New video from Chongjin, showing economic change

June 12th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Unification Media Group (and Daily NK) continues their series of videos from North Korea highlighting some of the trends and features of the economy. The new video shows, among other things, how private companies are renting space from state enterprises, and notes that private alternatives to state-run businesses often function more smoothly:

Although North Koreas private economy continues to develop, the public sector is showing signs of rapid decline. This is partly explained by the rise of North Koreas newly-affluent middle class, who are referred to as the donju. Donju traders study the preferences of consumers in order to make profits, while state companies continue to operate according to bureaucratic management principles that have remained unchanged for years.
A video obtained exclusively by Daily NK and filmed inside North Koreas Chongjin City shows evidence of these trends. In the video, a state-run bathhouse called Sunam Undokwon can be seen. In North Hamgyong Province, the state manages a variety of businesses, including barbershops, beauty salons, and restaurants. While the shops appear well kept on the exterior, the interiors reveal the true state of the businesses. The bathhouse, for example, does not have properly running water. Problems like this have caused a steep dropoff in clientele at state-run businesses.
In contrast, bathhouses operated by the donju have drawn a large customer following as they strive to cater to the needs of their clients. A privately-operated bathhouse and a soft drink vending stall can be seen in the video within a business center called Chongjin Shop. The Chongjin Shop is run by Kangsung Trading Company, which itself has an affiliation with the Ministry of the Peoples Armed Forces. The bathhouse here has reliably running water and a steam room, and thus is the preferred bathhouse in the area.
The water isnt heated at the state-run bathhouse, so customers are forced to fill up small buckets and heat them up on small coal-fired stoves. The brown smoke and burning stench are so severe that customers tend to avoid it. But the privately-run bathhouses have robust fireplaces and the hot water always comes out strongly and without interruption, an inside source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.
Unlike public bathhouses, private shops offer ttaemiri, professionals who scrub down the bathers with abrasive cloths designed to exfoliate the skin. This service is creating a lot of buzz among customers, with factory workers coming to work as ttaemiri in the evenings. The popular service is drawing in donju and Workers’ Party cadres alike, as they flood into the bathhouses after eating dinner to relieve their stress.
Because the private bathhouses offer these additional services, the fees are higher than the public baths. Access to the open bath costs about 2,000 KPW, while access to the individual baths costs between 5,000-10,000 KPW. These prices are about 1,000-1,500 KPW higher than the state-run establishments. However, owing to the rise in demand for clean, professional bath services, the private shops are attracting more customers.
When asked to explain the popularity of these businesses, the source said, Because Chongjin is host to a relatively large number of people who make money through the marketplace, private businesses like bathhouses are able to operate more or less according to market principles. Both cadres and donju find the private bathhouses to be convenient since, unlike public bathhouses, there is no need to show ones ID card upon entrance.
For these reasons, private businesses are gaining the edge over state-run businesses. There are some instances where publicly constructed buildings are being rented out entirely to donju entrepreneurs, indicative of the increasing dependence of the state economy on the private sector. On one side of the Chongjin Chemical Fiber Complex, a private business sign reads, Resin-Aluminum Window [Frame] Production – an example of a privately-run business that is renting out an area of a state-owned building.
The practice of renting out public buildings to private businesses has become particularly prominent since Kim Jong Un came to power. For the donju, such arrangements are more cost-effective than building a new facility from scratch. For the authorities, it offers a way to earn money from buildings that would otherwise be empty and unproductive.
The source continued to describe the arrangements, saying, The donju pay fees to party cadres to rent out the building and carry out their business there. Renting out public buildings is officially illegal, but the party cadres are just as adept at earning money. So when donju come around looking to do business, the cadres just about throw themselves into the deal. The rental cost depends on a number of factors, like the currency that the payments will be made in (US dollar versus North Korean won) and the schedule of payments.
Ever since the July 1st Economic Management Improvement Measures were introduced in 2002, the North Korean authorities have inconsistently permitted and then restricted the development of the private economy. Now, in an unexpected development, the public economy is beginning to trail behind the private economy. Marketization has expanded beyond the strict controls of the authorities, and the state economy is now striving to paradoxically maintain its vigor by extracting money from the private economy.
For this reason, business practices that are based on fundamental market principles are spreading with greater speed among the residents. It is likely seen as a potential threat to the stability of the Kim Jong Un regime. However, because the state economy has become dependent on the success of the private economy, an abrupt crackdown on the markets could produce self-inflicted wounds.
Large construction projects and convenience services were once all run by the state, but now, businesses in these industries are succeeding based on market principles. If the authorities do not dramatically restructure the system sometime soon, it will be difficult to reverse the trend, an inside source from North Hamgyong Province recently told Daily NK.
Both the donjus accumulation of power and the residents tendency to prioritize money over party loyalty threaten to undermine the regimes power base. It is therefore possible that the regime may punish a few donju or merchants as scapegoats in order to set an example.
As the private economy continues to flourish, it is possible to see residents using other methods to earn money. Some residents choose not to enter the official marketplace, and instead sell their products in back alleys adjacent to Sunam Market. One such merchant can be seen offering Rock Portraits. These are portraits of clients hand painted onto rocks.
The government is struggling to keep up with the rapid development and diversification of the private economy. The Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Peoples Security usually label new economic activities and services as illegal. Eventually, as they start to receive bribes, they choose to look the other way and the practice becomes more mainstream, the source said.
Illegal currency traders can also be seen offering services in front of a Chongjin foreign currency store. According to the source, these currency traders have rapidly increased in number over the last few years, and stroll about in front of the store and approach customers who may need to exchange currency. Its a profitable industry that exists due to daily fluctuations in the currency rates.
Even residents who dont normally visit foreign currency exchanges are using the exchange services because they want to accumulate savings in a different currency (ie. not North Korean won). Residents, who fear another devastating currency redenomination like the one that occurred in 2009, are openly circulating foreign currency, the source added.
Full article here:
Private businesses triumph over state-run
Unification Media Group
Daily NK
2017-06-12
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No more North Korean labor in Bulgaria

May 29th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Yonhap:

Bulgaria said Monday that it has suspended imports of workers from North Korea amid criticism that Pyongyang is extorting money earned by their people overseas.

The action was taken along with the Czech Republic and Romania, the Bulgarian Embassy to South Korea said in a press release.

“Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania set a precedent by ceasing their labor imports after realizing the conditions of North Korean overseas laborers,” it said.

“The suspension of receiving North Korean laborers by these three East European countries is an example where states have actively taken measures against the extortions of the laborers’ remuneration,” it added.

Full article:
Bulgaria suspends labor imports from N.K.
Yonhap News
2017-05-29

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Chinese imports of North Korean coal down since February ban, data says

May 23rd, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reuters reported today on the most recent figures on China-North Korean trade. They show that coal imports have declined, to the lowest level in three years, according to Reuters. It must be remembered that coal trade (in volume terms, not necessarily in USD-numbers) has climbed for several years in a row since 2010, so a relative decline does not mean catastrophically low levels. Also, of course, Chinese customs data should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

Reuters:

The world’s second-largest economy bought goods worth $99.3 million in April from North Korea, the lowest monthly tally since at least June 2014, according to Chinese customs data. Previous data was not available.

That compares with $114.6 million in March and $167.7 million a year earlier.

A fifth of the April total was iron ore imports, which hit 285,000 tonnes, their highest since August 2014. That was up 10 percent from a month earlier and 2-1/2 times higher than a year earlier.

[…]

Cho Bong-hyun, who heads research on North Korea’s economy at IBK Bank in Seoul, said China’s imports from North Korea were likely to continue to decline due to Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests and the suspension of coal shipments to China.

“This won’t be disastrous for North Korea, but it will obviously hurt North Korea because it tends to export goods to China worth around $3 billion per year,” he said.

The value of imports from North Korea has fallen month-on-month since December, the data showed.

CHINESE SALES DOWN AS WELL

China’s exports to North Korea eased to $288.2 million in April, down 12 percent from March. Exports for the first four months of the year were up 32 percent at $1 billion.

Diesel shipments to North Korea in April more than halved from March to 2,606 tonnes and gasoline sales dropped 6 percent to 13,496 tonnes. North Korea gets most of its oil needs from China.

Crude oil exports from China to North Korea have not been disclosed by customs for several years, but sources have put it at about 520,000 tonnes a year.

Cutting off oil to North Korea for an extended period would be a crippling measure that analysts have said they don’t expect China would take.

[…]

Data released later on Tuesday showed China did not take any North Korean coal in April for a second straight month, after Beijing’s ban of such imports following repeated missile tests by Pyongyang.

China imported 1.53 million tonnes of coal worth $72.3 million from North Korea in April 2016.

Full article:
China’s imports from North Korea sink as coal ban bites
Josephine Mason
Reuters
2017-03-23

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China’s iron ore imports from North Korea in April highest since 2014

May 23rd, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Reuters:

China’s imports of North Korean goods in April fell below $100 million to the lowest in nearly three years, data showed on Tuesday, after China stopped buying coal from the isolated country and as calls mount for further economic sanctions.

Neighboring China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner, and the data indicates that China’s halt of North Korean coal imports on Feb. 26 is having an impact and curbing Pyongyang’s ability to raise hard currency through exports.

The world’s second-largest economy bought goods worth $99.3 million in April from North Korea, the lowest monthly tally since at least June 2014, according to Chinese customs data. Previous data was not available.

That compares with $114.6 million in March and $167.7 million a year earlier.

A fifth of the April total was iron ore imports, which hit 285,000 tonnes, their highest since August 2014. That was up 10 percent from a month earlier and 2-1/2 times higher than a year earlier.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been urging China to put more pressure on North Korea to step back from its nuclear and missile programs, and lavished praise on President Xi Jinping last month for efforts to do so.

At a regular briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing’s actions were not aimed at proving anything to anyone else.

“This is our international obligation as a responsible member of the international community and permanent member of the U.N. Security Council,” she said.

Cho Bong-hyun, who heads research on North Korea’s economy at IBK Bank in Seoul, said China’s imports from North Korea were likely to continue to decline due to Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests and the suspension of coal shipments to China.

“This won’t be disastrous for North Korea, but it will obviously hurt North Korea because it tends to export goods to China worth around $3 billion per year,” he said.

The value of imports from North Korea has fallen month-on-month since December, the data showed.

CHINESE SALES DOWN AS WELL

China’s exports to North Korea eased to $288.2 million in April, down 12 percent from March. Exports for the first four months of the year were up 32 percent at $1 billion.

Diesel shipments to North Korea in April more than halved from March to 2,606 tonnes and gasoline sales dropped 6 percent to 13,496 tonnes. North Korea gets most of its oil needs from China.

Crude oil exports from China to North Korea have not been disclosed by customs for several years, but sources have put it at about 520,000 tonnes a year.

Cutting off oil to North Korea for an extended period would be a crippling measure that analysts have said they don’t expect China would take.

Pyongyang does not publish economic data.

North Korea fired a ballistic missile into waters off its east coast on Sunday, the second test in a week in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

In a statement posted on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged North Korea not to violate U.N. resolutions on its nuclear and missile programs.

Washington has weighed tougher economic sanctions on Pyongyang, including an oil embargo, a global ban on its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks that do business with Pyongyang.

Full article:
China’s imports from North Korea sink as coal ban bites
Josephine Mason
Reuters
2017-05-23

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Ten million live in food insecurity in North Korea, UN says. But what does that really mean?

May 16th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A new report published by World Food Program and other UN institutions (Food Insecurity Information Network), detailing food insecurity in the world in 2016 as a whole, says the following about the situation in North Korea:

  • 4.4 million (or 17 percent of the North Korean population as a whole) is in “crisis, emergency and [or?] famine”.
  • 5.6 million (or 22 percent of the population) lives in a “stressed” situation when it comes to food.
  • This brings the entirety of the population living in food insecurity to ten million.

North Korea is the only country in all of East Asia with food insecurity, the report says.

It is unclear where the data comes from. According to the report, it could either have come from government sources in North Korean or from the World Food Program, but the report itself does not specify this.

A few things are worth noting. First and most importantly, particularly at a time when news reports abound about the rising middle classes and the new consumption habits of the wealthy, it is crucial to remember that a significant proportion of the North Korean population still live lives far away from the relative luxury of Pyongyang.

Second, though there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that a significant part of the North Korean population lives in severe hardship, harvests do not appear to be declining. On the contrary. According to the WFP’s 2017 needs assessment for North Korea,

“[w]hile official Government harvest data for 2016 has not yet been released, FAO estimates that rice production in 2016 increased by 23 per cent compared to the previous year when there was drought, but remains below the previous three-year average.”

Third, the World Food Program’s methodology for estimating these figures is rather unclear and problematic. For example, in the above-mentioned assessment of North Korean needs and priorities for 2017, released earlier this year, the WFP classifies all those depending on the Public Distribution System (PDS) as “suffering from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services.”

Presumably, this is derived from the fact that PDS distribution (of grains and staple foods, which is basically all it distributes) fluctuates through the year and is fairly unpredictable. But with the growing prevalence of the markets, it is unclear whether even those who the WFP claim “depend” on the PDS, really get the main portion of their food from the system. Over the past few years, public distribution of food has become an increasingly marginal (though certainly not unimportant) part of the food supply, and assuming that 18 million North Koreans experience food insecurity simply because they are beneficiaries of the public distribution system seems questionable at best. Obviously, the only way to understand food security overall would be to look at sources of food overall, not just one channel of supply.

Fourth, one overall problem with data on food security in North Korea remains the involvement of the North Korean government in the data collection. That is not to say that the North Korean government pushes the food production estimates upward to make itself look more successful. On the contrary, at times it probably exaggerates food needs in order to receive more outside assistance. Rather, the political nature of food, markets and the economic system makes it difficult to get trustworthy assessments of the food situation in the country. Only in one paragraph in its short version of North Korea’s needs estimates for 2017 does the World Food Program even allude to the markets:

In addition to the PDS, households are increasingly reliant on markets for their foods, except cereals. Farmers’ markets are distribution channels for a wide range of foods and basic necessities. In addition to swaps and bartering, markets involve large numbers of small transactions, often led by women.
Markets enable households to sell produce from their kitchen gardens; vegetables, maize and potatoes, as well as some small livestock.

Given the extent to which marketization has prevailed in North Korean society for over close to three decades, language like this seems to conflict with an overwhelming body of information about the centrality of the markets in the system today.

And, of course, there is the elephant in the room: North Korea’s economic system itself. As Amartya Sen famously pointed out, famine and food insecurity does not first and foremost stem from a lack of food overall, but from skewed entitlements. In other words, resources exist, but the problem is who gets them. In North Korea, the regime continues to refuse overarching and fundamental reforms of the economic system. As Fyodor Tertitskiy convincingly argued in a recent piece in NK News, the systemic changes in the North Korean economy of the past few years is most likely the work of bureaucrats within the state hierarchy, rather than a push by Kim Jong-un. In short, there are a lot of things the regime could change about the economy, to improve access to food and diminish food insecurity, but which it does not do.

This makes language like this, also from the WFP’s 2017 needs assessment, so problematic (my emphasis):

There are many complex, intertwined reasons for the high rates of undernutrition in DPRK, including challenges in producing sufficient food. The majority of the country is mountainous, only 17 per cent of land is good for cultivation.
Agriculture also remains dependent on traditional farming methods. Food production is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs, such as quality seeds, proper fertilizer and equipment. In addition, changing weather patterns have left DPRK vulnerable to droughts and floods, which have affected agricultural production.

Mountains and bad weather are not factors unique to North Korea. Geography is not destiny, and there is no shortage in the world of countries that have overcome difficulties in their natural environment through good policy. One has to understand the difficult spot that the WFP and other UN institutions work in, given North Korea’s politically sensitive and tense context. But one can only hope that the WFP is clearer about pointing out systemic deficiencies in the North Korean economy when they talk to officials behind closed doors, than they are in public statements.

All this said, North Korea is an extremely difficult environment to navigate for international aid organizations. The women and men on the ground certainly do their best to accomplish good things, and make accurate measurements in a challenging environment. But it is important to keep these and other methodological issues in mind before drawing any major conclusions about North Korea’s food situation.

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North Korea claims economic successes in April

May 12th, 2017

For all the talk about economic adjustments in the DPRK, particularly in regards to enterprise management, this report sounds pretty “old-school”…

According to the Pyongyang Times (2016-5-6):

April production plans overfulfilled

Different economic sectors have carried out their production plans for April under the banner of self-reliance and self-development.

The Suphung, Jangjingang, Sodusu and other hydropower stations produced more electricity by managing water in a rational way and boosting the output of generators, while the Pyongyang Thermal Power Complex and the Chongchongang and Sunchon thermal power stations generated a great deal of electric power.

The Hwanghae Iron and Steel Complex overfulfilled its monthly pig iron production plan, and the Musan Mining Complex and the Unnyul, Jaeryong and other mines carried out iron ore production assignments of the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry at 112 percent.

The February 8 Vinalon Complex overfulfilled the production plan for vinalon, vinyl chloride and caustic soda. The Namhung Youth Chemical Complex and the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex lowered production cost and brought about good results on a daily basis by introducing valuable technical innovation plans.

The Ministry of Coal Industry fulfilled its monthly production plan at 103 percent.

The Sunchon Area Youth Coal-mining Complex and Tokchon, Pukchang and Tukjang area coal-mining complexes increased the coal output for thermal power stations, and Kaechon, Anju, Kujang and Kangdong area coal-mining complexes supplied more coal to power stations and metallurgical and chemical factories.

The sector of machine-building industry also rounded off the monthly production plan.

The Anju Insulating Material Factory hit the production target for the first half of the year at 153 percent as of April 30. The Taean Heavy Machine Complex, Sungni Motor Complex, Ryongsong Machine Complex, Pyongyang Electric Cable Factory 326, Pyongyang Electric Motor Factory and Songchongang Electrical Appliances Factory produced major custom-built equipment in time as they stepped up the upgrading of production processes.

The Sangnong Mine, Taedonggang Battery Factory, Munphyong Smeltery and other establishments in the sector of the mining industry overfulfilled production plans 1.6 times over the same period of last year.

The Pyongyang Kim Jong Suk

Silk Mill carried out its economic plan for the first half of the year earlier than scheduled, followed by the Pyongyang

Kim Jong Suk Textile

Mill, Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory and Pyongyang Aromatic Oil Factory in the sector of light industry.

Thanks to the effort of agricultural workers, sowing rice seeds in beds has been completed across the country, and the Ministry of Fisheries carries out its fishing plan at 100.7 percent.

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Public executions curtailed in North Korea

May 10th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

How does international pressure on its human rights situation impact things on the ground in North Korea? Daily NK reports on one result. Those public executions that have previously been filmed on occasion and seen globally are now moving indoors, they report:

The North Korean authorities have been refraining from the conduct of public trials and executions, which were previously carried out to  maintain control over the residents, following a mandate issued last December.
“Until last year, individuals accused of sowing discontent or creating social disorder by offenses including cutting into electric lines [to steal power] , watching South Korean media, or attempting to defect, underwent public trials and execution by firing squad. But this year, the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People’s Security have been laying low,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 2.
“For example, a man in his 40s who helped dozens of defectors in Hoeryong was arrested in early March but not put to a public trial. The arrest went quietly, unlike a similar case that preceded it, when the state broadcast the news and conducted a series of executions to send a strong message.”
Kim Jong Un has ruthlessly executed a number of high-ranking executives, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek, in order to consolidate his grip on power. Open trials are conducted on residents to instill fear among the population.
They also cite public sentiment as a reason:
The Institute for National Security Strategy (under the National Intelligence Service) stated in its assessment last December of Kim Jong Un’s five years in power that Kim Jong Un continues to commit crimes against humanity through cycles of purges and executions of high-ranking officials.
However, as public sentiment towards the regime has worsened, law enforcement agencies are said to be becoming marginally softer in their approach. In fact, Kim Jong Un ordered a probe into human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ministry of State Security and banned public trials and executions in December 2016.
“The authorities acknowledge that the residents are going through difficulties, and thus are refraining from open trials and executions. They seem to be aware of the danger of worsening public sentiment,” the source noted.
North Korean authorities curtail public trials and executions
Kim Chae Hwan
Daily NK
2017-05-10
The development stems from a decree issued in December last year. Daily NK reported on it when it was issued:
Kim Jong Un has reportedly issued instructions to government bodies including the Ministry of People’s Security to ban further public executions.
“Kim Jong Un has issued instructions to ‘prohibit public executions’ to judicial and prosecution bodies including the Ministry of People’s Security (police). The instruction containing the orders forbids both public trials and executions,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on December 13.
“The instruction is not aimed at reducing or abolishing executions. It just means that capital punishment will be conducted privately in future.”
The North Korean authorities have often been documented carrying out public executions against those who break its draconian laws, including the distribution of South Korean TV shows. Such acts serve as an example to spread fear among residents and deter them from engaging in such activities. Under the Kim Jong Un regime, ruthless executions of high-ranking officials have been conducted for actions running ‘counter to the Party and the revolution.’
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported in October that the Kim Jong Un regime has resumed purges which were in temporary decline following the execution of Hyon Yong Chol, former defense chief of the People’s Armed Forces (MPAF). The number of people publicly executed by the regime reportedly reached 64 by September, according to the NIS.
Some suspect that Kim Jong Un’s decision to revert to private executions has been influenced by recent momentum built up by the UN and NGOs highlighting North Korea’s human rights violations, even suggesting that the North Korean authorities may be put on trial at the ICC (International Criminal Court).
“(The authorities) have been continuously conducting public executions in order to instill fear among the population, but it seems to have realized the drawbacks of the measure. The regime is presumably becoming sensitive about scenes of public executions escaping to the outside world,” a source in North Pyongan Province explained.

Full article:

North Korea orders ban on public trials and executions
Choi Song Min
Daily NK
2016-12-16
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Recent changes at Prison Camp 15 (Yodok) [UPDATED]

April 27th, 2017

UPDATE 3 (2017-11-16): Google Earth Satellite imagery dated 2017-9-19 indicates that the vast majority of housing in Yodok Prison Camp (Kwanliso No. 15) shows signs of being demolished, deteriorated or uninhabited. There is also significant deterioration of economic units in the camp. However, only minor changes to the security and administrative infrastructure, so it is too soon to say the camp is closed.

Below is an overview of the areas inside Camp 15 where I have observed razed or deteriorating facilities in the September 2017 imagery. Yellow pegs indicate razed/deteriorated housing. Blue pegs indicate deteriorated economic infrastructure. The single white peg is the demolished security facility.

I provided some images to Radio Free Asia for the Korean media and I add one here:

UPDATE 2 (2017-4-27): More prisoner housing in Yodok is being razed.

In September 2015, Joseph Bermudez and the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea reported that the “Revolutionizing Zone” of Yodok Prison Camp (Camp 15) had been torn down as of October 2014.

The “Revolutioninzing Zone” was for prisoners judged to be worthy of re-education through labor, and thus eligible for release. It is because there were prisoners who were released, and who later defected, that we know so much about the camp.

Based on new Google Earth imagery, it appears that additional housing inside the camp security perimeter has also been torn down sometime between June 2, 2016 and February 19, 2017.

Here is an overview of the areas where housing has been razed:

First let’s look at the housing in the “Total Control Zone” (39.699346°, 126.849473°):

Google Earth: Image date 2016-6-2

Google Earth: Image date 2017-2-19

In the above images, we can see that 38 housing units have been razed, and only seven buildings remain standing. I presume that the remaining buildings still serve an economic or administrative function.

Here is a second site where housing was razed between 2016-6-2 and 2017-2-19 ( 39.686860°, 126.844236°):

Here is a third site where housing was razed between 2016-6-2 and 2017-2-19 ( 39.704151°, 126.872365°):

What does this mean? Using this Google Earth imagery alone, it is still hard to say exactly what is happening in the camp. The new imagery only covers the eastern-half of the camp, so there may be changes on the western-half of the camp (such as the construction of new housing) that may offset the housing losses we have observed here.

Is this good news for the prisoners? I cannot say. If the housing was torn down, and new housing was not built to replace it, it is possible prisoners were executed or transferred into pre-existing housing, leading to cramped, less-sanitary conditions. Some prisoners may have been released, but they could just as easily have been transferred to the new prison camp that was opened up on the site of the closed Camp 18.

Is the camp being closed? This rumor has been floating around for several years. The theory that North Korea desires to close the camp at some date in the future is consistent with the observations we have seen–in that a process of gradual reduction in prisoners and prisoner housing is taking place over time. However, we still do not know if new housing has been built on areas that are not covered by recent satellite imagery, and we do not know if the camp’s closure will lead to an outcome that the prisoners would find welfare-enhancing (Are they being executed, transferred, or released?). As far as I can tell, the administrative portion of the camp, near the southern entrance (and the security perimeter) have seen no substantive changes over this same period.

As always, we need more imagery and more testimony.

This has been reported in Radio Free Asia.

UPDATE 1 (2015-2-17): HRNK has published a report on Camp 15 that confirms some of the information on this web page and adds more.

ORIGINAL POST (2014-12-9): I do not really focus in human rights issues. The only real exception to this is that I keep up with new satellite imagery of incarceration facilities when pictures are released on services like Google Earth.

In the past couple of years, we have seen interesting developments in the camps. No.’s 18 and 22 were closed, and are being converted into ordinary villages and coal mines. I was also the first to write about the expansion of Camp 14 and Camp 25. There have also been minor changes to Camp 16, and I was able to point out exports from the camp that are possibly used for generating hard currency.

So now we turn our heads to Camp 15, AKA Yodok. This was the most “well known” of the prison camps before Shin Dong-hyok’s book on Camp 14 was published. Yodok was the subject of Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and it even inspired a musical.

Camp 15 is an enormous facility in Yodok County, South Hamgyong Province. It borders Maengsan County, Nyongwon County and Taehung County in South Phyongan Province. The camp is over 22km from north to south and over 20km from east to west. There are two entrances to the camp. The main entrance is on the south side, just north of kuup-ri (구읍리) and approximately six kilometers from the town of Yodok (요덕). There is a secondary entrance on the north end of the camp on Paek-san that borders with Nyongwon County. According to North Korean sources, there are four villages (리) officially listed within the camp perimeter: Ryongphyong-ri (룡평리),  Phyongjon-ri (평전리), Ripsok-ri (립석리) and Taesuk-ri (대숙리).

HRNK’s Hidden Gulag describes the camp security perimeter this way:

The whole encampment is surrounded by a barbed-wire fence measuring 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) in height. In some areas there are walls 2 to 3 meters (7 to 10 feet) tall, topped with electrical wire. Along the fence there are watchtowers measuring 7 to 8 meters (23 to 26 feet) in height, set at 1-kilometer (0.62-mile) intervals, and patrolled by 1,000 guards armed with automatic rifles and hand grenades. Additionally, there are teams with guard dogs. Inside the camp, each village has two guards on duty at all times.

 

Yodok-Overview-2014-12-9

Pictured above: The borders of Camp 15, AKA, Yodok.

On November 8, the Daily NK published  a story claiming that the camp had been closed and torn down:

“That political prison camp that used to be in Yodeok County in South Hamkyung has already been broken up. There’s not a trace of it left,” the source, who is with the military in the northerly province, claimed in conversation with Daily NK on the 7th. However, the disbanding of Camp 15 does not seem to have brought liberty for many of its inmates. According to the same source, “The political prisoners who were there have been divided up and moved to camps 14 and 16.”

I have viewed satellite imagery from as recent as October 20, 2014, and based on that evidence, I am unsure of the present status of the camp. Mines have been closed along with Sorimchon District, but guard housing has increased, as have security units. I also saw no change in the security perimeter.

Below is a list of changes with before and after images that can be seen on Google Earth. Although the latest Google Earth imagery is dated 2014-5-5, I did not see anything on imagery from October 20, 2014 that added to this analysis.

1. “Sorimchon District (aka Kumchon-ri)” has mostly been torn down:

Yodok-Sorimchon-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-Sorimchon-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

This area was first described (in English) in the second version of HRNK’s Hidden Gulag (See pages: 56, 64, 66, and 68. On Page 69 is a map, and on page 199 is a labeled satellite image).

Sometime between 2008-12-12 and 2014-5-5 most of these buildings were destroyed. The only remaining building is thought to be the Ministry for State Security (MSS, SSD, NSA) office.

2. A building identified by HRNK in 2003 as a “holding cell” in Knup-ri area was torn down and replaced by additional guard housing (this probably happened sometime around 2008-12-12). Hidden Gulag refers to “Knup-ri” but I believe this actually refers to “Kuup-ri”, which is the name of the village that lies just outside the camp’s perimeter:

Yodok-holding-cell-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-holding-cell-2014-5-5

Image date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

But between 2002 and 2008, this area saw a significant increase in guard housing:

HRNK-Knup-guard-housing-2002

Yodok-Knup-guard-housing-2008-12-12

All of this housing remained as of October 20, 2014.

3. In the Knup-ri guard housing area, a new park or cemetery appears to be under construction:

Yodok-cemetery-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-cemetery-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

4. Mining area near Taesuk-ri torn down (TBD if it will be renovated):

Yodok-taesuk1-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-Taesuk1-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

Yodok-taesuk2-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-taesuk2-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

5. A mine in Ripsok-ri was also torn down (TBD if it will be renovated):

Yodok-ripsok-mine-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-ripsok-mine-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

5. Mining activity in Phyongjon-ri has also apparently come to a halt:

Yodok-Phyongjon-mine-2003-10-1

Image Date (Google Earth): 2003-10-1

Yodok-Phyongjon-mine-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

6. The camp initiated a logging site:

Yodok-logging-2003-10-1

Image Date (Google Earth): 2003-10-1

Yodok-logging-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

7. Two new security units have been built:

Yodok-new-security-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-new-security-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

Yodok-sec2-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-sec2-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

8. A new checkpoint building has been built on the northern perimeter crossing: 

Yodok-border-post-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-border-post-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

9. A new facility has been constructed in Knup-ri area that appears to be a new factory:

Yodok-new-building-2008-12-12

Image Date (Google Earth): 2008-12-12

Yodok-new-building-2014-5-5

Image Date (Google Earth): 2014-5-5

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Chinese imports of North Korean goods down by 35 pct in March 2017

April 26th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap reports a 35 percent drop in Chinese imports from North Korea in March this year, compared to February, citing decreased coal imports after the February ban as a reason:

Imports from North Korea declined to US$114.56 million last month from $176.7 million tallied the previous month, according to Chinese customs data.

In late February, China suspended North Korean coal imports through the end of the year in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in December to punish Pyongyang for its fifth nuclear test in September.

The resolution centers on putting a significant cap on North Korea’s exports of coal — the country’s single biggest export item and source of hard currency. The cap was set at whichever is lower between 7.5 million tons or $400 million.

North Korea heavily relies on coal exports to China for its foreign currency income. China imported $1.19 billion worth of coals from North Korea last year.

Full article:
China’s imports of N. Korean goods fall 35 pct in March
Yonhap News
2017-04-25

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UK freezes KNIC assets

April 24th, 2017

According to The Guardian:

The UK has frozen the assets of a North Korean company based in south-east London after claims it funnelled cash to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

The Korea National Insurance Corporation (KNIC) is registered at a property in Blackheath. The EU has already imposed sanctions against the company, which it describes as “generating substantial foreign exchange revenue which is used to support the regime in North Korea”. The move by Brussels followed an UN resolution.

The EU warned: “Those resources could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes.”

The company is registered to a detached property on Kidbrooke Park Road among suburban houses in an affluent part of London. Its entry on Companies House now describes KNIC as “closed” since 6 October 2016. Accounts show that in 2014 it had total assets of 130bn North Korean won, the equivalent of £113m.

According to EU sanctions imposed in July 2015, the KNIC’s headquarters in Pyonyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Workers’ party. In 2010 the US Treasury described Office 39 as “a secretive branch of the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that provides critical support to North Korean leadership in part through engaging in illicit economic activities and managing slush funds and generating revenues for the leadership”.

A spokesman for HM Treasury said: “We cannot comment on individual cases. However, the UK has fully complied and implemented the UN sanctions regime in relation to North Korea and North Korean companies.”

Through the EU regulations, the UK imposes restrictions on a range of goods from entering or leaving North Korea and imposes a travel ban and an asset freeze against people designated as engaging in or providing support for its programmes for weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

Under the same sanctions, the funds and economic resources have been frozen of four Hamburg-based North Koreans who ran the KNIC branch in Germany and two other regime officials who have since moved back to Pyongyang.

The Sunday Times, which first reported the freeze on the assets of the UK branch, reported that a North Korean man at the Blackheath property told it that the insurer’s main UK director, Ko Su-gil, had left Britain in September.

Read the full story here:
UK freezes assets of North Korean company based in south London
The Guardian
2017-4-23

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