” said the source. “The authorities probably thought they needed to step in and control the housing market because of the sheer number of new apartments.”

Full article and source:
Government conducts survey on housing prices in North Korea
Jang Seul Gi
2019-08-05

Now, we still know very little about how these market interventions may come to work. The state just stepping in and fixing prices may be it, but measures like that tend not to work for long.

Consider, also, this story about how the government may come to lower market stall operations fees on some markets. The reason cited is the general economic downturn (presumably following sanctions). In lowering fees, the North Korean government is doing what most governments would do in that situation: launching a fiscal stimulus, of sorts. By lowering taxes (because that’s essentially what these fees are), the government is hoping to stimulate economic activity.

Whatever language it may use to describe how the economy works, this is market management, albeit not of a very sophisticated kind.

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Daily NK on foreign currency shortages

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This is an interesting article by Daily NK. It highlights how little we actually understand about how the exchange rate works in North Korea. Basically, their sources say that foreign currency is available in increasingly short supply, but confirm that despite reports to the contrary, exchange rates haven’t moved noticeably:

Sources report that sanctions have reduced the flow of foreign currency into and out of the country, while the amount in circulation has further fallen because residents are hoarding it. While foreign currency is still being used to pay for major transactions, residents are increasingly using local currency to pay for daily items in the local markets.

“North Koreans are using local currency more often to buy things at the market. They’d prefer Chinese yuan or US dollars, but there’s just not enough of it in circulation to use,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK.

“There are concerns that the situation could lead to an increase in counterfeit bills circulating in the country.”

“International sanctions have definitely led to a fall in circulating foreign currency,” added a North Hamgyong Province-based merchant in his 40s. “The authorities implement measures to entice people to use foreign currency at particular shops and restaurants, or demand that the wealthy make donations to the regime’s loyalty fund, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the circulation of foreign currency has fallen compared to a couple of years ago.”

“There are rumors that the Arduous March [widespread famine of the mid-1990s] is returning, so people are trying to save up and not spend anymore,” he said, adding that broader forces are at play.

Despite the developments, the exchange rate remains relatively stable. Generally, a fall in foreign currency in the market would lead to an increase in the value of foreign bills and a rise in the exchange rate. But the exchange rate between the US dollar and North Korean won has fluctuated only slightly at 1 USD to 8,000 North Korean won, while the exchange rate between the Chinese yuan and North Korean won has remained at 1:1200.

However, if there is an increase in the use of foreign currency in the markets while the overall circulation of foreign bills continues to fall, it could lead to a significant impact on exchange rates.

Article source:
North Koreans turn to local currency due to foreign currency shortages
Ha Yoon Ah
Daily NK
2019-08-06

I’ve written quite a few times about how all this is possible. Logically, it is. That doesn’t make it less of a mystery.

If current conditions continue, I’d be very surprised if we don’t see a sharp fall in the won soon enough. But then again, the market has defied a lot of reasonable, logical expectations already…

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Market fees may be lowered on some North Korean markets

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

“Merchants working in the markets feel that business this year is worse than last. I’m not sure if the authorities were thinking about the merchants when they made the decision, but it’s good that they have reduced the taxes in Pochon, Sinpa and Kimhyongjik County,” said the source in Ryanggang Province during a telephone interview.

According to the source, market fees in Pochon and Sinpa County are relatively low compared to other areas. The fees for industrial goods were reduced from 1000 won to 500 won. Fees charged to vendors of food and ice cream were lowered from 500 won to 300 and 200 won, respectively.

The market fees are determined based on the size of the city, the size of the stall and the type of product being sold. The rough national average fees being charged per day as of early this year was 1500-2000 KPW for meat stalls, 1000-1500 KPW for industrial products (clothes) and 500-1000 KPW for food and vegetables.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ analysis of markets in North Korea, the authorities collect over $56 million USD per year from the markets. The largest market in North Korea, Sunam Market in Chongjin, generates an estimated $840,000 USD for the government.

Before the markets were formally recognized, market fees were 3-5 won until the early to mid 1990s, before being raised ten-fold in 2001, to 30-50 won. After the regime legalized the country’s private markets in 2002 with its ‘New Economic Management Improvement Measures,’ the fees rose another ten-fold.

Source:
Market fees in North Korea set for reduction in parts of border region
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-07-30

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North Korea’s (April) constitutional revision and economic change

Friday, July 12th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A quick comment on the reported change of the North Korean constitution (back in April): I don’t have access to the revised version as of now (or a working VPN from Seoul…). But judging by the reporting by outlets like Hankyoreh (here), this seems like a quite important confirmation that changes in the economic governance system of enterprises in North Korea continues and is still seen as a priority by the state:

The publication of the full text of North Korea’s constitution, which was amended back in April, reveals that language about the “Taean Work System,” its traditional party-centric method of managing the economy, has been replaced by language about the “Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations,” which increases the autonomy of managers at production sites and introduces market elements. This creates a constitutional basis for Kim Jong-un’s reform-oriented approach to the economy. The amended constitution also adds an expression about the chairperson of the State Affairs Commission “representing the state,” which effectively constitutes a formal declaration that Kim Jong-un, as chair of the State Affairs Commission, is the “head of the state.” The constitution was amended during the first session of North Korea’s 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, on Apr. 11, but the full text wasn’t released to the outside world until now.The full text of all 171 articles of North Korea’s revised “socialist constitution” was released on Naenara, a North Korean foreign propaganda outlet, on July 11.

Article 33 of the constitution says that “the state shall execute the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations in economic management while ensuring the correct use of economic spaces such as production costs, prices, and profitability.” This replaces language in the previous version of the constitution that read, “The state shall execute a self-supporting accounting system in line with the demands of the Taean Work System while ensuring the correct use of economic spaces such as production costs, prices, and profitability.” The key change here is a shift in the state’s economic management method from the Taean Work System to the Responsible Management System for Socialist Corporations. The constitutional amendment also adds language to Article 33 about “decisively increasing the role of the cabinet” in the management of the economy.

(Source: Hankyoreh, July 12th, 2019)

Why is this important?

In short, because these bureaucratic processes often stall. Kim Jong-un’s first few years in power saw a virtual flurry of new frameworks introduced for economic governance, most of them enshrining and institutionalizing rules and practices that had already been in place in much of the country for a while. Still, government recognition for these practices really matters, because at the very least, it indicates they won’t be curtailed or rolled back for a while. But this flurry appears to have ceased from around 2016 or so, or at least decreased in intensity and scope. Some have argued that some in the government may not have seen the results they anticipated on economic growth, and therefore turned their attention elsewhere. Including a strong reference to enterprise management autonomy may not indicate a change per se, but at the very least, it confirms that the broad strokes of the changes that have already happened seem to still be generally embraced by the government.

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Farmers in North Korea sent to labor camps for stealing potato seeds

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if farmers worked for themselves to a greater extent, rather than primarily to fill the state quota…

Daily NK reports:

A farmer at a potato farm in Yanggang Province was recently sent to a forced labor camp for stealing seeds meant for planting, a Daily NK source reported on June 3. The incident provides a glimpse into the difficulties faced during the potato planting season  in May.

The farm, a major producer of potatoes located in Taehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, is in an area where locals plant potato seeds for a two-week period starting in early May to ensure the seeds are planted on time. Potatoes in North Korea are important because they can replace rice and wheat and are the major source of calories for some parts of Ryanggang Province.

North Korean farmers refrain from removing the germinal disk from potato seeds and plant potatoes whole to increase yields. The state-run publication Rodong Sinmun recently reported that potato production reached record levels last year.

“There have been many cases where farmers have stolen potato seeds during the ‘potato planting battle’ period,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK. “The authorities made an example out of two farmers who stole seeds by sending them to a disciplinary labor center for six months.”

At larger farms in Taehongdan County, farmers use trackers to plant whole potatoes. Farmers working on smaller farms, however, plant the potatoes themselves. The potatoes need to be planted 4-5 centimeters apart, but farmers frequently do not follow this rule. Instead, they plant the potatoes farther apart and then hide the potato seeds that are leftover underground to take home later.

“Farm managers have worried constantly about this issue, so they have told farmers that stealing seeds is tantamount to destroying the Party’s agricultural policies,” said the source.

Poorer farmers, however, are faced with hunger during the planting season so they steal potato seeds regardless of these warnings and even sell the seeds in local markets, the source said.

Taehung-dan is, of course, the site for Kim Jong-il’s famous speech on the “potato revolution“.

Full article:
North Korean farmers sent to labor camp for stealing potato seeds
Kim Yoo Jin
Daily NK
2019-06-11

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Famine, Amartya Sen, and the Markets of North Korea

Monday, May 20th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The market factor in North Korea’s current food crisis* sometimes seems unclear. Some have talked about the market compensating for what the state doesn’t provide in the event of a food shortage. But the WFP’s methodology should cover for that. They don’t only calculate collective farms yields specifically, but arable land and production in general. Their estimates may (it’s not entirely clear) be based on data for total farmland available provided by the state, and there are some types of plots that wouldn’t be covered in that case. But WFP uses satellite imagery to verify official information on production figures (see p. 5 of their rapid food security assessment for North Korea).

We don’t know how big a proportion of the total amount of food produced in North Korea is sold on the markets, and how much is distributed through state and semi-state channels such as enterprises and factories, which are sometimes partially operated privately. In any case, when they measure total harvests, this likely, at the very least, includes most sources for the food that’s sold on markets. So a drop in total production still means lower market supply.

So why are markets still so important to understand food security, and why is it a problem that WFP cannot access them freely? Rest assured, this is not for a lack of trying. From pp. 6–8 (my emphasis added):

The assessment team also experienced challenges in accessing markets and acquiring market-related data. However, the team was not able to visit farmers’ markets during the field visit. While authorization was granted at national level to visit farmer’s markets, county authorities informed that they were not able to receive any foreign delegation on the day. Market visits are highly recommended to fill this information gap in future assessments. Finally, the team could only gather limited information on people’s incomes and expenditures during the household surveys.

Again, WFP’s conclusions are still highly relevant and meaningful. But as they themselves recognize, markets are crucial for understanding the microeconomic conditions on the ground in North Korea.

The most important reason, perhaps, is that distribution of food is just as important as food production for food security. As Amartya Sen has shown, food security is often more about who has an “entitlement” to food than about precisely how much food is around. This is where North Korea’s markets come in. Total production is an important metric to be sure, but to really understand how food is distributed, and who gets to eat, we have to also understand precisely how the markets work. We need to understand who uses them and how much they’re able to buy. Prices tell us something about overall supply (though as I have argued, probably not the full story).

Especially in a country like North Korea, where access to food and sustenance is a political matter, distribution (or entitlements) is more than total food production for food security. The markets are a crucial mechanism for distribution in North Korea. As long as WFP isn’t allowed to survey them, and to do more extensive household surveys freely in the country, we won’t truly know what food security looks like.

 

*We still don’t know that there is a crisis at hand, although the food situation appears very poor.

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Taxes increase on some North Korean markets

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This sort of news is very interesting, particularly in context: I’ve heard from people who deal with North Korean firms that some of them have received orders to tighten up their accounting, and report their assets to the state in greater detail. Taken together, these snippets of information suggest an overall difficult economic situation, though not desperate or in crisis-mode, where the state is taking more and more measures to drive in cash from the public.

Daily NK:

Sales fees levied on private distributors have risen in some areas of North Korea. The fees are managed by North Korea’s collection agency and essentially provide a source of tax revenue for the state. Private distributors are expressing discontent over the changes as many are suffering under the country’s already poor economic conditions.

“The authorities recently began demanding outrageous and unfair selling fees from private distributors,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on April 25. “Collection offices (i.e. tax offices) attached to local people’s committees are required to pay varying fees depending on the product, and the number of fees have been doubled.”

These de facto tax offices were established in each city and county as part of the July 1 Economic Management Improvement Measure in 2003 and are managed by the Ministry of Financial Administration. The offices collect fees for land use, market stalls, and various other reasons.

“The authorities are demanding a huge amount of fees to gain control over and restrict the activities of private business people who live in Pyongsong but bring in products from Sinuiju, Rajin-Sonbong, Nampo and Hyesan,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province.

“Soybean oil sellers, for example, had to pay 3% of their income before, but now have to pay twice that amount.”

The skyrocketing fees are likely due to the fall in tax revenue arising from the economic difficulties the country is facing.

“The government increased the fees they were collecting just as incomes fell among private business people,” she said. “The authorities are simply taking money from the people to make it seem like the state is self-sufficient.”

North Korean authorities have made the fee system more sophisticated while raising fees as part of efforts to generate more income for the regime.

Article source:
North Korea doubles de facto sales tax levied on distributors in some areas
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-05-03

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