Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

North Korea’s problematic Covid-19 numbers

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea’s admission of a Covid-19 outbreak has understandably drawn global attention. It’s one of two countries – the other one being Eritrea – that have not yet started administering Covid-19 vaccines. North Korea also claimed, until just a few days ago, to have had zero cases of infections.

Naturally, the government’s data is highly interesting in this situation, and you can follow the officially reported numbers here at 38 North‘s tracker. Due to the lack of testing kits, North Korean authorities report cases of “fever” as a proxy for Covid-19.

These numbers perhaps tell us more about how the government perceives the situation, than how many North Koreans have actually been infected with Covid-19. That North Korean authorities are now signalling a greater level of pragmatism in tackling the virus does not mean their claims until a few days ago about zero cases were true. The zero cases claim defies common sense and logic, not least since North Korea borders Chinese provinces where we know there have been significant outbreaks. Outlets such as Daily NK, Rimjingang, Radio Free Asia and others with sources inside North Korea have reported since the start of the pandemic about large numbers of people coming down with Covid-19 symptoms.

Already in March 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, sources in North Korea told Daily NK that over 20 North Koreans had died from the virus. By November last year, Daily NK reported that more than 100,000 people with symptoms were housed in government quarantine facilities. These are only two examples out of a large number of such reports. There is of course no way to confirm any of the information about Covid outbreaks in North Korea. Most  reports, however, have used roughly the same metric as the government uses right now to count cases — fever symptoms.

North Korean state media reports of the number of people in treatment per province also raises a lot of questions. Consider the map below, from the 38 North tracker:

It is possible that Pyongyang and its surroundings, Kaesong, and Rason, all have significantly higher numbers of cases than, say, North Hamgyong province. After all, Pyongyang is a relatively crowded city by North Korean standards, making infections spread more easily. But these are also sensitive areas and it may well be that the government is simply paying more attention by testing (for fever) more and monitoring numbers more closely. All three, in fact, are so-called “administrative special cities” (특별시/t’ŭkpyŏlssi), placing them under more direct central government administration than other cities. Pyongyang, moreover, is politically sensitive as the country’s power center, and Kaesong sits on the tense border with South Korea. Rason holds a special economic zone and is close to North Korea’s borders with Russia and China. Perhaps the government pays greater attention to these cities because of this common denominator.

The question is still why the North Korean government chose to acknowledge the presence of Covid-19 in the country this month. Since the announcement, the state has strengthened quarantine measures, some of which were already in place, and imposed a nationwide lockdown, though there’s been some questions raised about how sternly it is implemented. It is still possible, as I noted in a previous post, that the government is changing to a more pragmatic Covid-19 policy overall, starting with recognizing the virus.

As of now few data points point in this direction, although it is still much too early to tell. It may also be that the government made the announcement to set the stage for accepting vaccines and other assistance from abroad. Even with such assistance, it remains unclear how the rollout would work in practice given North Korea’s lacking equipment for, for example, storing vaccines and keeping them cold while transported around the country.

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Another data point on North Korea and the world economy

Monday, April 25th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At 38 North, I recently looked at how world market price swings impact the North Korean economy. Given the lack of consistent price data for coal in North Korea, I was unable to look at the potential impact of global coal price changes on domestic prices (and export prices) in North Korea. But with global coal prices shooting up following bans on imports of Russian coal and other energy products, North Korean producers will likely benefit significantly, at least in the short- to medium-term. So although global food price hikes following Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine may hurt the North Korean economy in some ways, rising coal prices will benefit it in others.

Daily NK notes this in an interesting recent report. According to their sources, prices paid by Chinese importers for North Korean coal have risen by 40 percent in a short time:

According to multiple Daily NK sources in North Korea on Wednesday, Chinese traders are paying an average of USD 70 per ton for smuggled North Korean coal.

That is not even one fourth of international price coals, including Australia’s benchmark Newcastle index, which have been climbing at a frightening rate due to the EU’s ban on Russian coal imports.

The price of smuggled North Korean coal is about half that of the local price in China, where there is a price cap. However, it is also more than double the price of exported North Korean coal prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, even compared to early October, when smuggled coal sold for about USD 50 a ton, the current price represents a more than 40% climb from six months earlier.

At the time, Chinese coal prices were skyrocketing due to local shortages following Beijing’s suspension of Australian coal imports due to trade disputes with Canberra.

In the end, the price of North Korean coal is essentially hitching on to continuously rising global coal prices.

Moreover, the sources said North Korea is selling high-quality coal of more than 7,000 calories to China. Accordingly, more Chinese traders are reportedly demanding North Korean coal.

They further said that while coal exports are not as brisk as they were prior to the pandemic, North Korea has been continuously exporting coal through the port of Nampo as of late.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea sees coal prices rise as international energy prices skyrocket,” Daily NK, April 21st, 2022.)

It is always striking and interesting to note just how much of a buyer’s monopoly North Korea is subject to when it comes to China’s coal imports. Because China is the only country of true significance for North Korean coal exports, it is to a large extent free to set the prices. As the article notes, the prices Chinese importers pay for North Korean coal are not even one-fourth of global prices. It’s worth keeping in mind when China is referred to as North Korea’s economic “lifeline”. It may be somewhat true, but it’s far from that simple.

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Oil and fuel supply shortages on North Korean markets?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It’s been a couple of months since railroad traffic opened again between China and North Korea. Although it isn’t very much time to fully evaluate such a drastic change, we can see some interesting price movements on the country’s markets. (Click to see the full graph.)

Average of market prices for rice, gas, diesel, USD and RMB in three North Korean cities. Graph by NK Econ Watch. Data source: Daily NK. 

First, and unsurprisingly, foreign exchange rates have gone up drastically. This makes perfect sense, since news of trade resuming would make more North Koreans want to hold foreign currency, to import and purchase goods from abroad.

Second, both diesel and regular fuel prices have gone up, and quite drastically. As Daily NK notes, the fuel price increase in North Korea is much higher than that of global oil prices. This is also logical, since businesses have likely increased their purchases of fuel in anticipation of increased demand as border trade increases. I’m not sure, however, that the entire magnitude of the increase can be explained this way, since in some localities, prices have more than doubled. Diesel prices have also skyrocketed, which is somewhat unusual since gas and diesel prices tend not to fluctuate this much together. (Gas prices are some of the most volatile on North Korean markets and often fluctuate with the geopolitical situation.)

Price hikes in China, on both diesel and gasoline, are likely a strongly contributing factor. Another significant factor, reported by Daily NK in the article above, is likely moves by the North Korean government to restrict private fuel sales, perhaps leading hoarding by sellers. The rapidly rising exchange rate also makes fuel more expensive, but fuel prices have risen faster than the exchange rate.

Increased supply from China may come to stabilize fuel prices, but given global oil price increases, such deliveries to North Korea are increasingly costly for China as well.

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North Korea is more connected to global markets than you might think

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

After a hiatus during the summer following my PhD defense, I now plan to get back to posting regular analyses and news content here. First up, an interesting example of why the North Korean economy is in fact more connected to global commodity markets than many might think.

Over the past few weeks, coal prices have skyrocketed in China, following energy shortages record-high coal prices. In September, the country’s coal imports surged by 76 percent, fueled flooding in one of the country’s main coal producing regions.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Chinese demand for North Korean coal — the commodity at the heart of international sanctions on North Korea — is reportedly growing. As Daily NK reports:

According to a source in Pyongyang on Wednesday, there have been noticeably more requests for coal from Chinese traders since North Korea’s national foundation day holiday on Sept. 9. He said there have been several illegal transshipments of coal for export over the last month.

China has recently limited trade with private North Korean traders, dealing instead with official North Korean trading bodies. The source said, however, that Beijing now approves transactions with any North Korean entity that can provide China with coal, including private ones.

In fact, the Chinese government has reportedly launched no particular crackdowns on private imports of North Korean coal.

Rather, according to a source in China, some provincial civil servants in China are advising traders to take care not to get photographed when they transship coal. Essentially, the Chinese government is turning a blind eye to imports of North Korean coal, an internationally sanctioned item. At the same time, they are asking traders to exercise caution, aware that the international community is watching.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “Amid coal shortages, Chinese traders on the hunt for more North Korean coal,” Daily NK, 7/10/2021.)

There are several things worth noting about this. First, again, it should not be surprising. China’s enforcements of sanctions against North Korea depends primarily on whether Beijing believes it to be in the national interest to clamp down on trade or smuggling. Clearly, China now needs cheap coal, and it’s been a long time since the North Korea issue was at the center of international politics and diplomatic tensions. So there appears to be comparatively little to lose in increasing trade for the moment, although China has been significantly letting up on its sanctions enforcement for several years now, since the days of “maximum pressure” in 2016–2018.

Second, North Korea still appears to be getting shafted by China, who exploits its position as the almost exclusive monopoly buyer buyer to purchase coal from North Korea at prices lower than world market prices or Chinese domestic prices. The precise proportions are uncertain, but Daily NK reports that China is paying less than half of world market prices for coal imports from North Korea, although their source also notes that the North Korean side is using the global shortage as leverage to jack up prices. In other words, while China may in some sense be North Korea’s “patron”, commercial market logic is much more important in coal trade than often assumed, and China isn’t necessarily doing it to help North Korea.

Third, and to tie back to the title of this piece, North Korea, despite its policies of economic autarky, is in fact deeply connected to global commodity markets. This isn’t just true for currency prices. Although the size of North Korea’s foreign trade remains comparatively abysmal, its economy is, just like most other economies today, tied to the broader dynamics of global supply and demand.

It still remains to be seen how much trade can expand under the current North Korean border shutdown. Though some goods are getting through, the border largely remains under lockdown due to Covid-19 despite intermittent news reports that trade might restart and return to its former scale. As many analysts have noted, Covid-19 has succeeded in closing the border more tightly to trade than most sanctions regimes have. How much Pyongyang is willing to meet Chinese demands and let coal shipments go across the border in larger scale, potentially increasing the country’s exposure to the virus (in the eyes of the leadership) remains to be seen.

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Some brief thoughts about North Korea’s food situation, late June 2021

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

By all accounts, the current food situation in North Korea appears difficult. It’s a crucially important topic that I unfortunately have not had much time to follow over the past few weeks. A few brief thoughts:

First, it’s important to keep in mind when hearing phrases such as “worst in a decade” that North Korea went through an actual famine in the 1990s and early 2000s. So that the food situation has gotten better over the last decade, while the country was arguably still rebounding from the famine, should not come as a surprise.

Second, it’s difficult to tell precisely how bad things are. Food production estimates, though only approximations, paint a picture of relative shortage compared to the past few years, but still not near disaster levels. North Korean authorities and international organs often sound the alarm bell over looming disasters, while little follow-up is done about what actually happened in the end. Anyone remember the famine warnings in early 2019, by the state and some foreign analysts alike? It’s impossible to tell how representative this report by Daily NK is, but if it’s true, the government is failing to stabilize prices because consumers choose not to buy rice in bulk for cheaper but lower quality from state-owned stores. If the country was approaching a genuine famine, this likely wouldn’t be the case.

Third, all this said, things do seem difficult. Bill Brown outlines in an excellent and thorough report here some of the alarming signs: relatively major fluctuations in both exchange rates and food prices. Although price levels aren’t at levels never seen before, fluctuations like this are relatively unusual. I suspect much of it is driven by future expectations of shortages based on information suggesting that the state will not open the border to China for trade within the foreseeable future.

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March, 2021: what to make of the rise in North Korea-China trade?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to Chinese customs data, Chinese exports to North Korea increased by 400 times in March, compared to the combined shipments in January and February of this year. As South China Morning Post reports:

Trade between China and North Korea grew to a six-month high in March, figures from Chinese customs show in the latest sign that the two neighbours are easing border restrictions amid tensions with the United States.

Exports from China to North Korea jumped from a paltry US$3,000 in February to US$12.98 million in March, according to Chinese customs data released on Sunday.

That was nearly 400 times more than the US$33,000 combined shipment of January and February, and was the highest by value since September, when China recorded outbound shipments valued at US$18.88 million to the isolated neighbour. Pyongyang imposed strict controls on goods transport ahead of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party in October.

According to Chinese customs, China imported US$1.308 million of North Korean goods in March, compared with US$1.75 million in February.

(Source: Laura Zhou (and Reuters), “China-North Korea trade jumps after pandemic slump but sanctions curb business with Pyongyang,” South China Morning Post, April 19th, 2021.)

What to make of this?

It could, of course, be the start of a trend reversal from the past year’s catastrophically low trade figures. Perhaps the North Korean government has begun to let up on border restrictions. In the past few weeks, news reports have said that China plans on restarting trade and open the new bridge between Sinuiju and Dandong. NK News has found evidence of new disinfection centers for goods on the North Korean side in April. The Russian ambassador to North Korea also recently said in an interview that trade will restart soon.

At the same time, I’m not sure these figures themselves give evidence of resumed trade. They could be a mere glitch in the data caused by a change in accounting routines or the like. Just look at the reported figure for Chinese exports to North Korea in February: $3,000. It simply isn’t realistic. Perhaps a portion of that month’s trade was recorded instead for March for reasons related to payments or contracts. China, moreover, ships much more goods to North Korea than what’s officially recorded as “trade”.

As so often, we will simply have to wait and see. When Chinese data is published on the specific items traded, we should also get a better sense of what this trade upswing really means.

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March 2021: North Korea’s skyrocketing corn prices

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Given the self-imposed border lockdown North Korea is under at the moment, the recent rise in food prices should come as no surprise. The precise factors are difficult to pin down, but whatever they are, there is some serious cause for concern.

The main reason is the rapid rise in the price of corn as of late. One Daily NK-source in North Korea attributes it to large-scale state purchases of corn for snacks manufacturing in honor of Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16th.

The article makes clear, however, that this is only a partial explanation. Indeed, looking at the price index, it’s clear that the rise started long before February. On November 15th last year, the average price for a kilo of corn was 1350 won. On February 23rd this year, the average price was 3137 won. That’s a rise of 135 percent in a relatively short period of time. Prices of corn have often risen in the beginning part of the year, but not by this much.

Average corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Looking at individual cities, the rise is even more staggering. In Hyesan, where food prices tend to be higher in general, corn prices rose from 1450 won/kilo on November 15th last year to 3620/kilo on February 23rd. That’s an increase of 150 percent in only a few months.

Corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Why is this a concerning development for corn prices specifically?

First, corn is, in the North Korean context, rice’s less desired sibling. Corn always makes up a significant part of the diet for a big proportion of the North Korean population. However, when food becomes more scarce, people switch over a larger portion of their diets to corn, since it gives more food for the same amount of money. So a rise in corn prices may be a signal of growing scarcity overall.

Second, even if a large proportion of the rise was indeed caused by increasing state purchases, this is also a troubling indicator for the state of the North Korean market for food. If state procurement for snacks manufacturing for one single day can impact prices so much, this suggests a market under considerable stress and volatility to begin with.

At the same time, rice prices have remained conspicuously low and stabile. Rice prices in the last observation in the price index are around their seasonal normal. I’d be careful to assume too much based on this, however. Rice prices are lower right now than around the same time last year. This may – and I want to stress how little we know for certain – indicate that they are in fact lower not because supply is stabile, but because demand is lower. More consumers switching over their consumption to cheaper foods such as corn would put downward pressure on rice prices.

Average rice prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

The current situation will only be possible to fully evaluate in a few weeks when we have more data points available. Suffice to say for now that, with all the caveats about the trappings of data from North Korea, the situation looks concerning.

Update March 16th, 2021: DailyNK recently published more info about the corn price situation, reporting that prices have stabilized in much of the country. Still, 3,000 KWP/kg, reported in “other inland regions” (than Hyesan), is high. It’s more than double the average price reported in Daily NK’s price index around one year ago.

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China delivers oil to North Korea, stabilizing fuel prices

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On the supply side, fuel prices in North Korea are largely a factor of deliveries from China, as I have shown in a 38 North report. Daily NK confirmed this pattern in a dispatch last month:

Oil prices in North Korea plummeted late last month after climbing at the start of the year. North Korea has reportedly been receiving supplies of oil from China as the two nations show signs of growing closer.

The price of diesel was KPW 3,500 in Pyongyang, KPW 6,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 6,300 in Hyesan as of Jan. 25. This was respectively 56%, 24% and 23% less than it was on Jan. 11, as determined by Daily NK.

The price of oil, on which North Korea completely depends on imports, fluctuates relatively wildly depending on supply. Even so, this was a 23-56% fall in just two weeks.

Particularly in the case of Pyongyang, the price of diesel fell to KPW 3,500, the first time it has done so since 2011, a decade ago.

Gasoline prices fell relatively less than diesel. Gasoline was KPW 10,000 a kilogram in Pyongyang, KPW 11,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 12,000 in Hyesan as of Jan. 11. As of Jan. 25, it was KPW 6,700 in Pyongyang, KPW 11,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 11,100 in Hyesan.

As in the case with diesel, the price drop for gasoline was most pronounced in Pyongyang, where prices fell 33% from Jan. 11.

In Hyesan, however, gasoline prices fell just 7.5% from two weeks earlier, and in Sinuiju they did not change at all.

Diesel prices fell more than gasoline prices because the new supplies from China reportedly focused on diesel.

According to a source, diesel accounted for a large share of the imports smuggled into North Korea by way of illegal transhipment in international waters from ships leaving the Chinese port of Dalian in Liaoning Province.

The source claims North Korea has smuggled oil from China “countless times” since the middle of last month.

Prices fell most precipitously in Pyongyang seemingly because the capital received not only the first supplies but also the most.

(Source and full article: Jang Seul Gi, “North Korea appears to have received supplies of oil from China,” Daily NK, February 4th, 2021.)

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Fertilizer factory shutdown and goods shortages

Monday, February 8th, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

KITA has a new briefing paper out about some developments relating to North Korea’s domestic economy and external trade. If true, the shutdown of the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex (청년화학연합기업소) is one of several examples of how the border shutdown due to Covid-19 is hurting basic industries through a shortage of spare parts. Goods such as cooking oil are also reportedly in short supply on the markets, and local government incomes from market stall fees are also reportedly dropping. As always with this sort of information, none of it is fully confirmed.

You can find the report here (in Korean), below is an excerpt from a summary by Nikkei:

The Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, north of Pyongyang, produces fertilizer and coal gas using anthracite mined in the area. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the site in 2013.

High-pressure valves and jet sprays at the complex have become too worn for continued use, according to reports the Korea International Trade Association received from North Korea in January. Without replacement parts, it is unclear when the plant can resume work.

The suspension hinders North Korea’s push to lift its meager agricultural output. Kim last year ordered a boost in fertilizer production and attended a completion ceremony for a separate fertilizer plant. Coal gas also serves as a valuable industrial energy source for the country, which faces an oil embargo in response to its nuclear and missile testing.

[…]

The resulting shortages also have struck North Korea’s jangmadang informal markets, which have flourished under Kim’s tenure. At one market in the city of Pyongsong, the volume of available flour and cooking oil has halved. Many stalls that used to sell Chinese-made apparel and appliances have shut down as well.

The slowdown of the jangmadang is eating into the coffers of North Korea’s regional authorities. South Pyongan Province, home of the Namhung plant, made about half as much from overseeing these markets in the last quarter of 2020 as in the year-ago period, heavily impacting provincial spending, the KITA report says.

(Source: Yosuke Onchi, “Key North Korea factory shuts down from COVID-19 parts shortage,” Nikkei Asia, February 8th, 2021.)

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North Korea’s economic growth in 2019

Monday, December 28th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

‘Tis the season for South Korean government estimates on North Korea’s economic growth… Maeil Business News

The North Korean economy grew for the first time in three years in 2019 following a sharp contraction in the previous two years, but its per capita income gap with South Korea widened further, the South Korean government data found.

According to a report released by Statistics Korea on Monday, the nominal gross domestic production (GDP) in North Korea rose 0.4 percent last year from the previous year to 35.3 trillion won ($32.2 billion). The growth came after the economy had shrunk 3.5 percent in 2017 and 4.1 percent in 2018 due to the poor crop yields and strengthened international sanctions.

South Korea’s nominal GDP in 2019 was 1,919 trillion won, 54 times greater than that of the North.

The statistics bureau said the increased output from construction, agriculture, forestry and fisheries and service sectors contributed to the overall economic growth of the reclusive regime.

North Korea’s per capita gross national income (GNI) was 1.41 million won last year, losing 20,000 won from 2018. It was one twenty-seventh of South Korea’s 37.44 million won. The per capita income gap between South and North Korea widened from 21 times in 2009, 23 times in 2015 and 26 times in 2018.

Crop yields in North Korea came at 4.64 million tons in 2019, higher than 4.38 million tons in the South. But the North’s rice output was 2.24 million tons, about 60 percent of that of the South.

Coal production increased 11.8 percent on year to 20.21 million tons last year.

North Korea’s trade volume totaled $3.24 billion in 2019, up 14.1 percent from the previous year when its trade shriveled 48.8 percent due to the United Nation’s sanctions.

Watches and watch components that are not subject to the sanctions accounted for the biggest share of 17.8 percent of its total exports, up 57.9 percent from the previous year.

Its biggest imports were mineral fuel and oil that took up 11.7 percent. Amid food shortage, grain imports soared 242 percent on year.

(Source: Choi Mira, “North Korean economy grows for first time in 3 years, per capita income falls in 2019,” Maeil Business News, December 28th, 2020.)

A few thoughts:

First of all, these are estimates based on models, not on rigorously gathered statistical data. That is not to criticize the statistical authorities that compile these figures, but it must be mentioned. These may well be the best estimates out there.

Second, a 0.4% growth is not much, especially considering the steep economic fall North Korea went through in the preceding years. News headlines tend to blow these figures up way beyond proportion.

Third, 0.4% does sound like a plausible number in many ways. Some of the metrics used to determine it may well be indicative of other things. Take increased coal production, for example. We know with a fair degree of certainty that (illicit) coal exports to China seem to have increased significantly during 2019, as well as during the present year. So an almost 12% increase in production compared to 2018 is not at all difficult to imagine.

So all in all perhaps a small uptick in 2019, but at the same time, from a very low level.

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