Labor Standards and South Korean Employment Practices in North Korea

March 11th, 2014

Marcus Noland and the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins have published an interesting report on South Korean labor practices in the DPRK.

You can download the report here (PDF). Noland’s blog post here.

You can watch the paper release talk:

Here is a summary of the paper:

By 2012, South Korean firms employed more than 50,000 workers in North Korea. Survey data indicate that the North Korean government has successfully circumscribed exposure of North Korean citizens both to South Koreans and to more market-oriented economic practices. South Korean investment in North Korea may well be beneficial both for the firms and the workers involved, but evidence of the sort of broader spillovers that proponents of engagement sometimes assert is not evident.

In the new USKI report, “Labor Standards and South Korean Employment Practices in North Korea,” Marcus Noland, Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Adjunct Professor of Korea Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, examines key questions about the nature of South Korean employment practices in North Korea both inside and outside the Kaesong Industrial Complex and whether this interaction is likely to encourage North Korean economic transition. He also examines the international legal obligations of both Koreas to implement fair and equitable labor standards and suggests ways to encourage better labor practices by South Korean government and firms in North Korea.

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Panel of Experts report out

March 11th, 2014

You can download the report here.

You can learn more about the panel here.

Here is coverage in Reuters.

Here is Scott Snyder on the report.

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January 2014 DPRK oil imports from China

March 10th, 2014

Zero!

According to Yonhap:

North Korea did not import any crude oil from China in January, marking the first absence of monthly deliveries from China in five months, a Seoul government report showed Monday.

It was not immediately clear whether the January absence of crude shipments to North Korea from China was linked to Beijing’s growing frustration with Pyongyang over its nuclear program, but it followed the execution of the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last December.

Last year, monthly shipments of crude oil from China to North Korea were absent in the months of February, June and July. However, annual shipments of crude oil to North Korea from China rose 11.2 percent on-year to 578,000 tons in 2013.

Read the full story here:
No crude import from China to N. Korea in Jan.: report
Yonhap
2014-3-10

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North Korea seeks investments from overseas Koreans

March 7th, 2014

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
2014-3-7

North Korea has been showing increased efforts in attracting economic investment from overseas Koreans. In particular, recent foreign media outlets run by overseas Koreans are showing increased emphasis on economic cooperation with North Korea.

In the March issue of the monthly magazine Joguk (Homeland) published by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (a pro-North Korea association), featured an interview with Park Kyung Jin, the director of Economic Cooperation Office for Overseas Koreans.

In the interview, Director Park described the plans for the organization: “We are diligently working to create an environment where overseas Koreans can successfully do business with North Korea.” He also emphasized that they are continually working to protect the rights and provide special legal treatment for overseas Koreans.

On February 24, US-based pro-North Korean website Minjoktongsin (Minjok Thongsin) introduced Kim Ji Hyuk and Ri Hak Song, department heads of the (DPRK) State Economic Development Commission in an article, “Where Is the North Korean Economy Heading?”

In the article, the officials stressed that North Korea is actively looking to foster economic experts and said, “We welcome the participation of experts, businesses, and organizations of overseas Koreans who wish to invest in North Korea.”

In addition, in order to increase economic cooperation with overseas Koreans, the commission introduced future plans of easing the travel process to and from North Korea including visa and other entry requirements.

North Korea is subject to international sanctions that limit its trade with most of the world and appears to be turning to overseas Koreans to overcome the country’s economic crisis. Rather than reaching out to other foreigners, North Korea is likely to be reaching out to overseas Koreans who share a common language and ethnicity, with relatively easier access.

Since the establishment of the Joint Venture Act in 1984, North Korea has worked extensively with the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan and with ethnic Koreans living in China. Since the launch of the Kim Jong Un regime, economic development zones (EDZs) are being set up across the country and ties with overseas Koreans are likely to be strengthened in efforts to further attract foreign investments into North Korea.

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DPRK as e-waste conduit

March 6th, 2014

According to Bloomberg:

How did North Korea become the conduit by which thousands of tons of old junk moved from the developed world into China’s bustling e-waste recycling industry?

As with any smuggling story, the tale starts with a prohibition. In this case, Chinese laws and regulations prohibit e-waste — most commonly understood as old, non-working electronics like laptops, monitors and mobile phones — from being imported into the country. The reasons are several, including a government interest in keeping used foreign goods from competing against new ones, and environmental concerns about how some of those goods are recycled. Nevertheless, China’s national-level environmental and customs authorities have long struggled to maintain those prohibitions against local ports and authorities — especially in south China — who view e-waste recycling as a good source of jobs, tax revenue, and used components to drive local industry. Of the several conduits through which e-waste has traditionally been smuggled, the most common and long-standing was over the Hong Kong-China border.

That all changed in February 2013 when — for reasons that are still unclear — Beijing announced “Green Fence,” a high-level crackdown on the import of prohibited waste and recycling exports, including old electronics. Nonetheless, here and there, imported old electronics still turned up in Chinese recycling facilities (I personally saw them).

The likely means, as described in state media after the North Korea bust, was convoluted. A Hong Kong “gang” allegedly received containers of used electronics from abroad. They arranged for them to be placed them on smaller ships bound for a “country in Northeast Asia.” The culprit’s identity is clear from the awkward phrasing. Criticism of North Korea in the Chinese press is exceedingly rare and -– needless to say — connecting the country to an e-waste smuggling ring qualifies as criticism. Were the country Japan, or even South Korea, it would have been named.

In fact, North Korea has long been rumored to be an e-waste recycling center. Since January 2008 a Chinese company based in Liaoning Province along the border has advertised for scrap to feed its e-waste recycling operations in North Korea itself. The facilities are located, according to the ad, in the port of Nanpo, and “take advantage of North Korea’s environmental policies and inexpensive labor resources.” There, the ad promises, prohibited e-waste can be dismantled and transformed into a product acceptable for export to China.

The smuggling ring was allegedly doing something similar, although its “transformed” e-waste clearly did not meet environmental standards. In North Korea the bulky e-waste was dismantled (steel cases would be removed from old desktop PCs, for example), segregated into marketable components like computer chips for re-use, and then sent to Dandong, a Chinese city and port on the Yalu River, directly across from North Korea. From there, the goods were trucked south, to recycling and re-use centers in Guangdong Province, a straight-line distance of roughly 1,800 miles.

Read the full story here:
Did North Korea Recycle Your Laptop?
Bloomberg
Adam Minter
2014-3-6

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Iron Silk Road: South Korean involvement in Rason (UPDATED 2014)

March 5th, 2014

UPDATE 7 (2014-4-18): The DPRK has “sort of” invited the head of Korail to a conference in Pyongyang. According to Yonhap:

North Korea has invited the head of South Korea’s rail operator to an international conference to be held in Pyongyang next week, a source with knowledge of the matter said Friday.

However, the North made the invitation verbally, which is preventing Choi Yeon-hye, president and CEO of the Korea Railroad Corp., from formally applying for the trip to Pyongyang, the source said.

The rail conference in Pyongyang, scheduled for April 24-28, is meant to boost international cooperation between railway operators, the source said, adding that it is expected to bring together top rail officials from China, Russia and 25 other member states of the Organization for Cooperation of Railways.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said no decision has been made yet on whether to allow Choi to travel to the North for the conference.

UPDATE 6 (2014-3-29): Russia and North Korea held talks on entry of the Russian firms into the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the railway project. According to Yonhap:

Also on the table in the Pyongyang-Moscow talks was how to boost cooperation among the two Koreas and Russia, with Pyongyang and Moscow making it clear that the two “share mutual interest” in the trilateral cooperative projects, according to the report.

“The (Russian) ministry reaffirmed the countries’ mutual interest in joint projects with South Korea, including international connections for railways, gas pipelines and power lines,” it said, adding that the minister stressed stability on the Korean Peninsula is key to achieving the goal.

Discussions of the project to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR) with the Trans-Korean Railway (TKR), dubbed the “Iron Silk Road,” have been under way for more than a decade, but geopolitical obstacles have hindered it, particularly given North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

South Korea and Russia have also been in discussions to push for a project to build a gas pipeline linking the two via North Korea.

The next meeting of the bilateral commission is scheduled for June in Russia’s far eastern city of Vladivostok, according to the ministry.

You can read more about the gas pipeline here.

UPDATE 5 (2014-3-24): South Korea to import coal through Rajin by next year. According to Korea IT Times (note-I changed the South Korean “Najin” to the North Korea “Rajin”):

A pilot program to carry coal from the port of Rajin in North Korea to Pohang in the south is expected to bear fruit within the year. A high-ranking official at the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said on March 23, “We have finalized a plan to ship coal between Rajin and Pohang before the year’s end as part of the Eurasia Initiative.”

Once the coal shipment from Siberia arrives in Rajin through the Hasan train station on the Russian side, South Korean ships will move the cargo to POSCO in Pohang from the No. 3 wharf in Rajin.

The ministry official added, “In a visit to Rajin in February we found that the port facility is capable of handling coal load up to 4 million tons a year. We will send a due diligence team again within the first half to find out the depth of the water near the port.”

The pilot coal shipment program is undertaken as part of the Rajin-Hasan railway project. The 54-kilometer railway link is critical to connecting the rail lines in the south to Busan and the trans-Siberian railway to European destination. Earlier in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-ruler of North Korea Kim Jong-il agreed to build the line at the cost of US$340 million.

Rajin is a port city located at the northernmost corner of North Korea bordering Russia. The Russian government has since 2010 been working on building berths capable of holding 70,000-ton vessels in Rajin’s No. 3 wharf. The Chinese government is also in talks with North Korean authorities over building container unloading facility as well as expanding the wharves No. 4 to 6. The problem, however, is the Russian side has not found coal mines big enough to supply the volume demanded by Korean companies including POSCO.

UPDATE 4 (2014-3-24): South Korea has joined the Organization for Cooperation Between Railways (OSJD) in Warsaw. According to the Choson Ilbo:

Korea has taken the first step toward connecting its railways to the Eurasian continent. The Korea Railroad Corporation on Sunday said it became an associate member of the Organization for Cooperation Between Railways (OSJD) in Warsaw, Poland.

In order to connect Korean railways from Busan to Europe, it is essential for KORAIL to register to the OSJD, which makes the rules on the Eurasian continent and overseas treaties amongst member states.

This makes a more realistic prospect of a planned “Silk Road” railway connecting the Korean Peninsula to Europe that lies at the core of President Park Geun-hye’s “Eurasia Initiative.”

The initiative, which was announced in October last year, aims to strengthen Eurasian economic cooperation and prompt an opening of North Korea to lay the groundwork for reunification with the South.

The OSJD invited KORAIL to a meeting of the heads of member states’ railways in Pyongyang next month.

UPDATE 3 (2014-3-5): South Korean companies could be operating out of Rason by next year. According to Yonhap:

South Korea may be able to use the North Korean port city of Rason for logistical purposes as early as early next year, the unification ministry said Wednesday.

“The flow of goods through the Rason region may become possible around next spring if things go smoothly,” Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said in a lecture to a group of former lawmakers.

“In early February, South Korean companies paid an on-site visit to the Rason area and if this (cooperation project) goes smoothly, major progress would take place around September this year,” the minister said of Seoul’s push to join the Rajin-Khasan development project between Pyongyang and Moscow.

The project is designed to develop Rajin, the northeastern North Korean port city now reintegrated into Rason, into a logistics center linked to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway.

The government is planning to link the North Korean port to two major South Korean southern ports of Pohang and Busan.

UPDATE 2 (2014-2-6): According to the Wall Street Journal:

…Seoul’s Unification Ministry said on Sunday that an 18-strong Southern business team will visit Rajin in North Korea’s northeast, near Russia and China, on Feb. 11-13. Three firms are going: steelmaker Posco; Hyundai Merchant Marine011200.SE -6.55%, a shipper; and state-owned monopoly Korail. The government isn’t sending anyone.

This follows a deal signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s one-day visit to Seoul in November. The plan is for the South Korean trio to acquire up to half of Russian Railways’ 70% stake in RasonKonTrans, a $340 million project which last fall, five years late, finished upgrading 54 kilometers of track from Russia’s border at Khasan down to Rajin, Asia’s most northerly all-year ice-free port. Harbor facilities are also to be modernised.

I was skeptical at the time. The companies sounded non-committal, and two big political reefs loomed. Had anyone asked North Korea, whose railways ministry owns the other 30% of RasonKonTrans? And wouldn’t this breach the ban Seoul imposed in 2010 on all trade and investments in North Korea, outside the Kaesong Industrial Complex? The Southern government says no.

This is just an inspection tour, but North Korea appears to have raised no objection – which is interesting, if scarcely consistent. Pyongyang plays politics with family reunions: a sadistic heartbreaker for elderly Koreans yearning to see their long-lost kin, if only once and briefly.

According to Xinhua (2014-2-9):

A group of South Korean company officials will visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ( DPRK) to carry out field study for joining in Rajin-Khasan railway and port development project between Pyongyang and Moscow, South Korea’s unification ministry said on Sunday.

A total of 18 officials from South Korea’s state-run Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL), steelmaker POSCO and shipper Hyundai Merchant Marine are scheduled to visit DPRK’s northeastern port city of Rajin from Tuesday to Thursday.

The ministry said they will meet their Russian counterparts in Vladivostok and then departed for the DPRK.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to cooperate in the Russian-led project during their summit in Seoul last November.

The Rajin-Khasan project aims to refurbish DPRK’s Rajin port and a railroad connecting it to the nearby Russian town of Khasan, paving the way for the Trans-Korean Railway and the Trans-Siberian Railroad reaching Europe.

A double-track railway between Rajin and Khasan reopened last September after years of renovation. It is reported that if the trilateral program runs smoothly, the Rajin port will become a logistics center for South Korean and Russian firms.

The project is part of Park’s plan for building the “Silk Road Express” by linking roads and railways running from South Korea to Europe via the DPRK, Russia, China and other Eurasian nations.

According to Yonhap (2014-2-9):

Officials from South Korean companies set to participate in an economic project between Pyongyang and Moscow will visit North Korea this week for an on-site inspection, the government said Sunday.

The unification ministry said 18 officials from three South Korean firms will visit North Korea’s northeastern port of Rajin from Tuesday to Thursday. The companies are state-run Korea Railroad Corp. (KORAIL), top steelmaker POSCO and No. 2 shipper Hyundai Merchant Marine. No government official will join the trip, the ministry said.

Their inspection is part of South Korea’s participation in the Rajin-Khasan development project, the Russian-led rail and port development venture in North Korea.

It’s designed to develop Rajin into a logistics center linked to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railway. Last September, a double-track railway reopened between Rajin and Khasan, the nearby Russian town, after years of renovation.

In their summit meeting in Seoul last November, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to help South Korean firms join the Rajin-Khasan project.

Also last year, Park unveiled her plan to expand economic cooperation with Eurasian nations, dubbed the Eurasian Initiative. The policy is built on the idea that exchanges between South Korea and Eurasian nations, in particular Russia, could help induce the reclusive North Korea to open up and alleviate tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Chris Green of the Daily NK has translated an  interview with the executive director of POSCO Corporate Strategic Planning Dept, Jeon Woo-sik, wherein he offered details about the delegation visiting Rason?

Ha Joon-soo, “나진~하산 프로젝트 현장 실사단 내일 방북“ [Rajin-Khasan Project onsite inspection team to visit North Korea tomorrow], KBS News, February 10, 2014.

Q: What is the makeup of the inspection team?

Jeon: There are five people going from POSCO [포스코]: a ports expert, an investment expert, and staff. There are six from Korail [코레일], another five from Hyundai Merchant Marine [현대상선], and two from the inspection company [실사법인], which makes eighteen. Aside from that, twenty staff from Russian Railways [러시아 철도공사] will accompany [the group]. Meetings with the North Korean side will be conducted in English and Russian, so the Russian side will bring interpreters.

Q: What is an “inspection company”?

Jeon: There is the need for personnel to expertly verify accounting and tax documentation, so we incorporated a body [for that].

Q: There will be no [South Korean] government officials with the group?

Jeon: None. This is a purely private undertaking, and it was decided that if government officials were included it could have a negative impact. Therefore, we formed the entire team from the private sector, and the government accepted this position.

Q: What is the team’s schedule?

Jeon: We minimized it as far as possible. Given that experts from each sector will be doing the inspecting, we decided that three days would be sufficient. Today [February 10] they departed for Vladivostok in Russia, and tomorrow morning [February 11] they will set off by special train. After completing the border formalities at Khasan on the Russia-DPRK border, we expect them to arrive in Rajin at around 12. Construction at Rajin Port is currently underway, so they will conduct visual inspections of the state of the port, whether pier construction is being done properly, and what the state of the Rajin-Khasan railway is. It is also expected that they will get additional information from the Russian side.

Q: What was done in advance to facilitate this?

Jeon: We applied for the visit in the middle of January, and document checks took about three weeks. The North Korean government signed off on the visit on February 5, and [the South Korean] government approved it on February 7.

Q: Can you give a concrete breakdown of what the team is going to do?

Jeon: The port and railway inspections will be divided into areas of expertise. More concretely: they will check the state of the rail track bed, the width of the track and the spaces between the rails, as well as signaling systems and stations. In the Russian documentation it says that Pier 3 is 600m long, but this must be verified, along with the depth of the water, whether it freezes in winter, the state of the mobile port cranes, whether it will be possible to use the pier over the long term, its strength, and how much investment is likely needed for dredging. Once that has been done, we’ll be able to roughly assess the investment cost on the Russian side.

Q: Is it right that, according to the Russian side, construction at Pier 3 will be complete at around the end of 2013?

Jeon: Port construction progress is currently at 90 percent. It’s winter now so construction isn’t possible, but it should be 100 percent complete during the next quarter. We’ll check on the construction of the port distribution terminal during these inspections. As it stands, coal from Siberia is what is coming in, so as long as there is storage for coal it is enough.

Q: Why do you need to perform in-situ checks?

Jeon: As you will be aware, the “Rajin-Khasan Project” is a cooperative one between North Korea and Russia. It’s an integrated port and rail freight business, and is worth a total of $340,000,000. Of this, North Korea has invested 30 percent and Russia 70 percent.

However, around half the Russian stake is supposed to be supplied indirectly by this consortium of Korean firms; yet even last November when a MoU was adopted between Russia and Korea, decisions were made based on documents from the Russian side. We have never seen for real how the construction is proceeding. How much should be invested can only be decided once the precise reality has been seen.

Q: What will happen once the inspection has been completed?

Jeon: We need to know the results of the inspection before we can decide that. Investment sums will be decided within this calendar year.

Q: So, when can we expect boats loaded with coal to come from Rajin down to Pohang and Busan [in South Korea]?

Jeon: Russian Far East ports are at saturation point dealing with Russia’s natural resources. The best thing would be for the freight headed for South Korea to be taken out and sent through Rajin instead. However, for a South Korean vessel to come and go from Rajin Port requires an authorization process. This part is linked to the 5.24 Measures[1], meaning that it would become possible more rapidly if the 5.24 Measures were lifted.

According to the Hankyoreh (2014-2-11):

Explaining that the Rajin-Hasan Project is a “special case” that is going ahead despite the May 24 measures, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said that North Korea would have to take meaningful steps before the May 24 measures could be revoked.

During a plenary session at the National Assembly on Feb. 10 on issues related to diplomacy, unification, and national defense, the minister said that the May 24 punitive measures against North Korea would not be lifted until the North took action showing its remorse for the sinking of the Cheonan warship.

The May 24 measures, instituted after the Cheonan was sunk in 2010, constitute a complete ban on economic activity, exchange, and cooperation with North Korea.

But when asked about the Rajin-Hasan project, in which POSCO, Korail, and other South Korean companies have recently received permission to invest, Ryoo said that the project is moving ahead because it has particular significance for South Korea’s national interest regarding relations with Russia. If the project makes progress in the future and material starts to move, Ryoo predicted, various discussions will take place. That is to say, South Korea is moving forward with the Rajin-Hasan project as an exception to the May 24 measures.

On Monday, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won also said that the Rajin-Hasan issue is a special case.

“What happened to the principles that President Park Geun-hye was talking about?” complained one businessman involved in economic cooperation with North Korea. “If you’re going to relax the restrictions, you should relax them for everyone. It‘s not fair just to relax them for large companies,” the businessman said on condition of anonymity.

Read the full stories here:
North Korea’s Rajin as Rotterdam? A Little Less Crazy Now
Wall Street Journal
Aidan Foster-Carter
2014-2-6

S. Korean firm officials to visit DPRK for Rajin-Khasan joint project
Xinhua
2014-2-9

S. Korean corporate officials to visit N. Korea as part of Pyongyang-Moscow venture
Yonhap
2014-2-9

Rajin-Hasan Project going ahead as a “special case”
Hankyoreh
Choi Hyun-june
2014-2-11

UPDATE 1 (2014-1-16): South Korea launches task force on railway and other projects. According to Yonhap:

South Korea is set to launch a task force on economic cooperation projects with North Korea and Russia, including a long-discussed plan for a trilateral rail link, Seoul officials said Thursday.

The move is the first follow-up step after President Park Geun-hye announced late last year her plan to expand economic cooperation with Eurasian countries for more trade opportunities.

Called the Eurasian Initiative, the policy is centered on the idea that exchanges between South Korea and Eurasian nations, especially Russia, will help induce an opening up in the reclusive North, which lies in between, thus allaying the long-running military and diplomatic tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The task force, tentatively named the Trilateral South, North Korea, Russia Cooperation Task Force, will be launched as soon as February under the wing of the foreign ministry’s Europe division, according to the officials.

Under the task force, about five government officials will be charged with reviewing the feasibilities of various economic project ideas among the three nations, including much-discussed plans to link a railroad, gas and oil pipes, and electrical grids between South Korea and Russia through North Korea, according to them.

“All the issues concerning the trilateral cooperation among South and North Korea, and Russia can be subject to the task force’s reviews,” a foreign ministry official said. “Specific details about the projects will be known after the task force goes into operations.”

Discussions of the project to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway (TSR) with the Trans-Korean Railway (TKR), dubbed the “Iron Silk Road,” have been under way for more than a decade, but geopolitical obstacles have hindered it, particularly given North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions.

In a summit meeting held in Seoul last November, South Korean President Park and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a memorandum of understanding to help South Korean companies join the Rajin-Khasan development project in North Korea, the Pyongyang-Moscow project to link their railways for better logistics.

ORIGINAL POST (2013-11-13): The Russians and South Koreans recently discussed and signed a MOU on investment in the Rajin-Russia railway link and port. According to Yonhap:

South Korea agreed Wednesday to take part in a Russian-led rail and port development project in North Korea that could help reduce tensions with Pyongyang and open up a new logistics link between East Asia and Europe in line with President Park Geun-hye’s “Eurasian initiative.”

The memorandum of understanding was the most tangible outcome from Park’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It calls for steel giant POSCO, Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. and Korea Railroad Corp. to participate in the Rajin-Khasan development project.

The project was designed to develop North Korea’s ice-free northeastern port of Rajin into a logistics hub connected to Russia’s Trans Siberian Railway. In September, a 54-kilometer, double-track rail link reopened between Rajin and the nearby Russian town of Khasan after years of renovation.

Once the project to modernize the port of Rajin is completed, the rail-connected port can be used as a hub for sending cargo by rail from East Asia to as far as Europe. South Korean firms can also ship exports first to Rajin and transport them elsewhere via Russian railways.

North Korea and Russia launched the US$340 million project in 2008.

“The two sides agreed to encourage the rail and port cooperation project that companies of the two sides are pushing for so that it can move smoothly forward,” said a joint statement issued after the summit.

The project fits into Park’s “Eurasian initiative,” which calls for binding Eurasian nations closely together by linking roads and railways to realize what she called the “Silk Road Express” running from South Korea to Europe via North Korea, Russia and China.

Wednesday’s agreement was seen as a first step toward the ambitious vision.

“We, the two leaders, agreed to combine South Korea’s policy of strengthening Eurasian cooperation and Russia’s policy of highly regarding the Asia-Pacific region to realize our mutual potential at the maximum level and move relations between the two countries forward,” Park said during a joint press conference.

“South Korea and Russia will join hands to build a new Eurasian era for the future,” she said.

The Korean consortium plans to buy a stake in RasonKonTrans, the Russian-North Korean joint venture carrying out the rail and port renovation project. A final decision on the planned purchase will be made after a due diligence study in the first half of next year, officials said.

State monopoly Russian Railways has a 70 percent stake in the joint venture, with the North holding the remaining 30 percent. News reports have said that the Korean consortium plans to buy about half the Russian stake.

The purchase could be in conflict with Seoul’s ban on new investments in North Korea, though it is an indirect investment via Russia. The ban is part of sanctions Seoul imposed on Pyongyang after the North torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship near their Yellow Sea border in 2010.

The project could pave the way for similar indirect investments in the North and help reduce tensions on the divided peninsula. Inter-Korean relations, which had shown signs of a thaw following months of high tensions, chilled again after Pyongyang unilaterally canceled reunions for separated families in September.

Putin arrived in South Korea from Vietnam earlier Wednesday on a one-day visit for his second summit with Park. They first met in September on the sidelines of a Group of 20 major economies meeting in Russia’s second-largest city of Saint Petersburg.

In Wednesday’s summit, the two leaders also signed an MOU to enhance cooperation in shipbuilding. Officials said the deal laid the groundwork for South Korea to win orders of at least 13 liquefied natural gas tankers from Russia on the condition of technology transfer.

Also discussed was a long-discussed project to link railways of the two countries via North Korea and through to Europe. The two sides signed an MOU on rail cooperation and agreed to study the project as a long-term venture. The rail project has been talked about for many years, but little headway has been made due to security tensions.

Other projects the two sides agreed to cooperate on as long-term ventures included building a natural gas pipeline linking Russia and South Korea via the North and developing Arctic shipping routes to reduce shipping distances and time between Asia and Europe.

In total, the summit produced 17 cooperation agreement, including a visa-exemption pact calling for allowing Koreans and Russians to visit each other’s nation without a visa for up to 60 days, as well as an accord to set up cultural centers in each other’s nation.

Other topics for the meeting included regional and global security issues, such as the North Korean nuclear standoff. Russia is a member of the six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program and is also one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

“The two sides confirmed they cannot accept Pyongyang’s policy of building independent nuclear and missile capabilities … and stressed that North Korea cannot have the status of a nuclear state,” the joint statement said.

They also emphasized the North should abide by international denuclearization obligations and commitments, and agreed to work together to create the right conditions for restarting the long-stalled six-party talks on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the statement said.

In an apparent swipe at Japan, the statement said that the sides shared a concern that the strong cooperation potential in Northeast Asia has not been realized due to obstacles created by recent “retrograde acts and words on history.”

Putin’s visit to Seoul is the first by a leader from the four major powers that also includes the United States, Japan and China since Park came into office. The Russian president is also the sixth foreign leader to visit South Korea under the Park administration.

Yonhap also published this related but separate report:

The ministry, in charge of all inter-Korean relations, said plans by a South Korean consortium to buy a stake in RasonKonTrans, the Russian-North Korean joint venture, can strengthen ties between South Korea and Russia and create greater opportunities for all sides. The project, first launched in 2008, cost Pyongyang and Moscow US$340 million.

It said the memorandum of understanding, signed on the sidelines of summit meeting between South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in the day, did not mean Seoul was abandoning its so-called May 24 blanket ban that prohibits all economic and personnel exchanges with the North.

The ban has been in place since 2010, after Seoul accused Pyongyang of sinking one of its warships near the sea border in the Yellow Sea. Seoul at present only permits humanitarian assistance exempt from the sanctions rule.

“This project is special, and efforts will be made to assist visits by South Koreans who have to go to the North to carry out due diligence,” said a ministry official who declined to be identified.

He added that while an investment does conflict to some extent with Seoul’s ban, it is slightly different, since companies will be buying stakes in the Russian company.

“It will be an indirect form of investment and not the direct kind that has been banned so far,” the source said. However, he conceded the move marks the first time that investments into a North Korean project have been authorized.

South Korean businessmen from steelmaker POSCO, Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. and Korea Railroad Corp. are expected to go on fact-finding missions to Rajin and check the rail line linking the port city with the Russian town of Khasan.

Under the project, aimed at utilizing North Korea’s ice-free port, Russia aims to transform Rajin into a logistics base linked to its Trans Siberian Railway (TSR). If the project makes headway, Rajin can be used by South Korean companies to send cargo by rail to Europe using the TSR.

On the controversy that may arise from “bending” the rules, the ministry official said the government is willing to review other indirect forms of investments involving other countries if proposed.

“If a proposal is submitted, it will be judged in terms of the nature of the project, the effect it will have on cross-border relations and North Korean attitude,” he stressed.

Additional Information:
1. Read more about the Russia-Rajin rail link here.

2. Read more about the Russia – South Korea gas pipeline here.

3. Read previous posts on the Rason SEZ here.

Read the full stories here:
S. Korea to participate in Russian-led rail, port development project in N. Korea
Yonhap
Chang Jae-soon
2013-11-13

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DPRK fertilizer imports (2013 – Jan 2014)

March 4th, 2014

According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s fertilizer imports from China skyrocketed in January from a year earlier, data showed Tuesday, pointing to Pyongyang’s efforts to increase agricultural output.

The North brought in 35,113 tons of Chinese fertilizer in January, a huge increase from 2 tons from a year earlier, according to the data by the Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI).

Such an amount is unprecedented for January, as the impoverished communist country used to buy a limited amount of fertilizer in winter, according to KREI experts.

The January figure is also two times bigger than the 17,416 tons for December, according to the data.

“Different from its previous pattern of buying fertilizer in spring, North Korea seems to be taking a very proactive move to secure fertilizer a long time ahead of its usual schedule. This means that the North is putting a priority on improving its farm output,” said KREI researcher Kwon Tae-jin.

It is in line with its leader Kim Jong-un’s policy goal of boosting food production, experts said.

In his New Year’s message, the young leader said all efforts “should go for agriculture … in order to build a strong economy and to improve the people’s livelihoods.”

Last year, Pyongyang bought a total of 207,334 tons of fertilizers from China, down by 18 percent from the previous year.

“This year, the trend is expected to be reversed given the January data and the fact that China has lowered duties,” Kwon added.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea’s fertilizer imports from China soar in Jan.
Yonhap
2014-3-4

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Prospects for North Korea’s anthracite exports to China

March 3rd, 2014

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
2014-3-3

For North Korea, anthracite exports are a major means of foreign currency earnings and the country’s top export item to China. Exports are expected to continue to rise this year.

China’s year-on-year import of anthracite from North Korea increased 39.7 percent (16.49 million tons) from the previous year, accounting for 41.5 percent of the total amount of anthracite import for China (39.66 million tons). North Korea has now surpassed Vietnam as the top exporter of anthracite to China.

Other than natural resources, North Korea has virtually no other major export commodities to offer. The recent standstill in inter-Korean economic cooperation and toughened international sanctions has made it difficult for North Korea to earn foreign currency. Thus, North Korea has pushed for a steady increase in its hard coal exports to China. North Korean anthracite is considered to be of relatively high quality, maintaining a higher unit price (10 USD/ton) than Vietnamese anthracite.

Currently, China’s steel industry is the largest consumer of the North Korean anthracite, with the main consumers being local steel companies in Liaoning, Hebei, and Shandong Provinces, as they are geographically closer to North Korea and have easy access to shipping ports.

The market for North Korean anthracite is expected to expand. Since last year, the Chinese government began to implement wide-ranging air-pollution management measures. As a result, Chinese authorities designated the Hebei Province and the surrounding areas of Beijing and Tianjin municipalities as key areas to improve and control air pollution. With the help of allocated subsidies from the central government, local governments began to distribute hard coal briquettes to homes in farming villages. China’s major anthracite producing areas are in remote mountainous regions. So the demand for North Korean anthracite briquettes is anticipated to increase.

Late last year, the former head of the (North) Korean Workers’ Party Jang Song Thaek was accused, charged and executed for, among other “anti-state activities,” selling the country’s “precious [natural] resources” (presumably to China) at very cheap prices. But his execution does not appear to have made a significant impact on the anthracite trade between the DPRK and China. With China’s growing demand for North Korean anthracite, the export volume is expected to rise.

However, some argue that despite the growing demand North Korea’s coal production capacity is limited and will experience difficulties. Currently, North Korea has already suppressed significantly its domestic demand in order to meet the export volume. North Korea’s mining facilities are said to be old and badly in need of repairs, but large investments from Chinese companies that could be put toward this endeavor are reported to have dried up.

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UN WFP gives DPRK $3.2m assistance in Feb 2014

February 28th, 2014

According to Yonhap:

 The U.N. food agency has provided emergency food aid worth US$3.2 million for children and pregnant women in North Korea earlier this month, according to a news report.

The World Food Program (WFP) has given the emergency funding assistance in February, Washington-based Radio Free Asia reported Thursday, citing a spokesman handling North Korean affairs.

The U.N. body has said earlier that it will close five out of its seven factories within this month that produce nutritious biscuits due to a lack of funding, the report said, amid an apparent donor fatigue over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

On Thursday, North Korea fired what appeared to be four short-range ballistic missiles off its southeast coast, South Korean officials said, in a suspected reaction to U.S.-involved military exercises in the South that Pyongyang condemns as a rehearsal for invasion.

The WFP said in November that food production in the North is estimated to have been around 5.03 million metric tons in 2013, up 5 percent from the previous year.

Still, the food security situation remains serious, with 84 percent of all households having borderline or poor food consumption, according to the U.N. food agency.

A few days ago, a report titled “Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) 200532 “Nutrition Support for Children and Women” in DPR Korea” was released with additional data.

Read the full story here:
WFP gives US$3.2 mln in emergency aid to N. Korea: report
Yonhap
2014-2-28

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State Economic Development Commission and the Jang purge

February 26th, 2014

Two officials at the State Economic Development Commission have apparently been reinstated following their removal during the purge of Jang Song-thaek. According to Yonhap:

Kim Ki-sok and Kim Chol-jin, chief and deputy chief of the North’s State Economic Development Commission, had been sacked in connection with the purge and execution of leader’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in December last year, but have been reinstated after undergoing an “ideology re-education,” the source said on the condition of anonymity.

“Kim Ki-sok and Kim Chol-jin were forced to resign from the posts after being involved in the case of Jang Song-thaek, but reinstated as they were considered not so close to Jang,” the source said.

After reinstatement, Kim Ki-sok, chief of the North Korean commission, made secret visits last week to Beijing and Shenzhen, southern China, during which he met with Chinese business people, according to the source.

Here is what the Choson Ilbo had to say:

A source in Beijing said Kim visited Beijing, Shenzen, Singapore and Malaysia last week. He met with businesspeople interested in developing North Korea’s special economic zones.

Kim also met with Chinese officials who had experience in developing special economic zones, the source said. In Singapore, Kim discussed the development of a tourism zone in Wonsan.

But he apparently returned empty-handed.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing say North Korea is poised to push for more economic exchanges with China after elections for its rubber-stamp parliament on March 9. It will form a new team to handle the initiative now that Jang and his associates have been purged.

Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju or Ri Su-yong, a deputy department chief in the Workers Party who used to manage the coffers for former leader Kim Jong-il, may pay an official visit to China, according to sources.

Read other posts about the State Economic Development Commission here.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea reinstates key officials on economic projects with China
Yonhap
2014-2-26

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