Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

Market prices up in North Korea, following Chinese trade restrictions and seasonal variation

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

DailyNK reports that prices on some markets, for certain goods, have gone up recently. The causes are two-fold: increasingly difficult import conditions with heightened scrutiny and more items being restricted on the Chinese side, and seasonal variations. May and June are the height of the so-called lean season in North Korea, when food is in particularly short supply:

According to Daily NK’s sources, the rice price has risen from 4,800 KPW to 5,200 KPW per kilo at Hoeryong Market in North Hamgyong Province. Similarly, 25 kg bags of flour have risen by 10 RMB to 13,000 KPW, while sugar (50 kg) has jumped by 50 RMB.
May and June mark an annual period of agricultural hardship in North Korea. To make matters worse, the farming season began a month late this year, sending the price of vegetables including cabbage and radish skyrocketing. China’s recent efforts to restrict the quantity of imported items is further exacerbating the situation.
“Most of the products that are normally imported through Chinese customs offices, including food and industrial goods, have become much more expensive. The price surge must have been influenced by China’s stricter measures,” a source in North Hamgyong Province said.
Until last April, China’s customs offices generally waved through most items for export to North Korea including food, daily necessities, and clothes, with inspections little more than a formality. But in a sign of worsening relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, an increasing number of items are being placed on the restricted list.
“Due to China’s implementation of stricter customs procedures, the volume of products coming into North Korea has fallen by half compared to the previous month (April). The period of spring poverty is a hard time for North Korean people in both the cities and rural areas, and China’s actions are adding to their problems,” added a source in North Pyongan Province.

Given all the scrutiny and debates about whether or not China is implementing sanctions on North Korea, decreasing trade and upping the economic pressure et cetera, it is important to remember that we’re really not seeing any full-scale blocking off of trade between China and North Korea, even in goods that no country is supposed to be trading with North Korea following UN sanctions. Seasonal variations matter a great deal too. Moreover, though price changes like these certainly are troubling for North Korean consumers, they don’t appear, at least not for now, significant enough to have any major impact on the economy as a whole. Last but not least, Chinese implementation of sanctions measures, scrutiny, surveillance of goods and other similar measures in trade with North Korea has historically waxed and waned, and rarely remained consistent.

Full article:
Market prices leap as China implements strengthened customs procedures
Lee Sang Yong
Daily NK
2017-06-13

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New report on North Korea’s proliferation financing system

Monday, June 12th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The non-profit C4ADS has released a new report about the networks that North Korea uses to get around the international sanctions regime, and to continue trading and financing its weapons programs. Among the most interesting findings, in my opinions, is that of how interconnected and few the Chinese firms that trade with North Korean entities are:

North Korean overseas networks have been extremely adaptive to the combined pressures of international sanctions, in large part due to their ability to nest and disguise their illicit business within the licit trade. Like the cover material of iron ore over the RPG’s aboard the Jie Shun, or the dual role played by Dandong Hongxiang, the problem is particularly acute in the North Korean context where the state controls major aspects of the international trading economy. As early as 2006, former Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey noted that, “the line between North Korea’s licit and illicit money is nearly invisible.” As North Korea has become ever more isolated internationally, it has had to confine nearly all of its trade to China. Data from 2016 shows that around 85% of total North Korean trade was conducted with China. According to Harvard-based North Korea specialist John Park, “what we are seeing now is the operation of sophisticated North Korean-run networks based in China.” In this relationship, North Korea has repeatedly taken advantage of the system of trade to conduct illicit activity nested within the licit system.

[…]

Although the regime has seen a boom in the sale of natural resources in recent years, the increased sale of fewer and fewer commodities to a single country has left its system of trade progressively more vulnerable. Analysis reveals that the scope of licit trade, in which North Korea nests its illicit networks, is surprisingly small. According to trade records, from 2013 to 2016, there were only 5,233 companies within China that either imported goods from or exported goods to North Korea. To put that number in perspective,as of 2016, 67,163 Chinese companies exported to South Korea. Additionally, these 5,233 businesses are not all unique actors: many of them have subsidiary relationships with companies within the dataset. For example, the network surrounding the DHID, the Liaoning Hongxiang Group, was made up of 18 companies in China alone, many of which appear within the dataset as unique entities.

The report mainly carries three findings:

In this report, we conduct a system-level examination of the North Korean overseas financing and procurement system. Our paper finds that this system is centralized, limited, and vulnerable, and that its disruption should greatly increase the pressure on the Kim regime to return to the negotiating table.

  • In Centralized, we examine key individuals and companies that connect networks from around the world. We discuss case studies of both regime “tactical controllers,” who conduct the operational tasks needed to move illicit goods, as well as “strategic chokepoints” through which these goods and their regime financing must flow.
  • In Limited, we explore trends within China-North Korea trade, the largest market exploited by North Korean overseas networks. Our data shows only 5,233 Chinese companies to have traded with North Korea from 2013 to 2016. Our analysis shows a small number of interconnected firms annually account for vast proportions of the trade, limiting the number of avenues in which North Korea can nest its illicit activity.
  • In Vulnerable, we analyze corporate structures and risk indicators that can be used to filter this data to identify potential dual-use transactions and networks of possible concern. Our priority lay in linking previously unidentified entities with known North Korean illicit actors to showcase the possibility of causing systemic disruption using targeted enforcement.

Full report:
Risky Business: A System-Level Analysis of the North Korean Proliferation Financing System
David Thompson
C4ADS
June 2017

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94,000 North Koreans working in China, Hong Kong news outlet says

Monday, June 12th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports KBS:

Quoting data by the China National Tourism Administration, the broadcaster said that the number of North Korean workers in China increased from about 50-thousand in 2006, when the North conducted its first nuclear test, to 94-thousand-200 in 2015, earning the regime billions of yuan, or hundreds of billions of won, a year.

Full article:
Hong Kong Paper: 94,000 N. Koreans Working in China
Korean Broadcasting Service
2017-06-12

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Chinese imports of North Korean coal down since February ban, data says

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reuters reported today on the most recent figures on China-North Korean trade. They show that coal imports have declined, to the lowest level in three years, according to Reuters. It must be remembered that coal trade (in volume terms, not necessarily in USD-numbers) has climbed for several years in a row since 2010, so a relative decline does not mean catastrophically low levels. Also, of course, Chinese customs data should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Reuters:

The world’s second-largest economy bought goods worth $99.3 million in April from North Korea, the lowest monthly tally since at least June 2014, according to Chinese customs data. Previous data was not available.

That compares with $114.6 million in March and $167.7 million a year earlier.

A fifth of the April total was iron ore imports, which hit 285,000 tonnes, their highest since August 2014. That was up 10 percent from a month earlier and 2-1/2 times higher than a year earlier.

[…]

Cho Bong-hyun, who heads research on North Korea’s economy at IBK Bank in Seoul, said China’s imports from North Korea were likely to continue to decline due to Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests and the suspension of coal shipments to China.

“This won’t be disastrous for North Korea, but it will obviously hurt North Korea because it tends to export goods to China worth around $3 billion per year,” he said.

The value of imports from North Korea has fallen month-on-month since December, the data showed.

CHINESE SALES DOWN AS WELL

China’s exports to North Korea eased to $288.2 million in April, down 12 percent from March. Exports for the first four months of the year were up 32 percent at $1 billion.

Diesel shipments to North Korea in April more than halved from March to 2,606 tonnes and gasoline sales dropped 6 percent to 13,496 tonnes. North Korea gets most of its oil needs from China.

Crude oil exports from China to North Korea have not been disclosed by customs for several years, but sources have put it at about 520,000 tonnes a year.

Cutting off oil to North Korea for an extended period would be a crippling measure that analysts have said they don’t expect China would take.

[…]

Data released later on Tuesday showed China did not take any North Korean coal in April for a second straight month, after Beijing’s ban of such imports following repeated missile tests by Pyongyang.

China imported 1.53 million tonnes of coal worth $72.3 million from North Korea in April 2016.

Full article:
China’s imports from North Korea sink as coal ban bites
Josephine Mason
Reuters
2017-03-23

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Chinese imports of North Korean goods down by 35 pct in March 2017

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap reports a 35 percent drop in Chinese imports from North Korea in March this year, compared to February, citing decreased coal imports after the February ban as a reason:

Imports from North Korea declined to US$114.56 million last month from $176.7 million tallied the previous month, according to Chinese customs data.

In late February, China suspended North Korean coal imports through the end of the year in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in December to punish Pyongyang for its fifth nuclear test in September.

The resolution centers on putting a significant cap on North Korea’s exports of coal — the country’s single biggest export item and source of hard currency. The cap was set at whichever is lower between 7.5 million tons or $400 million.

North Korea heavily relies on coal exports to China for its foreign currency income. China imported $1.19 billion worth of coals from North Korea last year.

Full article:
China’s imports of N. Korean goods fall 35 pct in March
Yonhap News
2017-04-25

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China continues mineral imports from North Korea, despite sanctions

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

About that supposed “squeeze”….Yonhap:

China keeps importing from its traditional ally gold, silver, copper and zinc all of which are put on the U.N. sanctions list, with such imports last month alone amounting to US$650,000, Voice of America said, citing data from China’s General Administration of Customs.

Resolutions Nos. 2270 and 2321, which the U.N. Security Council adopted last year to punish the North’s nuclear and missiles tests, also ban U.N. member nations from importing titanium, vanadium and nickel from the communist country. Minerals are a key source of hard currency for the North to maintain its regime and develop weapons of mass destruction.

North Korean vessels presumably carrying minerals were spotted at Chinese ports, the broadcaster said, citing MarineTraffic, which provides live ship tracking intelligence worldwide.

The boats are moored at the ports of Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, and Penglai and Yantai, Shandong Province, which handle minerals, according to the broadcaster.

As of Tuesday, the North Korean ship Haebangsan was docked at Lianyungang, and several other ships — the Sobaeksan, Rungna No. 1, Haoyu and Hungbong No. 3 — were also waiting for their entry on seas some 20 kilometers off the port, the broadcaster said.

The Uri Star, Jinhung, Kumgansan and Gumdae were staying near Yantai, and the Munsusan and Jonwon No. 67 were spotted on seas off Penglai, it added.

Full article:
China keeps importing U.N.-sanctioned minerals from N.K.
Yonhap News
2017-03-29

Now, it seems unclear whether this formally constitutes a breach of the $400 million cap specifically. Note that UNSC resolution 2321 only mentions coal specifically with regards to the $400 million cap (my emphasis):

Underlining that measures imposed by the resolution were not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the country’s civilian population, the Council decided that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea should not supply, sell or transfer coal, iron and iron ore, and that all States should prohibit the procurement of those materials from that country, with the exception of total coal exports to all Member States not exceeding $53,495,894 or 1,000,866 metric tons, whichever was lower, between today and 31 December; and $400,870,018 or 7,500,000 metric tons per year, whichever was lower, beginning on 1 January 2017.

Total exports to all Member States of coal originating in the DPRK that in the aggregate do not exceed $53,495,894 or 1,000,866 metric tons, whichever is lower, between the date of adoption of this resolution and 31 December 2016, and total exports to all Member States of coal originating in the DPRK that in the aggregate do not exceed $400,870,018 or 7,500,000 metric tons per year, whichever is lower, beginning January 1, 2017 …

I’m not sure whether China has paid these amounts for minerals other than coal from North Korea in the past. Perhaps it is paying a markup price for other minerals to make up for the decreased imports of coal. It does in any case suggest that abiding by the words and the spirit of UN resolutions on North Korea is far from China’s only or even main priority in these matters.

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Still too early to tell on Chinese imports of North Korean coal

Monday, March 27th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is still far too early to say anything of certainty or substance on Chinese compliance on the UN resolution cap of $400 million on coal imports from North Korea. A few figures have come out over the past week that are of interest on the issue. Altogether, the statistics suggest that two parallel processes are at play. While China certainly seems to have imposed the coal ban at least in part to comply with the UN-mandated $400 million import cap, it also continues to shift its consumption to domestic coal in the face of a drive to draw down on coal consumption altogether.

As UPI reports, one angle is that China instituted the ban to pre-emptively ensure compliance with the cap, knowing that deliveries early in 2017 would come close:

The official, who spoke to local news service Newsis on the condition of anonymity, said a Chinese decision announced Feb. 18 to suspend all North Korean coal imports included an accounting of “excess” North Korean coal that was delivered to China in late 2016, according to the report.

“China is of the mind to carry over the excess of December [imports] to this year’s upper limit,” the official said.

Resolution 2321 also bans North Korea sales of copper, nickel, silver, zinc and even statues.

China agreed to play a key role in the agreement. All exports of North Korea coal would not exceed $400 million per annum or 7.5 million tons yearly.

In 2017, China has so far imported about $126 million of coal in January and $100 million in February.

While the total number of coal imported appears to be well below the annual quota, when the December data is included China reaches the upper limit of coal restrictions, the South Korean official said.

Full article:
Report: China suspended North Korea coal imports to not exceed quota
Elizabeth Shim
2017-03-23
United Press International

Bloomberg reports the same figures, but give an added context. It is not only coal imports to China from North Korea that have fallen. Those from Australia and Mongolia have dropped, too:

China’s imports of North Korea anthracite coal in February fell 18.7 percent from a year ago to the lowest since January 2015, after a ban on imports as a result of the reclusive nation’s missile program. Imports of anthracite coal, a hard coal with a high energy content used in steel mills, dropped to 1.23 million tonnes in February from 1.45 million tonnes in January, data from the General Administration of Customs released on Thursday.

Waning shipments from North Korea follows Beijing’s decision in late February to ban coal imports entirely after Pyongyang tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in a direct challenge to international efforts to stabilise the Korean peninsula.

The ban has also sent steel mills who use anthracite as a feed stock to find alternatives in the domestic market. Chinese anthracite prices gained more than 50 yuan($7.26) per tonne to around 780 yuan($113.26) in February, data provided by China Sublime Information Group showed. Imports from China’s top supplier Australia <COA-AUCN-IMP> in February plunged 29 percent from January to 5.16 million tonnes, the lowest since May. Still, Australian imports were 16.8 percent higher than a year ago, the data showed. The decline adds to speculation that China is trying to control coal imports to aid the country’s efforts to reduce overcapacity at domestic mines.

The head of China’s quality supervision agency vowed to crack down on low-quality coal import. Traders in southern Chinese ports also reported cases of cargoes delayed due to customs checks. Coal shipments from Mongolia <COA-MNCN-IMP> tumbled 37 percent from January to 1.97 million tonnes, though it more than doubled from the same period last year.

Full article:
China’s North Korean coal imports drop to two-year low on ban
Reuters
2017-03-23

In other words, it is not only imports of North Korean coal that have dropped. Imports from other countries have fallen too. The “import ban” and fall in imports, rather than being linked by direct causation, may stem from a combination of factors that were already at play. Any conclusions that “China is putting the squeeze on North Korea” or the like are still premature.

On a different note regarding China-North Korea-trade, NK Economy Watch editor Curtis Melvin notes on Radio Free Asia that the Nampo port oil terminal has been upgraded. Perhaps a sign of long-term expectations on the North Korean side of long-run trade ties with China…

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North Korean merchants resisting price controls on markets

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

Food prices in the past closely mirrored the ups and downs of rice prices in North Korea. For example, if rice prices climbed by 1,000 KPW per kg, then corn prices could also be expected to rise by approximately 500 KPW. But that trend is beginning to change.
In addition, North Korean rice prices used to exhibit sensitivity to currency exchange rates, but rice prices have recently been falling and climbing independently of the exchange rates.
To calm volatility, the authorities have entered the markets and attempted to control prices, but merchants have widely rejected these measures. Merchants who sell similar products have been collaborating with one another to set prices or decide when to withhold products from sale.
“Merchants know that the authorities’ attempts to crackdown on the marketplace usually fizzle out over time,” said a separate source in Ryanggang Province. “The vendors will pretend to agree and listen to the authorities, but then they will secretly raise the prices.”
“As rumors spread that large shipments of pork were being smuggled in, shrewd merchants refrained from putting pork up for sale because they were expecting the price to rise. They then sold large quantities at a higher price, before the prices gradually began to fall again,” she continued.
One expert believes that this development signals how prices have moved out of the domain of the authorities and under the influence of the black market.
“The price volatility we are currently seeing in North Korea’s markets is a common element for underdeveloped countries,” said Professor Lim Eul Chul, from the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) at Kyungnam University. He went on to explain that pricing decisions by individual actors involved in market activity are becoming increasingly relevant, but the authorities are having trouble keeping up with the information.
“In the past, market agents carefully watched the authorities’ reactions when setting prices, but the markets have developed and now it is the authorities who are following behind. Big merchants have the power and sway to move the market and control prices. We can expect this trend to continue,” he concluded.
Full article:
Merchants resist price controls
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2017-03-20
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China says it is suspending imports of North Korean coal for the rest of the year

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In yet another so-called “strong signal”, China’s commerce ministry said on Saturday it won’t be importing any more coal from North Korea for the rest of the year. Remember, that coal that was already basically supposed to not be imported after last year’s sanctions (save for that generating revenue for humanitarian purposes). And the imports of which was already supposed to be capped at a low monetary limit. And so on and so forth.

Of course, as a usual caveat this time could be different but whether or not this decision will be enforced, and how strictly, remains to be seen, to put it mildly. China has other concerns in its relationship with the Korean peninsula and North Korea than signalling its commitment to the international community. Moreover, as I have written before, there are many factors that impact Chinese imports of North Korean coal than central government decisions. Domestic demand is one, and has probably played a greater role than diplomatic considerations over the past few years.

Other than the missile launch, one could suspect this is also a signal against the killing of Kim Jong-nam, who lived under Chinese protection.

Yonhap:

China’s commerce ministry said Saturday it will suspend the import of North Korean coal, apparently in response to the latest provocations made by Pyongyang.

Beijing’s Ministry of Commerce said the decision, which comes into effect on Sunday, is in line with the United Nation’s sanction against North Korea. The suspension will be valid through Dec. 31, the ministry added.

“As coal takes up a significant portion of Pyongyang’s trade with China, the decision is anticipated to have a significant impact on North Korea,” an expert on China said.

Coal is estimated to take up 40 percent of North Korea’s exports to China.

China had banned imports of coal from North Korea in April last year, but had been making exceptions for those intended for household use, which led to criticism over the regulation’s effectiveness.

North Korea fired a new intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) called the Pukguksong-2 on Sunday from an air base in the country’s northwestern province toward waters off its east coast.

Full article:
China suspends imports of N.Korean coal
Yonhap News
2017-02-18

(Update 02-19-2017): an analysis from Choson Exchange:

When the UN Security Council imposed the cap on coal trade, China was left with the question of how such a cap could be implemented. Would there be an auction system for quotas? Is it able to track forward contracts or does it only know belatedly the level of coal trade after import figures come out? This problem came to the fore last year when the Chinese were unable to meet their commitments regarding the import cap as they wrestled with these problems.

China has generally chosen to ensure adequate flexibility in the wording of UNSC sanctions to give it wiggle room, rather than outright violating those rulings. Allowing a coal cap to pass at the UNSC indicates their willingness to adhere to the ruling. In imposing a ban for 2017, China probably took into account rapidly rising coal prices and a probable rush by companies to frontload sales ahead of the cap to predict that the coal cap would be breached far earlier in the year. Rather than risk a violation of the coal cap limit, China is proactively clamping down on trade.

Domestic concerns might also play a part. China is restricting domestic production of coal. Between domestic producers and North Korean ones, China obviously prefers the former.

Full article:
Why China imposed a ban on North Korean coal imports
Choson Exchange blog
2017-02-19

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North Korean rice prices have dropped drastically one year after the sanctions. Why?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Prices for rice have fallen in North Korea. Daily NK, which tracks prices of rice and foreign currency in three North Korean cities, reported in the beginning of this week that rice prices have fallen thanks to continued development of the market economy and a steady flow of goods to and from China. This has happened despite expectations that the sanctions that the UN passed one year ago would cause inflation.

In theory, the sanctions were supposed to curb trade with China because they targeted North Korea’s crucial minerals trade. In practice, a steady stream of news from the border suggests that trade has continued, albeit with periodic squeezes, following a familiar pattern of China’s sanctions implementation waxing and waning.

This makes a lot of sense. A better functioning and more efficient market should logically lead to lower prices, as should increased trade with China, given the increase in supply. But neither of these two factors explains the timing. There are several other elements to take into consideration when analyzing price changes in North Korea. I am not making any certain claims here about the relatively drastic shift in prices, but rather, pointing to a few factors that may have contributed.

First, one must ask: how big is the drop? The short answer is: pretty big, but not unprecedented. The following graph shows the last and first price observations in the Daily NK market prices database for every year since 2010–2011. (I’ve excluded 2009–2010 because of the distortions that the 2009 currency reform creates in the data.) It shows that a similar price drop happened between 2011 and 2012 as well.

Graph 1: rice prices in North Korea, last and first year observations. Graph by NKeconwatch.com. Data from Daily NK.

This latest price point, however, is not a historic low-point. We’ll see if prices continue to drop over the weeks, but as of now, there are fairly near time points when prices have been lower, such as April 2014 (see graph further down).

Prices are seasonal to a degree. Though the market system and the public distribution system (PDS) obviously function under very different mechanisms, the following graph from the World Food Program’s 2013 food and crop assessment (the latest exhaustive one they published, to my knowledge) underscores the point that supply varies depending as the harvest draws farther and closer, and suggests that overall supply tends to be particularly good in December and January in other years as well:

Figure copied from World Food Program Food and Crop Assessment in the DPRK, November 2013, showing seasonal variations in government grain distribution.

Overall, the story under Kim Jong-un’s tenure seems to be one of price stability. Since around the spring of 2014, prices have moved in a fairly delineated fashion (as visible in the right half of this graph):

Rice prices, average of three cities, 2012–2017. Data from Daily NK, graph by NKEconwatch.com.

Second, though it would be intuitively easy to conclude that the drop in prices was caused by better functioning market mechanisms and agricultural management changes, this doesn’t seem to be the whole story. Again, such changes are crucial and may well have played a large role in the greater price stability of the past few years. But they would not explain this sudden shift.

Instead, the story seems to partially be the opposite, one of government action. A few days ago, Voice of America reported that PDS distributions in January of this year have, according to a World Food Program official, gone up by around ten percent as compared to the same period last year. Both in September and November, the North Korean government imported significantly larger quantities of rice than usual. These imports presumably go out through state channels rather than the private markets.

So while it’s impossible to isolate different effects from one another, it looks like the state can still have a significant impact on the food economy, even with the strong and continuously evolving market sector. This impact seems particularly likely this time around, given the sudden drop in prices. Only time will tell whether drop continues, or if prices continue to bounce within the limits of the past few years.

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An affiliate of 38 North