Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

Seoul wires $8 million to North Korea in humanitarian aid

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Note: this is not a lot of money in context. It covers only a small part of what WFP and others estimate as the funding need.

Yonhap:

South Korea on Tuesday sent a pledged donation of US$8 million to U.N. agencies to support their efforts to provide assistance to North Korean women and children in need, the unification ministry said.

Last week, the Seoul government endorsed the donation plan for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for their projects to support the nutrition of children and pregnant women in North Korea and address their health problems.

Of the total, $4.5 million was allocated to the WFP and the remainder to UNICEF.

The money was remitted to the agencies Tuesday afternoon, according to the unification ministry.

A ministry official said earlier in the day that it will take more time before the money will be actually spent on the agencies’ projects in North Korea, adding that they are working on reducing the time before its implementation in consideration of the urgent need of many North Korean people.

Article source:
Seoul wires promised money to U.N. agencies for N.K. projects
Yonhap News
2019-06-11

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Why the market and state sectors cannot be fully separated in North Korea (and what it tells us about price stability)

Friday, April 19th, 2019

Anecdotal but highly valuable observations from inside North Korea suggest that the market economy is taking a hit from the overall decrease in economic activity in the state sector. None of this is surprising, and it makes perfect sense. As workers at factories and state enterprises either get paid less or not at all, their purchasing power drops. Fewer people can spend less money on the markets, leading to an overall depression of economic activity. Reports Daily NK:

Following news that most state-run factories in Pyongyang and other major cities have suspended operations, North Korean sources report that the number of merchants in some areas of the country have fallen drastically. This situation is reportedly due to decreased purchasing power among ordinary North Koreans on the back of the country’s economic stagnation.

“Before international sanctions, there were around 1,000 to 2,000 merchants, including those selling their wares outside the market, but now I only see around 100,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told the Daily NK on April 10. “Even those remaining merchants are just barely holding on. Some of them went to other places to do business but had to return because their efforts met with no success.”

“Only half of the market officials that once collected market fees are visible now,” said the source. “The officials face physical harm by the merchants when they try to collect the fees, so they avoid being out in the open.”

The source also reported that “Merchants have to sell 15 kilograms or more of food per day to pay the market fees. They aren’t selling even one kilogram a day” and that “Merchants are asking themselves rhetorically whether they’re just selling wares at the market to pay the fees.”

An investigation by the Daily NK has found that there has been little change to the number of active merchants in Pyongyang, Sinuiju, Hyesan, Pyongsong, Chongjin, Hamhung and other major cities. Small markets, however, appear to be facing a decrease in merchants.

The source said that economic stagnation has impacted North Korea’s poor classes, including those living in agricultural areas.

“The factories are shut down so people can’t get paid, and this means that no one is heading out to the markets,” said the source. “The international sanctions are so bad that there’s no work left. People don’t have money to buy anything.”

This all gets at a problem with analyzing North Korea’s economic situation based on price stability. Simple analysis of supply and demand holds that if overall availability of food goes down, prices go up. They haven’t in North Korea.

But what if people just don’t have money to spend on food if prices go up? Then, market suppliers couldn’t really raise prices much, because they’d already be pretty much at the highest level at which people are willing to purchase food (also known as the “reservation price”). It’s also important to remember that cash, according to a lot of anecdotal observations – and suggested by the state of the exchange rate – is generally rather scarcely available in North Korea, as the government seems to have contracted the money supply quite significantly over the past few years.

This is what I suspect is part of what’s going on the markets in North Korea, and some may have looked much too simplistically at food and currency market prices for a long time. Price stability doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of problems in the economy.

Article source here:
Drastic fall in market merchant numbers in some areas of North Korea
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-04-18

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North Korea’s harvest numbers: what “food production” really means

Monday, March 11th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I wrote about the confusing harvest numbers this past Friday, and I’ve been able to find little new information to make things clearer. Basically, the problem is that talking about “food production” is too vague, since that can mean a lot of different things. In the standard World Food Program/FAO crop assessments, there are usually two numbers quoted: one estimate for total production of food,  and one for “milled cereal equivalent”, a standardized measurement used to translate the varying nutritional contents of different crops into a standardized weight measure.* (See below for a more detailed explanation.) Basically, the “milled cereal equivalent” figure tends to be significantly smaller, by about 20 percent or so, than the original, total food production figure.

Since we don’t actually know exactly which number is being thrown around in analyses of the current harvest, I’ve calculated a possible milled-equivalent harvest figure, using the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I have the two different numbers from the WFP/FAO crop assessments. None of the historical estimates I’ve found correspond with the harvest numbers for previous years in the 2019 UN Needs and Priorities Plan. Crop production figures are usually given in terms of “marketing years”, not in calendar years. For simplicity’s sake, I denote each year by the second half of the marketing year, when most consumption will occur. So “2019” is the 2018/2019 marketing year, “2018” is the 2017/2018 marketing year, et cetera.

The following shows the scenario where the 4.95 million tonnes production figure is the “unmilled” cereal equivalent measure. Based on the average difference between milled and unmilled for the years where I’ve had data available from UN institutions (0.85 million tonnes), I’ve added and subtracted to complete the figures where necessary. This is not an exact, scientific way of looking at the harvest numbers. For exact accuracy, I’d need to calculate the milled cereal equivalent of each crop, something I don’t have time to do right now. This may well make the figure even lower. (Hazel Smith’s figure, for reference, is 3.2 million tonnes.) But the following does, at the very least, give a sense of the proportions at hand. And it makes the numbers look different from my initial assessment.

Food production, million tonnes (unmilled) Food production, million tonnes (milled)
2009.00 4.20 3.30
2010.00 5.17 4.32
2011.00 5.33 4.50
2012.00 5.50 4.66
2013.00 5.80 4.90
2014.00 5.98 5.03
2015.00 5.93 5.08
2016.00 5.92 5.07
2017.00 6.03 5.23
2018.00 5.75 5.00
2019.00 4.95 4.10

Table 1. Figures are sourced from various assessments by the WFP and FAO; contact me for exact sourcing on specific figures. 

Graphically, the trend in food production in milled terms, i.e. the lower-end, more realistic figure of how much food is available for consumption, using the above assumption for the 2019-figure, looks like this:

Graph 1. Estimate food production in North Korea, million tonnes, in milled cereal equivalent terms.

In short, this does give a rather grim and highly problematic food situation, putting the quantity of the harvest at 4.10 million tonnes. It puts North Korea back to a state of food production prior to 2010–2011, when harvest started to climb. And now, North Korea receives far less aid than it did a decade ago. Plus, its imports will only amount to 200,000 tons, the government seems to be saying, a similar amount to what it procured in imports and humanitarian aid in 2016/2017, when the harvest was much larger.

For long, this is how low North Korean harvests were. Only a few years ago, this would have looked like a rather solid harvest. Looking back in the future, it might turn out that the past few years of food production growth, since around 2011, was an abnormally good period of time. None of this means that this food situation is anything but poor.

To me, among the figures I’ve been able to find, it’s the only one that make sense in the context of the statement from UN representatives that this harvest was the worst “in a decade”. Hopefully things will become clearer over the coming days and weeks, as more information may be published, in which case I’ll update this post.

In sum, the actual food available in North Korea is, in all likelihood, much lower than the 4.95 million tonnes-figure quoted by the UN and the North Korean government. As the following graph shows, even using the North Korean government’s figures, the drop from last year doesn’t appear all that massive. But on closer inspection, the actual quantity of food available may be significantly lower than the figure the North Korean government states, as I’ve tried to show in this post.

Graph 2. Food production in North Korea, from the UN’s “2019 Needs and Priorities” report on North Korea.

Finally, a note on the issue of the markets and the public distribution system. I maintain that it’s impossible to get a sense of total food availability and circulation in North Korea as a whole, without taking the markets into account. According to most studies we have, the majority of North Korea’s population rely on these markets, rather than the public distribution system, for their sustenance.

But one has to acknowledge that just like the UN and North Korean government figures may not reflect the whole situation accurately, there may be a fair bit of bias in the data on the prevalence of the markets too. Most of this data comes from surveys done with defectors in South Korea. They overwhelmingly tend to come from the northern provinces of the country, closer to China, where market trade has traditionally been more prolific. Most sources for news from inside North Korea are based in the northern parts of the country, where one can get access to Chinese cell phone network coverage.

There’s likely another form of bias present in these surveys, too. Most people who are reliant on the PDS for their sustenance are likely underrepresented among defectors. People in state administration and security organs, for example, are less likely to leave North Korea, though that of course happens too. And in any case, we’re talking about a quite large demographic of people, whose livelihoods would be significantly impacted by cut rations. Such cuts are already happening, Daily NK reports, with some professional groups receiving only 60 percent of  what they otherwise would. The PDS may have changed shape and function quite drastically since the early 2000s, but it may also be more important to the North Korean public than the currently available survey data and reports from inside the country tells us.

Conclusion

North Korea’s food situation, though not at famine-time levels, does appear to be dire. The figures, in combination with reports from inside the country, gives serious cause for concern. Government numbers may not tell the full story since they likely underestimate the role of the markets. Nonetheless, things do look serious. The government could easily alleviate the situation by changing its spending priorities and policies. Chances are that it won’t.

Footnote:

*I’m borrowing here a footnote from a 38 North piece by the late scholar Randall Ireson, whose archive of articles remain one of the best sources for information on North Korean agriculture:

The FAO has consistently used grain equivalent (GE) values for the major crops to compensate for varying moisture and energy content. Thus, husked rice (GE) is .66 of the paddy weight, potatoes (GE) are .25 of the fresh weight, and soybean (GE) is 1.2 times the dry weight because of the high oil and thus calorie content.

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A few thoughts on North Korea’s harvest numbers

Friday, March 8th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I unfortunately don’t have time to do as deep of a dive into the different numbers going around on North Korea’s harvest as I’d like, but a few short thoughts:

  • The numbers are confusing, because there’s a whole bunch of different ones being cited. The UN (citing North Korean government figures) puts the harvest at 4.95 million tonnes, while Hazel Smith cites 3.2 million tonnes. I suspect that part of what’s going on is that some figures refer to total food production estimates, while others refer to the milled cereal equivalent, the most common measurement for actual food availability by international humanitarian organizations. But that can’t explain the full difference at play here since it’s simply too large. (For reference, see this WFP-report from 2010.)
  • The vast differences in numbers cited is a big impediment to really getting a grasp of how bad the situation seems to be. If the 4.95 million tonnes-figure refers to unmilled cereal production, it represents a significant drop from the past few years, but not one that would necessarily indicate a return to the famine-level supplies of the 1990s. If it refers to milled cereal equivalent numbers, which I don’t believe it does, it’s not that bad (milled equivalent production was reported at 4.48 million tonnes for 2011).
  • The reason that many may be suspicious about the claims of a bad harvest being exaggerated, is that it is an historical pattern on the part of the DPRK government. That doesn’t mean that this time isn’t different. The past may be a good indicator for the future, but it’s never proof.
  • No serious assessment can be fully trusted as long as it fails to take the market system into account. That the UN is unable to survey and study food supply from the markets, and their contribution to resiliency in food supply, is a massive problem. That’s surely not for a lack of attempts on the part of the WFP and other organs to get to visit markets. I’m sure they repeatedly press the North Korean government on this, thus far, to my knowledge, to little avail. Still, the magnitude of the drop in the production estimate still likely says something about the magnitude and direction of the dynamics of change on the markets as well.
  • Lastly, regardless of how things stand, North Korea’s humanitarian situation is precarious and very bad. While Kim Jong-un has spent much of his tenure cutting ribbons at avenue renovations in Pyongyang, the population in almost half of the country’s provinces are estimated to lack access safe drinking water. This is a matter of priorities on the part of the government. In any case, for the purposes of humanitarian aid, in the immediate term, it doesn’t really matter whose fault the situation is. My skepticism of the numbers should not be taken as arguing that North Korean civilians shouldn’t receive aid; the humanitarian situation in the country, particularly in the souther provinces, is almost certainly more or less constantly bad enough to warrant it. This paragraph from Hazel Smith’s recent PacNet piece is particularly chilling, if these numbers are accurate:

The starkest confirmation of a catastrophic harvest in 2018 is the precipitous drop in output from the big food producing provinces. Between 2016 and 2018, South Hwanghae, the ‘granary’ of North Korea, had a 5 percent reduction in area planted but an enormous 30 percent decrease in output – with a 19 percent drop in agricultural output between 2017 and 2018.

 

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North Korea’s 2018/2019 harvest and food shortage

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The UN has officially compiled and published the estimated harvest figure for North Korea during the 2018/2019 marketing year, and as we already knew, it lands at 4.95 million tonnes. AFP:

North Korea recorded its worst harvest for more than a decade last year, the United Nations said Wednesday (Mar 6), as natural disasters combined with its lack of arable land and inefficient agriculture to hit production.

The isolated North, which is under several sets of sanctions over its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes, has long struggled to feed itself and suffers chronic food shortages.

But last year’s harvest was just 4.95 million tonnes, the United Nations said in its Needs and Priorities assessment for 2019, down by 500,000 tonnes.

It was “the lowest production in more than a decade”, the UN’s Resident Coordinator in the North Tapan Mishra said in a statement.

“This has resulted in a significant food gap.”

As a result 10.9 million people in the North needed humanitarian assistance – 600,000 more than last year – with a potential for increased malnutrition and illness.

It is equivalent to 43 per cent of the population.

But while the number of people needing help rose, the UN has had to cut its target for people to help – from 6.0 million to 3.8 million – in the face of a lack of funding.

Only 24 per cent of last year’s appeal was met, with Mishra describing it as “one of the lowest funded humanitarian plans in the world”.

Several agencies had been forced to scale back their programmes and some faced closing projects, he said, appealing to donors to “not let political considerations get in the way of addressing humanitarian need”.

“The human cost of our inability to respond is unmeasurable,” he said, adding that sanctions had created unintended delays and challenges to humanitarian programmes, even though they are exempt under UN Security Council resolutions.

[…]

It was hit by a heatwave in July and August last year, followed by heavy rains and flash floods from Typhoon Soulik. As a result, the UN said, rice and wheat crops were down 12 to 14 per cent.

The figure is significantly larger than in the South, where rice production was down only 2.6 per cent last year, according to Seoul’s statistics, even though it experiences similar weather and climate.

The North’s soybean output slumped 39 per cent and production of potatoes – promoted by leader Kim as a way to increase supplies – was 34 per cent down, the UN said.

Last month Pyongyang told the UN that it was facing a shortfall of 1.4 million tonnes of food this year.

Full article and source:
North Korea food production ‘lowest for a decade’: UN
AFP
2019-03-06

A few thoughts on this:

The UN figures must have been updated and adjusted over the past few years, because according to the data I have at hand, 4.95 million tonnes is not nearly the worst production figure in a decade. I’m assuming that the 4.95-figure refers to the “milled tonnes equivalent” number. According to the World Food Program’s November 2011 estimate, for example, the equivalent figure for 2011/2012 was 4.66 million tonnes. But again, the numbers might have been adjusted since they were first calculated.

Like I wrote a few weeks ago, there is little to suggest a true food emergency of massive proportions. Market prices for rice, for example, have barely moved over the past few weeks, and are actually down quite a bit in the latest observation, from 4,600–4,870, to 4,200–4,210 won/kg. This might not mean much, but still, these prices tell us something. Usually, prices seem to only climb in reaction to shortages as the market gets closer to the next harvest season, and food availability becomes increasingly scarce. Expectations aren’t easy to calculate or project. It may be that the market as such isn’t even fully aware of the shortages.

While current prices alone aren’t necessarily a sufficiently certain indicator of the food situation, however, were the situation completely disastrous, we should have seen prices rise already, as farmers and others hoard grains to store up for worse times to come. Instead, prices remain stabile.

Again, that’s not to say that things aren’t bad. A ten percent decrease in the harvest, even though not disastrous, is still a notable decrease. The view from the ground in North Korea seems to unequivocally be that yes,  this year’s harvest is much worse than those of the past few years, mainly due to the dry, hot weather in the summer and fall of last year. News outlets with sources inside North Korea, such as Daily NK, have also reported – independently of the North Korean government, unlike the UN – that harvests have been notably poor.

Conditions also vary a lot between different regions and socio-economic groups. Though there’s been no wide-spread starvation in North Korea since the early 2000s, some particularly vulnerable groups do likely rely on humanitarian assistance for their sustenance.

It really is striking and strikingly problematic how little we know though. The fact that the international community isn’t even allowed to monitor the markets, the most important source of sustenance for most North Koreans, is problematic. To my knowledge, international humanitarian organizations are not allowed to survey the market system in any comprehensive way.

There’s also an important overarching question we should be asking: what about the long term? Food insecurity in North Korea did not arise with “maximum pressure” or the sanctions. It’s been a fact since the late 1980s. Humanitarian international institutions are,  I am sure, doing their best. Hopefully, they continuously to ask North Korean regime representatives what institutional, systemic changes the government is undertaking to alleviate the problem. Giving humanitarian aid without making demands for systemic change would be to let down the people in greatest need of help.

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Is North Korea’s food situation as bad as the government says? Probably not.

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(Updated 27/2: see below for clarification on the nature of the North Korean memo; the appeal was never meant to be publicized. Another minor clarification below done on 11/3.)

During the past week, both the UN and the North Korean government has made claims that its food situation is bad enough for the country to need international emergency aid. AP:

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday that food production figures provided by North Korea show “there is a food gap of about 1.4 million tons expected for 2019, and that’s crops including rice, wheat, potato and soybeans.”

Dujarric says the U.N. has “expressed and will continue to express our concern about the deteriorating food security situation” in North Korea.

He says the U.N. “at various levels” is consulting with the North Korean government “to further understand the impact of food security on the most vulnerable people, in order to take early action to address the humanitarian needs.”

A few days ago, North Korea’s UN ambassador distributed a memo (presumably to UN officials) saying that because of sanctions and unusually warm and dry weather last summer, this year’s harvest was worse than expected. NBC reported some of the contents:

Kim’s claims are difficult to verify, and his government has not always been a reliable source of internal statistics. He said a food assessment, conducted late last year in conjunction with the UN’s World Food Program, found that the country produced 503,000 fewer tons of food than in 2017 due to record high temperatures, drought, heavy rainfall and — in an unexpected admission — sanctions.

The food agency could not immediately confirm that the organization conducted an assessment with North Korea or the conclusions the country shared in the memo.

In a plea for food assistance from international organizations, however, the memo states that sanctions “restricting the delivery of farming materials in need is another major reason” the country faces shortages that has forced it to cut “food rations per capita for a family of blue or white collar workers” from 550 grams to 300 grams in January.

“All in all, it vindicates that humanitarian assistance from the UN agencies is terribly politicized and how barbaric and inhuman sanctions are,” the memo says.

The memo is worth reading in its entirety.

There are a lot of things that are strange about this memo and its contents. I’ll try to deal with as many of them as possible here. But first: how bad is the food situation, really?

This question is virtually impossible to answer accurately, because no one really knows how much food is being produced in North Korea. The World Food Program that works with the North Korean government to estimate harvest yields does what it can under difficult circumstances to accurately measure harvest yields in the country. But these measurements are severely restricted by the fact that much of food supply and production in North Korea still completely lacks transparency. For one, we know that most citizens get the majority of their food through state-administered private markets.

International agencies, however, still cannot survey these markets or study their role in food provision, because the government’s attitude to the market’s very existence remains somewhat ambivalent. The crop surveys conducted with the North Korean government simply cannot answer how much food is available throughout the system, because the markets, the most important node, cannot be assessed and studied accurately. Surveying the markets would let the WFP study the situation in its entirety,  since that way, they could take into account both imports, private plot farming, and the like.

But taking the numbers provided by North Korea and the UN at face value, it’s clear that if these numbers reflect reality, domestic food production is down since the past couple of years, but not by disastrous amounts. There’s no second “arduous march” lurking behind the corner, judging from these figures. In fact, harvests have been growing for several years, largely thanks to changes in agricultural management under Kim Jong-un.

Food production in North Korea, in millions of tons. Harvest data is usually given in “marketing years”; figures here partially based on full-year estimates earlier in the respective year. Data source: World Food Program/Food and Agriculture Organization. Graph by North Korean Economy Watch.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, market prices for rice have remained stabile. So the markets don’t seem to think there really is a true food shortage coming, even though things do seem to have gotten more difficult due to the drought. I cover this in more detail in this post, but the following graph speaks its clear language.

Average rice price for three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

At the very least,  had there been major signs of stark shortages, it would have been visible in the price data. Reports from North Korea do confirm that food production seems to be down overall, but remember, that’s from a fairly high level and after several years of increases. Over the past few years, the North Korean government and UN agencies have made similar appeals, but in the end, fortunately, no major crises seem to happen.

The strangest part about the North Korean memo is that it speaks of reduced rations of grains to  “a family of blue or white collar workers” as a result of the drought  and  sanctions. The thing is, only relatively few people and almost no civilians in North Korea actually get  their food through these government rations. The Public Distribution System (PDS, or 식량배급제도) essentially only operates for the military, shock work brigades (돌격대), and within the judicial administration (more accurate would be to say “government administration”; this is a rather nebulous category in North Korea, including large numbers of civil servants within both the central state, local government level, and policing organs). So this “white or blue collar worker” likely wouldn’t necessarily get her or his rations anyway. As far as we know, they’d go and buy their food at the market with cash instead, in most cases.

It’s often believed that North Korea doesn’t admit weaknesses such as food shortages out of political principle, but over the past few years, the government have been very public with claims of shortages on the horizon, and in asking for aid. Not because the state can’t afford to compensate for the shortfall, but because it simply has other priorities.

Reading the North Korean memo, it’s easy to suspect a connection with next week’s summit in Hanoi and the sanctions situation. By getting news stories out that civilians are starving because of sanctions – a highly questionable claim of causality – the North Korean government may be trying to create more bad press for the sanctions as such.* How can the US argue that they should be preserved, if they’re even preventing North Koreans from getting access to food? There are certainly troubling humanitarian aspects of the sanctions, but it’s difficult to imagine how they could have directly caused the harvest to dwindle.

None of this is to say that North Korea shouldn’t get food aid, that’s a different question. But the government’s basis for the appeal is rather dubious, to say the least. Hopefully, one day international humanitarian agencies will have good enough access to actually get to evaluate the country’s food situation, without constraints.

*Apparently, the memo from North Korea’s UN ambassador was leaked, not intentionally distributed. A person with insight into the issue and appeals process tells me the appeal was never meant to be publicized. This makes my interpretation above far less likely, though the direct impacts of sanctions on the harvest is still questionable.

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North Korea’s economic situation, going into Hanoi: a roundup of the data

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Hanoi summit is under a week away, Daily NK recently put out new market price data, and I’ve finally had time to update my dataset. There seems like no better time than the present to take a look at some of the numbers we have available for the North Korean economy, thanks to outlets such as Daily NK and Asia Press/Rimjingang.

Currency

Let’s start with the exchange rate. A few weeks ago, the (North Korean) won depreciated quite significantly against the USD, which I wrote about here. At 8,500 won/1usd, the USD-exchange rate on the markets hit its highest point since the inception of “maximum pressure”. The graph below is shows the average market exchange rate in three North Korean cities for won-to-USD.

Graph 1. Average won-USD exchange rate on markets in three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–February 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

As the graph shows, the won rebounded somewhat after the initial spike in early January. According to the latest data point, the exchange rate stands at 8190 won, still somewhat higher than the average for the period, 8136, but barely.

What could have caused this spike? One possibility is that the government has started to soak up more foreign currency from the market, because the state’s foreign currency coffers are waning. After all, given the vast trade deficit, the continued necessity of spending hard currency on things like fuel (bought at higher prices through illicit channels to a greater extent) and other factors, it would make a great deal of sense. Currencies fluctuate all over the globe, sometimes based even on loose rumors that fuel expectations. One anonymous reader who often travels to North Korea for work heard from Korean colleagues that accounting conditions for firms had gotten stricter, likely because the government wants to be able to source more foreign currency from the general public.

It is also noteworthy that while the Daily NK price index reports that the USD-exchange rate has gone back to more normal levels, the Rimjingang index remains at very high levels. Its latest report (February 8th) has the USD at 8,500, and on January  10th, it registered 8,743 won, a remarkably high figure that the Daily NK index hasn’t been near since early 2015. The difference between the two may simple come from the figures being sourced from different regions, or the like. North Korea’s markets still hold a great deal of opportunity for arbitrage, not least because of the country’s poor infrastructure.

So, it does seem like there may be some unusual pressure on the won against the dollar. What it comes from is less clear, but the state demanding more hard currency from the semi-private sector and others may be one important factor. In any case, we shouldn’t be surprised if the trend continues, unless sanctions ease soon.

At the same time, while the RMB has appreciated against the won over the past few weeks, it hasn’t really gone outside the span of what’s been normal over the past few years.

Graph 2. Average exchange rate for won to RMB, average of three North Korean cities, late 2015–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

The average exchange rate for RMB since the start of Daily NK’s data series in late 2015 is 1228 won. The latest available observation gives 1241 won/RMB, and the RMB has appreciated against the won over the past few weeks. The Rimjingang data, here, too, gives a higher FX-rate for RMB than Daily NK, at 1250 won. Their index, too, shows the FX-rate for RMB going up over the past few weeks, but not to levels out of the ordinary. Still, if the won continues to depreciate against both the dollar and the RMB, it may be a sign of a more persistent foreign currency shortage.

Food prices

Rice prices remain as stabile as ever, in fact, even more so than this time last year. They continue to hoover between 4,500–5,000, with the latest observation being at 4,783.

Graph 3. Average rice price for three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

This should not necessarily be taken to mean that North Korea’s current food situation is not problematic. Even with increasing harvests in the past few years, it’s always been fragile. The past year’s drought reportedly took a toll on the harvest. Though market prices aren’t suggestive of any shortages as of yet, that could change in the months ahead. The latest harvest was likely lower than those of several previous years and difficulties in importing fertilizer may have contributed, but the dry weather was the main factor.

Even with a slightly lower harvest than in previous years, it seems that structural changes in agricultural management has improved agricultural productivity to such an extent that food safety isn’t severely threatened even with a reduced harvest.

Gasoline

Gas prices appear to have stabilized around a sanctions equilibrium, of sorts, since a few months back. The past year hasn’t seen any spikes near those of the winter in 2017, when prices went above 25,000 won per kg. For the past year, the price has mostly hovered between 13,000 and 15,000 won per kg. The last observation available from Daily NK, is at 15,200 won per kg. This is slightly higher than the average of the past 12-month period, 13,500 won per kg. A more recent report from Rimjingang puts prices at 13,750 won per kg, so perhaps prices have declined over the past few weeks.

What’s likely happened is that China has settled on a comfortable level of enforcement of the oil transfers cap, for now. (For a detailed look at fuel prices in North Korea and Chinese sanctions enforcement, see this special report.)

Graph 4. Average gasoline price, three North Korean cities, early 2018–winter 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

There is lots to be said about gas prices and their impact on the economy, but for now, it looks like supply of gasoline in North Korea is restricted, but stabile.

Hard currency reserves

I unfortunately don’t have any data to present on this issue, but it’s too important not to mention. We don’t know how large North Korea’s foreign currency reserves are, but all throughout “maximum pressure”, people have been speculating that they’ll soon run out. One South Korean lawmaker said in early 2018 that by October that year, North Korea would be out of hard currency. That clearly didn’t happen.

The lack of stabile foreign currency income may still be a problem for the regime, as mentioned above. It’s hard to imagine how it couldn’t be a huge headache. Look at the following graph for example, showing North Korea’s trade (im)balance with China, throughout 2017 and the first few months of 2018.

Graph 5. North Korea’s trade balance with China, in $1,000 terms. Data source: KITA.

Let’s assume that China is simply letting North Korea run a trade deficit, with only some vague future promise of payment in the form of cheap contracts for coal and minerals. Or, let’s say that China is even just sending North Korea a bunch of stuff without requiring any form of payment whatsoever. It seems highly unlikely to me that even a government like China would support the full extent of these imports. Even if North Korea is only paying in hard currency for a relatively small proportion of what it imports from China, that’s still a lot of money that’s just leaving the vaults, with virtually nothing coming in to replenish them. How long can this go on for? Probably longer than many estimated at the onset of “maximum pressure”, but certainly not forever.

Summary

In sum, judging by the numbers, North Korea’s domestic economic conditions appear stabile but quite difficult. No sense of widespread, general crisis is visible in the data. Nonetheless, the regime is likely under a great deal of stress concerning the economy. How much is hard to tell, but definitely enough for some form of sanctions relief and/or economic cooperation to be high on their agenda for Hanoi.

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North Korea’s puzzling maternal mortality figures

Monday, February 4th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

South Korea’s Institute for Health and Social Affairs, using data from the UN Population Fund, claims that maternal mortality in North Korea has increased in the past few years, since 2008. (This was reported back in November of last year, but for some reason I only stumbled upon the article now.) I don’t have time to check out the data or the original source in question right now, but hope to later. It may well be Yonhap’s reporting that is off, because something sounds odd here (my emphasis in bold):

Amid the prolonged international sanctions on North Korea, the health of the North’s infants and pregnant women is in a very vulnerable state, a South Korean government think tank said Tuesday.

The Seoul-based Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said in a report that North Korea’s maternal mortality rate was 82 per 100,000 newborns, about eight times higher than the rate of 11 in South Korea, based on the United Nations Population Fund’s 2017 World Population Survey.

Of course sanctions likely have some degree of detrimental impact on the humanitarian situation in North Korea. But to blame current sanctions for what the situation looked like in 2017 – when most of the most effective, hard-hitting ones had just been put in place (or were not yet in place depending on when these measurements were done) is simply inaccurate.

The North’s maternal mortality rate marked a rise from 77.2 persons in 2008, the report noted. Maternal mortality rate refers to the proportion of women who die of pregnancy-related illness during or immediately after childbirth.

Source:
Report shows deteriorating health of N. Korean infants, mothers
Yonhap News
2018-11-20

It is surprising that data would show North Korea’s health situation declining from 2008 and nine years ahead, but there is actually quite a bit of other data, albeit from similar sources, saying the same thing. Again, I hope to take a closer look at some of this data soon, but for now, I’d say there are two possible conclusions one can draw from these figures.

The data may look this way because measurement methods and access got better, not because things on the ground actually got worse. UN institutions have gotten somewhat better access, in my understanding, since the earlier 2000s, and are able to survey places that could not be visited before. These may be localities where things are simply worse than in others, which may be why the government didn’t want to grant access in the past, leading to figures that are more accurate, but also show a trend that may not be consistent with reality.

The other alternative is that the recovery from the famine period, and economic growth of the past few years, has not been as consistent as often believed. (Update 5/2: It’s also possible that there simply hasn’t been any consistent path of recovery, but rather, that many indicators first improved vastly from the 1990s and early 2000s, only to decline again after a few years of an upward trend). Conditions are generally believed to have improved in the country as a whole over the past few years, and there is very little data to suggest otherwise. Institutional change combined with increased exports of natural resources, has spurred some degree of growth in the North Korean economy over the past few years, but we know fairly little about the degree to which different demographics of the population have actually seen their conditions improve. If maternal mortality has gone up while North Korea’s incomes from foreign trade have skyrocketed in relative terms, that would tell us something important about the distribution of economic gains.

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Could Xi Jinping give Kim Jong-un fuel deliveries for his 35th birthday?

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At the present time of writing, Kim Jong-un is still in China, though some signs suggest his train may have taken off back to North Korea. Kim spent is 35th birthday in Beijing, and visited a high-tech factory zone and other sites relevant to his economic and industrial policy focus.

But what did Xi Jinping give Kim for his 35th birthday?

If the past is any indicator, Xi’s present may have been sanctions relief in the form of increased fuel deliveries. The data suggests that this is precisely what happened after Kim’s third visit to China last summer, on June 19th of 2018. Consider the following graph, from a forthcoming working paper:

Average gasoline and diesel prices on markets in three North Korean cities, January–August 2018. Data source: Daily NK price index. Graph: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein/North Korean Economy Watch.

(If the image is too small, click it to see a larger size.)

Look closely at the dip in the blue line, in the right-hand side of the graph. This shows a significant drop — 50 percent! — in average gas prices on markets in three North Korean cities. This price drop came right at the time of Kim’s third visit.

Coincidence? Could be.

Market prices, however, tend to move for a reason, and there are no obvious factors that can explain this particular price drop. Other than Kim’s visit, that is. This is, of course, circumstantial speculation, but it makes a great deal of sense. China may have simply upped fuel deliveries to North Korea as a show of good faith prior to Kim’s visit, or after a direct request from Kim.

Should Kim have asked Xi for similar sanctions relief during this visit, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. It’s also worth noting that exchange rate for both US dollars and Chinese renminbi have gone up quite significantly on North Korea’s markets in the past few weeks, as I noted a couple of days ago, hinting that the economy may be under some distress. North Korea may not be under any general economic crisis as a result of the sanctions, but things surely aren’t looking great.

We should know when the next price update from Daily NK or other sources comes in, and just because Kim seems to have gotten sanctions relief at one point after a meeting with Xi doesn’t mean it’s a given for every single occasion. But it is reasonable to expect that Kim did get something from the trip. It did, after all, coincide with his birthday.

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Market exchange rate for USD on North Korean markets at two-year high, RMB rate up as well

Monday, January 7th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Judging by the latest market price data from Daily NK, the exchange rate of the North Korean won (KPW) to the US dollar (USD) appears to have reached its highest point since the beginning of the latest period of heightened tensions with the United States. The latest price observation by the Daily NK puts the KPW-USD average exchange rate on markets in three North Korean cities at 8,500 won. That’s an increase of 445 won from the last observation (December 11th), or about 5 percent in a fairly short time span. (Please click both graphs for closer views).

Graph 1. KPW-USD average exchange rate for markets in three North Korean cities, January 2017–December 2018. Data source: Daily NK.

The Chinese Renminbi (RMB) has also appreciated against the won in the latest observation, but not by as much. From the observation on December 11th, the RMB went up from 1197 KPW to 1242, an increase by about 3.7 percent.

Graph 2. KPW-RMB average exchange rate for markets in three North Korean cities, January 2017–December 2018. Data source: Daily NK.

As graph 2 shows, the RMB-increase is almost as large as the one for USD. The RMB, however, is not at an historical high for the period in question, which the USD is. The RMB is, on the other hand, significantly higher than in the same period last year, and from December 26th of 2017, it’s increased by almost 11 percent, from 1120 KPW to 1241. The USD, meanwhile, stands at about 6 percent more than it did on December 26th of 2017.

In other words, both currencies have appreciated, and by significant proportions, assuming that this latest price report conveys accurate information representatives of the general exchange rate level in the country. It doesn’t seem to be a seasonal issue, given the differences from last year.

With the information currently available, it is of course very difficult to tell what could have caused this minor spike of sorts. The two currencies are likely not controlled by the exact same factors, as the RMB is much more widely used among the North Korean public. Few people hold and use USD on a daily basis. Rather, the main holders of USD in North Korea are likely to be state institutions such as major state-owned enterprises. This matters for the way the markets are likely to work for RMB and USD respectively.

Both, on the other hand, are foreign currency. As such, they are at least partially interchangeable. To put it simply, if the regime would decide to soak up foreign currency in general, for whatever purpose, it would likely target both USD and RMB, and other foreign currencies as well, because they can be used for the same things to a large extent.

So. What could (and I say could with the utmost of caution) have caused this upturn?

The regime has been conducting market crackdowns on illegal trade and smuggling of banned foreign goods, such as foreign media, over the past few months. An upturn in this crackdown could cause anxiety on the markets, causing people to hoard foreign currency. It doesn’t seem, however, that foreign currency trade has been targeted in particular, making this scenario unlikely.

It could also be that other goods that require foreign currency payments, such as gasoline, have become more expensive. This means that traders buying and selling such goods need more foreign currency to pay for their imports, and they may even require foreign currency payments from their customers. This, in turn, would cause the RMB and possibly the USD to appreciate over the KPW. But gas prices aren’t out of their ordinary span, and they’ve actually decreased in the latest price observation, to 15,200 won/kg from 15,200 won/kg, albeit after first spiking from 13,133 won/kg to 15,733 won/kg between mid- and late-November. Still, the trends don’t run in parallel.

A third possibility, and the most likely one out of the three presented here, in my opinion, is that the state has soaked up foreign currency from the markets by, for example, demanding more of it from state-owned enterprises. It could also be that if in normal times – and this is a big if – the state releases foreign currency on to the markets to maintain exchange rate stability, they’re doing less of that now, causing the foreign exchange rate to appreciate. The state’s foreign currency reserves and coffers have likely been dwindling for some time under sanctions. Curiously, we haven’t seen signs of it on the markets. It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues in the weeks and months ahead.

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