Kim Jong-un’s Party Congress prep: construction projects

April 19th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Kim Jong-un has made at least two announcements recently, as the Korean Worker’s Party heads for its 7th Party Congress in May, about construction projects to be done. One of them is an orphanage in Ryanggang province, Daily NK reports:

Projects underway to promote Kim Jong Un’s legacy as a leader ahead of the 7th Party Congress in May are said to be in full swing across the nation. One such project taking place in Ryanggang Province calls for the full mobilization of residents to build an orphanage as an expression of the leader’s “love for the next generation,” Daily NK has learned.

“Authorities have recently been harassing residents saying that the orphanage under construction next to Kim Jong Suk Teachers’ College in Yonbong-dong needs to be ready for the Marshal’s (Kim Jong Un) inspection by the time of the Party Congress,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “The provincial party office has been hurrying people along, claiming the construction must be completed before the event.”

Progress was said to be slow during the winter, which was unseasonably cold, but construction efforts are now appearing to ramp up.

The project is being driven by the provincial head secretary and other cadres from the provincial Party and People’s Committee and is being promoted as a means to express loyalty to the leader, who has emphasized his “love for children,” said the source.

She added that cadres associated with the efforts, who have confidently stated that the facility will see completion before the Party Congress, have also been intensifying crackdowns on those seeking to avoid mobilization, out of concern that failure to complete the project on time may lead to issues of accountability.

“Vendors who are busy trying to make a living in the market were often able to get out (of mobilization) with bribes, but even that isn’t easy now,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province explained.

“The price for skipping a day of mobilization is now up to 10 RMB (13,000 KPW) a day per head, so some find it more affordable to just go to the construction site.”

The 13,000 KPW demanded is enough to purchase approximately 2kg of rice based on current prices, which is far from negligible for most members of the public. The higher price tag in effect acts as a tool to turn up the heat on people for mobilization.

The pressure to complete the project before the major political gathering has led to mobilization of students in the afternoons and workers at state-run factory as well.

The near full mobilization also involves specialized colleges, meaning that among the younger generation, stormtroopers (who are working on a railway project in Samjiyon) are seemingly the only group among ordinary residents that are exempt from the orphanage project.

Full article:
Kim Jong Un calls for construction of new orphanage in time for Party Congress
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2016-04-19

IFES at Kyungnam University has also published an analysis of the news about the Ryomyong street project, which Curtis has already written about in this blog. They note that the recent sanctions do not seem to have altered plans for the project. Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric instead highlights the project as a blow against the international community and the US — North Korea will go full steam ahead on its own policies and no outside pressure can hold them back (my emphasis below):

On March 18, the state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim Jong Un declared the construction of ‘Ryomyong Street’, which is to be built between Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and the Ryonghung Crossroads in Pyongyang. The street’s name signifies a place where ‘the dawn breaks in the Korean revolution’. Kim also mentioned that the area is to be surrounded by magnificent skyscrapers and multi-level buildings that fit the geographical characteristics surrounding the palace, displaying the Party’s idea of giving importance to science and talents in socialist Korea.
[…]
Along these lines, Kim put emphasis on the policy of securing building materials in constructing the new street and to diversify the size, design and color of decorative objects on the exterior of buildings. He also instructed for the mobilization of ‘soldier-builders’ who previously worked on the construction of Mirae Scientists Street. The construction of the new street shall be carried out with “Mallima speed” during the country’s ‘70-day campaign’ in run-up to the Party Congress scheduled for this upcoming May. The news report also stated that “the party, state, and society should render positive assistance to the construction and the Cabinet, commissions, ministries and national institutions take the lead in this work.”

According to the report, Kim Jong Un also said that “The construction of the street is not merely for formation of a street but serves as a political occasion of clearly showing the spirit of the DPRK standing up and keeping up with the world, despite all sorts of sanctions and pressure by U.S. imperialists and their followers, the appearance of the country advancing to realize the great ideal of the people and truth that the DPRK is able to be well-off in its own way and nothing is impossible for it to do.” The construction of the street appears in part as a means to show off the strength of ‘Songun’ Korea, following in the footsteps of Kim Jong Il’s policy.

Despite the strong sanctions imposed upon the country by the international community, North Korea is striving to achieve some form of economic success. The 70-day campaign has been initiated in the run-up to the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party. North Korean media are boasting about the country’s successes on the production front since the campaign’s initiation, saying “under the Juche ideology, people are working hard especially in the fields of electricity, coal, metal, and railroad transportation that they have achieved great success in the [campaign’s] first week.”

Full article here:
North Korea to Construct ‘Ryomyong Street’ Despite Sanctions
Institute for Far Eastern Studies
03-29-2016

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North Korean state takes over foreign currency stores

April 19th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Donju life might not always be what it is cracked up to be. Radio Free Asia reminds us that regardless of how well North Korea’s upper-middle class traders might be doing, the economic framework is still highly arbitrary:

North Korean hard currency shops providing foreign products for sale to the country’s wealthier citizens may soon see a full government takeover of its supply chains, leading to a drop in the quality and hike in the price of hard-to-obtain goods, North Korean sources say.

The stores, which require payment in Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars, have operated in recent years in Pyongyang and other large cities under the management of private businessmen who pay large portions of their profits to the central government.

Government-run trading firms are now poised to take over the purchase and pricing of products sold in the lucrative stores, though, a source in China’s Dandong city, just across the Yalu river from North Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service.

Until now, shop managers have gone to China themselves to bring back products—including clothing, cosmetics, and furniture—or sale in their stores, RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“If this system of supply changes, not only will store managers be prevented from going to China, but no use will be made of their marketing and management skills,” the source said.

Once the new system is implemented, stores will have to submit a list of needed products to their city’s local trading firm, which will then make the purchases from China itself, the source said.

“There are doubts that [the government] will be able to supply needed products on time, though, and the change in quality and price of the items may lead to conflicts between store managers and the trading organizations handling product supply,” he said.

Profit grab seen

Separately, a source in the capital Pyongyang said no official statement announcing the change has yet been made.

“But there is a high possibility the new system will be established after the [ruling Korean Workers’ Party] convention in May,” he said.

If put in place, the move may be aimed partly at further reducing the profits earned by store managers, who already pay most of what they earn to the government of the reclusive, U.N.-sanctioned state, the source in Pyongyang said.

“North Korea’s foreign currency situation is urgent now,” the source said.

“From now on, the managers of foreign-currency shops will receive only a small salary, as they did in the past,” he said.

“Sales will drop, though, and the management will experience difficulties,” he said.

Full article here:
North Korean ‘Foreign Currency’ Stores Face State Takeover
Jonhoo Kim
Radio Free Asia
04-19-2016

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Choson Exchange 2015 report

April 19th, 2016

Choson Exchange has published their 2015 annual report. Read it here to learn about the interesting work they are doing in the DPRK.

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North Korea’s natural resource risks: Kim Jong-il’s own take

April 14th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As North Korea debates and experiments in economic strategies, it’s always interesting to go back and look at older debates of a similar nature. While reading vol. 14 of Kim Jong-il’s Collected Works (Sonjib) I stumbled upon an interesting speech attributed to Kim from 1995.* Whether it was foresight or just common logic of political economy, Kim actually warned of the risks of North Korea becoming a mere natural resource exporter to other countries, without reaping the full benefits of trade. Recall that one of the charges against Jang Song-taek was selling out the country’s natural resources for his own benefit. The issue itself, of course, is much older.

In the speech, given to an audience of Central Committee functionaries, Kim attacks cadres that have a faulty understanding of foreign trade under socialism, and think only about how their own “units” (단위) can make foreign currency profits (p. 8). He also emphasizes the need to calculate all the costs involved with foreign trade, including production costs at home, to calculate actual profit.

The most interesting part, in my opinion, however, is where Kim gets to the natural resource question. Kim states that natural resources shouldn’t just be sold to other countries, but processed (가공) domestically to the greatest extent possible (p. 10). He says that “now, capitalists are buying natural resources at a cheap price from our country, processing them and selling them to a higher price.”

Kim complains that it’s a grave crime that capitalists are pocketing their own wallets by selling off North Korea’s own resources by processing them, and that North Korea could become mere suppliers to monopoly capitalism if it doesn’t start processing their natural resources itself. He also states that those who just sell off natural resources without processing are just like slaves to foreign countries.

Kim also warns people about thinking that foreign currency can be earned “for free.” “The imperialists and capitalists never give anything to anyone for free,” Kim states, and says that if capitalists say they have anything to give, it is because they have their own desires” (p. 11).

This speech is a reminder that North Korea has grappled with how to handle its natural resources for a long time, and it suggests that controversies abounded in the 1990s as well.

*These works are sometimes edited after the fact, sometimes several times over, but this edition is from 2000, published by the Worker’s Party Publisher (N’odongd’ang chulpan’sa). All translations are my own, and if anyone has any corrections to offer, please get in touch.

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North Korea assesses three years of Byungjin Policy

April 14th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES):

Commemorating the third anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s announcement of the byungjin line — the parallel pursuit of nuclear weapons development and economic growth — North Korea emphasized the policy as a “milestone to the ultimate victory.”

On March 30, 2016 the North Korean state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) self-evaluated the country’s three years of byungjin policy, claiming that it has “raised the DPRK to a prosperous country of the people with almighty nuclear power.”

The media then listed recent weapons-related tests — such as that of a hydrogen bomb (forth nuclear test), submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM), new-type large-caliber multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), simulation of an atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, and solid-fueled engine that boosts the power of ballistic missiles — saying that the country “has both nominally and virtually shown its status as a world nuclear power.”

In regards to progress on the economic front, the media mentioned Wisong Scientists Residential District, Unha Scientists’ Street, Yonphung Scientists Rest Home, Mirae Scientists Street, Sci-Tech Complex, Munsu Water Park, and Masikryong Ski Resort, among others, claiming that “the plan has achieved three consecutive years of economic development and surprised the world.”

The report also emphasized that “the party’s byungjin line is not a temporary policy to confront the current stern situation, but the party’s revolutionary strategy and milestone to the ultimate victory, which will provide the greatest advantages in the revolution and the bright future for our nation.”

The media also noted that “the bright future awaits us upon our strong military and economic development by the nuclear program,” saying that “with the speed of Choson we will move forward to reach the top of strong prosperity.”

At the Party’s Central Committee plenary meeting on March 31, 2013, leader Kim Jong Un stated that “against the imperialists and their worshippers’ indiscreet nuclear threats and possible invasion talks, the party’s byungjin line will enable us to hold the nuclear power to build an economically strong country.”

In a new North Korean book publication, Looking at Today’s Choson from 100 Questions 100 Answers (in Korean), the byungjin policy is described as follows: “by relying on the nuclear energy industry, it will develop the nuclear capability and solve the energy shortage as well, thus strengthening the defense capacity and build the economy to better the living standards of the people.”

Meanwhile, to commemorate and signify the importance of the byungjin policy, on March 31, 2016 various North Korean run websites released photos of Kim Jong Un giving on-site instruction at military and economic-related facilities.

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DPRK – China Trade (2016)

April 14th, 2016

Yonhap reports on Q1 2016. Overall trade is up, but this is composed of surging Chinese exports to North Korea and falling imports. Here are the relevant parts of the report:

Trade volume between North Korea and China posted double-digit growth in the first quarter of 2016 from a year earlier despite the United Nations’ punitive economic sanctions imposed on the reclusive country, official data showed Wednesday.

The size of bilateral trade stood at 7.79 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion) in the January-March period, up 12.7 percent from the same period last year, Huang Songping, spokesman of China’s General Administration of Customs, said during a press briefing on the country’s first-quarter trade outcome.

The increased trade volume is attributable to a sharp rise in China’s exports to North Korea in the three months, which posted 14.7 percent growth to 3.96 billion yuan, according to the spokesman.

On the other hand, China’s imports from North Korea contracted 10.8 percent to 3.83 billion yuan, he said.

“Major Chinese exports to North Korea are machinery, electronic goods, labor-intensive products and agricultural goods, while imports mainly are coal and iron ore,” Huang said.

The spokesman indicated that the trade increase should not be viewed as China circumventing the U.N. Security Council sanctions because the latest figure accounts for bilateral trade volume before the sanctions took effect.

China immediately implemented the sanctions after it announced a list of banned trade goods with North Korea on April 5, the spokesman pointed out.

“The China-North Korea trade data for the first quarter has nothing to do with anti-North sanctions,” the official said, also vowing to “follow through with the U.N. sanctions resolution thoroughly.”

Another official from China’s State Council stressed any trade items that concern the public welfare or have no link to North Korea’s nuclear weapons development are not subject to the sanctions.

But the official refused to release the monthly trade figure for March, only saying that the monthly data is not available.

In early March, the U.N. adopted the toughest sanctions it has ever slapped on North Korea as punishment for the communist country’s defiant nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea-China trade volume up 12.7 percent on-year in Q1
Yonhap
2016-4-13

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North Korea Establishes Korea Yongpung General Corporation

April 11th, 2016

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES):

North Korea has recently founded a trading company, ‘Korea Yongpung General Corporation’ (AKA: Korea Yongphung Corporation), which focuses on the shipping industry. On March 28, 2016 North Korean website Naenara introduced the company saying the “newly founded” company “is engaging in and expanding its various trade activities, development and cooperation.” Though the date of the establishment was not revealed, the use of “newly founded” suggests the company’s recent establishment.

According to the website, this new company’s parent is the larger Myohyang Shipping Co. (founded in 1993), and the new company is comprised of multiple companies such as Nos. 1 and 2 Trade Company, Myohyang Shipping Company, an investment trading company, and external economic technology development agencies.

This includes Ryukyung 105 Company and Ryushin Cooperation Company, with other companies and factories such as Ryukyung Condensed Milk, an iron smelt, spring mineral water factory, marine foodstuffs export factory, Taedonggang Construction Company, Myohyang seamen’s academy, Myohyang seamen’s station, and others. It purportedly also has networks of volunteers and stores throughout the country, as well as branches abroad — a foreign economic and technology cooperation agency in Russia and overseas representative agencies in China (Beijing and Dandong) and Singapore.

The new company focuses on such things as operation of freighters and joint venture ships, trading goods, mining, fisheries, construction and technological cooperation abroad, IT development, and development and sale of information technology goods.

In order to run the freighters and joint venture ships, the company recruits captains, chief engineers, navigators, and sailors through the Myohyang seamen’s academy. It is also in the process of developing and modernizing the Sohaeri mine and Toksong ophiolite mine.

In addition, Yongpung Information Technology Exchange Lab is said to be strengthening cooperation with others in information exchange for development of web and mobile programs, development and sale of software programs such as 3D games, and various technologies.

The external economic and technology development agencies are tasked with building international relations in construction, technological cooperation, and architectural ornamentation abroad. They also focus on ship repair and services, inter alia.

The website also introduced the company by saying it “advocates scientific management strategy and corporate strategy based on strong material technological foundation, to expand trading activities in various ways and promote long range ship chartering and joint venture ship operation while also promoting foreign investment of loadstone and ophiolite mining.”

Here is the text from the original Naenara article:

The newly established is expanding its activities for trade, development and cooperation.

Its predecessor is the Myohyang Shipping Company which was inaugurated in 1993. Now it has developed into a mammoth enterprise comprising Trading Companies No. 1 and No. 2, Myohyang Shipping Company, Investment Trading Company and External Economic Technology Development Company. Its business categories include operation of cargo vessels and joint-owned vessels, trade in commodity, mining, fishing, construction abroad, technical cooperation, IT development, production and sale of IT products.

Affiliated to the corporation are such companies as Ryugyong Company 105 and Ryusin Joint Venture Company; Ryugyong Chain Filling Station, Reduced Iron Factory, Onchon Spring Factory, Onchon Aquaculture Farm Seafood Exports; Taedonggang Construction Company, Myohyang Crew Training School, Myohyang Crew Transient Station and several other training centres and some commercial outlets in Pyongyang and other places of the country.

The corporations overseas branches are the External Economic Technology Cooperation Agency in Russia and missions in Beijing and Dandong, China, and in Singapore.

The operation of cargo vessels and joint-owned vessels, the main business categories of the corporation, are conducted by captains, chief engineers, navigation officers and other crews, all of whom are graduates from the Myohyang Crew Training School.

With mining as a key business category, the corporation directs great efforts to developing and modernizing Sohaeri Mine and Toksong Serpentinite Mine while paying due concern to inviting investment in these mines from foreign countries.

The promising talents of the Yongphung Information Technology Exchange Company are playing a pivotal role in promoting exchangs and cooperation with other countries in the development and sale of such software such as the wed mobile application and 3D games and technical services for various kinds of hardware.

The External Economic Technology Development Company is promoting exchanges and cooperation with several countries in construction, technical assistance, and architectural decoration and is briskly conducting trade activities including cargo vessel repair and service business.

According to its scientific strategies for business operation and enterprise management and underpinned by its solid material and technological foundations, the corporation is conducting multi-faceted trade activities, encouraging long-term chartering and joint operation of ships, putting emphasis on inviting investment in the magnetic iron ore and serpentinite mines.

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Kim Jong-un’s mother’s grave (Ko Yong-hui)

April 8th, 2016

I reported this in Radio Free Asia last week….

It has never been announced in the North Korean media, but Kim Jong-un has “quietly” built a grave for his mother, Ko Yong-hui, on Mt. Taesong.

Ko-grave-2016-4-8

Pictured above (Google Earth): The grave of Kim Jong-un’s mother, Ko Yong-hui.

The site where the grave was built was cleared of a few small buildings by May 2012 (Kim Jong-il died in December 2011).  Construction appears to have been completed by October 2012.

Although the grave is on Mt. Taesong, it does not appear to be a revolutionary site. It is not featured on a nearby map of revolutionary sites on Mt. Taesong, and North Koreans are not being brought to it by the bus load (very little traffic in fact). Kim jong-un may have visited the grave unofficially, but never as a public ritual. The only foreigner I have spoken to who has visited the site saw only one guard on duty. So maybe someday years from now it is intended to be a revolutionary site, but not for now.

Back in 2010, Michael Madden posted this picture of Ms. Ko’s birthplace in Osaka, Japan. I was able to locate it on Google Earth at these coordinates:  34.663147°, 135.531080°

Ko-birthplace

Ko’s father (Kim Jong-un’s maternal grandfather) was buried on Jeju-do in South Korea, but the family had his grave moved to an undisclosed location to prevent it from attracting crowds. It is highly unlikely that Kim Jong-un will ever visit this grave.

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Gasoline prices in North Korea up by 52 pct in first week of April

April 8th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports some interesting (albeit anecdotal) price data from North Korea:

Firm sanctions imposed by the UN on North Korea have now been in effect for over a month. Although rice prices and the exchange rate in North Korean markets have remained relatively stable, the price of fuel has skyrocketed.

On April 4, Daily NK spoke with a source in Ryanggang Province who confirmed these facts. The price of 1 kilogram [the kilogram is the standard measurement of gasoline and diesel fuel in North Korea, though the liter is often used colloquially] of gasoline, which was 7,000 KPW [0.86 USD] at the end of March, increased in the first week of April to 10,700 KPW [1.32 USD].

This represents a 52 percent price increase in just a week.

Sources in North Hamgyong Province and Pyongyang have corroborated this news, reporting that prices in their regions are reflecting the trends prevailing in Ryanggang Province.

Diesel fuel prices have increased in tandem with gasoline. In Hyesan, 1 kilogram of gasoline is going for 6,350 KPW [0.78 USD] at the markets, a 1,000 KPW [0.12 USD] increase over last month’s prices.

This is a much smaller prices change — an 18 percent increase — but still significant.

A major factor behind the price spike is thought to be the large-scale construction projects that are underway, the source said, further noting that, “Workers mobilized for construction projects are saying that their worries are increasing at the same rate as fuel prices.”

Concerns that these prices will only continue to rise are widespread. Of particular importance, because planting season is just around the corner, farmers are also trying to procure fuel supplies for themselves, increasing demand and further exacerbating the situation. This has been made more difficult by the fact that fuel previously supplied to the markets through smuggling is comparatively harder to come by due to intensified crackdowns on these activities.

Furthermore, April and May are the prime months for catching mackerel, and June is when squid season gets underway. In anticipation of this busy period, fishermen are anxious to get their hands on fuel. “As the saying goes,” the source said, “fishing is survival, and the fishermen anticipate huge losses this year if they fail to secure an adequate supply of fuel right now.”

Citizens are divided over whether or not the sanctions are responsible for driving the increase in fuel costs, the source added. Although some believe that this is the sanctions beginning to show their effects, others are blaming the military for siphoning off supplies, pointing out that prices for other goods have remained constant.

As is often the case, it seems the price increases cannot be attributed to one single factor such as the sanctions. Aside from the factors cited above, it would not be surprising if expectations play a role and hoarding has increased, out of anticipation that sanctions may sooner or later impact prices.

Full article here:
April brings fuel price hike
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2016-04-07

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North Korean reforestation in practice

April 8th, 2016

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On this blog, we’ve often written about forestry issues in North Korea. It’s a particularly interesting area from an economic point of view, because it embodies many of the fundamental problems with central planning in North Korea. DailyNK reports on how these problems continue to show up in the current reforestation campaign:

“On Arbor Day (March 2), the grounds still hadn’t thawed from the winter cold, so no matter how hard you try, the trees aren’t able to secure their roots,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Wednesday. “There’s not enough manpower to dig through the frozen ground, and the tree and forest management offices are all for show. So from the initial planting stage, we’re unable to find healthy saplings to plant.”

(See this post for some pictures from the Russian embassy’s activities on Arbor Day).

Sources in Ryanggang Province and South Hamgyong Province corroborated this news.

“On top of that, those from above are pushing the citizenry to plant tens of thousands of trees in time for the ‘70-Day Battle’, so some people find tree segments without roots and just place them in the soil, before reporting them as progress made,” he added. “You can even see people who don’t have the money to buy these saplings, going out at night to uproot those planted elsewhere and transferring them to new areas that have been designated for forestation that month.”

North Korea has for many years pushed for reforestation in the spring with all-out campaigns, but the results have been negligible so far, according to the source. This is because the majority of the trees planted each year are unable to survive due to poor soil conditions and problems with sapling health. Even those that manage to survive do not last long in the absence of proper care.

Not only that, some people quietly cut down the trees to use for firewood, while others uproot them to cultivate the corn needed to feed their families, as many are planted on small mountain plots that were previously used by individuals to grow produce.

A defector with three decades of experience participating in reforestation campaigns in the North explained that such efforts are destined to fail as long as people are struggling to resolve fundamental necessities like securing enough food and fuel for heat.

“Outside of Pyongyang, people in the North don’t use gas to heat their homes, so they’re out looking for coal or firewood. Without enough coal in the rural areas, they have no choice but to go to the mountains and chop down trees,” said the source, who declined to be identified, adding that the situation is no different when the land needs to be cleared for crops.

South Korea previously supported the North’s reforestation efforts, the defector noted, adding that, “more than 100,000 trees were sent over during that time, but they probably all ended up in cadres’ furnaces,” emphasizing how futile these campaigns are when more pressing needs exist.

If the central government orders that trees must be planted, they must be planted, no matter the conditions on the ground. The problem, of course, is much deeper than just a lack of tree plantation efforts. As long as North Korea’s structural energy and food problems aren’t alleviated, campaigns like this one are bound to have little success in the long run.

Full article here:
Another year, another misguided attempt at reforestation
Kim Ga Young
DailyNK 
2016-04-07

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