Tuberculosis in North Korea

April 11th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some interesting (and disturbing) numbers and facts in this article by Bloomberg. One wonders just how many TB treatments one of Kim Jong-un’s yachts could pay for…

While the rogue state’s nuclear ambitions have long inspired angst—and led to economic sanctions—the threat of TB, the planet’s biggest infectious killer, has garnered less attention. With more than 100,000 cases in 2016, North Korea is on the World Health Organization’s list of nations with the greatest incidence of the deadly lung disease, and doctors warn that an explosion in multidrug-resistant strains could be coming.

In February, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the biggest financial contributor to TB control in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 2010, announced that it will close its programs there in June, citing challenges working in the country. The closure of programs is likely to lead to “massive stock outs of quality-assured TB drugs nationwide,” wrote Harvard Medical School doctors in an open letter to the Global Fund, published on March 14 in the British medical journal the Lancet. Such privation in the past has “led to the rapid creation of drug-resistant TB strains, as doctors ration pills and patients take incomplete regimens,” they wrote.

Infections that can’t be cured with standard drugs are already rife in the country. No nationally representative survey has been conducted to measure the incidence among North Korea’s 25 million people, but according to WHO estimates, 5,700 of the country’s 130,000 TB infections in 2016 were caused by bacteria resistant to the antibiotic rifampicin or at least two other key TB medications.

That may be a gross underestimate, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Korean Medical Science that analyzed hundreds of patient sputum samples. More than three-quarters of those that tested positive for TB contained multidrug-resistant strains, and two samples contained extremely drug-resistant strains—a form almost impossible to treat in resource-poor countries such as North Korea. Treatment for patients with multidrug-resistant TB, or MDR-TB, commonly lasts two years or longer and typically involves six months of daily injections and a regimen of about 14,000 pills, including some that are toxic.

Treatment regimens that are too short or rely on inferior or inappropriate medicines are the fastest route to drug resistance, says Jennifer Furin, a Harvard-trained doctor and researcher, who’s cared for TB patients for 23 years. Cutting funding to programs in North Korea, she says, will undermine disease-control efforts beyond North Korea.

“This will be a disaster that the global health community will pay for later,” Furin says. “This is a politically created problem that will turn into a health catastrophe, not just for the people living in the DPRK, but for everybody in the region.”

Chinese authorities are on alert for cases among migrant workers from North Korea. Still, many people who’ve been exposed to TB develop a latent infection with no symptoms, making it difficult to stop at borders.

Dandong, a city in China’s northeastern Liaoning province and separated from North Korea by a river, is a main entry point for migrant workers. Quarantine officials identified 33 TB cases among 9,500 North Koreans screened from 2012 to 2014, according to a government report published in 2014 that recommended heightened surveillance in the Dandong area. Local authorities pledged in December to beef up border screening and epidemic management.

Just as HIV has helped spread TB in sub-Saharan Africa, chronic malnutrition is fueling the epidemic in North Korea, according to Kwonjune Seung, who was among the authors of the open letter to the Global Fund published in the Lancet. Seung visits a dozen TB centers in North Korea twice a year as medical director of the Eugene Bell Foundation, a Christian charity focusing on treating North Korean patients. A spillover of MDR-TB from North Korea “would take decades to clean up and could detrimentally affect the public health of bordering countries like China and South Korea,” Seung and his colleagues wrote in their letter.

More than 38 countries contribute to the Global Fund, including South Korea and the U.S.; in late March, Congress approved $1.35 billion in funding for the 2018 financial year. The Global Fund defended its decision to suspend its programs in North Korea, saying in an email that it was fully aware of the risks that might arise from disorderly closure of its grants and that it’s working with Unicef to accommodate mitigating actions. The decision to withdraw from the country wasn’t taken in response to pressure but rather influenced by concerns about the “unique operating environment” in North Korea, it said. The closed environment prevents donors from properly assuring effective use of grants and resources and managing risks. As of last August, the Global Fund’s internal performance reviewers gave the North Korea program a B1, or “adequate,” rating.

In an open letter to the Geneva-based organization published on March 13 by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official news agency, Kim Hyong Hun, the country’s vice minister of public health, accused the Global Fund of bowing to the “pressure of some hostile forces.” President Trump has been trying to enlist other nations in a campaign of sanctions against North Korea.

“The decision to suspend the Global Fund projects in North Korea, with almost no transparency or publicity, runs counter to the ethical aspiration of the global health community, which is to prevent death and suffering due to disease, irrespective of the government under which people live,” Seung and his colleagues wrote in the Lancet.

Furin sees it as another dimension of the tensions between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom the U.S. president nicknamed “Little Rocket Man” after the nation tested its missile capabilities in September. The two nations are slated to meet in an historic summit as early as May. “You can’t help but think global powers are very concerned about North Korea’s erratic behavior, and this is a way to punish the country,” she says. “But this is a weapon of destruction in and of itself. TB is an airborne disease. It doesn’t stay within borders.”

Article source:
North Korea’s Other ‘Weapon’ Is Poised to Explode
Fiona Li, Peter Martin and Dandan Li
Bloomberg News
2018-04-11

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The state of the sanctions on North Korea (April 2018): one step forward, one step back…?

April 9th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Judging from all publicly available information, China is currently enforcing and implementing, to a much greater degree than in the past, the UN sanctions that stand against North Korea. That of course doesn’t mean full and foolproof enforcement, but there’s been fairly few signs suggesting that the government is knowingly turning a blind eye to trade with North Korea, or exploiting sanctions loopholes, the way it has in the past. Market price data doesn’t suggest that sanctions are hitting against the economy as a whole (yet), in ways that one might expect in the longer run. But certain sectors of the North Korean economy – such as mining and textiles – are likely feeling a significant and hard pinch from China’s enforcement.

But how long will it last? Judging from recent history, I’ve argued that China’s sanctions enforcement would likely be a temporary phenomenon, probably only lasting long enough to give the “right” impression to the US and the international community.

I am by no means alone in this, and given China’s past precedent of squeezing hard for shorter periods and letting go when global attention shifts from North Korea, it’s not really a risky prediction. In any case,  China’s sanctions enforcement is less a result of UN resolutions per se than of China’s own perceived best interests at any given moment.

With Kim’s visit to Beijing, it appears that China may have started to let up some of its pressure. As Curtis Melvin previously noted on this blog, South Korean media has reported that Chinese enforcement of the ban on North Korean guest labor may be easing. Daily NK published video footage a few days ago purportedly showing North Korean workers arriving in China, and one source tells Daily NK that the flow of workers leaving China and heading back to North Korea has ceased:

“About 400 North Korean women were dispatched to Helong, Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture on April 1,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on April 4.
In the video provided by the source, hundreds of the women can be seen walking in a procession in the Chinese city, with most carrying bags or backpacks. However, the starting point and destination of the group is unclear from the video.
“It has been a long time since this many people have come in [from North Korea], but it’s probably related to the Kim Jong Un’s recent visit to China,” the source said.
“Before Kim Jong Un went to China, we saw a lot of workers returning to North Korea, but we are no longer seeing movement (in that direction),” he added.
A separate source in Jilin Province, China told Daily NK there are signs that North Korean-Chinese joint ventures in the area have begun preparing to restart operations.
“These businesses, where the North Korean side provides the labor and the Chinese side invests in the facilities, came to a halt under international sanctions. But now, business delegations for the two sides have scheduled talks,” the source said.
Radio Free Asia reported similar information a few days ago:

North Korean laborers barred under U.N. sanctions from working abroad are now moving back into China in an apparent violation of restrictions aimed at punishing Pyongyang for its illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs, sources along the border say.

Though workers formerly sent into China to earn foreign currency for North Korea’s cash-strapped regime are still under U.N. orders to return home, no new lines of returning workers are being seen, sources working on the border say.

Instead, North Korean workers have been observed entering China in defiance of the rules, they say.

“This week, on April 2, around 400 female North Korean workers were sent to Helong city in [Jilin province’s] Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture,” an ethnic Korean living in Yanbian told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It seems like Kim Jong Un’s recent visit to China is showing some results,” the source said, referring to an anticipated relaxation of trade restrictions in response to recent China-North Korea diplomatic contacts.

Speaking separately, a source in China’s Dandong, a port city lying on the Yalu River across from North Korea, told RFA he had seen a group of buses carrying North Korean workers arrive on March 30 from North Korea’s Sinuiju city, just across the border.

“They had young women on board who appeared to be North Korean workers,” RFA’s source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

“The buses crossed the Yalu River’s railway bridge and dropped the workers off at the Dandong customs post,” he said, adding, “There appeared to be roughly more than 100 of them.”

It is worth recalling that sanctions enforcement by China doesn’t just damage North Korean economic interests. As anyone who’s visited Dandong on the Chinese side of the border can attest to, much of the local economy is connected to trade with North Korea.
Daily NK also reports that on the ground, some managers find ways to retain North Korean workers in China even though their original contracts have been cancelled:
China helped pass multiple UN sanctions resolutions against the North following missile and nuclear tests the previous year, and has slowly increased its efforts to enforce measures restricting the presence of North Korean laborers in the country.
For example, one Chinese manager of a clothing factory in Dandong (Liaoning Province) told our source that he was pressured by the Chinese government last year to cancel the contracts of 150 North Korean employees.
“I had no choice but to comply with the order,” the manager said. “But canceling the contracts early meant that I had to pay penalties to the workers. It was extremely difficult to gather enough money for the penalties for all 150 workers at once.”
According to the source, Chinese managers in such cases have made deals with the North Korean managers in charge of the workers, in order to reduce the total payment for penalties.
Under the terms of these kinds of deals, the Chinese side has sought to allow laborers to continue working in China as long as their visas remain valid, and in return for guarantees over uninterrupted currency streams as the workers move to new positions, the North Korean side agrees to accept reduced penalties or to forgo them altogether.
“For example, there’s a restaurant now in Dandong that employs dozens of North Korean women as servers, although these same women were previously ousted from factory jobs,” a separate source in China said, adding that there are many restaurants in the area using the same tactics.
The source spoke with one woman working at a restaurant in Dandong who introduced herself as a native of North Pyongan Province. “I came to work here after being dismissed seven months into a job at a clothing factory. I was originally supposed to work there for two more years, but I had to use the remainder [of my allotted time] to earn money and reduce the burden of the loss,” she told the source.
At the same time, China has taken additional steps to comply with other parts of the sanctions, the government said Sunday April 8th. Wall Street Journal:

China has tightened restrictions on exports to North Korea of items with potential dual use in weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms.

The ban on exports of potential dual-use items, including software, machinery and chemicals, is in line with U.N. Security Council resolution number 2375, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said in a statement on its website posted late Sunday. That resolution was passed in September.

If tensions do continue to de-escalate around North Korea as they have over the past few months, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if more news of lighter Chinese enforcement of general economic sanctions continue to surface. Stay tuned…

(UPDATE 2018-04-12) Daily NK reports that about 1,000 North Korean workers are to be dispatched to China again, in apparent violation of UN sanctions:

Over 1,000 North Korean laborers are preparing to be dispatched to work assignments in Dandong, China, a source in the area informed Daily NK on Wednesday. This follows sightings earlier this month of over 400 North Korean workers in the Chinese city of Helong to the east, together suggesting the two countries may be cooperating to restart joint business ventures in China.
“There are already about 100 North Koreans working at one clothing factory in Dandong, and they are expecting 1,000 more after a recent conversation with a manager from the North Korean side,” the source said on April 11.
The Chinese manager in the deal told the source that it is a popular opportunity among North Korean factory workers as they see it as a good chance to improve their skills, despite their expectations of low pay and long hours. “People around here are anticipating an influx of more North Korean workers in the near future,” the source remarked.
A separate source in China confirmed the development, saying, “It is true that over a thousand North Korean workers are preparing for the assignment. The Chinese brokers who have engineered the deal for the jobs are working overtime right now.”
He added that the workers are still receiving permits from North Korean authorities to cross into China, as per standard guidelines, though these permits only technically allow up to 30 days’ stay abroad.
“[The Chinese companies] are trying to recruit more North Korean workers now as they feel sanctions may possibly be lifted and that the dangers have subsided. But they will just send them back in case they are not [lifted],” he said.
Following these developments, some are speculating that Kim Jong Un may have come to an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the matter during their meeting in Beijing last month.
Recent friction between China and the US over a brewing trade war may also be contributing to a sense of optimism among those affected in the region.
“We (Chinese people) are also hurting from sanctions, and now it seems like we are in a trade war with the US,” an additional source in China said.
“Knowing this, it is possible that authorities, despite sanctions, are turning a blind eye to the arrival of the North Korean workers.”
This last point is very important: international sanctions politics is very local. The border region on the Chinese side has likely suffered quite significantly from the sanctions regime, and this is one part of the Chinese calculation that is often forgotten. The northeast is already fairly impoverished, and the local economy isn’t helped by a ban on trade with its most significant partner, North Korea.
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Kim Jong-un’s Wonsan boat at Tae-do in 2017

April 9th, 2018

With Planet Labs imagery, we are able to get improved and affordable access to some remote places in North Korea which allows us to keep better track of changes than is possible with just Google Earth or Google Maps. Here is a small example…

Analysis of the North Korean media indicates that Kim Jong-un spends a lot of time in Wonsan. As we all know, he has a family compound there that was visited by Dennis Rodman and his delegation. At this compound, we can observe several unique boats that are only seen in Wonsan (pictured below).

Kim Jong-un also stores some of these at a separate maintenance facility in central Wonsan (with some other boats that are at his disposal):

There are five of these particular boats as far as I am aware. They are approximately 50m-60m in length. From satellite imagery, it appears they are mostly differentiated by the amount of cover they provide. They may each offer different services, but I have not been able to see many ground-level photos of these boats. As best I can tell, they are not self-propelled and have to be pulled to new locations.

 

  

Based on Google Earth imagery I was under the impression that these deck boats were simply transferred back and forth between the two locations mentioned above (Kim compound and storage facility), but with planet imagery, we can see that they are used more widely.

According to imagery form Planet Labs, two of these deck boats were deployed to Tae-do in the summer of 2017.

The first boat shows up in Planet Labs imagery of Tae-ri (below) on May 24, 2017, and it is visible until August 30, 2017.

The second boat appears in Planet Labs imagery at the same location on September 7, 2017 and is gone by September 13, 2017.

So it appears (superficially) that either Kim Jong-un left one of his leisure craft docked off the island to use whenever he felt like “getting away,” or perhaps it is being used by senior personnel in the military as a “perk.”

As for the island itself, Kim is never reported to have made a guidance visit to it. It is most well known for hosting a small naval ship repair unit, so there may always be some service personnel within view of the boat.

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Kalma Coastal Tourist Area Update via Planet Labs

April 4th, 2018

Planet Labs uploaded some high-resolution imagery of the Kalma Peninsula from 2018-3-25 (you can see a sample of the imagery in my tweet here). With it, we can begin to assess the progress of the construction of the Kalma Coastal Tourist Area. I overlaid this imagery onto Google Earth and traced out the buildings under construction. This allowed me to make a reasonably accurate map of the completed tourist area:

The final large-scale housing project launched under Kim Jong-il was the eastern end of Mansudae Street (AKA Changjon Street, “Pyonghattan”). Kim Jong-il died before this was finished, but the completion of this project was one of the first policy successes claimed by Kim Jong-un.  Several others quickly followed: Unha Scientists Street, Wisong Scientists Street, Mirae Scientists Street, and Ryomyong Street.

I have only conducted superficial measures (this is only a blog post after all), but it appears the Kalma Coastal Tourist Area is the most ambitious construction project launched yet in the Kim Jong-un era (in terms of size and number of buildings). There are well over 100 facilities under construction on the beach, stretched over a four-kilometer-long construction site (the Ryomyong Project site was just over two kilometers long by comparison).

Some of the inputs for this project can be domestically sourced, particularly labor (conscripted soldiers), steel, and concrete. Other amenities like flat screen TVs (component parts), electrical equipment (solar panels), computers, sports equipment, transportation equipment will have to be imported at a time when constraints on North Korea’s ability to conduct foreign trade are most acute.

Pictured below (KCTV): Soldier working on the Kalma construction site:

Another item of concern to me is that the North Koreans are literally building houses on sand, and for this kind of work, you need to install a strong foundation before the actual building can be erected. KCTV footage of the construction site (broadcast the same day as the Planet image was taken) reveals that they don’t appear to be doing this:

Completing this project within one year (the rumored construction time) would be a monumental feat. It is possible that, as with Mirae Scientist Street (and maybe others), the buildings will be “completed” on the outside, but only one or two will be completed on the inside (the ones Kim Jong-un will visit). The rest will remain uncompleted on the inside for the unknown period of time it takes for them to be finished. Mirae Scientist Street still has unoccupied buildings, and it is possible Ryomyong does as well.

Click here to read the updated post on the history of this facility.

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South Hamgyong Sci-Tech Library

April 2nd, 2018

This information has already been published in RFA (in Korean), so here is the English version:

Pictured below is the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang:

It is one of the most iconic buildings of the Kim Jong-un era. On the inside, it is an educational facility for science and technology, the development of which is a cornerstone of economic policy under Kim Jong-un. On the outside, the building (designed to look like a beryllium atom [four electrons]) is a showcase piece for the new style of design and architecture characteristic of the Kim Jong-un era.

In true North Korean style, which aims to establish equality across each province, it is possible that new “Sci-Tech Libraries” (과학기술도서관), based on the model complex in Pyongyang, are being constructed in each of North Korea’s provinces. I have to say “probably” because I am only aware of one new Sci-Tech Library in Hamhung, and I cannot say the plan is to build them across the country until I see them in other provinces.

According to Google Earth imagery (see below), the South Hamgyong Sci-Tech Library was built on the site of the former South Hamgyong Cultural Exhibition House sometime between 2016-2-26 (Top) and 2016-11-30 (Bottom).

Here are before and after ground-level photos:

The new building appears to be a mixture of architectural styles seen in Ryomyong  and Mirae Scientists Street. It contains two features resembling stylized hydrogen atoms, or planets with rings, on the roof. There is also a statue of a helium atom (two electrons) in front of the building.

The completion of this facility was not announced in the official media as far as I am aware, so this slipped by me until I stumbled on a broadcast image of a library card that featured the new building.

It is possible that this is a unique facility and that it will not be replicated in other parts of the country. Hamhung has a number of specialized research and production facilities (including the largest branch of the State Academy of Science outside of Pyongyang), and this could be a facility meant to nurture the particular industries of the area. However, it could also be the first Sci-Tech Library at the provincial level, and more are on the way. We will have to wait and see.

North Korea has been regularly featuring provincial-level “Sci-Tech Exhibitions” in the official media. The Pyongyang exhibitions are held in the Sci-Tech Complex, so perhaps the provincial exhibitions will be held in Sci-Tech Libraries such as these in the future.

North Korea was already in the process of updating local libraries (도서관) into “Miraewon” (미래원–roughly translated as “Future Complexes”). I am unsure if this will continue, or if new libraries will be re-branded as “Sci-Tech Libraries”…

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UN blacklists North Korean ships accused of smuggling

March 30th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Talks or none, the international community continues the struggle to tighten enforcement of economic sanctions on North Korea. Reuters:

The United Nations Security Council blacklisted dozens of ships and shipping companies on Friday over oil and coal smuggling by North Korea, boosting pressure on Pyongyang as leader Kim Jong Un plans to meet with his South Korean and U.S. counterparts.

The council’s North Korea sanctions committee acted on a request by the United States, designating 21 shipping companies — including five based in China — 15 North Korean ships, 12 non-North Korean ships and a Taiwanese man.

The move comes days after Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping and an announcement that the North Korean leader would meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27. He is also scheduled to meet U.S. President Donald Trump some time in May.

While Trump has agreed to meet Kim, he tweeted on Wednesday that “maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained.”

Tension over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles surged last year and raised fears of U.S. military action in response to the North’s threat to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

But the situation has eased significantly since North Korea sent athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the U.N. sanctions designations — the largest agreed by the council’s committee — were aimed at shutting down North Korea’s illegal smuggling activities to obtain oil and sell coal.

“The approval of this historic sanctions package is a clear sign that the international community is united in our efforts to keep up maximum pressure on the North Korean regime,” she said in a statement.

The list was part of a request by Washington late last month for 33 ships, 27 shipping companies and the Taiwanese man to be sanctioned. China delayed that bid on March 2, but did not give a reason. The 15-member committee works by consensus.

Washington then proposed a shortened list on Thursday, which was unanimously agreed by the committee on Friday.

The 12 non-North Korea ships are now subjected to a global port ban and must be deregistered, while the 15 North Korean ships are subjected to an asset freeze and 13 of those a global port ban.

The Taiwanese man, Tsang Yung Yuan, is accused of coordinating “North Korean coal exports with a North Korean broker operating in a third country, and he has a history of other sanctions evasion activities,” according to the U.N. listing. He is subjected to an asset freeze and travel ban.

The assets of the 21 shipping companies, which include businesses based in the Marshall Islands, Singapore, Panama and Samoa, must now be frozen.

Article source:
U.N. blacklists dozens of ships, companies over North Korea smuggling
Michelle Nichols
Reuters
2018-03-30

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China reportedly incentivized Kim Jong-un to visit

March 30th, 2018

UPDATE 1 (2018-4-4): The Donga Ilbo reports that China is marginally easing up on sanctions following the unofficial meeting that took place with the two country’s respective leaders. According to the article:

Some Chinese enterprises in Dandong, a city in northeastern Liaoning province bordering North Korea, stopped sending back North Korean workers to their home country, South Korea’s intelligence sources said on Monday.


It is reported that the Chinese authorities, however, have not taken any action regarding employing North Korean workers. Rather, a source quoted Chinese government officials as saying “refrain from any action that could upset North Korean people for the time being.”

South Korean government said it is identifying intelligence that the average daily traffic volume between Dandong and North Korea surged to 50 trucks, from 20 to 30 trucks earlier this year. The traffic in this region is one of the key indicators that show bilateral trade flows. More than 100 trucks a day would come and go before the international community strengthened sanctions against the North.

According to data released by China’s customs agency, North Korean exports to China amounted to 1.72 billion dollars, a 33 percent down from 2016. However, Beijing is likely to give some breathing space to its ally as Chinese President Xi expressed his willingness to expand mutual exchanges in a meeting with Kim.

ORIGINAL POST (2018-3-30): I am still of the opinion that “maximum pressure” has not been the primary cause of North Korea’s newfound desire to hold talks with the US and South Korea. However, this article in the FT argues that China has enforced trade restrictions on North Korea in excess of the UNSC resolution requirements, and perhaps this policy played a role in bringing Kim Jong-un to Beijing.

According to the Financial Times:

Official Chinese statistics show that the monthly average of refined petroleum exports to North Korea in January and February was 175.2 tons, just 1.3 per cent of the monthly average of 13,552.6 tons shipped in the first half of 2017.

The level of reduction went far beyond the 89 per cent cut in petroleum product exports stipulated by the UN sanctions.

Chinese coal exports to North Korea were also cut to zero in the three months to the end of February, after running at a monthly average of 8,627 tons in the first half of 2017. Exports of steel ran at a monthly average of 257 tons in the first two months of this year, down from a monthly average of 15,110 tons in the first half of 2017.

Shipments of motor vehicles also dried up, with just one unit being exported in the month of February, official Chinese statistics show. Concerns over the accuracy of China’s statistics are common, but analysts said that such consistent and bold drops in export volumes are unlikely to have been the result of official massaging.

Bonnie Glaser points out a rumor that these stringent trade caps will be lifted to the point that China is still in compliance with UNSC resolutions.

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Recent Russia-North Korea developments

March 30th, 2018

“Russia and North Korea hold joint meeting on cooperation in trade, economy, science and technology”
Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
March 22, 2018

The DPRK-Russia Intergovernmental Committee for cooperation in trade, economy, science and technology occurred at the People’s Palace of Culture in central Pyongyang on March 21.

According to the KCNA, the North Korean delegation was headed by Minister of External Economic Relations Kim Yong-jae, while the economic delegation from the Russian Federation included Minister of Development of the Russian Far East Aleksandr Galushka as well as Russian Ambassador to Pyongyang Alexander Matsegora.

The seventh meeting was held in Pyongyang in April 2015. This year, the Russian delegation arrived in North Korea on March 20 to attend the meeting.

According to the KCNA, “The two sides discussed the issues of further expanding and developing trade, economic and scientific cooperation between North Korea and Russia.” Specific agenda for the meeting was not disclosed.

On the same day, the Russian delegations met with DPRK Vice Premier and State Planning Commission Chairman Ro Tu-chol and presented to him a gift for North Korean leader, Chairman Kim Jong Un.

Russia and North Korea are respectively sanctioned by the United States and the international community. The expansion of cooperation between the two countries appears somewhat of a position where “misery loves company.”

South Korea’s Yonhap News reported on March 22 that the two countries would discuss bilateral cooperation in the areas of energy, agriculture and fisheries, transportation, and science and technology.

In addition, the news agency said Galushka invited the North Korean leadership to the 4th Eastern Economic Forum scheduled to be held in Vladivostok in September. “We will discuss trade and economic relations between Russia and North Korea within the framework set forth by the United Nations Security Council,” Galushka said at the beginning of the meeting. According to what the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East disclosed on its website, the Russian minister also said that Russia is “ready to provide full support for the establishment of bilateral cooperation that does not violate the international sanctions.”

NK News and The Washington Post reported that the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East announced that the two sides would create a working group on a new  vehicular bridge crossing to complement the existing railway bridge:

The two nations have long suggested a crossing that would allow vehicles to go between them without a lengthy detour through China. And Wednesday, the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East announced in a statement that the two sides would create a working group on a new crossing.

“There are 23 automobile checkpoints between [North Korea] and China, and not one with Russia,” the ministry quoted Ro Tu Chol, a North Korean minister, as saying during the meeting. “Currently, when importing goods from [Russia’s far east], they do not come across the border with Russia, but through China. This greatly extends the path.”

Ro suggested expanding the existing bridge, according to the statement. The Russian representative at the meeting, Alexander Galushka, the minister for the development of the Russia’s far east, suggested building a semi-permanent bridge of pontoons.

Historically, DPRK-Russia trade amounts to about $100 million per year, but it is unclear to me what the current level of trade is now that UNSC sanctions have been ratcheted up. Russian organizations have been playing a role in helping the DPRK bypass sanctions enforcement. Russia has resisted repatriating North Korean workers. There is also a ferry that runs between Valdivostok and Rason that facilitates trade. So the picture is complicated.

Russia’s biggest investment in North Korea is its railway link to Rason Port. North Korea reportedly receives some internet service through Russia. Russia also maintains the financial link between the United Nations and North Korea’s sanctioned foreign Trade Bank. In 2014, Russia and North Korea settled Soviet-era debt issue.

However, plenty of other ambitious projects have not taken off. Russia has expressed interest in renovating the North Korean railway system. Russia has expressed an interest in a gas pipeline that supplies product to both North and South Korea. Russia and North Korea have also discussed at least one minerals-for-electricity deal. There was even talk of allowing Russian firms into the Kaesong Industrial Complex, as well as modernization of the mining sector, automobile industry, and electric power plants (built by the Soviets).

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N. Korea’s high-tech goods imports rise sharply in recent years despite sanctions

March 29th, 2018

According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s imports of smartphones, notebook computers and other high-tech products have risen sharply in recent years despite international sanctions following the country’s nuclear and missile tests, a report said Thursday.

High-tech goods accounted for 12.1 percent of the North’s total imports of manufactured products in 2016 from 6 percent in 2007, according to a report written by Kim Yang-hee, an official of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. The report is carried in the March 2018 edition of the Korea Development Institute’s North Korea Economic Review.

The report was written based on statistics released by the North Korean government.

The high-tech goods include smartphones, PCs, automobiles, and aviation and space technology products.

The proportion of telecommunication and electronics goods also rose to 10.2 percent in 2016 from 3.9 percent in 2007.

The report noted North Korea failed to ship coal to China since October last year when the United Nations sanctions on North Korea toughened.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s high-tech goods imports rise sharply in recent years despite sanctions: report
Yonhap
2018-3-29

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Pyongyang Bike Share

March 28th, 2018

UPDATE 1 (2018-3-30): A couple of recent visitors to North Korea have reached out to claim that the bike service still has yet to be put into use. I will update this post when I learn more.

ORIGINAL POST (2018-3-26):

 

Pictured Above (Russian Embassy): Two bike rental stations on Kwangbok Street and the Taehung Bicycle Rental and Storage Station (대흥 자전거 임대소 보관소) on Youth Street.

The Pyongyang Times (2018-3-8) has published an article on the new Pyongyang bike share program:

People riding brightly-coloured bikes along Kwangbok Street present an unusual scene in Mangyongdae District, Pyongyang.

Small yet cosy stations with blue roofs are seen in several places of the street, with lines of cute bicycles arranged and people bustling especially at rush hours.

They are part of service centres run by the Pyongyang bike-sharing company.

This year the company has started the bike rental service.

An online service management system, the bike-sharing system is expected to be one of the favoured public traffic service systems.

Customers need to buy cards to hire bikes at any of the stations.

They can pass the cards through card readers at any stations, input passwords to unlock the bikes and use them. They pay fees when they return them to any of the stations.

Bike-sharing is an environment-friendly and energy-saving service that suits the local conditions as it helps reduce urban pollution by vehicles and save fuel.

The stations generate electricity needed for service activities by utilizing solar energy.

“Bike-sharing is widely adopted by many countries as part of global efforts to reduce pollution,” said Myong Si Man, director of the company. “Our system helps not only satisfy the growing demand for traffic means but also promote public health. We plan to widen the coverage of bike-sharing service to other parts of the city and upgrade the method of service.”

Riding bike is good for health and some elders in the district share bikes just for an exercise, he added.

Stylish Ryomyong-brand bikes are helpful to ensuring clean environment of Pyongyang and providing convenience for passengers. It now adds a special touch of beauty to the city.

This is not the first mention in the North Korean media. In July of last year Tongil News reported the first bikes were brought in to the rental stations on the 1st of July 2017 and services were due to begin in late July 2017. According to this South Korean source, however, the service did not actually begin until January 15, 2018 (consistent with the claim in this PY Times article).

According to Tongil News,  the bikes are called Ryomyong (려명) bikes and come from a North Korean/Chinese joint venture called Phyongjin Bicycle Cooperative Company (평진자전거합영회사) located in Sosong District (서성구역), Pyongyang. The payment cards needed to rent the bikes are called Ryomyong Cards and need to be bought with a Jonsong Card at one of the five locations on Kwangbok-street. The overall operation is overseen by the Pyongyang Bicycle Rental Office (평양자전거임대관리소).

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