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

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

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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North Koreans suffering under drought

July 3rd, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

From Daily NK:

Previously we reported that many residents of North Hamgyong Province were more worried about flood than drought due to traumatic memories of the widespread flooding last year. But in other regions, farmers are deeply concerned about the ongoing drought.
People are saying that it will be difficult to farm in most regions due to the lack of water. According to sources in Taehongdan County and Paekam County in Ryanggang Province, the underground water sources that were once used for drinking water have dried up due to an unprecedented and severe drought.
Ryanggang Province is famous for being the location of Mt Paektu. But Taehongdan County and Paekam County are notorious for water supply issues, as a majority of the land is contains large volumes of sand. Due to this environment, underground water sources have diminished quickly this year, and the valley streams are said to be filled with residents collecting water from early dawn.
The regions near Mt Paektu suffer from a lack of water every year, but is this year worse than normal?
Yes, the water shortages are a chronic problem, so residents resort to underground water, using a manual pump. But now the underground water supplies have dried up. Residents are deeply concerned, wondering when they can finally live without having to worry about basic necessities. When one thing improves, like the food security issue, something else goes wrong. People know that farming will be very difficult if the drought continues.
Ryanggang Province is not the only region suffering from drought. According to Daily NKs sources, rice planting has generally started at a later date than last year in most regions. People are said to be digging wells under the scorching summer sun in their desperate search for new sources of water.
It seems that not only farmers, but also ordinary people are suffering from the drought. Can you provide more details?
According to a resident in Taehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, the drought has been severe since early spring this year and the furrows are all covered with dust. The farmers have no specific measures to cope with the situation, as the pumping facility is dilapidated and there are not many places to draw water from.
The 10.18 Collective Farm in Undok is also suffering under the drought. Residents have to walk tens of kilometers to draw water, as the village streams are parched.
Some merchants are purchasing drinking water in large volumes and selling it at a slightly cheaper price. The drinking water is said to be selling like hotcakes in the markets. So the solution to the urgent need for drinking water has come through the markets and private vendors.
That is good to hear. The merchants are adapting quickly to the changing environments.
Yes. Merchants are most aware of the needs of the rest of the population, as they survive off good trading decisions.
This is actually helpful for the residents as they can purchase drinking water at an affordable price. So its a win-win situation.
However, a constant supply of water from the markets is not possible, so some residents are said be installing water pumps from place to place to draw underground water.
Residents in rural areas must find it difficult to constantly purchase water with their limited budgets. How much does drinking water cost?
Mineral water was originally purchased mostly by people traveling by train or merchants going on long-distance business trips using servicha (transportation and delivery services). Also, some of the donju purchased mineral water, thinking that local tap water might be contaminated. However, most residents have been using water from wells, spring water, or underground water drawn by pump and because the underground water all dried up so fast, people have no choice but to purchase mineral water.
The bottled mineral water brands currently available in North Korea include Paektu Spring Water, which is jointly produced by a North Korean company and a foreign company, Ryongak Spring Water, which is produced in Pyongyang, and Sindok Spring Water, produced in Onchon County, South Pyongan Province. Of these three, Sindok Spring Water is said to be the most popular.
Sindok Spring Water is claimed to be high quality and is supplied to Kim Jong Uns family and high-ranking officials. Merchants are selling the water at 500-550 KPW per bottle, which is 100 KPW lower than usual.
Full article:
North Korean residents suffering under severe drought
Unification Media Group/Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2017-07-03
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Ri Jong Ho, high-level defector and former official in Office 39, says North Korea gets much more oil from Russia than previously known

July 1st, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In a fascinating interview by Kyodo News’s Tomotaro Inoue, Ri Jong Ho, a former high-level official in Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, makes several fascinating claims about the supply of fuel to North Korea:

North Korea secures up to 300,000 tons of oil products from Russia each year through Singapore-based dealers, a defector who formerly managed funds for the leadership has told Kyodo News, posing a challenge for the United States as it seeks to isolate Pyongyang.

“North Korea has procured Russia-produced fuel from Singapore brokers and others since the 1990s…It is mostly diesel oil and partly gasoline,” Ri Jong Ho, 59, a former senior official of Office 39 of the Workers’ Party of Korea, said recently in the U.S. capital in his first interview with media under his own name.

Ri also said North Korea relies more on Russia than China for fuel to keep its economy moving, indicating that the U.S. drive for Beijing to restrict oil supplies over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs will only have a limited effect.

“It is a wrong perception that North Korea is completely dependent on China,” he said.

Petroleum products have been shipped to North Korea by tankers leaving Vladivostok and Nakhodka, both in the Russian Far East, with the fuel widely used for cars, ships and trains, helping to support the North’s economy, Ri said.

Other sources familiar with the fuel deals said the petroleum products ending up in North Korea are often purchased by brokers who claim they are destined for China, with the items procured using forged paperwork.

Ri, who defected to South Korea with his family in October 2014, provided details of the activities of Office 39.

The secretive entity, said to have been established by former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in May 1974, is subject to international sanctions as the United States and other Western countries believe it is engaged in illicit economic activities and the management of slush funds for the leadership.

He said North Korea has been trying to reduce its economic reliance on China, Pyongyang’s most important benefactor, since leader Kim Jong Un issued an order to expand trade with Russia and Southeast Asian countries in August 2014.

The order followed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to South Korea a month earlier, during which he and then South Korean President Park Geun Hye expressed opposition to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. It was the first time for a Chinese president to visit South Korea before traveling to the North.

Ri said the North Korean leader was “infuriated” by the visit, going so far as to call China an “enemy state,” and began taking measures to boost trade with Russia.

According to Ri, Office 39 has five central groups and systematically acquires foreign currency by sending laborers overseas as well as through gold mining and exports.

“It is an organization that manages the supreme leader’s coffers and the party’s funds to rule the country. It also leads trade activities to earn foreign currency,” Ri said. The office has enormous power as it is directly linked to the leadership and is independent of other government organs, he added.

Ri admitted that Office 39 has evaded U.N. sanctions by asking Chinese and Russian contacts to allow the use of their names for the opening of bank accounts for trade settlement.

The activities of Office 39 require the involvement of hundreds of thousands of people, including those in rural areas who produce items for export. Ri said the bureau is now headed by Chon Il Chun, first vice department director of the party’s Central Committee and a former classmate of Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father.

A native of Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast, Ri was told to work in Pyongyang by the Central Committee in the mid-1980s. He operated a shipping company at Office 39’s Daehung group and later headed a trade control section in the group between 1998 and 2004.

The Daehung group earns revenue through farm exports and shipping operations, among other means. With exclusive rights to trade “matsutake” mushrooms and snow crabs, it was actively shipping those products to Japan before Tokyo imposed a total ban on trade with the North about 10 years ago.

The four other central groups are Kumgang, which dominates gold export activities, Daesong, involved in the shipment of processed products and intermediate trade overseas, Daesong Bank, in charge of the office’s banking operations, and a group dispatching workers to other countries.

Asked about the possibility that the foreign currency earned by North Korea is being used for its nuclear and missile development programs, Ri only said, “It is up to the supreme leader how to use the funds.”

North Korea receives 500,000 tons of crude oil each year through a pipeline from China, resulting in around 70,000 to 100,000 tons of gasoline and about 100,000 tons of diesel oil after refining, but the oil products are exclusively used by the North Korean army and are not good enough for cars that carry the elite, Ri said.

He also said crude oil purchased from other countries is refined by foreign companies based in China, leading to the importation into North Korea of an additional 50,000 to 100,000 tons of gasoline.

Full article here:

N. Korea procuring Russian fuel via Singapore dealers: defector

Tomotaro Inoue

Kyodo News

 

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US sanctions of Chinese entities over transactions with North Korea

June 30th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reuters reports:

The United States imposed sanctions on two Chinese citizens and a shipping company on Thursday for helping North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and accused a Chinese bank of laundering money for Pyongyang.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the actions were designed to cut off funds that North Korea uses to build its weapons programs in defiance of U.N. Security Council and unilateral sanctions.

“We will follow the money and cut off the money,” he told a news conference.

A Treasury statement identified the bank as the Bank of Dandong and the firm as Dalian Global Unity Shipping Co Ltd. It identified the two individuals as Sun Wei and Li Hong Ri.

The sanctions imposed on the two Chinese citizens and the shipping company blacklists them from doing business with U.S.-tied companies and people.

Bank of Dandong did not respond immediately to a request for comment. A staff member at Dalian Global Unity would not comment on the sanctions and subsequent calls to the firm’s office in Dalian went unanswered.

Mnuchin said U.S. officials were continuing to look at other companies that may be helping North Korea and may roll out additional sanctions.

U.S. foreign policy experts say Chinese companies have long had a key role in financing Pyongyang. However, Mnuchin said the action was not being taken to send China a message. “This wasn’t aimed at China. We continue to work with them,” he said.

China did not respond favorably:

Asked about the U.S. sanctions on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said that China consistently opposes unilateral sanctions imposed outside the U.N. framework.

“We strongly urge the United States to immediately correct its relevant wrong moves to avoid affecting bilateral cooperation on the relevant issue,” he said, without elaborating.

China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said China opposed the United States using domestic laws to impose “long-arm jurisdiction” on Chinese companies or individuals, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Friday.

“If a Chinese company or individual has acted in a way that violates United Nations Security Council resolutions, then China will investigate and handle the issue in accordance with Chinese law,” he told an event in Washington on Thursday evening.

Full article here:
U.S. targets Chinese bank, company, two individuals over North Korea
Joel Schectman and David Brunnstrom
Reuters
2017-06-30

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CNPC suspends fuel exports to North Korea

June 28th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In late June, Reuters reported that the Chinese state-owned enterprise, China National Petroleum Corporation, had suspended its exports of fuel to North Korea, ostensibly because of concerns that North Korean buyers would not be able to pay:

China National Petroleum Corp has suspended sales of fuel to North Korea over concerns the state-owned oil company won’t get paid, as pressure mounts on Pyongyang to rein in its nuclear and missile programmes, three sources told Reuters.

It’s unclear how long the suspension will last. A prolonged cut would threaten critical supplies of fuel and force North Korea to find alternatives to its main supplier of diesel and gasoline, as scrutiny of China’s close commercial ties with its increasingly isolated neighbour intensifies.

CNPC and the Ministry of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment. North Korea’s embassy in Beijing declined to comment.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked about the sale suspension and whether the Chinese government put pressure on CNPC to make this decision, said: “I do not understand this situation you are talking about” and declined to elaborate.

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said CNPC decided to put fuel sales on hold “over the last month or two” and described it as a “commercial decision”.

“It’s no longer worth the risks,” said the source. Chinese and international banks are stepping up compliance checks on companies dealing with countries on the U.S. sanctions list, such as North Korea, he said.

The North Korean agents who mostly buy the diesel and gasoline have been unable recently to pay for the supplies — CNPC normally requires upfront payments, the source said.

Reuters was unable to determine if the agents have started facing credit problems with Chinese and international banks worried about sanctions compliance issues.

Two other sources briefed about CNPC’s decision confirmed the suspension of diesel sales, but did not know directly about the gasoline move. The three people declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter and are not authorised to speak to the media.

PRICES SURGE IN NORTH

Last year, China shipped just over 96,000 tonnes of gasoline and almost 45,000 tonnes of diesel worth a combined $64 million to North Korea, where it is used across the economy from fishermen and farmers to truckers and the military.[O/CHINA4]

Most of that was sold by CNPC, which has grown over the past two decades to dominate China’s energy trade with Pyongyang.

Data for May released on Friday showed China supplied significantly lower volumes of diesel and gasoline compared with a month earlier, although monthly tonnages can vary widely. June data will be released in late July.

Fuel prices in North Korea, meanwhile, have sharply risen in recent months, suggesting a tightening in supply.

A Reuters analysis of data collected by Daily NK showed the price of gasoline sold by private dealers in Pyongyang and the northern border cities of Sinuiju and Hyesanhad hit $1.46 per kg on June 21, up almost 50 percent from April 21. Until then, they had remained relatively stable since late last year.

Diesel prices averaged $1.20 per kg as of June 21, more than double over the same period, according to Daily NK,a website run by defectors who collect prices via phone calls with North Korean fuel traders.

Full article:
Exclusive: China’s CNPC suspends fuel sales to North Korea as risks mount – sources
Chen Aizhu
Reuters
2017-06-28

This does not seem to imply that the CNPC altogether halted crude oil deliveries to North Korea, only deliveries of fuel purchased on a commercial basis. And usually, the first follow-up question to ask in reaction to news of China halting deliveries of supplies X, or the imports of good Y, is “for how long”?

These deliveries may of course have happened on other contracts, but NK Pro reports continued North Korean oil tanker presence in Chinese oil terminals in both May and June.

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Chinese officials telling companies not to hire North Koreans

June 18th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The sourcing for this story looks to be some quite thin gruel, but given the current context, it makes sense. Nikkei Asian Review:

According to a source who is familiar with China-North Korea diplomacy, Beijing began instructing Chinese businesses to refrain from hiring North Korean nationals in March 2016 — the month that the U.N. toughened sanctions on the country in response to Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test.

The instruction has so far been given informally, and in some cases, orally. No formal notices have been issued, the source said.

The companies receiving the instruction are mainly in Jilin and Liaoning provinces, on the border with North Korea. Beijing appears to be gradually including more companies in its whisper campaign, the source said.

The informal sanction appears to contradict the Chinese foreign ministry’s position that the country should not impose any form of sanction against North Korea if it is not based on a U.N. Security Council resolution. At the same time, it is a means by which Beijing can register its displeasure with Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear testing.

Full article:
China telling companies not to hire North Koreans
Oki Nagai
Nikkei Asian Review
2017-06-18

This seems to be the pattern when it comes to Chinese sanctions enforcement against North Korea. Orders and directives are given in a vague, non-specific fashion, making them relatively easy to rescind and relax at a later time. In other words, news like this should not necessarily be taken as evidence of some grand Chinese push against North Korea. The way that policy directives like these are delivered, is itself indicative of their temporary nature. This current period is not the first (and probably not the last) time that China has restricted trade with North Korea, but that itself is not evidence of any long-term “squeeze”. It is probably safe to assume that these directives will be reversed or relaxed soon enough.

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Lower Chinese imports of North Korean coal hitting coal mine workers in the north

June 16th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

“It has been four months since coal exports to China were blocked, and North Korea is in a war-like crisis. Hundreds of coal mine workers belonging to dozens of trading companies have lost their jobs and been pushed into a life-threatening economic crisis,” a source in South Pyongan Province recently told Daily NK.
“Local residents who were once making a living by running food stalls near the coal mines or carrying coal have all lost their jobs. As a result, regional economic activity has plummeted.
The local businesses that once relied on the coal export industry, including restaurants, car washes, and fuel vendors, have all met a similar fate and the circulation of money has stagnated in the general markets, causing disarray.
As a flow-on effect, the price of coal purchased for domestic consumption (primarily as a fuel source for home cooking and heating) has also dropped, inflicting further losses on coal exporting companies.
“Coal trading companies that used to allocate 10 percent of their coal export profits toward management have either suspended production or are only producing small quantities of coal. As such, the trading companies, markets, and residents alike have all been driven into a crisis,” a source in North Pyongan Province explained.
Although the local economy is in serious trouble, the North Korean authorities are not taking any tangible steps to address the issue. According to the source, the coal produced at the state-run coal mine in Sunchon City continues to be sent to the Pyongyang thermal power plant, irrespective of the suspension of coal exports.
The sources reported that residents are eagerly hoping that coal exports will resume, but the authorities feel as long as the state-run enterprises remain operational, there are no problems to address. This is causing complaints from the residents who instead see the nations resources poured into weapons development.
Full article:

North Korean coal business in jeopardy after four months of export suspension
Seol Song Ah
Daily NK
2017-06-16

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

June 13th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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New report on North Korea’s proliferation financing system

June 12th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

[…]

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

The report mainly carries three findings:

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

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

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

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