Squaring the conflicting news reports on North Korea’s border reopening

November 4th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few days, there’s been a flurry of news reports suggesting two seemingly conflicting things: 1) that North Korea may reopen its borders with China and Russia already in November and, 2) that the border closure may remain in effect for several years to come.

First, Yonhap:

North Korea is in the final stage of preparations to reopen its train routes with China following prolonged border controls to stave off the coronavirus, a unification ministry official said Thursday.

The North is expected to first resume cargo transportation via land routes, the official said, though adding it’s hard to tell exactly when the operations would begin.

“Our assessment is that various preparations for the resumption of goods exchange through train routes are at the final stage,” the official told reporters on background.

Seoul officials have said signs indicating preparations for trade resumption were detected in the North Korean regions bordering China, such as the construction of quarantine facilities.

Last week, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers the North is in talks with China and Russia to resume train operations across the border and those connecting Sinuiju and Dandong — border cities of the North and China, respectively — could resume as early as November.

(Source: “N. Korea in final preparations to reopen border with China: official,” Yonhap News, 4/11/2021.)

In addition, NK News have reported several times over the past few months on satellite imagery showing construction of quarantine facilities near the border with China as well as activity near border crossings suggesting that trade might soon resume.

At the same time, according to media outlets with grassroots sources in North Korea, the authorities have told the population to buckle down and prepare for hard times to continue, as the border lockdown won’t ease even partially this year. Daily NK:

In particular, the provincial party said the border closure was not just a measure to protect the people from COVID-19, but also to awaken government organizations, enterprises and people “full of illusions about imported goods” from their delusions. They stressed the need to satisfy the people’s demand for consumer goods with “products produced in our country (North Korea).”

The source added that the party said the goal of the light industry and commercial sectors was to produce “uniquely North Korean light industrial goods” independent of imports by substituting foreign materials for domestic ones, and to supply those goods to the people.

The provincial party also decided to promote domestically produced commercial goods, basic foodstuffs and groceries as good for one’s health as they are eco-friendly, and equal to those of any other country.

The source added that the party said the state would “thoroughly control” the import of raw materials for consumer goods or basic foodstuffs “that we could easily produce and use in our country (North Korea).” He also said the party said that controls could be placed on imports “unapproved by provincial, city or county commercial departments” at local markets “even if the border were reopened.”

Meanwhile, the source said the provincial party told officials that they should understand that the border closure “will never be lifted, even partially” this year and that they should supervise matters well.

(Source: Jong So Yong, “N. Korean Cabinet calls on commercial sector to eradicate the ‘import disease’,” Daily NK, 4/11/2021.)

As I noted on the blog earlier this week, Radio Free Asia has reported that authorities say the border won’t open for trade until 2025.

Obviously, you can’t keep the border both closed and open it at the same time. So how can these claims be squared? As with all news on North Korea relying on few sources or South Korean intelligence claims, a huge dose of skepticism is warranted. It is of course entirely possible that some of these claims will later prove to be inaccurate. No one knows when border trade might reopen.

But both reports could be true at the same time. Note especially this paragraph in the quote from Daily NK above:

In particular, the provincial party said the border closure was not just a measure to protect the people from COVID-19, but also to awaken government organizations, enterprises and people “full of illusions about imported goods” from their delusions. They stressed the need to satisfy the people’s demand for consumer goods with “products produced in our country (North Korea).”

This goes to the heart of the question about whether the government may be using the pandemic as an opportunity to push for policy changes it would have sought anyway. It has long been a central economic policy goal for North Korea to decrease its reliance on imports and instead improve domestic manufacturing. Kim Jong-un has spoken about it frequently, as did his father before him.

Particularly in this light, it seems possible that the government might resume some border trade with China that is particularly important for its political purposes (or otherwise urgent), such as construction materials, certain machine parts that cannot be domestically manufactured, and potentially fertilizer. At the same time, it might continue the overall border closure in the name of the pandemic, severely limiting the flow of goods, with decreasing the country’s reliance on imports as an important long-term policy goal in mind. So for the general public, the message may remain that they must cope with an economic reality where the border remains largely shuttered, while trade resumes in some strategically important goods.

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New time horizon on North Korea’s border shutdown?

October 31st, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

There have been many rumors on when the North Korean government might end the current shutdown and restore the border trade with China to a somewhat normal, pre-pandemic flow. This is a recent data point (among many) on this and should of course be taken with the customary generous pinch of salt, but Radio Free Asia reports that North Koreans have been told the hardships will last at least until 2025:

After the government informed citizens to expect more years of hardship, people complained that they might not be able to last through the coming winter–much less hold out through the middle of the decade.

“Two weeks ago, they told the neighborhood watch unit meeting that our food emergency would continue until 2025. Authorities emphasized that the possibility of reopening customs between North Korea and China before 2025 was very slim,” a resident of the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, across from China’s Dandong, told RFA’s Korean Service Oct. 21.

“The food situation right now is already clearly an emergency, and the people are struggling with shortages. When the authorities tell them that they need to conserve and consume less food until 2025… they can do nothing but feel great despair,” said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.

(Source: Jeong Yon Park, “North Korea tells hungry citizens to ‘tighten belts’ until 2025,” Radio Free Asia, October 26th, 2021.)

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Kim Jong-un on North Korea’s import problem

October 26th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few weeks, Kim Jong-un has made a few interesting statements on reducing North Korea’s imports reliance. This is not a new theme by any means, and economic self-reliance is, at least in theory, a cornerstone of North Korean ideology. At the same time, the timing is probably no coincidence. The Covid-19 border closure has led to serious shortages of imported goods in particular causing, among other things, a lack of ink and paper to print the domestic currency.

In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly on September 30th, 2021, Kim spoke about the need to strengthen state “guidance” over the economy, and to make “all trade activities” in the “direction” of “decreasing the reliance on imports”:

대외경제사업에 대한 국가적지도를 심화시켜 모든 무역활동이 경제부문의 수입의존성을 줄이고 자립성을 강화하는 방향에서 확대발전되도록 하며 경제관리분야에서 국가경제지도기관들의 집행력을 강화하고 근로자들의 리익을 보장하기 위한 과학적인 방안들을 진지하게 연구적용할데 대하여 말씀하시였다.

(Source: Choson Sinbo, “김정은원수님께서 력사적인 시정연설 《사회주의건설의 새로운 발전을 위한 당면투쟁방향에 대하여》를 하시였다,” Choson Sinbo, September 30th, 2021.)

On October 19th, as reported by Yonhap here, a North Korean TV-broadcast made virtually the same statement, with the addition that the “economic guidance organs” are taking “active action” to implement the state’s decision.

These are merely two data that points document North Korean concerns about import reliance. Again, it’s nothing new, and I suspect we’ll see more similar statements in the future, perhaps more and more often.

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North Korea’s October 19th missile test and the economy

October 19th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

North Korean missile tests often lead to discussions about what they can tell us about the country’s overall strategic position and thought. So it is natural to ask after today’s missile launch, what does it tell us about North Korea’s economic situation? Is it a display of confidence, crisis, or neither?

I’m not going to attempt to give a solid, certain answer here, but two things are interesting about the timing and contest.

First, the launch came the day after news reports that trade has expanded significantly between China and North Korea. Imports by China have more than doubled, as have exports from China to North Korea. None of these figures are near pre-pandemic levels, but the increases are still significant. Daily NK reports confirm that the authorities are concerned about and trying to mitigate the soaring prices of imported goods, driven largely by the virtual blockade of the border to China. So from this point of view, the missile launch may express confidence that the domestic economic situation is improving or will soon improve.

Second, and contrary to the above, it may express confidence in North Korea’s ability to pull through the current difficulties despite the lack of clear improvements on the horizon. After all, the uptick in trade data may be an anomaly, and what’s most important is whether it is part of a longer-term pattern. In other words, a missile launch at a time when the economy is in many ways near a crisis, may attempt signal Pyongyang’s ability to persevere and continue its weapons development despite the difficult economic circumstances.

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North Korea is more connected to global markets than you might think

October 13th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

After a hiatus during the summer following my PhD defense, I now plan to get back to posting regular analyses and news content here. First up, an interesting example of why the North Korean economy is in fact more connected to global commodity markets than many might think.

Over the past few weeks, coal prices have skyrocketed in China, following energy shortages record-high coal prices. In September, the country’s coal imports surged by 76 percent, fueled flooding in one of the country’s main coal producing regions.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Chinese demand for North Korean coal — the commodity at the heart of international sanctions on North Korea — is reportedly growing. As Daily NK reports:

According to a source in Pyongyang on Wednesday, there have been noticeably more requests for coal from Chinese traders since North Korea’s national foundation day holiday on Sept. 9. He said there have been several illegal transshipments of coal for export over the last month.

China has recently limited trade with private North Korean traders, dealing instead with official North Korean trading bodies. The source said, however, that Beijing now approves transactions with any North Korean entity that can provide China with coal, including private ones.

In fact, the Chinese government has reportedly launched no particular crackdowns on private imports of North Korean coal.

Rather, according to a source in China, some provincial civil servants in China are advising traders to take care not to get photographed when they transship coal. Essentially, the Chinese government is turning a blind eye to imports of North Korean coal, an internationally sanctioned item. At the same time, they are asking traders to exercise caution, aware that the international community is watching.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “Amid coal shortages, Chinese traders on the hunt for more North Korean coal,” Daily NK, 7/10/2021.)

There are several things worth noting about this. First, again, it should not be surprising. China’s enforcements of sanctions against North Korea depends primarily on whether Beijing believes it to be in the national interest to clamp down on trade or smuggling. Clearly, China now needs cheap coal, and it’s been a long time since the North Korea issue was at the center of international politics and diplomatic tensions. So there appears to be comparatively little to lose in increasing trade for the moment, although China has been significantly letting up on its sanctions enforcement for several years now, since the days of “maximum pressure” in 2016–2018.

Second, North Korea still appears to be getting shafted by China, who exploits its position as the almost exclusive monopoly buyer buyer to purchase coal from North Korea at prices lower than world market prices or Chinese domestic prices. The precise proportions are uncertain, but Daily NK reports that China is paying less than half of world market prices for coal imports from North Korea, although their source also notes that the North Korean side is using the global shortage as leverage to jack up prices. In other words, while China may in some sense be North Korea’s “patron”, commercial market logic is much more important in coal trade than often assumed, and China isn’t necessarily doing it to help North Korea.

Third, and to tie back to the title of this piece, North Korea, despite its policies of economic autarky, is in fact deeply connected to global commodity markets. This isn’t just true for currency prices. Although the size of North Korea’s foreign trade remains comparatively abysmal, its economy is, just like most other economies today, tied to the broader dynamics of global supply and demand.

It still remains to be seen how much trade can expand under the current North Korean border shutdown. Though some goods are getting through, the border largely remains under lockdown due to Covid-19 despite intermittent news reports that trade might restart and return to its former scale. As many analysts have noted, Covid-19 has succeeded in closing the border more tightly to trade than most sanctions regimes have. How much Pyongyang is willing to meet Chinese demands and let coal shipments go across the border in larger scale, potentially increasing the country’s exposure to the virus (in the eyes of the leadership) remains to be seen.

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Some brief thoughts about North Korea’s food situation, late June 2021

June 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

By all accounts, the current food situation in North Korea appears difficult. It’s a crucially important topic that I unfortunately have not had much time to follow over the past few weeks. A few brief thoughts:

First, it’s important to keep in mind when hearing phrases such as “worst in a decade” that North Korea went through an actual famine in the 1990s and early 2000s. So that the food situation has gotten better over the last decade, while the country was arguably still rebounding from the famine, should not come as a surprise.

Second, it’s difficult to tell precisely how bad things are. Food production estimates, though only approximations, paint a picture of relative shortage compared to the past few years, but still not near disaster levels. North Korean authorities and international organs often sound the alarm bell over looming disasters, while little follow-up is done about what actually happened in the end. Anyone remember the famine warnings in early 2019, by the state and some foreign analysts alike? It’s impossible to tell how representative this report by Daily NK is, but if it’s true, the government is failing to stabilize prices because consumers choose not to buy rice in bulk for cheaper but lower quality from state-owned stores. If the country was approaching a genuine famine, this likely wouldn’t be the case.

Third, all this said, things do seem difficult. Bill Brown outlines in an excellent and thorough report here some of the alarming signs: relatively major fluctuations in both exchange rates and food prices. Although price levels aren’t at levels never seen before, fluctuations like this are relatively unusual. I suspect much of it is driven by future expectations of shortages based on information suggesting that the state will not open the border to China for trade within the foreseeable future.

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New Nautilus report on North Korea’s energy balance

May 4th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Nautilus Institute recently published a very interesting report on North Korea’s energy balance sheet. Among other things, it contains estimate calculations of the energy intensity of various industrial sectors in the country. You can find it here.

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March, 2021: what to make of the rise in North Korea-China trade?

April 20th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to Chinese customs data, Chinese exports to North Korea increased by 400 times in March, compared to the combined shipments in January and February of this year. As South China Morning Post reports:

Trade between China and North Korea grew to a six-month high in March, figures from Chinese customs show in the latest sign that the two neighbours are easing border restrictions amid tensions with the United States.

Exports from China to North Korea jumped from a paltry US$3,000 in February to US$12.98 million in March, according to Chinese customs data released on Sunday.

That was nearly 400 times more than the US$33,000 combined shipment of January and February, and was the highest by value since September, when China recorded outbound shipments valued at US$18.88 million to the isolated neighbour. Pyongyang imposed strict controls on goods transport ahead of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party in October.

According to Chinese customs, China imported US$1.308 million of North Korean goods in March, compared with US$1.75 million in February.

(Source: Laura Zhou (and Reuters), “China-North Korea trade jumps after pandemic slump but sanctions curb business with Pyongyang,” South China Morning Post, April 19th, 2021.)

What to make of this?

It could, of course, be the start of a trend reversal from the past year’s catastrophically low trade figures. Perhaps the North Korean government has begun to let up on border restrictions. In the past few weeks, news reports have said that China plans on restarting trade and open the new bridge between Sinuiju and Dandong. NK News has found evidence of new disinfection centers for goods on the North Korean side in April. The Russian ambassador to North Korea also recently said in an interview that trade will restart soon.

At the same time, I’m not sure these figures themselves give evidence of resumed trade. They could be a mere glitch in the data caused by a change in accounting routines or the like. Just look at the reported figure for Chinese exports to North Korea in February: $3,000. It simply isn’t realistic. Perhaps a portion of that month’s trade was recorded instead for March for reasons related to payments or contracts. China, moreover, ships much more goods to North Korea than what’s officially recorded as “trade”.

As so often, we will simply have to wait and see. When Chinese data is published on the specific items traded, we should also get a better sense of what this trade upswing really means.

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Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “worst-ever situation”

April 18th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Perhaps I am late to the game already (the long weekend here in Israel is to blame for that), but it has been puzzling to see the media reporting on Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea faces its “worst-ever” economic situation at the moment, under both international sanctions and a self-imposed border lockdown.

It seems that Kim’s words have been misinterpreted or lost in translation. Colleagues at 38 North have rightly and importantly pointed out that the original Korean-language statement is not nearly as drastic. This is often the case with KCNA articles and translated statements from North Korea:

In the vernacular report, however, this term read kuknanhan (극난한), which would be better translated as “very hard” or even “extremely difficult.”[2] North Korea’s English-language media sometimes omit passages or provide translations that are different from the vernacular text, and without analyzing years’ worth of data, it is impossible to conclude whether they do so deliberately, or if they are simply oversights.

It is clear, however, that Kim did not say “the worst-ever situation” at this event. Even if he had, the North Korean leader has made similar remarks in connection with the country’s current circumstances in recent months. For example, Kim’s opening address at the Eighth Party Congress in January referred to the past five years as a period of “unprecedented, worst-ever trials.”

None of this means that the situation is not bad. But “worst-ever” would be extremely drastic for a country where the failings of the economic system led to a famine in the 1990s and early 2000s that took the lives of between 600,000-1.5 million people. Today’s conditions simply aren’t grave enough to warrant such comparisons.

Precisely how difficult conditions are remains hard to tell. The Russian ambassador to North Korea recently gave an interview where he said that the country’s food situation is not at all catastrophic, and that there are no signs suggesting an ongoing famine. He is probably right, but at the same time, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much about the situation in the provinces, for example, based on an assessment of the store shelves in Pyongyang. The country’s society is highly stratified and its economy relatively fragmented. The situation in one locality may well be much more dire than in another.

At the same time, we should also be careful not to take Kim Jong-un at his word. What, except for Kim’s own statement, suggests that today’s situation is worse than the one in 1995, after both economic collapse and heavy flooding took a severe toll on the economy? Sure, things are incredibly messy right now, a view that both circumstances and data support. Kim’s own statement, not least, is another solid data point showing just how grim things appear to be. But famine, meaning large numbers of people dying from starvation or malnourishment, is simply a different dimensions. Let us hope that North Korea does not get there, neither now nor in the future.

There are reasons to believe that it will not. The market system, for its faults and flaws, is able to react to changes in supply and demand, unlike the state distribution system in the 1990s. Moreover, China would likely step in with serious quantities of food aid if the situation got truly disastrous. Many signs suggest that North Korea and China expect to resume and even expand trade in the short-term. Should a drastic need arise, China would likely increase humanitarian shipments as well, although it is far from certain.

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More news on trade potentially resuming between North Korea and China

April 1st, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Media outlets with sources inside North Korea, such as Daily NK, have reported for some weeks that trade might be restarting between China and North Korea. Daily NK reported in February that the USD-KRW rate began to climb after the 8th Party Congress amid rumors of the border opening again. Now, Nikkei Asia reports, based on anonymous sources in the Chinese border region, that preparations are being made to restart trade:

“I heard that North Korea is planning to accept Chinese goods from mid-April,” a Chinese man in his 30s at a trading company in Dandong, a city across the Yalu River from North Korea, told Nikkei. He said the information came from the North Korean side and he was preparing to restart his business.

A number of other trading companies also confirmed that bilateral trade is expected to resume in April.

At first, goods will only travel between Dandong and Sinuiju in North Korea, by rail over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which is the main route of trade between the two countries.

In Sinuiju, COVID-19 testing sites are being prepared. All being well, transport by ship and trucks will also be resumed.

North Korea needs medicines to treat diabetes, infections and other diseases, said a person familiar with the matter. “Bilateral trade” is in fact Chinese aid to North Korea, the source said. Sources also say that North Korea is asking for chemical fertilizers as the spring seeding season approaches.

In late January 2020, North Korea suspended flight and rail services from China and Russia to prevent coronavirus contagion. Overseas visitors were banned and goods restricted.

Pyongyang partially eased transport restrictions in May last year but reimposed them in October due to another wave of infections in China. Trade by road, rail and sea have almost entirely been suspended.

Meanwhile, a new bridge over the Yalu River is about to open. On March 9, the provincial government of Liaoning in China announced invitations for the tender of safety inspections for the New Yalu River Bridge, saying in those documents that the crossing would soon be open.

(Full article and source: Shin Watanabe and Tsukasa Hadano, “China and North Korea to revive trade in April amid US tension,” Nikkei Asia, March 30th, 2021.)

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