Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

What North Korea’s 2017 budget report and 2018 projections tell us about its economy

Monday, April 16th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

What could be better on a rainy Sunday (at least for those of us on the U.S. east coast) than to delve a little deeper into North Korea’s 2017 budget reporting? I don’t have as much time as I would wish at the moment to give the topic the attention it deserves, so I would advise readers who wish to do more research on their own to use Ruediger Frank’s previous writing on the topic as a guide to making sense of the most recent budget report (see, for example, here, and here), in combination with information about the budget report itself.

Before delving into some points from the report, here’s the usual mantra about figures from North Korea: numbers should never be taken as exact, and their reliability is sketchy at best. It is impossible to tell for sure what is propaganda and what is actual, realistic information, and all figures should be taken as indicative only.

With that out of the way, here are some observations, in no particular order:

The economy has grown, according to North Korea’s own figures, but by less than previous yearsThat is, if you take Ruediger Frank’s view that growth of state budget revenue is a proxy for overall economic growth, which went up by 4.9 from the previous year. This is significantly lower than the past few year’s estimates and results, so in a way, it’s an admission of a real decrease in economic performance. Thus, it is an admission of sorts that the economy isn’t doing all that well at the moment. There are several potential reasons for this figure (which, again, may not even be true or accurate). Recall that exports only started dropping in any drastic sense from early fall last year, when Chinese sanctions enforcement began.

For 2018, the “envisaged” growth rate is much lower, at 3.2 percent. Perhaps this, too, is overtly optimistic given how difficult things seem at the moment. Or perhaps it’s a realistic anticipation of a real downturn, but no disaster.

The budget report recognizes that a significant share of economic activity occurs out of the central government’s handsThough North Korean publications do not explicitly recognize private economic activity, they’re less and less shy about talking quite openly about key facets of the marketized system. Frank pointed out previously, for example, that budgetary items such as revenues from provinces, according to some, essentially represent incomes from the non-centrally planned share of the economy. If this interpretation is correct, over a quarter of economic production (26.1%) is openly admitted by Pyongyang to be out of central planning hands. The share may well be more than the double of that in reality, depending on how you count. In any case, the budget report – and this isn’t new at all, I should point out – recognizes that a significant share of the economy is out of central government hands: “[…] 도,시,군들에서 자체의 수입으로 지출을 맞추고 많은 자금을 중앙예산에 들여놓을것으로 예견하였다 (Provinces, cities and counties are expected to balance expenditure with their own revenue and contribute lots of funds to the central budget)”.

The state foresees continued growth from private and semi-private enterprise revenue next yearTo see why, consider two budget posts that may appear especially peculiar for a nominally socialist economy: the social insurance fee (사회보험료수입금) and the real estate rent (부동산사용료수입금). The income from the former is expected to grow by 1.2 and 1.8 percent respectively. Revenues from the transaction tax (거래수입금) anticipated to grow by 2.5 percent. These, too, have been mentioned in previous budget reports so their appearance per se is not new. Information about what exactly they are is rather tricky to come by, and I’m grateful to my good friend and colleague Peter Ward for sending me excerpts from a 2010 North Korean dictionary (광명백과사전) on the social insurance and real estate rent fees.

The social insurance fee, basically, is just what it sounds like: a fee charged from “socialist organs and factories” as well as individual worker’s earnings, to help guarantee a decent life for “people who loose their ability to work [로동능력을 잃은 사람]” as well as the elderly and others in need. The real estate usage fee is explained as a revenue from “socialist organs and factories” charged in order for the government to maintain the quality and standard of its property, i.e., its buildings and land (which technically is all the land and all the buildings in the country). In other words, this is a fee charged to enterprises in a general sense, it seems. Both the social insurance fee and the real estate usage fee are probably best thought of as general revenue streams for the government, rather than income later used for a specific purpose. The transaction tax was first mentioned in the budget report for 2011, and is most likely a form of general tax on enterprise activity.

Again, these revenue flows are not new, and neither is their reporting. But fact that these revenue channels are institutionalized parts of the official economy say something about how far North Korea has gone from the Stalinist economic model, even nominally speaking. In a fully planned economy, there would be no need for fees or taxes (and indeed, North Korea claims to be a tax-free society) because all production would be planned, and its results collected in full and distributed by the state. Fees and taxes are only necessary when economic production occurs outside of state hands, which likely about half or more of economic activity in North Korea does.

Conclusion

No reader should take this post to mean that the North Korean economy is doing well, improving, or remains untouched by sanctions. Politically, it would likely be very tough for the state to report a major downturn in a year of such scaled-up sanctions and international pressure. But the overall assessment, that things are getting tougher but are not yet catastrophic in any way, may well be accurate. The question is how long it can go on this way, and it seems to me that economic projections for 2018 may well be more optimistic than they should be. Of course, with China’s sanctions enforcement reportedly letting up in some respects, there might be more cause for optimism than we realize.

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North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly Session: Economic reporting

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On April 11th, 2018, North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament held a session in Pyongyang. Some news media has focused on Kim Jong-un’s absence from the session, but some interesting reporting on the economic situation came out of the session as well. Here are the key points on the economy (from KCNA on April 12th, with my annotation and emphasis added):

Deputy Pak Pong Ju, premier of the Cabinet, delivered a report on the fulfillment of the work of the Cabinet for Juche 106 (2017) for carrying out the five-year strategy for national economic development and its tasks for Juche 107 (2018) at the Sixth Session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly held on Wednesday.

Last year was a year of great victory in which a great progress had been made in carrying out the five-year strategy for the national economic development under the outstanding and seasoned guidance of the respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, repelling unprecedentedly grave challenges stemming our advance, the reporter said.

According to the report, last year the Cabinet organized a drive for putting the nation’s overall economy on a higher stage with a main emphasis put on revitalizing the production by locally producing equipment, raw and other materials on the principle of self-support and self-sufficiency while focusing the state efforts on augmenting the foundation for electricity production, rounding off the system of Juche iron production and realizing the independence of chemical industry in line with the five-year strategy for national economic development set forth by the Party.

Note the emphasis here on local production, the expansion of which has been a key policy under Kim Jong-un.

The achievements made last year, a year of crucial importance in carrying out the five-year strategy for national economic development, proved once again that no desperate sanctions and pressure moves of the U.S. and its vassal forces to destroy the sovereignty of the DPRK and its rights to existence and development can ever check the progress of the Korean people dynamically advancing with firm faith in the validity of their cause and its final victory under the wise guidance of the Party and that the cause of building a powerful socialist country is sure to be accomplished.

Saying that this year we are faced with the tasks to make a breakthrough of revitalization in the economic front as a whole while frustrating the challenges of the hostile forces, who are making last-ditch efforts, through all-people offensive under the militant slogan of “Let us launch a revolutionary general offensive to achieve fresh victory on all fronts of building a powerful socialist country!”, the reporter specified them.

The fighting goals for the third year of the five-year strategy for national economic development should be attained without fail with a firm hold on the key tasks of strengthening the independence and Juche character of the national economy and improving the standard of people’s living.

The power industrial sector should put defective generating equipment into good shape and reinforce them, take scientific and technological measures for lowering the standard of coal consumption at thermal power plants and put the operation of generating equipment additionally installed at the Pukchang Thermal Power Complex on a normal track and thus increase the electricity production with the use of thermal power source onto a high stage.

The emphasis on independent electricity consumption makes a lot of sense, particularly as North Korea’s oil and fuel imports are being squeezed. But it’s a problem going back much, much further than the past year’s sanctions.

The coal industrial field should attain the monthly and quarterly coal production goals and create more coal fields so as to fully meet the demand for coal increasing in different sectors of the national economy.

Note: the national economy. The dependence on revenues from coal exports has been a problem, and one side-effect of sanctions may be that domestic industries get access to more and cheaper coal.

In the field of metal industry, Korean-style Juche-based iron making production system should be further perfected by the use of oxygen heat blast furnace and efforts be put into improving the quality of steel and diversifying the kinds of steels through introduction of advanced technologies so as to fully meet the demand for iron and steel of the national economy.

Again, national economy. Diversification is also an important and long-standing goal, and North Korea has long sought to not just export raw materials, but manufacture and sell more of end-products as well.

The field of chemical industry should unconditionally hit the fertilizer production target to timely provide nitrogenous fertilizer to the agricultural field ahead of farming processes. The production at the February 8 Vinalon Complex should be invigorated to fully supply various chemical products including vinalon, caustic soda and vinyl chloride to various sectors of the national economy.

Vinalon…Good luck.

Along with the establishment of various catalyst production bases, the construction of main production processes should be pushed forward at the Sunchon Phosphate Fertilizer Factory and the process for production of carbonate of soda with glauberite as starting raw material should be renovated and perfected.

The machine industrial sector has to step up the modernization of machine factories, unconditionally hit the target for production of tractors and trucks and put the quality of machinery on the world level.

Advanced mining methods should be widely introduced to increase the production of minerals and nonferrous metal.

The railway transport sector should ensure in a responsible manner the transportation of materials necessary for various sectors of the national economy and capital construction projects.

The Cabinet will bring about a remarkable turn in improving the standard of people’s living through production surge in the fields of light industry, agriculture and fisheries this year.

Equipment and production processes should be rearranged on a manpower-saving and electricity-saving basis, diverse and quality light industrial goods produced on a larger quantity with locally available raw and other materials, and local economy should be developed in a peculiar way with reliance on the domestic resources.

High-yielding farming methods should be positively introduced and the proportion of farm work done by machines should be drastically increased to attain the grain production goal for this year without fail.

The fisheries field should unconditionally hit the fish production target and at the same time finish the construction of projects for consolidating the material and technical foundation of fisheries ahead of schedule.

Big efforts should be directed to sprucing up Samjiyon County into a standard and model county under socialism and the construction of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area should be finished within specified date. And such capital construction projects as the Tanchon Power Station and the second-phase waterway project in South Hwanghae Province should be pushed forward.

The rate of rooting of saplings should be ensured at more than 90 percent through efficient tree planting and meticulous cultivation of planted trees and the appearance of the country be bettered through the technical renovation and repairing of highways and tourist roads in a qualitative way and the rearrangement of key rivers and streams based on an all-people movement.

All the sectors and units should solve the sci-tech problems arising in completing the domestic production of materials and equipment and the structure of self-supporting economy with firm reliance on science and technology.

The reporter stressed that the Cabinet and other state economic guidance organs would work out in a practical way an operation plan for hitting this year’s targets and push forward its implementation in a responsible manner through skillful operation and command to successfully attain the fighting goals set forth by the Party and thus fully discharge their responsibility and duty in glorifying this year marking the 70th anniversary of the DPRK as a year of victory to be specially recorded in the history of the country.

I don’t have time to add more commentary right now, but will hopefully be able to return to this later. Below is KCNA’s rendition of the state budget report on last year and this year and there’s lots of interesting stuff to discuss here:

Deputy Ki Kwang Ho, minister of Finance, made a report on the fulfillment of state budget for Juche 106 (2017) and on the state budget for Juche 107 (2018) of the DPRK at the 6th Session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly held on Wednesday.

According to the report, last year the state budgetary revenue plan was over-fulfilled by 1.7 percent or 4.9 percent increase from the previous year.

The local budgetary revenue plan was carried out at 100.5 percent.

Last year the state budgetary expenditure plan was carried out at 99.8 percent.

15.8 percent of the total expenditure was earmarked for the increasing of the military capabilities of the country and 47.7 percent for the development of the national economy.

Investment in the field of science and technology increased 8.5 percent as over the previous year, thus contributing to settling the scientific and technological problems arising in the economic development and to accomplishing the tasks for studying ultra-modern field.

5.2 percent more fund was allocated to key sectors of the national economy and for the improvement of people’s livelihood than the previous year, thus actively promoting the drive for putting power, coal, metal, chemical, machinery and light industrial fields on a Juche basis and updating their production processes. In particular, it helped build a Korean-style oxygen heat blast furnace at the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex and attain the goal of producing new type tractors and trucks.

2.6 percent more investment was made for the construction field than the previous year, while 36.3 percent of the total expenditure was directed to facilitating the building of a highly-civilized socialist power, thus contributing to the implementation of the Party’s policies of prioritizing the education and health care and to the development of sports and literature and arts.

According to the report, the state budgetary revenue and expenditure for this year have been shaped in such a way as to carry out the five-year strategy for the national economic development.

The state budgetary revenue envisages 3.2 percent increase over last year, of which the transaction tax, key item of the budgetary revenue, is expected to swell 2.5 percent while the profits from state enterprises is expected to grow 3.6 percent, to hold 85.3 percent of the total revenue.

The income from cooperative organizations is expected to grow 0.9 percent, the real estate rent 1.8 percent, the social insurance fee 1.2 percent, while the revenue from property sales and price differences is to grow 0.5 percent and other revenue 0.8 percent. The revenue from economic trade zones is expected to increase 2.5 percent.

The central budgetary revenue out of the state budgetary revenue stands at 73.9 percent which means that the revenue from the central economy holds an overwhelming proportion. Provinces, cities and counties are expected to balance expenditure with their own revenue and contribute lots of funds to the central budget.

The state budgetary expenditure is to grow 5.1 percent over last year’s.

An investment in strengthening the independence and Juche character of the national economy and improving the standard of people’s living will increase 4.9 percent as against last year and thus relevant fund will go to 47.6 percent of the total expenditure.

An investment in the field of science and technology will increase 7.3 percent.

Expenditure for the overall national economy including power, metal, coal, chemical and machine industries, railway transport, light industry, agriculture and fisheries will increase 5.5 percent.

The financing necessary for actively promoting the capital construction and further expanding the achievements of forest restoration campaign will swell 4.9 percent.

5.9 percent more fund will go to the education field, 6 percent more fund to public health, 5.1 percent more to sports field and 3 percent more to literature and art.

15.9 percent of the total expenditure will go to increasing the military capabilities for self-defence.

This year also, lots of educational aid fund and stipends will be sent for the children of Koreans in Japan.

The reporter said that the state budget for this year will be successfully carried out through meticulous organization of economic operation and command and thus financially back the building of a powerful socialist country.

(UPDATE 4-15-2018: Korean original for the budget report added below, date fixed above):

지난해 국가예산집행의 결산과 올해 국가예산에 대한 보고

(평양 4월 12일발 조선중앙통신)

11일에 진행된 최고인민회의 제13기 제6차회의에서 조선민주주의인민공화국 주체106(2017)년 국가예산집행의 결산과 주체107(2018)년 국가예산에 대한 재정상 기광호대의원의 보고가 있었다.

보고에 의하면 지난해 국가예산수입계획은 101.7%로 수행되였으며 전해에 비하여 104.9%로 장성하였다.

지방예산수입계획은 100.5%로 수행되였다.

지난해 국가예산지출계획은 99.8%로 집행되였다.

나라의 군력강화에 지출총액의 15.8%를 돌렸으며 인민경제발전에 지출총액의 47.7%를 돌리였다.

과학기술부문에 대한 투자를 전해에 비하여 108.5%로 늘여 경제발전에서 제기되는 과학기술적문제들을 해결하고 첨단분야의 연구과제를 완성하는데 기여하였다.

인민경제의 중요부문과 인민생활향상에 전해에 비하여 105.2%로 늘어난 자금을 지출하여 전력,석탄,금속,화학,기계,경공업부문의 주체화와 생산공정의 현대화를 적극 추동하였으며 특히 김책제철련합기업소에 우리 식의 산소열법용광로를 건설하고 새형의 뜨락또르와 화물자동차생산목표를 점령하는데 이바지하였다.

건설부문에 전해에 비하여 102.6%로 투자를 늘이였다.

사회주의문명강국건설을 앞당기는데 지출총액의 36.3%를 돌려 당의 교육중시,보건중시정책을 관철하고 체육과 문학예술을 발전시키는데 이바지하였다.

보고에 의하면 올해 국가예산은 국가경제발전 5개년전략수행의 요구에 맞게 국가예산수입과 지출을 편성하였다.

국가예산수입은 지난해보다 103.2%로 장성할것으로 예견하였으며 그가운데서 예산수입의 기본항목인 거래수입금은 102.5%로,국가기업리익금은 103.6%로 늘어나 수입총액의 85.3%를 차지할것으로 보았다.

협동단체리익금은 100.9%,부동산사용료는 101.8%,사회보험료는 101.2%,재산판매 및 가격편차수입은 100.5%,기타수입은 100.8%,경제무역지대수입은 102.5%로 늘어나게 된다.

국가예산수입에서 중앙예산수입은 73.9%로서 중앙경제에 의한 수입이 압도적비중을 이루며 도,시,군들에서 자체의 수입으로 지출을 맞추고 많은 자금을 중앙예산에 들여놓을것으로 예견하였다.

국가예산지출은 지난해에 비하여 105.1%로 장성하게 된다.

인민경제의 자립성과 주체성을 강화하고 인민생활을 개선향상시키기 위한 투자를 지난해에 비하여 104.9%로 장성시켜 지출총액의 47.6%에 해당한 자금을 돌리게 된다.

과학기술부문에 대한 투자를 107.3%로 늘인다.

전력,금속,석탄,화학,기계공업과 철도운수,경공업,농업,수산업을 비롯한 인민경제전반에 대한 지출을 105.5%로 늘인다.

중요대상건설을 적극 추진하고 산림복구전투의 성과를 더욱 확대해나가는데 필요한 자금보장을 104.9%로 늘이게 된다.

교육부문에 105.9%,보건부문에 106%,체육부문에 105.1%,문학예술부문에 103%로 투자를 늘인다.

자위적국방력을 강화하는데 지출총액의 15.9%를 돌리게 된다.

올해에도 재일동포자녀들을 위하여 많은 교육원조비와 장학금을 보내준다.

보고자는 경제작전과 지휘를 빈틈없이 짜고들어 올해 국가예산을 성과적으로 집행함으로써 사회주의강국건설을 재정적으로 안받침해나갈것이라고 강조하였다. (끝)

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Tuberculosis in North Korea

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some interesting (and disturbing) numbers and facts in this article by Bloomberg. One wonders just how many TB treatments one of Kim Jong-un’s yachts could pay for…

While the rogue state’s nuclear ambitions have long inspired angst—and led to economic sanctions—the threat of TB, the planet’s biggest infectious killer, has garnered less attention. With more than 100,000 cases in 2016, North Korea is on the World Health Organization’s list of nations with the greatest incidence of the deadly lung disease, and doctors warn that an explosion in multidrug-resistant strains could be coming.

In February, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the biggest financial contributor to TB control in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 2010, announced that it will close its programs there in June, citing challenges working in the country. The closure of programs is likely to lead to “massive stock outs of quality-assured TB drugs nationwide,” wrote Harvard Medical School doctors in an open letter to the Global Fund, published on March 14 in the British medical journal the Lancet. Such privation in the past has “led to the rapid creation of drug-resistant TB strains, as doctors ration pills and patients take incomplete regimens,” they wrote.

Infections that can’t be cured with standard drugs are already rife in the country. No nationally representative survey has been conducted to measure the incidence among North Korea’s 25 million people, but according to WHO estimates, 5,700 of the country’s 130,000 TB infections in 2016 were caused by bacteria resistant to the antibiotic rifampicin or at least two other key TB medications.

That may be a gross underestimate, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Korean Medical Science that analyzed hundreds of patient sputum samples. More than three-quarters of those that tested positive for TB contained multidrug-resistant strains, and two samples contained extremely drug-resistant strains—a form almost impossible to treat in resource-poor countries such as North Korea. Treatment for patients with multidrug-resistant TB, or MDR-TB, commonly lasts two years or longer and typically involves six months of daily injections and a regimen of about 14,000 pills, including some that are toxic.

Treatment regimens that are too short or rely on inferior or inappropriate medicines are the fastest route to drug resistance, says Jennifer Furin, a Harvard-trained doctor and researcher, who’s cared for TB patients for 23 years. Cutting funding to programs in North Korea, she says, will undermine disease-control efforts beyond North Korea.

“This will be a disaster that the global health community will pay for later,” Furin says. “This is a politically created problem that will turn into a health catastrophe, not just for the people living in the DPRK, but for everybody in the region.”

Chinese authorities are on alert for cases among migrant workers from North Korea. Still, many people who’ve been exposed to TB develop a latent infection with no symptoms, making it difficult to stop at borders.

Dandong, a city in China’s northeastern Liaoning province and separated from North Korea by a river, is a main entry point for migrant workers. Quarantine officials identified 33 TB cases among 9,500 North Koreans screened from 2012 to 2014, according to a government report published in 2014 that recommended heightened surveillance in the Dandong area. Local authorities pledged in December to beef up border screening and epidemic management.

Just as HIV has helped spread TB in sub-Saharan Africa, chronic malnutrition is fueling the epidemic in North Korea, according to Kwonjune Seung, who was among the authors of the open letter to the Global Fund published in the Lancet. Seung visits a dozen TB centers in North Korea twice a year as medical director of the Eugene Bell Foundation, a Christian charity focusing on treating North Korean patients. A spillover of MDR-TB from North Korea “would take decades to clean up and could detrimentally affect the public health of bordering countries like China and South Korea,” Seung and his colleagues wrote in their letter.

More than 38 countries contribute to the Global Fund, including South Korea and the U.S.; in late March, Congress approved $1.35 billion in funding for the 2018 financial year. The Global Fund defended its decision to suspend its programs in North Korea, saying in an email that it was fully aware of the risks that might arise from disorderly closure of its grants and that it’s working with Unicef to accommodate mitigating actions. The decision to withdraw from the country wasn’t taken in response to pressure but rather influenced by concerns about the “unique operating environment” in North Korea, it said. The closed environment prevents donors from properly assuring effective use of grants and resources and managing risks. As of last August, the Global Fund’s internal performance reviewers gave the North Korea program a B1, or “adequate,” rating.

In an open letter to the Geneva-based organization published on March 13 by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official news agency, Kim Hyong Hun, the country’s vice minister of public health, accused the Global Fund of bowing to the “pressure of some hostile forces.” President Trump has been trying to enlist other nations in a campaign of sanctions against North Korea.

“The decision to suspend the Global Fund projects in North Korea, with almost no transparency or publicity, runs counter to the ethical aspiration of the global health community, which is to prevent death and suffering due to disease, irrespective of the government under which people live,” Seung and his colleagues wrote in the Lancet.

Furin sees it as another dimension of the tensions between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom the U.S. president nicknamed “Little Rocket Man” after the nation tested its missile capabilities in September. The two nations are slated to meet in an historic summit as early as May. “You can’t help but think global powers are very concerned about North Korea’s erratic behavior, and this is a way to punish the country,” she says. “But this is a weapon of destruction in and of itself. TB is an airborne disease. It doesn’t stay within borders.”

Article source:
North Korea’s Other ‘Weapon’ Is Poised to Explode
Fiona Li, Peter Martin and Dandan Li
Bloomberg News
2018-04-11

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China reportedly incentivized Kim Jong-un to visit

Friday, March 30th, 2018

UPDATE 1 (2018-4-4): The Donga Ilbo reports that China is marginally easing up on sanctions following the unofficial meeting that took place with the two country’s respective leaders. According to the article:

Some Chinese enterprises in Dandong, a city in northeastern Liaoning province bordering North Korea, stopped sending back North Korean workers to their home country, South Korea’s intelligence sources said on Monday.


It is reported that the Chinese authorities, however, have not taken any action regarding employing North Korean workers. Rather, a source quoted Chinese government officials as saying “refrain from any action that could upset North Korean people for the time being.”

South Korean government said it is identifying intelligence that the average daily traffic volume between Dandong and North Korea surged to 50 trucks, from 20 to 30 trucks earlier this year. The traffic in this region is one of the key indicators that show bilateral trade flows. More than 100 trucks a day would come and go before the international community strengthened sanctions against the North.

According to data released by China’s customs agency, North Korean exports to China amounted to 1.72 billion dollars, a 33 percent down from 2016. However, Beijing is likely to give some breathing space to its ally as Chinese President Xi expressed his willingness to expand mutual exchanges in a meeting with Kim.

ORIGINAL POST (2018-3-30): I am still of the opinion that “maximum pressure” has not been the primary cause of North Korea’s newfound desire to hold talks with the US and South Korea. However, this article in the FT argues that China has enforced trade restrictions on North Korea in excess of the UNSC resolution requirements, and perhaps this policy played a role in bringing Kim Jong-un to Beijing.

According to the Financial Times:

Official Chinese statistics show that the monthly average of refined petroleum exports to North Korea in January and February was 175.2 tons, just 1.3 per cent of the monthly average of 13,552.6 tons shipped in the first half of 2017.

The level of reduction went far beyond the 89 per cent cut in petroleum product exports stipulated by the UN sanctions.

Chinese coal exports to North Korea were also cut to zero in the three months to the end of February, after running at a monthly average of 8,627 tons in the first half of 2017. Exports of steel ran at a monthly average of 257 tons in the first two months of this year, down from a monthly average of 15,110 tons in the first half of 2017.

Shipments of motor vehicles also dried up, with just one unit being exported in the month of February, official Chinese statistics show. Concerns over the accuracy of China’s statistics are common, but analysts said that such consistent and bold drops in export volumes are unlikely to have been the result of official massaging.

Bonnie Glaser points out a rumor that these stringent trade caps will be lifted to the point that China is still in compliance with UNSC resolutions.

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N. Korea’s high-tech goods imports rise sharply in recent years despite sanctions

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s imports of smartphones, notebook computers and other high-tech products have risen sharply in recent years despite international sanctions following the country’s nuclear and missile tests, a report said Thursday.

High-tech goods accounted for 12.1 percent of the North’s total imports of manufactured products in 2016 from 6 percent in 2007, according to a report written by Kim Yang-hee, an official of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. The report is carried in the March 2018 edition of the Korea Development Institute’s North Korea Economic Review.

The report was written based on statistics released by the North Korean government.

The high-tech goods include smartphones, PCs, automobiles, and aviation and space technology products.

The proportion of telecommunication and electronics goods also rose to 10.2 percent in 2016 from 3.9 percent in 2007.

The report noted North Korea failed to ship coal to China since October last year when the United Nations sanctions on North Korea toughened.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s high-tech goods imports rise sharply in recent years despite sanctions: report
Yonhap
2018-3-29

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“Maximum pressure” and the North Korean economy: what do market prices say?

Friday, March 9th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

With the news today about a summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump tentatively planned for the end of May, there has been much debate about the role of the US policy of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions.

The efficacy of the policy is difficult to evaluate, particularly since it often takes many months or even years for the full effect of sanctions to play out. Whether the policy has been effective or not depends on, well, how you judge success or failure. There is little doubt that North Korea’s exports have taken a significant hit not primarily from the sanctions themselves, but from China’s enforcement of them. This is the single biggest difference between how sanctions have hit the North Korean economy during the past year, versus previous years. It seems fairly indisputable that sectors of the economy have suffered, with export industries taking the biggest hit.

But what has been the impact on the economy as a whole? It’s difficult to say, but we have two important indicators: prices of rice and foreign currency on North Korean markets. The data on these two indicators is far from perfect, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw firm conclusions from it. (For an explanation of this data, and the rationale for using rice prices in lieu of the formal goods basket used to measure inflation in other countries, see this article, for example). Nevertheless, neither of the two indicators suggest a situation out of the ordinary on North Korean markets during the period that “maximum pressure” has been applied.

First, a look at rice prices. If sanctions were truly devastating the North Korean economy, there is a whole host of reasons why one should expect rice prices to increase.

One of them is expectations of worse times to come as importing inputs for agriculture as well as food becomes increasingly difficult. Another is that if importing food products in general* becomes more difficult, perhaps because Chinese traders anticipate that their North Korean counterparts won’t be able to pay, consumers would be expected to switch more of their consumption to domestically sourced goods, increasing demand and thus prices. In general, anxiety about worsening times often leads to inflation.

This does not seem to have happened. In fact, rice prices have been remarkably stable over the past year (if the graph looks strange, click for full image):

There may well be other forces at work, too. Increased smuggling of cheaper Chinese rice, for example, may well have contributed to the price stability. But this is in itself a sign of the resiliency of the North Korean economy; when some supply decreases, there are ways of compensating through other means.

Exchange rates are another important metric. If the inflow of foreign currency (in this case US dollars) decreases, its price – the exchange rate – should go up. Expectations matter here, too: if the market expects that foreign currency supply will dry up in the future, it tends to act in the present and make purchases today to hedge for tomorrow. As with rice prices, exchange rates have been remarkably stable over the past year (again, click for better image):

In sum, we have little or no hard evidence that the North Korean economy, on the whole, has suffered significantly and harshly from sanctions thus far. That may itself not be an argument against sanctions, since again, it may take much longer than just a year for their full impact to play out. But it does call into question the claims that “maximum pressure” is the chief reason for Kim Jong-un’s outreach to Donald Trump.

*This likely holds true regardless of the level of self-sufficiency in North Korea’s agricultural production.

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North Korea’s grain imports tripled in 2017

Monday, March 5th, 2018

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

North Korea’s grain imports from China last year showed a threefold increase over the same period of the previous year. Having analyzed a set of data released by the Chinese General Administration of Customs, Tae-jin Kwon, a South Korean expert on North Korean agriculture and the head of the Center for North Korea and North East Asia Studies of the GS & J Institute, disclosed this analysis to the Voice of America on February 14.

This means North Korean grain imports have more than tripled from 54,683 metric tons imported in 2016—the amount of imports totals $67.33 million, a 2.3-fold increase from $27.91 million in the previous year.

Wheat flour (81, 654 tons) made up 46 percent of the total North Korean imports, accounting for the largest part of the imports. This is followed by corn (57,887 tons) and rice (36,408 tons), along with starch and soybeans. In particular, corn imports grew more than 16 times compared to 3,125 tons the year before, and flour imports, which stood at 7,000 tons in the previous year (about twelvefold).

During December 2017, North Korea’s grain imports from China grew more than four times the amount it imported in the same period a year before. In particular, imports of flour increased to 25,000 tons, more than 22 times from the same period last year.

Last year, as the crackdown on the DPRK-China border tightened due to the international sanctions on North Korea, formal grain imports seem to have increased while the informal imports were restricted.

Although North Korea’s grain production in 2017 seems to have declined slightly from the previous year, its grain imports from China are expected to remain at the same level.

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Is North Korea scaling back winter exercises because it lacks fuel and food?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Much has been made of North Korea’s apparent decision to scale back its annual winter military exercises. Some have concluded it’s a sign that sanctions are working: the army lacks both fuel and food, and has therefore had no choice but to change the scale of the exercises.

While this may be true, I haven’t seen anything in the data that proves it. Take food prices, for example. The average rice price among three North Korean cities, according to the latest observation by Daily NK, is 4853 won per kg. It’s declined pretty strongly over the past few months, which isn’t unusual for this time of year. In the comparable period last year, the same price was exactly 800 won lower. In other words, food prices, as measured by rice prices, often used instead of a CPI-basket for the North Korean market, are 20 percent higher today than they were in the comparable period last year.

That isn’t negligible, but I would still say a large part of the price difference falls within the margin of error. Prices can fluctuate heavily on the North Korean market, and the results might have been different even had prices been measured on a different day. And for most of the past few months, prices have pretty much looked seasonally normal.

Lack of fuel is a much more plausible explanation. Prices have steadily climbed since early 2017 and according to data from NK PRO continue to rise. But part of the reason for the increased prices is, likely, that the military has been soaking up more fuel than usual from the market. I don’t think there’s much reasonable doubt that fuel has been more difficult to acquire since sanctions began to be enforced more strictly by China. But we also know that North Korea has continued to import fuel by circumventing sanctions. Some of these methods have been publicly exposed by US intelligence but there’s likely much more going on that we don’t see. If full-scale military exercises were a priority for the leadership, I doubt that it would be impossible for agents and enterprises further down the line to somehow acquire the fuel it needs.

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The December 2017 sanctions on North Korea: business as usual?

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Many of the steps in the additional sanctions added by the UN Security Council resolution 2379 on December 22nd, 2017, were expected. Targeting oil and petroleum, export incomes, as well as revenues from foreign workers, are all natural steps if the international community wants to pressure North Korea. It’s still rather unclear what the end-goal is, but if sanctions are intended to make things more difficult for the North Korean economy, they can certainly have an impact to that end. These are the main points:

  • Exports of refined petroleum products will be capped at 500,000 barrels per year.
  • Crude oil transfers will be limited to 4 million barrels/year.
  • Within two years, UN member states are to have expelled all North Korean workers and managers.

When analyzing how this will impact North Korea, there are two sides to the story. On the one hand, as with all sanctions against North Korea, China (and to some extent, Russia) would likely not have agreed to them if they had believed that they created a real risk of severe social instability in North Korea that would risk spilling over its own borders. At the same time, it seems like the US intention is to create economic difficulties so severe that the North Korean regime will crack and agree to negotiate the existence of its nuclear deterrent, at least according to the official, outward line. These two objectives appear to be mutually exclusive in the long run.

Moreover, China and Russia appear to have extracted some significant concessions in negotiating the resolution. North Korean workers are to be expelled no later than within two years, which is not an insignificant time frame. Perhaps by then, things will have changed enough for sanctions to be renegotiated. The cap of 4 million barrels is close to what China is commonly estimated to be transferring in terms of crude oil per year to North Korea (3.64 million). So North Korea will hardly be fully starved of oil. Fuel has never been in abundant supply in the country.

Last but not least, smuggling routes are already well-established. Recall Ri Jong-ho’s claims that North Korea buys 300,000 tonnes of fuel products from Russia each year through brokers abroad, largely under the radar. Such transfers are not impossible, but very difficult, to track and stop. Both Russia and China can claim with some truth that they cannot control all sanctions breaches by entities within its borders, particularly enterprises who aren’t all too law-abiding in normal times. Particularly given the poor state of relations between the US and Russia, and the US and China, it is unlikely that either of the two countries will dedicated significant resources to fully track and prevent sanctions breaches, beyond normal procedure. Also, North Korea has been under various forms of sanctions since at least 2006, and even before that, was never an integrated part of established and open world trade. They’ve existed under harsh conditions long enough to learn and adapt their strategies.

On the other hand, North Korea is not immune to sanctions pressure. No country is. Even if smuggling and other ways of getting around sanctions can compensate for some of the losses, transaction costs likely increase. In other words, those who still choose to sell items like fuel to North Korea now have space to demand a higher mark-up for the additional risk. There are also presumably added transaction costs liquefying coal to generate oil.

The government has the resources and the know-how to largely get what they need, but North Korean businesses at the mid- or lower levels will find it much more difficult to keep up with the added costs and effort needed. This is has been true for each sanctions round through this year and last.

Ordinary North Koreans have been impacted by sanctions for long — this did not start with the sanctions that target goods such as oil and fuel. The opportunity cost of what could have been without them was still present. Of course, one can reasonably argue that the fault lies with the regime, for continuing its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, and not with the international community. But that sanctions would somehow not effect North Korean society while hitting against the regime seems implausible.

Lastly, we can note that both exchange rates and rice prices on North Korean markets have decreased over the past few weeks. There may be additional stress present among some spheres of society, but it seems like no major sense of crisis is at hand.

 

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US asks China to cease all oil shipments to North Korea

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In response to yesterday’s missile test, Trump has asked Xi Jinping to cease all oil shipments to North Korea from China. “All” presumably includes the crude oil that China ships, in unknown but presumably large amounts, via the pipeline that runs from Northeast China through Dandong and to the Ponghwa refinery in Sinuiju in North Korea’s northeast.

It seems unlikely that China would fully cease shipments of oil to North Korea, especially over a longer term period. Should oil shortages get serious to the degree that vital industries, agriculture and other sectors cannot function properly, China would eventually grow concerned over social instability in North Korea that would risk spilling over its own borders.

Should China cut off crude oil shipments, it would mean that North Korea’s ability to acquire oil and fuel products is severely limited. Sanctions cap the amount that UN member states can ship to the country, and gasoline prices have risen to very high levels during the year. Oil imports through channels that go unnoticed in international trade records are probably much bigger than often estimated. Recall Ri Jong-ho’s famed estimate that North Korea purchases 300,000 tons of oil products each year from Russia. Overall, it is not entirely unfeasible that Russia could grow as a source of North Korean oil imports in the future. North Korea also has some capacity to transform domestically sourced coal products into synthetic liquid fuel.

The drastically increased fuel prices in North Korea during the year also suggest that the state may have been grabbing much of what fuel has been available for its own needs, likely to store for military and other uses, suggesting that North Korean strategists have long seen an oil embargo on the horizon. After all, the markets only exist at the mercy of the state, and will always come secondary. Therefore, we don’t know whether military and state storage might currently be larger than estimated in normal times.

At the end of the day, however, should crude oil flows from China be cut off entirely, there’s no denying it would be problematic for North Korea. Though China is unlikely to entirely cut off all crude oil shipments for a prolonged, long-term period, much pain can be caused in the meantime.

For more on this, I wrote about North Korea’s connections to, and reliance on, China in matters such as infrastructure, energy, and telecommunications earlier this year in IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review.

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