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More Friday Fun: Only in North Korea…

Friday, March 25th, 2016

ITEM 1: The PATENTED “Ostar Blood Purifying Health Watch”

Ostar-Blood-watch-2016-3

I don’t buy any watch that does not purify my blood. It is the second most important attribute after accurately telling the time. Who knew that wearing more gaudy jewelry would actually improve your health?!

ITEM 2:  North Korean magicians make handicapped children disappear!

The North Korean Disabled Arts Association put on an impressive performance of music, dancing, and magic. This video marks the first time I had heard of the group or seen its impressive performances. However, I did have to groan, when at the 15:51 mark the North Korean magician put a handicapped girl (in a wheelchair) into a large box only to make her disappear. This is creepy because for much of its history, North Korea has not treated the disabled well (to put it mildly). It’s as if North Korean magicians are carrying out the national policy right there on stage. By the time the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” performance begins at the 37:40 mark, I thought, “Are there any little people left in Pyongyang?” We know from declassified documents and other sources that they were deported from Pyongyang, and probably sterilized, from very early in the nation’s history.

Still, perhaps the creation of this group, and the public airing of its performances, indicate that a new and more inclusive era has arrived in DPRK society. This may be one of the ways that foreign NGOs have changed North Korean social norms for the better.

ITEM 3: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Kim Jong-un’s 3-D cinema glasses immortalized for posterity.  Another great use of state resources…

KJU-3-D-Glasses

Here is the source.

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Deforestation in North Korea continues, new data shows

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yesterday I stumbled upon a nice interactive World Bank data map that shows where forests have been lost and gained since the 1990s. Forestry is one of those rare areas where fairly extensive data exists for North Korea. Of course, all data has its faults and flaws, and figures on North Korea should always be taken with a grain of salt. But even if the figures aren’t fully correct to the last decimal, they show an interesting trend.

The World Bank World Development Indicators figures seem to be coming from the Forest and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s Global Forest Resource Assessment, and their latest study of global forestry assets was done just last year (2015). Using these figures, I created a graph showing North Korea’s forestry area (in blue), using South Korea as a baseline comparison.

forestry DPRK ROK smaller

Data source: World Bank World Development Indicators. Graph created by Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein.

Deforestation is far from a new problem in North Korea. What’s interesting is that it appears to continue without signs of abating.

This data stretches all the way to 2015. According to one estimate, North Korean forests shrank by about 17 percent between 1970 and 1990. By the end of 2008, the United Nations estimated that around one third of all forests had been lost in North Korea. If the World Bank data is accurate, it suggests that this trend has continued exponentially, and that the situation has continued to worsen. According to the World Bank data, North Korea lost almost 40 percent of its forests between 1990 and 2015.

As this blog has laid out before, the cycle of problems is well known: people essentially cut down trees as a form of coping behavior in the face of resource scarcity, in order to clear areas for farmland, and to use wood as an energy source. When the annual torrential rains sweep over the Korean peninsula, the lack of trees contributes to soil erosion, spoiling harvests and causing devastation. Kim Jong-un highlighted forestry as an important policy area in 2015. The priority makes a lot of sense, but so far, the solutions don’t seem all that promising.

North Korea celebrated a “Tree Planting Day” about three weeks ago, and the Russian embassy in Pyongyang participated in the celebrations. Their pictures (see this link for their Facebook album) give an interesting snapshot of how it might look across the country as the regime’s tree planting drive unfolds:

A North Korean forestry official (?) giving instructions about tree planting. Photo credits: Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

A North Korean forestry official (?) giving instructions about tree planting. Photo credits: Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

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The Russian ambassador and a young North Korean planting a tree together. Photo credits: Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

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Young North Korean men in Red Cross (적십자) vests lining up for tree planting. Photo credits: Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Young North Koreans listening to tree planting instructions. Photo credits: Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Instructions for how to plant and tend to trees. Photo credits: Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

Instructions for how to plant and tend to trees. Photo credits: Russian embassy in Pyongyang.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anniversary of State Planning and statistic organs observed

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

State-plannin-commission-2015-8-6

Pictured Above (Google Earth): State Planning Commission

KCNA reports on the anniversary of the State planning Commission:

A national meeting was held at the Central Youth Hall Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of state planning and statistic organs.

President Kim Il Sung was very busy building new democratic Korea after its liberation but founded the first central planning and statistic organ on March 6, Juche 35 (1946) on the basis of feats and experience gained in the flames of the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle.

The establishment of the central planning and statistic organ helped start a new history of planned economy, a new history of popular statistics which could put overall economic development of the country under control in a uniform way and develop it at a rapid tempo.

Under the wise leadership of the President, the socialist system of planning and statistic work was established, ranks of officials were built and the material and technical foundation was consolidated. As a result, the socialist planning and statistics have performed their mission and role as a powerful weapon for the revolution and construction.

It would be nice to know how busy these guys still are.

The DPRK ceased publishing economic performance statistics (Net Material Product-NMP tables) in 1965, and the last state budget  was announced for FY 2001 (21,570,800,000 won), but no budget numbers have been reported since, only percentage increases in relevant areas. Today, the DPRK releases economic data only on rare occasions, but aside from the lack of availability, there are numerous other problems with using the DPRK’s economic data to obtain credible insight into the North Korean economy.

I post DPRK economic statistics sources here.

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Some recent North Korean stamps

Monday, February 15th, 2016

A North Korea watcher just sent me some recent North Korean stamps that I thought I would share.

World Wildlife Foundation (Birds): The WWF is probably not receiving any donations from the use of their logo on these stamps…

WWF_BM

Pyongyang Standard Time: In August 2015, North Korea created it’s own time zone.

DPRK-Standard-Time

Let’s plant more trees: North Korea has devoted considerable public resources towards reforestation. Tree farms under the government and  military are popping up all over the country.

trees-stamp

Recent accomplishments: I am sure there is more to this one, but I have not had it translated yet

Accomplishmentsstamp

North Korean currency: In 2009 the DPRK renominated the currency. Between then and 2012, the value of the currency relative to the US$ fell from 100KPW to nearly 9,000 in January 2013. They currency has remained stable at about 8,000KPW/1US$ since then.

5wonstamp 10wonstamp

50wonstamp 100wonstamp

200wonstamp 500wonstamp

1000wonstamp 2000wonstamp

5000wonstamp

 

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Science and technology to strengthen the ‘self-development first’ principle

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Recently, Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece for the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) released a commentary entitled, “Strengthening Self-Reliance through Science and Technology” to elaborate on the term, ‘self-development-first’ principle mentioned in this year’s New Year’s speech.

The ‘self-development first’ policy was discussed in an editorial titled, “Self-Development Is a Powerful Weapon of Building a Powerful Socialist Nation,” which appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of the newspaper.

Previously, Kim Jong Un stated, “The principle of giving priority to self-development should be maintained in building a thriving socialist country,” and referred to ‘self-development-first principle’ to signify the power to strengthen oneself where “self-development alone is the road to sustaining the dignity of our country and our nation and to paving a broad avenue for the revolution and construction.”

In addition, ‘self-development’ was emphasized as a principle that protected and highlighted ‘socialism of our-way.’ The newspaper further elaborated that in order to promote economic development and improve the livelihoods of the people ‘self-development-first principle’ must be upheld. Moreover, it stressed that powerful nations should not be worshipped and becoming import-dependent must be avoided. In other words, the antonym for ‘self-development’ was ‘worship of big nations’ and ‘import-dependent.’

In last year’s new year’s speech, Kim Jong Un used the term ‘import disease’ to refer to ‘import-dependence’ as he stressed, “All the factories and enterprises should wage a dynamic struggle to get rid of the proclivity to import and ensure the domestic production of raw and other materials and equipment, while sprucing themselves up by taking their cue from the model units put forward by the Party.”

In this regard, North Korea boasted on specific technological achievements such as subway trains as well as “Juche-based metallurgical industry and model and standard factories of the era of the knowledge-driven economy in various parts of the country . . . opening a new road of advance for developing the overall economy and improving the people’s standard of living.”

North Korea’s emphasis on ‘self-dependence’ is seen as a way to make a breakthrough in a difficult situation with international economic sanctions enforced to make up for ‘lacking’ and ‘inadequate’ resources from the outside world.

The newspaper particularly stressed, “self-development principle is based on science and technology and is an impetus to achieve economic revival.” It added, “Self-development principle inevitably calls for emphasis on science and technology. Self-development can be developed more powerfully and in rapid speed only with the backing of modern science and technology which can serve as the basis to achieve the prosperity of the nation to make a new leap in the construction of a strong nation.”

Ultimately, the editorial explained ‘self-development-first principle’ in the current stage is implemented through promotion of science and technology, which is seen as the key to solve the immediate tasks of achieving economic development and improvement of people’s standard of living.

Kim Jong Un’s announcement of ‘self-development-first principle’ and Rodong Sinmun’s elaboration of the principle in this recent editorial, in conjunction with the calls for science and technology development, reflects and exemplifies what North Korea’s current stance and methodology is in constructing its economy and nation.

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Slogans on ‘self-development-first’ principle emulate Kim Il Sung era slogans

Monday, January 18th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

From early on, Kim Jong Un has attempted to strengthen his political power through emulating his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Recently political slogans from Kim Il Sung era are reappearing.

North Korea’s propaganda website Uriminzokkirir (based in China) claimed in an article entitled “Great Victory Based on Self-Development-First Principle” (posted on January 12) that “the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance through the revolutionary historical course has sublimated into powerful policy of self-development-first principle of today that produced miraculous and dazzling reality surprising the entire world.”

In his New Year speech, Kim Jong Un used the expression “self-development-first principle” for the first time. This slogan is reminiscent of the Kim Il Sung era slogan “self-reliance.”

According to Tongil Sinbo, North Korea’s state-run weekly publication based in Japan, “self-development (jagangryok) refers to the power to empower oneself through his own strength,” and added, “the great Kim Il Sung has created our republic to be a model nation, recognized as a powerful state of self-reliance.”

Kim Jong Un’s new year’s speech emphasized the spirit of ‘self-development-first policy’: “The principle of giving priority to self-development should be maintained in building a thriving socialist country. Worship of big countries and dependence on foreign forces is the road to national ruin; self-development alone is the road to sustaining the dignity of our country and our nation and to paving a broad avenue for the revolution and construction. With affection, trust, dignity and pride in everything of our own, we should achieve the great cause of building a thriving nation and realize the people’s beautiful dreams and ideals without fail by our own efforts, technology and resources.”

Kim Il Sung, in his lifetime coined the term “jaryokgaengsaeng” or “self-reliance” to signify “self-reliance in economy” and stressed that “to build an independent national economy signifies the creation of a nation that can live on its own, a self-sufficient nation.” Kim Il Sung’s “jaryokgaengsaeng” (“self-reliance”) and Kim Jong Un’s “jagangryok” (“self-development first”) are in essence parallel terms.

Since taking the helm of leadership, Kim Jong Un has emulated the appearance of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, including his gait, clothing, and style, in order to draw loyalty from his people.

Not surprisingly, North Korean media has used the term “self-development-first principle” on a daily basis since it was first iterated in Kim Jong Un’s new year’s speech.

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North Korea’s H-Bomb Test: The (Impossible) Economic Context

Thursday, January 7th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Who decides what in Pyongyang? Do fierce political battles rage between hardliners and reformers, where the former group struggles to replace nuclear belligerence with liberal market economics and trade? Whenever a purge or suspicious death occurs in Pyongyang, speculations come alive about potential policy changes by the regime.

It is a fool’s errand to make guesses about how North Korea’s claimed (but unlikely) hydrogen bomb test fits into the speculative dichotomy of modernizers versus conservatives. After all, such simple divisions are rare in the political life of any country. But looking at the test in the context of the past year makes it clear that Pyongyang is pursuing a messy mix of policies that are mutually exclusive.

At the same time as one “hand” of the regime attempts to draw foreign investment, diversify its investor base to include other countries than China, and take its industrial zones from plans to reality, the other “hand” is actively working against economic progress by nuclear tests and diplomatic belligerence. Either the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, or it does, but just doesn’t want it to succeed.

Perhaps this is the way that Byungjin – Kim Jong-un’s strategy of parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy – was intended to work. (If so, the regime seems to be dedicating much more resources and energy to the nuclear part, while the economic one still mostly consists of words.) In any case, Pyongyang is trying to achieve two goals at the same time, and it isn’t working.

For example, in 2013, the North Korean regime announced the creation of over ten special economic zones, with more added in both 2014 and 2015. Progress has been uneven. Still, the North Korean regime has continuously indicated that the zones are a priority and will continue to be improved. Just in November last year, new regulations were announced for the special economic zones. Visitors and analysts report that elite businesses have been doing better and better in North Korea, and that the economic environment has become increasingly freer.

Whatever the list of Pyongyang’s priorities may look like, January 6th was not a good day for those North Koreans tasked with planning, building and administering the country’s special economic zones and projects. North Korea is already an unlikely destination for most foreign investors. Many low-wage competitors already sit relatively close by the country, such as Vietnam and Cambodia. North Korea’s comparative advantages are really quite few. Things are already difficult and the claimed H-bomb test certainly won’t help.

The international sanctions are just one part of the problem. Even with knowledge of what the current sanctions regime permits investors to do, the test is a stark reminder that legal hurdles will keep being added as nuclear and missile tests continue. This should deter any investor without special connections, political motives or a financial death wish. Not to mention the terrible PR and public criticism that would follow any (at least western) company deciding to invest in North Korea.

And then, there is of course the China factor. Sure, Beijing doesn’t comply with sanctions the way it is obligated to do. Moreover, as the Choson Exchange blog points out, North Korean and Chinese businesses tend to find a way to get around the sanctions. Last but not least, to a large extent, Chinese investment and cooperation with North Korea is a regional issue, with much of it driven by the northeastern border regions that depend on trade and exchange with the country.

But this doesn’t mean that Beijing won’t ever take concrete action felt by Pyongyang. China’s worries about North Korea’s nuclear tests are arguably more warranted than those of any other country. Residents in Yanji, a Chinese city on the North Korean border, even felt tremors from the bomb test, and teachers and students were reportedly evacuated from schools near the border. A trend is only a trend until it is no more. At the very least, events like the nuclear test don’t exactly make Chinese officials more prone to want to facilitate economic cooperation and infrastructure investments for North Korea.

It’s almost painful to think of all those hours spent in the North Korean administration, drawing up plans for new economic development zones and projects, new laws for investments and other institutional changes to improve the economy, only to see their colleagues in another part of government work in the opposite direction. If (and this is a big “if”) there are indeed policy factions in the government, with modernizers and conservatives, the latter have scored a victory on January 6th, at the expense of the former.

UPDATE 2015-01-07: James Pearson and Ju-Min Park at Reuters have done a very interesting overview (with Michael Madden of NK Leadership Watch) of the people behind North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s an important illustration of the fact that interest groups are not just a thing of business, but also of politics and ideas. Read it here.

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Sinuiju-River Amnok Tourist Zone of DPRK opened to visitors

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Sinuiju-River-Amnok-Tourist-Zone-2015-12-24

Sinuiju-trade-zone-2015-10-cropped

I noticed the construction of this area some time ago and reported it in 38 North last month. Now the North Koreans have told us something about it. According to KCNA (December 22):

Sinuiju-River Amnok Tourist Zone of DPRK Opened to Visitors

The Sinuiju-River Amnok tourist zone in the DPRK was opened to visitors with due ceremony on Sunday.

The zone, developed in the shore of the River Amnok jointly by the Korea Myohyangsan Travel Company and the Dandong International Travel Agency of China, has modern all-round service facilities.

Present at its opening ceremony were Ri Ung Chol, deputy director-general of the State General Bureau of Tourism, and other officials concerned of the DPRK and officials concerned and tourists from China.

An inauguration address and a congratulatory speech were made at the ceremony before cutting the tape for the completion of the tourist zone.

Then its participants went round the zone.

Here is some additional information from the Yonhap (2016-1-1):

Chinese media reports said the Chinese travel agency invested 50 million yuan ($7.6 billion) to build the facilities and construction begun in April last year.

The Chinese tourists arrived at the North Korean tourism zone on Wednesday, according to Chinese media reports.

The North Korean city of Sinuiju sits just the opposite of the Chinese border city of Dandong, where about 70 percent of bilateral trade between the allies is being conducted.

About 60,000 Chinese people are estimated to travel to North Korea via Dandong a year, with another 10,000 Chinese making tours to the North a year via Hunchun, according to Chinese industry estimates.

And according to the Choson Ilbo:

North Korea has opened a riverside passport-free, visa-free zone where Chinese tourists can shop duty-free has opened on the shore of the Apnok River in Sinuiju, China News Service reported Wednesday.

Visitors can stay for a day and also enjoy North Korean food and various performances, but they will have no access to the rest of the country.

The tourism zone sits at the point where a recently completed bridge crossing the Apnok River starts. “It was developed jointly by North Korean authorities and a travel agency in Dandong,” the news agency said.

It measures 130,000 sq.m and has cost 50 million yuan since construction began in April. It contains restaurants, duty-free shops, a theater and a cruise boat terminal.

It can accommodate up to 10,000 tourists at a time and a full tour can take up to five hours.

The passport-free rule is a huge departure for North Korea, which normally confiscates the passports of Chinese day visitors until they leave.

Instead they can get a travel pass by simply presenting their ID card. It is in theory issued the same day.

“The zone is an island-like area that has been built after part of the Apnok River shore on the side of Sinuiju was reclaimed,” a source in Dandong said. “It’s impossible for Chinese tourists to enter the North Korean mainland from there because soldiers block the road to Sinuiju.”

According to NK News:

Tour operator Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) told NK News the new zone was currently open to Chinese tourists who will not require a visa to cross into the DPRK when visiting the area.

“The tour will cost Chinese nationals 300RMB ($46) and that includes the return trip on the boat,” YPT guide Rowan Beard said.

“It’s just a typical little holiday zone that the Chinese visitors would enjoy. Shopping and food,” Beard said.

See this additional post on the Sinuiju International Economic Zone.

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Ri Ul-sol funeral procession

Monday, November 30th, 2015

For what it is worth, here is the route taken by Ri Ul-sol’s funeral procession:

ri-ul-sol-funeral

It started at the Central Worker’s Hall and ended at the Patriotic Martyr’s Cemetery. The route is approximately 17.5km (10.87 miles).

Michael Madden has info on Ri Ul-sol here, here, here, and here.

 

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The political economy of Pyongyang’s new subway cars

Monday, November 30th, 2015

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The upgrades of Pyongyang seem to continue with no signs of slowing down. Kim Jong-un has made Pyongyang’s massive facelift into one of the hallmarks of his tenure. Not just theme parks have been given attention. Since a few years back, people have spoken of a “building boom” in Pyongyang. Many believe there is a political calculation behind it all: happy capital city elites, happy regime.

In the rest of the country, however, not much is happening. If the regime is betting on being able to keep elites happy by building them nicer things, it is certainly placing a lot of eggs in the same geographical basket. Upgrading Pyongyang might make North Korea look wealthier to visitors and the occasional reporter, but that doesn’t mean that the economy is really on a new track.

The latest in a long line of stark reminders of the vast differences between Pyongyang and the rest of the country is the report that the capital city is getting new subway cars. The iconic ones from East Berlin may come to be retired. Earlier this month, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim had taken a test ride on a newly manufactured subway car, from Kaeson station (near Pyongyang’s Arch of Triumph) through four different stops.

Kim, of course, gave a few words of wisdom: he praised the performance of the car, approving both of the speed and the breaks. He went on to say that the new train car felt safe, and fulfilled all the demands of public transportation. With “our Juche capacity (주체적력량) and scientific technology, we can manufacture everything.”

These things may of course hold propaganda value. Pyongyang as the heart of the revolution has been a longstanding theme in the propaganda, and North Korea is hardly the only country in the world where the capital city holds a higher standard than other places. Still, one should not mistake new subway cars or other infrastructure upgrades for signs of profound economic improvement. While new subway cars are manufactured in Pyongyang, aid organizations have continued to warn of a food deficit.

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