Public executions curtailed in North Korea

May 10th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

How does international pressure on its human rights situation impact things on the ground in North Korea? Daily NK reports on one result. Those public executions that have previously been filmed on occasion and seen globally are now moving indoors, they report:

The North Korean authorities have been refraining from the conduct of public trials and executions, which were previously carried out to  maintain control over the residents, following a mandate issued last December.
“Until last year, individuals accused of sowing discontent or creating social disorder by offenses including cutting into electric lines [to steal power] , watching South Korean media, or attempting to defect, underwent public trials and execution by firing squad. But this year, the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security have been laying low,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 2.
“For example, a man in his 40s who helped dozens of defectors in Hoeryong was arrested in early March but not put to a public trial. The arrest went quietly, unlike a similar case that preceded it, when the state broadcast the news and conducted a series of executions to send a strong message.”
Kim Jong Un has ruthlessly executed a number of high-ranking executives, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek, in order to consolidate his grip on power. Open trials are conducted on residents to instill fear among the population.
They also cite public sentiment as a reason:
The Institute for National Security Strategy (under the National Intelligence Service) stated in its assessment last December of Kim Jong Un’s five years in power that Kim Jong Un continues to commit crimes against humanity through cycles of purges and executions of high-ranking officials.
However, as public sentiment towards the regime has worsened, law enforcement agencies are said to be becoming marginally softer in their approach. In fact, Kim Jong Un ordered a probe into human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ministry of State Security and banned public trials and executions in December 2016.
“The authorities acknowledge that the residents are going through difficulties, and thus are refraining from open trials and executions. They seem to be aware of the danger of worsening public sentiment,” the source noted.
North Korean authorities curtail public trials and executions
Kim Chae Hwan
Daily NK
2017-05-10
The development stems from a decree issued in December last year. Daily NK reported on it when it was issued:
Kim Jong Un has reportedly issued instructions to government bodies including the Ministry of People’s Security to ban further public executions.
“Kim Jong Un has issued instructions to ‘prohibit public executions’ to judicial and prosecution bodies including the Ministry of People’s Security (police). The instruction containing the orders forbids both public trials and executions,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on December 13.
“The instruction is not aimed at reducing or abolishing executions. It just means that capital punishment will be conducted privately in future.”
The North Korean authorities have often been documented carrying out public executions against those who break its draconian laws, including the distribution of South Korean TV shows. Such acts serve as an example to spread fear among residents and deter them from engaging in such activities. Under the Kim Jong Un regime, ruthless executions of high-ranking officials have been conducted for actions running ‘counter to the Party and the revolution.’
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported in October that the Kim Jong Un regime has resumed purges which were in temporary decline following the execution of Hyon Yong Chol, former defense chief of the People’s Armed Forces (MPAF). The number of people publicly executed by the regime reportedly reached 64 by September, according to the NIS.
Some suspect that Kim Jong Un’s decision to revert to private executions has been influenced by recent momentum built up by the UN and NGOs highlighting North Korea’s human rights violations, even suggesting that the North Korean authorities may be put on trial at the ICC (International Criminal Court).
“(The authorities) have been continuously conducting public executions in order to instill fear among the population, but it seems to have realized the drawbacks of the measure. The regime is presumably becoming sensitive about scenes of public executions escaping to the outside world,” a source in North Pyongan Province explained.

Full article:

North Korea orders ban on public trials and executions
Choi Song Min
Daily NK
2016-12-16
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Prison Camp 15 (Yodok) reduces prisoner housing

April 27th, 2017

In September 2015, Joseph Bermudez and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea reported that the “Revolutionizing Zone” of Yodok Prison Camp (Camp 15) had been torn down as of October 2014.

The “Revolutioninzing Zone” was for prisoners judged to be worthy of re-education through labor, and thus eligible for release. It is because there were prisoners who were released, and who later defected, that we know so much about the camp.

Based on new Google Earth imagery, it appears that additional housing inside the camp security perimeter has also been torn down sometime between June 2, 2016 and February 19, 2017.

Here is an overview of the areas where housing has been razed:

First let’s look at the housing in the “Total Control Zone” (39.699346°, 126.849473°):

Google Earth: Image date 2016-6-2

Google Earth: Image date 2017-2-19

In the above images, we can see that 38 housing units have been razed, and only seven buildings remain standing. I presume that the remaining buildings still serve an economic or administrative function.

Here is a second site where housing was razed between 2016-6-2 and 2017-2-19 ( 39.686860°, 126.844236°):

Here is a third site where housing was razed between 2016-6-2 and 2017-2-19 ( 39.704151°, 126.872365°):

What does this mean? Using this Google Earth imagery alone, it is still hard to say exactly what is happening in the camp. The new imagery only covers the eastern-half of the camp, so there may be changes on the western-half of the camp (such as the construction of new housing) that may offset the housing losses we have observed here.

Is this good news for the prisoners? I cannot say. If the housing was torn down, and new housing was not built to replace it, it is possible prisoners were executed or transferred into pre-existing housing, leading to cramped, less-sanitary conditions. Some prisoners may have been released, but they could just as easily have been transferred to the new prison camp that was opened up on the site of the closed Camp 18.

Is the camp being closed? This rumor has been floating around for several years. The theory that North Korea desires to close the camp at some date in the future is consistent with the observations we have seen–in that a process of gradual reduction in prisoners and prisoner housing is taking place over time. However, we still do not know if new housing has been built on areas that are not covered by recent satellite imagery, and we do not know if the camp’s closure will lead to an outcome that the prisoners would find welfare-enhancing (Are they being executed, transferred, or released?). As far as I can tell, the administrative portion of the camp, near the southern entrance (and the security perimeter) have seen no substantive changes over this same period.

As always, we need more imagery and more testimony.

This has been reported in Radio Free Asia.

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

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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UK freezes KNIC assets

April 24th, 2017

According to The Guardian:

The UK has frozen the assets of a North Korean company based in south-east London after claims it funnelled cash to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

The Korea National Insurance Corporation (KNIC) is registered at a property in Blackheath. The EU has already imposed sanctions against the company, which it describes as “generating substantial foreign exchange revenue which is used to support the regime in North Korea”. The move by Brussels followed an UN resolution.

The EU warned: “Those resources could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes.”

The company is registered to a detached property on Kidbrooke Park Road among suburban houses in an affluent part of London. Its entry on Companies House now describes KNIC as “closed” since 6 October 2016. Accounts show that in 2014 it had total assets of 130bn North Korean won, the equivalent of £113m.

According to EU sanctions imposed in July 2015, the KNIC’s headquarters in Pyonyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Workers’ party. In 2010 the US Treasury described Office 39 as “a secretive branch of the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that provides critical support to North Korean leadership in part through engaging in illicit economic activities and managing slush funds and generating revenues for the leadership”.

A spokesman for HM Treasury said: “We cannot comment on individual cases. However, the UK has fully complied and implemented the UN sanctions regime in relation to North Korea and North Korean companies.”

Through the EU regulations, the UK imposes restrictions on a range of goods from entering or leaving North Korea and imposes a travel ban and an asset freeze against people designated as engaging in or providing support for its programmes for weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

Under the same sanctions, the funds and economic resources have been frozen of four Hamburg-based North Koreans who ran the KNIC branch in Germany and two other regime officials who have since moved back to Pyongyang.

The Sunday Times, which first reported the freeze on the assets of the UK branch, reported that a North Korean man at the Blackheath property told it that the insurer’s main UK director, Ko Su-gil, had left Britain in September.

Read the full story here:
UK freezes assets of North Korean company based in south London
The Guardian
2017-4-23

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Overview of Rason SEZ legislation

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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N. Korea emphasizes corporate profits in economic policies

April 4th, 2017

According to Yonhap:

North Korea appears to stress the importance of increasing corporate profits, an indication of a shift in its economic policies from centralized planning, according to a North Korean university’s newspaper obtained Tuesday by Yonhap News Agency.

The newspaper, published by Kim Il-sung University, North Korea’s top university, on March 5, 2017, carried an article saying, “Net profits gained by individual corporations are fundamental to the establishment of a powerful economy.”

The article, titled “Establishing Way of Economic Management in Our Own Style Leads to Basis of Economic Powerhouse,” apparently lays emphasis on individual corporations’ profits becoming the financial basis for economic development, encouraging the corporate sector to make more profits.

“All corporations should set up scientific strategies and management strategies of their own and ensure they have the maximum effect in their production and management activities so that they could fulfill their duties to provide the state with more profits,” the article said.

This is interpreted as the North Korean economic authorities’ request that corporations focus their management activities on seeking effect and profits rather than relying on centralized planning and guided management.

Since the North’s current leader Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012, the North has taken measures to achieve economic reforms aimed at expanding elements of the market economy, including the country’s new economic management system announced in June 2012.

The university’s newspaper also indicated that the North has introduced a set of measures to strengthen corporations’ autonomy to its economy. Under the implementation of the measures, called “the socialist corporate responsible management system,” companies are given more autonomy than ever in their management and take care of economic problems arising from their production and management processes on their own, according to the article.

But the article made sure that the ruling party will not depart from its control on the economy, saying, “In our country’s socialist system, corporations’ independent management activities are to be carried out under the guidance of the party right down the line.

“I understand North Korean corporations currently pay 30 to 40 percent of their profits to the authorities,” said Cho Bong-hyun, a senior analyst at IBK Economic Research Institute. “The more profits corporations earn, the more national finance increases.”

Cho said the North appears to support its finance by spurring corporations into increasing profits amid the implementation of U.N. sanctions aimed at halting Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea emphasizes corporate profits in economic policies
Yonhap
2017-4-4

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China continues mineral imports from North Korea, despite sanctions

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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The new Dandong-Pyongyang flight

March 29th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Rodong Sinmun carried a short/concise article announcing the new flight service’s premiere:

A Pyongyang-Dandong air service was opened. The plane will depart from Pyongyang at 9:00 Tuesday and Friday every week and arrive in Dandong at 9:50 (9:20 local time). And it will leave Dandong at 10:50 (10:20 local time) and arrive in Pyongyang at 11:40. The first plane with passengers aboard arrived in Pyongyang on Mar. 28.

The opening of the air service will provide conveniences to those wishing to tour the DPRK.

Meanwhile, Daily NK reports:

Liaoning province authorities are promoting the route’s low prices and short travel time as advantages for potential customers. One way fares are 800 yuan (approximately US $115), while round trip fares are 1,500 yuan (approximately $215), with the trip taking around 30 minutes. The Dandong-Pyongyang flight is listed as JS782, while the Pyongyang-Dandong flight is listed as JS781. However, the source notes that locals are unenthusiastic about flying with Koryo Airlines – North Korea’s state-owned carrier.
“Amongst themselves, residents are expressing concern about Koryo Airlines’ obsolete equipment, and wondering whether the company can guarantee passenger safety,” the source said during a telephone conversation with Daily NK on March 24. “People are sarcastically quipping, ‘North Korea has a special kind of charm that makes you worry.’”
Some are having trouble believing the airlines’ claim that the new line was opened because the number of people traveling back and forth between Pyongyang and Dandong is increasing.
A new bridge under construction on the Yalu River will link up China’s Dandong with North Korea’s Sinuiju, but has yet to be completed. Ever since the United States Justice Department sanctioned the Chinese company Liaoning Hongxiang on suspicion of evading US sanctions on North Korea, Dandong residents have become wary of engaging in business with North Koreans.
According to the source, Chinese residents in the area are saying that “Dandong has already been fooled multiple times by North Korea. Our residents don’t go to North Korea for vacations. Only naive people from the inner regions of China cross the border. So the pre-existing flights from Beijing to North Korea should suffice.”
Additionally, the new air route is also unpopular because Chinese residents are wary of North Korea’s continued obsession with nuclear weapons and missiles despite international condemnation, said an additional source close to North Korean affairs in China.

Full article:
Chinese residents sigh as Dandong-Pyongyang flights are unveiled
Kim Ga Young
Daily NK
2017-03-27

(UPDATE 2017-03-30): Yonhap on restrictive measures by Russia and China on DPRK-related air traffic:

Russia and China have recently adopted punitive measures affecting North Korea’s aviation industry in a bid to mount pressure on the regime following its series of military provocations, the foreign ministry here said Thursday.

“Last May, the European Union banned North Korean airplanes or airplanes that depart from North Korea from landing on the territory of or flying in the airspace of the EU member countries,” Cho June-hyuck, spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a press briefing.

He also referred to the U.S. and South Korea’s decisions in December to put North Korea’s sole airline Air Koryo on their sanctions lists as well as Australia’s on-going push to halt its flight service assistance to the North Korean air carrier, involving technology, training and financial support.

“As the outcome of the lead by South Korea, the U.S. and EU, Russian air carrier Aeroflot has recently suspended its code-sharing arrangement (with North Korea) and Air China, the only foreign airline servicing the North Korean route, is reportedly set to stop its flights to North Korea from mid-April,” the spokesman noted.

“This series of actions taken marks a meaningful step that took into account concerns that Air Koryo is being used in North Korea’s illegal activities,” he said, also referring to Thailand and Kuwait’s suspension of their air routes to the North last year.

Cho also pointed to growing sanctions efforts in the Central and South America with which, he said, North Korea is making a point of increasing ties in order to escape its worsening isolation from the rest of the world.

“Yesterday, the government of Ecuador announced withdrawal of its visa-waiver policy with North Korea,” he said. “It was a very notable action given that the Ecuadorian government has kept an ideological bond with North Korea.”

He said the recent action is in line with the condemnatory stances over North Korea’s recent provocations announced by the Caribbean community as well as Nicaragua, a traditional ally of North Korea.

Full article:
Russia, China adopt sanctions on N. Korea’s flight services: ministry
Yonhap News
2017-03-30

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

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

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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