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An Open Letter to Google and the Sanctions Compliance/Enforcement Community

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

UPDATE: Here is coverage in CNN, Washington PostWall Street Journal, and Vice.

ORIGINAL POST: Google blocked several important YouTube channels that make North Korean television broadcasts available to the public. This action deals a grave setback to the work of open-source researchers focused on North Korea’s leadership, economy, military, and human rights situation.

The two most important channels which were blocked are:
1. Uriminzokkiri  (terminated for “violating YouTube’s community guidelines” on 2017-9-8)
2. Chongryun (first terminated for “violating YouTube’s community guidelines” on 2017-9-8, then restored on 2017-9-11, then terminated a second time due to “legal complaint” on 2017-9-12) [dates are approximate]

These YouTube channels DO NOT use advertisements and hence DO NOT generate revenue for the North Korean government in any way. In light of this, I do not understand how they can be thought to violate any US, EU, or UN sanctions regime.

[UPDATE: This may be unrelated to finance. E.O. 13687 blocks the property and interests in property of persons determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, the Government of North Korea or any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to the E.O.

If Google closed the YouTube accounts under this provision, then this is a case of regulations being written so broadly that they hit and destroy assets that are actually important to the US policy community. I am no lawyer, but I am told Google could apply for an OFAC license to get a waiver from this executive order, but why would they want to bother expending the resources for something that does not affect their bottom line? In this case it is just easier for them to be done with the business entirely. The lesson is here is that if you find North Korean content on the Internet, copy it and don’t make it public for fear that it falls under US jurisdiction in some way and can be deleted under threatened/actual legal action.]

These North Korean videos are, however, indispensable sources of information for us on the outside. We use them for multiple purposes, including:

1. Tracking the movements of Kim Jong-un around the country.

2. Identifying new economic, security, and military infrastructure.

3. Obtaining information on bureaucratic organization and domestic policy developments.

4. Knowing what the North Korean government is telling its own people.

5. Knowing what messages the North Koreans may expect other governments, including that of the United States, to receive.

6. Corroborating/falsifying other information on North Korea.

This is not an exhaustive list.

Here are just a few examples of the work that has been done using television footage from these closed YouTube channels:

North Korea’s No. 65 Factory Is Not a Missile Base,” 38 North, August 7, 2017
Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar,” 38 North, May 5, 2017
What One Photo Tells Us About North Korea’s Nuclear Program,”  New York Times, February 24, 2017
Can Satellite Imagery Help Us Evaluate the Kim Jong-un Economy?” KDI 북한경제리뷰 2016년 12월
KPA Navy Upgrades in the East Sea,” 38 North, September 2016
Has Camp 18 been re-opened or merged with Camp 14?North Korean Economy Watch, September 30, 2016
Machine Plant Managed by Ho Yong Chol,” Arms Control Wonk, August 15, 2016
Five Things You Need to Know about Kim Jong Un’s Photo Op with the Bomb,” 38 North, March 11, 2016
Video Analysis of the DPRK SLBM Test,” Arms Control Wonk, January 12, 2016
A New ICBM for North Korea?” 38 North, December 22, 2015
North Korea’s Special Economic Zones: Plans vs. Progress,” 38 North, November 23, 2015
Kim Jong-un Tours Pesticide Facility Capable of Producing Biological Weapons,” 38 North, July 9, 2015 (and more follow-up research here)
Pyongyang’s Perpetual Power Problems,” 38 North, November 25, 2014
A Tale of Two Kaesong Industrial Zones: Not All Foreign Investment is Created Equal (Sam Pa),” 38 North, July 17, 2014
The December 7 Factory: Producer of Maxi Pads and Naval Stealth Technology,” 38 North, April 9, 2014
That Ain’t My Truck: Where North Korea Assembled Its Chinese Transporter-Erector-Launchers,” 38 North, February 3, 2014
Exclusive: Fit for a princess: Kim Jong Un’s $7m yacht,”  NK News, June 18, 2013.
Speculation time: A new kwan-li-so or expansion of Camp 14?,” North Korean Economy Watch, May 6, 2013

In addition, the following heavily referenced blogs and specialty media companies (in addition to every major media organization) rely on KCTV footage posted to YouTube:

38 North
38 North Digital Atlas
NK News
Arms Control Wonk
North Korean Economy Watch (This site)
North Korean Leadership Watch
North Korea Tech

This list is also far from exhaustive…

In summary: These channels DO NOT generate any revenue for the North Korean government. These channels DO generate valuable information for us. Seven years of data tracking the end of Kim Jong-il and the rise of Kim Jong-un have simply vanished. PLEASE RESTORE THESE DATA SOURCES AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

PS: Martyn Williams, who picks up North Korean television on his own satellite dish, sent me these screen shots of a North Korean 3-D printer that aired on NK television after the YouTube accounts were closed. Wouldn’t you like to know more about them?

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North Korea’s ICBM-test, Byungjin and the economic logic

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At 3:30PM GMT+9 on Tuesday July 4th, North Korean television announced that the country had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier in the day. Wall Street Journal:

The missile, identified as the Hwasong-14, was launched at a steep trajectory and flew 933 kilometers (580 miles), reaching an altitude of 2,802 kilometers, according to North Korean state television. The numbers are in line with analyses from U.S., South Korean and Japanese military authorities.

US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, later confirmed that the launched missile was an intercontinental ballistic one.

Here in Seoul, things seemed to continue on as usual, which tends to be the case in this city more than used to its fair share of similar news. The biggest strategic consequence, of course, is that for the US. A successful intercontinental ballistic missile of this sortcould potentially strike anywhere in Alaska.

With the latest launch, North Korea takes one step further along the nuclear side of the Byungjin lineof parallel development of nuclear weapons and the national economy, and arguably, one step back on the economic side of the dual-track policy. In the formulation of the Byungjin line, of course, both are interrelated. Missile launches are often described as evidence of progress in industry and science, ultimately benefitting economic progress. This launch was no exception. From KCNA:s statement yesterday, July 4th 2017 (my emphasis):

The success in the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14, final gate to rounding off the state nuclear force, at just one go is a powerful manifestation of the invincible state might and the tremendous capability of the self-reliant national defence industry of Juche Korea that has advanced at a remarkably rapid pace under the great Workers’ Party of Korea’s new line on the simultaneous development of the two fronts, and a great auspicious event to be specially recorded in the history of the DPRK which has long craved for powerful defence capabilities.

This launch happened in a context where North Korea is already under sanctions designed to strike at its coal exports, one of its most important sources of income, and where the US has just signaled its resolve to go after North Korea’s financial channels through secondary sanctions of Chinese entities. At the same time, Kim Jong-un’s tenure has very much come to be associated with some economic progress (albeit from a low level, and primarily benefitting the relatively privileged classes), symbolized by projects such as the recently opened Ryomyong street.

It is not yet clear what the consequences will be. The US will likely try to add more sanctions targeted against specific entities and persons that help North Korea evade sanctions, and acquire equipment for its nuclear and missile programs.

The US will probably also call for international sanctions, but as Chad O’Carroll points out, the US may have a hard time getting such measures through in a quick manner given its currently tense relationships with both Moscow and Beijing. The US may also further push Beijing to implement the already existing sanctions against North Korea, but nothing appears to have changed with the claimed ICBM-test that would fundamentally alter China’s strategic calculations in the region. In other words, it continues to regard North Korea as a buffer between itself and US forces in the region, and as a geopolitical asset.

Whatever happens, it is safe to assume that it will not be good news for North Korea’s international ties in diplomacy, trade, finance, you name it. It would be easy to assume that economic progress and nuclear weapons development are mutually exclusive, since the second leads to further international isolation and economic sanctions, and therefore hampers the first.

In reality, that may be true. The North Korean Byungjin narrative, that weapons developmenthelpseconomic progress, is difficult to swallow, especially when one considers the opportunity cost that the weapons programs carry, both in terms of domestic resource dedication and the cost in international isolation.

But there is another way to look at it. Whatever the actual consequences will turn out to be, North Korea is making a strategic calculation that the gains from the test, and from overall nuclear weapons and missiles development, will be greater than the potential costs and downsides. Consider the following two factors:

First, North Korea has made economic progress in the past few years, and particularly since Kim Jong-un came to power, even under years of severe sanctions. North Korea has been under various forms of UN Security Council sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006. During these years, its economic development has been impacted far more by domestic policy decisions than by international developments.

Again, we are absolutely not talking about any growth miracle, and some probably exaggerate the degree of the wealth increase in North Korea over the past few years. But without a doubt, North Korea is far better off now than it was eleven years ago, and worlds apart from the famine of the 1990s. Food insecurity prevails in North Korea but the country has not seen widespread starvation since the late 1990s, and largely thanks to better economic frameworks (or rather less predatory), and increased space for private production and trade within the economic system, things are looking much better today than in many years.

Just look at this video recently published by the Daily NK, from Chongjin, one of North Korea’s largest cities in its northeast. Is this long-term, sustainable growth that will eventually lead North Koreans to enjoy the same prosperity as their counterparts in South Korea or even China? Probably not. But at least it’s something.

Second, and relatedly, North Korea likely has a significant amount of channels for trade and various transactions that are not commonly known, but that play highly significant roles for the economy. For example, consider the information that Ri Jong Ho, a former official in North Korea’s Office 39, supplied in a recent interview with Kyodo News. Ri claims that North Korea procures up to 300,000 tons of fuel and various oil products from Russia each year, through dealers based in Singapore. As a point of comparison, a commonly cited figure for crude oil supplies from China is 520,ooo tons per year. Proportionately, then, 300,000 tons is not close to a majority, but still a significant amount for North Korea. While intelligence services or others with access to classified information may have known this already, Ri’s claims, if true (they have not and in all likelihood cannot be fully corroborated),

The point here is that North Korea has gotten so used to going through back channels and unconventional means to acquire highly significant amounts of supplies required for its society to function. It is an economic system where unconventional (and often illicit) channels of trade are not exceptions, but core parts of the economic management toolbox. This is not to argue that sanctions do not or cannot work. Rather, it shows the extent to which unconventional methods are institutionalized within economic management in North Korea.

The North Korean government is no monolith, and there are almost certainly some parts of the governing apparatus that are more and less pleased with the ICBM-test. But in the higher echelons of the leadership, the strategic calculation is probably that even with the added sanctions that are very likely to come, North Korea will be able to continue along roughly the same economic strategies as it has thus far. Perhaps we can call it North Korea’s own “strategic patience”: continuing with patchwork strategies for international economic relations, with little concern for the impact of lack of sustainable growth on people’s livelihoods, while banking on eventual recognition as a nuclear power. Only time will tell whether targeted secondary sanctions will change that calculation.

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KCNA statement on North Korea’s ICBM-launch

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

From KCNA:

Pyongyang, July 4 (KCNA) — The Academy of Defence Science of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea released the following report Tuesday:

Scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science successfully carried out the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14, newly researched and developed by them under the strategic decision of Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army.

The rocket blasted off from the northwestern part of the DPRK at 9:00, July 4, Juche 106 (2017) to make 39 minute flight along its pre-set trajectory before accurately hitting the target waters in the open sea in the East Sea of Korea.

The test-launch was carried out at the maximum angle launch system and had no adverse effect on the security of neighboring countries.

The rocket flew 933km, reaching an altitude of 2, 802km.

Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of our party, state and the army, personally observed the process of the test-launch in field and solemnly declared before the world its shining success.

The success in the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14, final gate to rounding off the state nuclear force, at just one go is a powerful manifestation of the invincible state might and the tremendous capability of the self-reliant national defence industry of Juche Korea that has advanced at a remarkably rapid pace under the great Workers’ Party of Korea’s new line on the simultaneous development of the two fronts, and a great auspicious event to be specially recorded in the history of the DPRK which has long craved for powerful defence capabilities.

As a full-fledged nuclear power that has been possessed of the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world, along with nuclear weapons, the DPRK will fundamentally put an end to the U.S. nuclear war threat and blackmail and reliably defend the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region. -0-

Original statement can be found on the KCNA website:
Report of DPRK Academy of Defence Science
Korean Central News Agency
2017-07-04

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Ten million live in food insecurity in North Korea, UN says. But what does that really mean?

Tuesday, May 16th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A new report published by World Food Program and other UN institutions (Food Insecurity Information Network), detailing food insecurity in the world in 2016 as a whole, says the following about the situation in North Korea:

  • 4.4 million (or 17 percent of the North Korean population as a whole) is in “crisis, emergency and [or?] famine”.
  • 5.6 million (or 22 percent of the population) lives in a “stressed” situation when it comes to food.
  • This brings the entirety of the population living in food insecurity to ten million.

North Korea is the only country in all of East Asia with food insecurity, the report says.

It is unclear where the data comes from. According to the report, it could either have come from government sources in North Korean or from the World Food Program, but the report itself does not specify this.

A few things are worth noting. First and most importantly, particularly at a time when news reports abound about the rising middle classes and the new consumption habits of the wealthy, it is crucial to remember that a significant proportion of the North Korean population still live lives far away from the relative luxury of Pyongyang.

Second, though there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that a significant part of the North Korean population lives in severe hardship, harvests do not appear to be declining. On the contrary. According to the WFP’s 2017 needs assessment for North Korea,

“[w]hile official Government harvest data for 2016 has not yet been released, FAO estimates that rice production in 2016 increased by 23 per cent compared to the previous year when there was drought, but remains below the previous three-year average.”

Third, the World Food Program’s methodology for estimating these figures is rather unclear and problematic. For example, in the above-mentioned assessment of North Korean needs and priorities for 2017, released earlier this year, the WFP classifies all those depending on the Public Distribution System (PDS) as “suffering from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services.”

Presumably, this is derived from the fact that PDS distribution (of grains and staple foods, which is basically all it distributes) fluctuates through the year and is fairly unpredictable. But with the growing prevalence of the markets, it is unclear whether even those who the WFP claim “depend” on the PDS, really get the main portion of their food from the system. Over the past few years, public distribution of food has become an increasingly marginal (though certainly not unimportant) part of the food supply, and assuming that 18 million North Koreans experience food insecurity simply because they are beneficiaries of the public distribution system seems questionable at best. Obviously, the only way to understand food security overall would be to look at sources of food overall, not just one channel of supply.

Fourth, one overall problem with data on food security in North Korea remains the involvement of the North Korean government in the data collection. That is not to say that the North Korean government pushes the food production estimates upward to make itself look more successful. On the contrary, at times it probably exaggerates food needs in order to receive more outside assistance. Rather, the political nature of food, markets and the economic system makes it difficult to get trustworthy assessments of the food situation in the country. Only in one paragraph in its short version of North Korea’s needs estimates for 2017 does the World Food Program even allude to the markets:

In addition to the PDS, households are increasingly reliant on markets for their foods, except cereals. Farmers’ markets are distribution channels for a wide range of foods and basic necessities. In addition to swaps and bartering, markets involve large numbers of small transactions, often led by women.
Markets enable households to sell produce from their kitchen gardens; vegetables, maize and potatoes, as well as some small livestock.

Given the extent to which marketization has prevailed in North Korean society for over close to three decades, language like this seems to conflict with an overwhelming body of information about the centrality of the markets in the system today.

And, of course, there is the elephant in the room: North Korea’s economic system itself. As Amartya Sen famously pointed out, famine and food insecurity does not first and foremost stem from a lack of food overall, but from skewed entitlements. In other words, resources exist, but the problem is who gets them. In North Korea, the regime continues to refuse overarching and fundamental reforms of the economic system. As Fyodor Tertitskiy convincingly argued in a recent piece in NK News, the systemic changes in the North Korean economy of the past few years is most likely the work of bureaucrats within the state hierarchy, rather than a push by Kim Jong-un. In short, there are a lot of things the regime could change about the economy, to improve access to food and diminish food insecurity, but which it does not do.

This makes language like this, also from the WFP’s 2017 needs assessment, so problematic (my emphasis):

There are many complex, intertwined reasons for the high rates of undernutrition in DPRK, including challenges in producing sufficient food. The majority of the country is mountainous, only 17 per cent of land is good for cultivation.
Agriculture also remains dependent on traditional farming methods. Food production is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs, such as quality seeds, proper fertilizer and equipment. In addition, changing weather patterns have left DPRK vulnerable to droughts and floods, which have affected agricultural production.

Mountains and bad weather are not factors unique to North Korea. Geography is not destiny, and there is no shortage in the world of countries that have overcome difficulties in their natural environment through good policy. One has to understand the difficult spot that the WFP and other UN institutions work in, given North Korea’s politically sensitive and tense context. But one can only hope that the WFP is clearer about pointing out systemic deficiencies in the North Korean economy when they talk to officials behind closed doors, than they are in public statements.

All this said, North Korea is an extremely difficult environment to navigate for international aid organizations. The women and men on the ground certainly do their best to accomplish good things, and make accurate measurements in a challenging environment. But it is important to keep these and other methodological issues in mind before drawing any major conclusions about North Korea’s food situation.

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Overview of Rason SEZ legislation

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Yeobin Yoon and Philipp Kopp at the Hanns Seidel Foundation have put together a brief analysis of different laws that govern the Rason Economic and Trade Zone.

It shows an interesting evolution in the SEZ’s regulations as North Korean policymakers try to make the zone more hospitable to foreign investment.

You can download the PDF of the short report here.

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Summer trailings along the Sino-North Korean border, in search of sanctions: photo essay

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This November, just like every  time that new sanctions are levelled on North Korea, the first question tends to be: what will China do? Unsurprisingly, the same question followed after UN resolution 2270 in March this year, when the international community adopted the strongest sanctions against North Korea to date, most crucially targeting its minerals exports. This time, some believed, would be different. China was finally fed up and would take measures to hit North Korea’s economy, and official; statements and some bureaucratic action reinforced this impression. Now, some hope that the “cap” measure on imports of North Korean coal will remove the loophole created by the “humanitarian exemption” in the previous sanctions.

By now, after the THAAD, other geopolitical developments and the sheer passing of time, the question of China’s degree of sanctions enforcement has almost faded into the background. As the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield showed in a dispatch from Dandong a few weeks ago, sanctions are at most one factor among many that impact trade between China and North Korea.

This summer, I visited Dandong, Yanji and Hunchun, three Chinese cities along the border. I got a very similar impression: sure, some people involved in border trade told me, things had gotten a little more complicated, though not much. But sanctions were rarely mentioned as the reason for any added difficulties or downturns in trade.  At the time, China’s enforcement of sanctions was very much a topic of debate, and most analysts were skeptical of any squeezing going on, while some claimed trade had virtually ceased. At my visit, on the contrary, I saw fairly vigorous trading activity, and few people I spoke to thought any changes had occurred since sanctions were enacted. Posting these impressions and pictures has been a project in the pipeline for a while, so while much has happened since this summer regarding China-DPRK relations and trade, I hope that the reader will find it interesting to see how things looked at a time when some concluded that China was finally squeezing North Korea in a way that hurt. To be clear: all impressions and pictures below are from late June of 2016.

Trailing the China-DPRK border, in search of sanctions

Dandong 

Entrance to the Dandong customs inspections area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Earlier this year, the UN Security Council adopted the strongest sanctions that North Korea has faced to date. As with previous rounds of sanctions, one of the major questions is China’s degree of enforcement. Going back a few months, some suggested that major shifts had taken place, and that trade between North Korea and China had declined radically.

By the actual border, this summer, things looked very different. In contrast to the image of a desolated trading environment, I encountered bustling traffic during a visit earlier in the summer. During one morning in late June, around 85 trucks crossed the border from North Korea into China in only about one and a half hours. Virtually all trucks were registered to northern Pyongan province, the home province of Sinuiju. In addition, 19 cars and buses, one long freight train and one passenger train crossed the bridge during the same time. After this first stint of traffic, the flow reversed and a steady flow of trucks began pouring into North Korea from China. Only during the 15 minutes when I observed the traffic going from China, into North Korea, 35 trucks and 13 buses and cars crossed the bridge.

The traffic flowed in sequences, one direction at a time. And this was only the morning traffic. The flow may have continued throughout the day, as the traffic moved in intervals. Walking back to the customs area from the bridge crossing in the early afternoon, what was previously a calm intersection by Chinese inner-city standards had turned busy: trucks lined the entire street leading up to the customs office and some flowed over into the adjacent street, waiting to drive into the inspection area. All in all, more than 80 trucks lined the roads waiting to cross into North Korea. Most carried Chinese license plates.

Trucks lined up on both sides of the street at one of the main intersections in central Dandong, waiting to go into the customs inspection area to cross into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks, trucks and more trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lined up for customs inspection along the streets of Dandong before crossing into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up for customs inspection before crossing into North Korea from Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Truck driving into the Dandong customs area. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another picture of the never-ending line of trucks. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong from Sinuiju. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is commonly estimated that around 200 trucks go between China and North Korea on a regular day. In sheer numbers, virtually nothing seemed to have changed regarding the traffic since the latest round of sanctions. Only the trucks observed in plain sight during this morning amount to a little under 200, and this merely during the first few hours of the day. At least 10–20, probably far more, were already in the customs inspection area waiting to cross. In short, things looked very regular and busy.

Trucks waiting to cross from North Korea into Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some of the trucks going into Dandong from Sinuiju looked empty. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Of course, one must be careful not to draw too drastic conclusions from one day of observations. Things may have changed throughout the summer and surely during the fall, and channels such as ship transports are not visible from the border bridge area. Moreover, according to reports from inside North Korea, the authorities have expressed concerns about potentially shrinking trade volumes as a result of sanctions, and some traders now smuggle goods that are covered by the sanctions rather than transporting them openly, as they have in the past, according to Daily NK. In short, sanctions did appear to be having some degree of impact, even during the past summer.

Most North Korean trucks crossing into Dandong were registered to North Pyongan province ( 평안북도도, here abbreviated to 평북), the province bordering Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another truck registered to North Pyongan province. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

However, the truck traffic across the Chinese border through Dandong suggested that the picture was mixed. At the very least, observations from the border area showed that even though trade in certain goods may have gotten more difficult, North Korea was by no means economically cut off from China, and still is not. Prices for food and foreign currency on North Korean markets, too, remained relatively stable through the summer from when sanctions were put in place, indicating that the economy as a whole is not feeling any drastic impact of the sanctions.

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Factory materials going into North Korea from China. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Most trucks transporting factory materials into North Korea appeared to be Chinese-registered. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another Chinese truck transporting factory materials into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

If the North Korean economic elite was worried about the sanctions, it certainly did not show at one hotel in central Dandong. Sinuiju in North Korea is only a few minutes drive over the Yalu River, on the bridge connecting the two countries. The hotel was packed with North Korean guests, many of whom have presumably come over for purchasing and meetings with Chinese business partners. They came and went in a steady stream, wearing luxury brand clothing, watches and carrying expensive bags and wallets.

They paid everything in cash, and at least one person per travel party spoke Chinese. One man held a car key with a logo from KIA, the South Korean car manufacturer. One woman sported a Hello Kitty handbag. As some got ready to depart, bags piled up in the lobby, seemingly filled with goods from shopping sprees around town. Some of it seemed to be meant for re-sale in North Korea. Many stores around the flood banks cater specifically to a North Korean clientele, and sell items like kitchenware that are not easily accessible across the river.

Many stores in Dandong cater specifically to North Korean consumers. The sign at the left bottom of the picture reads “조선백화점,” translating into “Korea department store.” Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Travelling to Dandong, it was particularly apparent why the Chinese government would be reluctant to clamp down too hard on border traffic, even if it would want to do so. Political reasons aside, trade between North Korea and China matters for cities such as Dandong. One can see it in the flesh: the streets are packed with companies dealing in imports and exports to and from North Korea. One company trades steel; another sells construction equipment such as tractors. Several sell cars and buses, and others deal in refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers. One, called “Pyongyang Tongshin (평양통신),” judging by its name, offers cell phone services for traders travelling into North Korea. Should trade between the two countries drastically dive, the local economy would take a hit.

Advertisements for North Korean cell phone service Koryolink in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

“Pyongyang Communications.” Sign in Dandong. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One could turn these observations on their head: if so many trucks were lining up and only moving slowly into the customs area, could that not mean that inspections had gotten tighter? Was the line of trucks actually a sign that Chinese authorities did what they have promised to do?

Perhaps. But not according to people around the border crossing and customs area. I asked several individuals involved in the cross-border trade about the long lines and waiting times for border crossings. No one seemed to believe that the traffic commotion and lines were anything out of the ordinary. Both Chinese and North Koreans involved in import-export business said traffic had not changed at all during the past year or so. Overall trade had declined a bit, one person said. The trucks carried a little less than they did before, but only marginally. Coal was not traded as frequently as it was before the sanctions were put in place.

This sign lists services for one Dandong firm that offers, among other things, UPS transport services and solar-powered appliances, which have become popular in North Korea in recent years. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

But the timing of the early 2016 round of sanctions made such statements difficult to assess. China had in fact been decreasing its coal imports from North Korea at different points in time several years before the latest round of sanctions. Between 2013 and 2015, for example, the value of Chinese coal imports from North Korea shrank by almost 25 percent. Only between January and February 2014, the value of trade between the countries dropped by 46 percent. The statistics are often clouded by the fact that global market prices for commodities such as coal fluctuate heavily. There may also be a variety of seasonal factors at play. In sum, isolating sanctions as a variable is notoriously difficult, and often, numbers do not tell the full story. As of June this year, North Korean coal could still be ordered through the Chinese online shopping mall Alibaba.

Moreover, even if Chinese authorities wanted to check all goods cross with minute rigidity, one can question whether it would even be practically feasible. The customs area is not particularly large and did not appear to be overflowing with staff. Checking around 200 trucks per day for their exact goods, and determining whether its revenues could be used to fund North Korea’s weapons program – the condition stated by the latest sanctions – seems like a gargantuan task in practice.

 

Hunchun

Tourists and a truck waiting by the Hunchun-Rason border crossing (Quanhae). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Dandong-Sinuiju is the main point of trade between China and North Korea, but not the only one. An one-hour drive from the Chinese city of Hunchun, trucks and people come and go to and from the North Korean northeast. At the border crossing, most seem to be going to the special economic zone in Rajin in North Korea. On one gloomy Thursday in late June, around 40 Chinese trucks waited to cross. One Chinese-Korean waiting for the gates to open to the customs area told the present author that business is going very well these days. He runs a hotel in Rajin, catering mostly to Chinese tourists and business people. He has seen no dip in customers over the past year – rather, more people are coming than before. This single testimony may not be fully indicative of trade as a whole, but it does suggest that Chinese tourism remains an important and fairly viable source of revenue for North Korean businesses in Rason.

The Quanhae border crossing from afar. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks lining up to go into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

More trucks at Quanhae. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Trucks at the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists lining up to have their passports checked before heading into Rason. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This was certainly the way things looked at the border crossing. Chinese tourists came and went in great numbers, many carrying North Korean shopping bags. Trucks, too, continuously crossed the border throughout the afternoon. All in all, 80­­–100 trucks drove into North Korea during this afternoon. One was adorned with a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk. A few trucks came out of North Korea as well, many seeming to carry seafood destined for cities such as Hunchun and Yanji.

A truck adorning a logo from the Dutch shipping company Maersk having just crossed into North Korea from Hunchun. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In addition, a large number of buses and minivans carrying tourists and traders went in from China. Many minivans carried driving permits for Rajin clearly visible through their front windows. Given the amount of truck traffic only during the afternoon, it seems a reasonable estimate that perhaps twice the amount of traffic went through during the day as a whole. One person with good knowledge of the border area estimated that around 200 trucks go through at this crossing on a regular day, though this figure is obviously neither exact nor certain.

Customs office on the North Korean side of the border crossing. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Chinese tourists waiting to head into North Korea. Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The two bridges connecting Rason to China (particularly the newly constructed one in the back). Photo: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

These observations did not fully prove that China was not enforcing sanctions on North Korea during the summer of 2016. However, they did show that trade and traffic between the countries was still very much alive. Some goods may have be traded less, but neither sanctions nor souring relations between North Korea and China seemed to have reduced trade as much as some observers have claimed. The North Korean economy may be impacted by sanctions, but it is not and rarely has been fully isolated from the rest of the world.

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US-China Commission releases annual report

Friday, November 18th, 2016

The 2016 report of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission has been published.

You can read it here.

The section related to North Korea can be found here (Chapter 3, Section 4)

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IFES brief on geological surveys in North Korea

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On 25th September, North Korean leader and chairman of the State Affairs Commission, Kim Jong Un, issued instructions that survey equipment should be modernized and its production domesticated using the most up-to-date science and technology, in order to decisively improve geological survey work.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North Korean government’s official newswire agency, reported on 26th September that Kim gave these instructions in a letter he sent to the Nationwide Geological Survey Department Workers Conference held at the People’s Palace of Culture on the previous day. He also stated that “Geological surveys are the core front in constructing an economically strong nation.”

In the letter, Kim emphasized the need “to create a scientific developmental strategy for the Geological Survey Department in line with the demands of constructing an economically strong nation, and this should be executed in a step-by-step fashion. Also, under the state’s unified leadership, order and discipline must be established with respect to the development of underground resources.” He went on to say, “the role and responsibility of resource protection institutions must be raised, while the state’s energy must be put into the physical-scientific protection activities of Geological Survey departments. . . . I look forward to related officials and workers bringing about a decisive improvement in geological survey work, and contribute actively to the construction of an economically strong socialist state.”

At the same time, while on a visit to the Taedong River Syringe Factory, Kim Jong Un instructed that the factory be transformed into a modernized facility.

On 23rd September, KCNA reported on Kim Jong Un’s recent on-the-spot guidance saying: “Located in the suburbs of Pyongyang, the Taedong River Syringe Factory is a large base for the production of medical equipment, having the capacity to produce a variety of syringes.”

Reminiscing, Kim also said that the factory, built in December 2000, “rose during the Arduous March, the Kanghaeng-gun Period, under direct instigation of and energetic leadership of the General [Kim Jong Il]. This was a period the enemy viciously sought to isolate us, and natural disasters meant that everyone was forced to tighten their belts.”

While at the factory, Kim Jong Un instructed that: “not only should the factory normalize a high level of production, but also completely guarantee a high level of product quality, and undertake an energetic struggle to diversify the types of syringe produced. . . . If syringe production is to be systematically raised, and different kinds of syringe and syringe needle for a range of uses are to be produced properly, there is a need to modernize the factory in line with the demands of the knowledge economy era.”

Moreover, Kim emphasized the importance of constructing a combined production system, as well as automation, and sterilization, saying: “it is the intention of the party that the Taedong Syringe Factory will become a model and standard for our country’s medical equipment production facilities by modernizing.”

In 2007, when South Korean medical aid was offered to the North in relation to North-South medical projects, the North Korean side expressed the hope that needed supplies would be given as aid, saying: “syringes, needles and cotton balls are most needed.” They even proposed that the South Korean government aid in the construction of a syringe factory, saying “a syringe is only used once.” It is a noteworthy change that North Korea has now begun producing syringes for itself.

Article source:
‘Geological Surveys’ Are Core Front in Constructing Economically Strong Nation
IFES NK Briefs, Institute for Far Eastern Studies
2016-10-06

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Book review recommendation: Philip Park’s Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It is unfortunate that books published in South Korea are often difficult for reader’s in the United States and Europe to get a hold of without waiting out the very long waiting times for online purchases or library orders. Readers of this blog may well be familiar with Kyungnam University professor Philip H. Park’s work on the institutional side of the North Korean economy. One of professor Park’s books on the North Korean economy was recently translated into English and published under the name of Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy. Sadly I have not yet personally been able to read the book for reasons stated at the beginning of this post, but a review in Daily NK summarizes some of the core arguments:

“Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy” is a detailed history of the evolution of North Korea’s economic institutions. It is a newly published English translation of the original Korean work. The author is a professor of political science and diplomacy at Kyungnam University. The book details how a series of crises stimulated a procession of changes in North Korea’s economic strategy. Each new strategy reacted to and attempted to amend the problems created by its predecessor. However, each policy also sowed the seeds for future crisis by creating new inefficiencies.

The Argument
Phillip Park’s central contribution is to correct a common misconception about marketization and the decentralization of North Korea’s economy. Park argues that North Korea did not begin its process of marketization with the July 1st Measures in 2002 – as is commonly believed. Instead, he presents evidence that North Korea actually started spinning the gears of this process much earlier, most significantly with the adoption of the Ryonhapkiopso System (Complex Industrial System) in 1986. In theory, this economic approach allowed limited market mechanisms and practical planning to replace more ideological economic initiatives. The system’s implementation was largely a response to stagnated growth and the impending collapse of one of North Korea’s key sponsor states, the Soviet Union. Aside from inefficiency, North Korea’s principal economic problem has always been striking a balance between sectors while also pursuing self-sufficiency. The Complex Industrial System aimed to address that problem.
The author uses North Korean economic journals as his primary sources. He admits that separating the useful information from the propaganda was a laborious task. So, while the information does need to be taken with a grain of salt, we can still learn a lot about the state of North Korea’s economy by observing how academic discussions and policy recommendations have evolved over time. The book does a good job contrasting policy dialogues with the results of subsequent implementations (or lack thereof). The book’s sources help dispel the myth that North Korea’s political economy is purely monolithic. Indeed, through the book, we witness key players – academics and officials alike – arguing over milestone policies.
One note of caution: Park dives headfirst into the North Korean understanding of economics. Yes, this means a heavy dose of Marxist concepts and five-syllable jargon. But those with a rudimentary understanding of socialist politics know that seemingly obscure theoretical points are sometimes used to justify sweeping changes. In particular, changes to North Korea’s economic institutions are often motivated by theoretical assumptions about how to best transition to a fully communist state. This is actually one of the book’s major charms. After we digest the dense vocabulary, we are presented with a reasonable framework for understanding the decision making of one of the world’s most opaque and incomprehensible dynasties. That in itself is a laudable achievement.
Let’s address a few downsides. Considering that the original Korean work was published a few years ago, it would have been nice to get an expanded forward with some new observations on Kim Jong Un’s performance as an economic manager. Also, abbreviations and technical jargon are used thoroughly in the book. A glossary of terms would have been a handy reference.
Although Park’s main argument may seem technical at first glance, the repercussions of this work are vast. The most immediate and profound impact is that it forces us to reconsider the history, nature, and trajectory of North Korea’s economic transformation. Marketization is typically described as a bottom-up process of slowly expanding black market activity. But Park gives us a reason to think that the picture is slightly more nuanced. It gives us a view into the thinking of North Korean economic planners. Readers are prompted to think more deeply about how institutions shape incentives in North Korea, and how these institutions have changed over time.
Full article here:
Light and shadow: A review of ‘Rebuilding North Korea’s Economy’
Daily NK
2016-09-20
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Buy your own North Korean coal, through Alibaba

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Are you looking for the perfect birthday present or anniversary gift for your loved one? Look no further. It seems you can buy your own North Korean coal through the Chinese shopping website Alibaba.

One company, Dandong Zhícheng Metallic Material, states: “We are professional company of trading the North Korea Briquettes, choose us, trust us.” Buyers can choose to have their coal transported either through the Dalian or Dandong ports, and the company markets both coal briquettes and other types of coal products. The website contains information about the country and their products in both Chinese and Korean, but the text is blurry and appears in a small font, making it difficult to read. I am currently unable to find the original page where these descriptions appear, but below are a few screenshots:

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 22.05.17Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 22.05.31Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 22.05.52 Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 22.06.14Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 22.06.05

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Update 2016-07-03:

Voice of America (Korean version) cites this blog post here, and Yonhap in turn cites VoA here, without citing this blog.

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