Posts Tagged ‘2018 sanctions’

North Korea’s economic contraction in 2018: what the BoK numbers tell us

Friday, July 26th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Bank of Korea has released its yearly estimate of North Korea’s economic trends for last year. The estimate gives a contraction of the economy by 4.1 percent. Reuters/Channel News Asia:

North Korea’s economy shrank in 2018 for a second straight year, and by the most in 21 years, hit by international sanctions to stop its nuclear programme and by severe drought, South Korea’s central bank said on Friday (Jul 26).

North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 4.1 per cent last year in real terms, the worst since 1997 and the second consecutive year of decline after a 3.5 per cent fall in 2017, the South’s Bank of Korea estimated.

North Korea does not disclose any statistics on its economy. The South Korean central bank has been publishing its estimates since 1991, based on information from various sources including the South’s foreign trading agencies.

North Korea’s international trade fell 48.4 per cent in value in 2018 as tougher international sanctions in late 2016 and 2017 cut exports by nearly 90 per cent, the Bank of Korea said.

Output in the mining sector shrank 17.8 per cent because of sanctions on exports of coal and minerals, while the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector contracted by 1.8 per cent because of drought, it said.

North Korea’s population was estimated at 25.13 million and annual income per head at S$1,298, the South Korean central bank said.

Article source:
North Korea’s economy shrinks most in 21 years in 2018: South Korea
Reuters/Channel News Asia
2019-07-26

I won’t go into much depth on the methodological issues with all this, but suffice to say that because Bank of Korea doesn’t release much information on their models, estimates, assumptions and the like, their analysis is always difficult to evaluate. That’s why it’s not particularly helpful to state that it’s the lowest growth (or largest contraction) since 1997. That may be true, but proportions aren’t necessarily all that relevant or accurate here.

That said, broadly, the estimate makes sense. In fact, it may be a slight lowball estimate. South Korean economist Kim Byung-yeon put estimated a 5-percent contraction for 2017, which sounds more reasonable to me.

The BoK estimate of the mining sector is particularly interesting. They give a contraction of 17.8 percent of the sector as a whole for 2018, after claiming in 2017 that it shrank by 11 percent. On the one hand, it’s interesting to think about how all this might look domestically. This would mean that around 70 percent of the mining sector which operated in 2016, continues to operate today. So what’s happening with all that coal, and all those minerals? Well, we get a hint of that in the estimates for electricity generation and water. This was down by -2.9 percent in the estimate for 2017.

Now, the estimate instead gives an increase of 5.7 percent. This positive effect for domestic electricity generation has been anecdotally reported by outlets such as Daily NK for quite a while. Cheaper electricity has made supply much better in parts of the country. This is a relatively minor positive, as the revenue loss from decreased exports is much greater. Nonetheless, there may be a slight impact here of cheaper electricity cushioning some of the lower demand for industrially manufactured goods.

Here’s a graph comparing the 2017-2018 estimates, based on the BoK data (which you can find here).

Bank of Korea estimates of North Korean GDP growth, by sector, 2017 and 2018. Graph by NK Econ Watch.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the baseline here was fairly high. North Korea has experienced a few years of solid economic trends, so a negative growth of four percent isn’t necessarily catastrophic. Of course, it’s very bad, but there are more nuances to these things than full stability or complete disaster.

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Daily NK: North Korean laborers reach Russian construction sites despite sanctions

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports:

“Recently, there have been many North Korean workers coming in to Russia. They are arriving at Khabarovsk Station via Tumangang Station. North Korean workers are usually dispatched to Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk and most of them are construction workers,” a source familiar with local affairs told Daily NK.

According to the source, a considerable number of new laborers are being deployed to Russian construction sites as well as some factories and logging sites.

In an interim report submitted to the United Nations in March, Russia said that the number of North Korean workers staying in Russia has declined from 30,023 at the end of 2017 to 11,490 at the end of 2018. Although the number with officially granted visas may have declined, it is believed that these new workers are entering Russia using methods other than a work visa, such as student or temporary stay visas.

It has been reported that in addition to the hard labor, those working in Russia have poor working conditions. They are cooking and sleeping at the same construction site at which they are working.

“North Korean workers are working at a building that is attached to the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok’s Russky Island, and work an average of 15 hours per day from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm or even until 11:00 pm,” he said.

“The daylight is long these days in Russia, so they are working until late in the night without lighting. North Korean workers are really angry because they are worked like dogs. And even though they are working so hard, they do not have much left after paying $1200 dollars to the North Korean company they work for.”

Even under such dire circumstances, North Korean laborers still value being sent to Russia because they can make significantly more money than they can in North Korea.

Some of the highly skilled North Korean workers who have been working in Russia for more than three years are said to be finding their own work under the condition that they pay $1000~$1300 dollars to the state enterprise as a loyalty contribution.

“Those with good skills are freelancing. Some even make $2000~$3000 dollars a month,” a separate source in Russia told Daily NK.

“Russian companies also prefer North Korean workers. Their wages are cheap and they are skilled and work very fast. That is why Russian construction companies prefer to hire them.”

Currently in Russia, there are about 23 North Korean enterprises including Rungrado, Namgyong, Cholsan Trading Company, and Number 17 Construction Company that manage North Korean workers. “A Khabarovsk-based North Korean trading company manages about 2000 North Korean workers,” said the source.

However, it has been reported that recently-dispatched North Korean workers in Russia cannot freely move or contact the outside world as they are under tighter surveillance.

Source:
North Korean laborers reach Russian construction sites despite sanctions
Jang Seul Gi
Daily NK
2019-07-24

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China-North Korea trade up in first half of 2019

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A fairly minor recovery from an already low level, one should bear in mind. SCMP reports:

China’s trade with North Korea recovered in the first half of this year after a sharp fall in 2018, Beijing said on Tuesday.

The announcement comes as ties between the countries improve, with Chinese President Xi Jinping making his first state visit to Pyongyang last month.

Total trade with North Korea reached US$1.25 billion between January and June, up 14.3 per cent compared to the same period a year earlier, Ministry of Commerce figures showed.

Exports to North Korea amounted to US$1.14 billion – a rise of 15.5 per cent – while imports rose 3.2 per cent to US$110 million.

China remains North Korea’s sole military ally and biggest trading partner. Trade in 2018 was worth US$2.7 billion, down 48.2 per cent year on year, the Seoul-funded Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency said last week.

North Korea’s trade with China fell sharply in 2018, taking its overall foreign trade to less than US$3 billion for the first time since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.

[…]

Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said China was “doing its work under the UN sanctions regime” but that North Korea might have the strength to work through its economic hardships.

“The country is always economically isolated from the rest of the world, and North Korean people are used to this situation. In fact, self-reliance has been their way of life for a very long time,” Zhang said.

Article source:

China-North Korea trade up 14.3 per cent in first half to US$1.25 billion
Lee Jeong-ho
South China Morning Post
2019-07-24

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Is China trying to destroy North Korea?, wonders this North Korean trader

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I suppose the headline for this post might count as clickbait in our field, but I couldn’t help it… Daily NK:

North Korean workers in China facing visa denials or restrictions on their sojourn periods are being forced to return home, according to an affected source in China.

A North Korean trader in Liaoning Province recently told Daily NK by phone that Chinese authorities are demanding that all North Korean workers return home.

“I do business in Liaoning Province. China is making a big fuss and ordering us out [of the country] and now my Chinese visa has almost expired. But few North Koreans actually care about their visa status in China. China telling us to leave and it’s making me really angry and annoyed,” he said.

“A lot of people are returning home. This happened in the past, but this time is different. I asked a North Korean customs official and he said that half of the North Koreans in Dandong have left. That’s a huge number of people. Those who remain are worried about their status here. People who work in China generally have debts to pay back. I sometimes wonder if China is trying to destroy North Korea.”

He also spoke about his own precarious situation.

“I’ve brought over many workers myself into China. Each of them gave me 500 dollars and I found them work in factories run jointly with China. They’re all 500 dollars in debt. They can’t repay this money, so they’re worried about returning home. They could get beaten up or even die if they can’t repay their debts,” he said.

“I haven’t been able to contribute enough to the [regime’s] loyalty fund either. Returning home would be a death sentence. I’d rather die here (in China) before my body returns home.”

Full article:
North Korean trader in China expresses concerns about his own precarious situation
Ha Yoon Ah
Daily NK
2019-05-07

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Taxes increase on some North Korean markets

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This sort of news is very interesting, particularly in context: I’ve heard from people who deal with North Korean firms that some of them have received orders to tighten up their accounting, and report their assets to the state in greater detail. Taken together, these snippets of information suggest an overall difficult economic situation, though not desperate or in crisis-mode, where the state is taking more and more measures to drive in cash from the public.

Daily NK:

Sales fees levied on private distributors have risen in some areas of North Korea. The fees are managed by North Korea’s collection agency and essentially provide a source of tax revenue for the state. Private distributors are expressing discontent over the changes as many are suffering under the country’s already poor economic conditions.

“The authorities recently began demanding outrageous and unfair selling fees from private distributors,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on April 25. “Collection offices (i.e. tax offices) attached to local people’s committees are required to pay varying fees depending on the product, and the number of fees have been doubled.”

These de facto tax offices were established in each city and county as part of the July 1 Economic Management Improvement Measure in 2003 and are managed by the Ministry of Financial Administration. The offices collect fees for land use, market stalls, and various other reasons.

“The authorities are demanding a huge amount of fees to gain control over and restrict the activities of private business people who live in Pyongsong but bring in products from Sinuiju, Rajin-Sonbong, Nampo and Hyesan,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province.

“Soybean oil sellers, for example, had to pay 3% of their income before, but now have to pay twice that amount.”

The skyrocketing fees are likely due to the fall in tax revenue arising from the economic difficulties the country is facing.

“The government increased the fees they were collecting just as incomes fell among private business people,” she said. “The authorities are simply taking money from the people to make it seem like the state is self-sufficient.”

North Korean authorities have made the fee system more sophisticated while raising fees as part of efforts to generate more income for the regime.

Article source:
North Korea doubles de facto sales tax levied on distributors in some areas
Mun Dong Hui
Daily NK
2019-05-03

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The sanctions relief that North Korea might be asking for

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Some interesting reporting by Hankyoreh, citing South Korean government sources familiar with the US-North Korea negotiations, suggests that North Korea is pushing for two concessions from the US:

According to a South Korean government source closely acquainted with the North Korea-US talks, Kim reaffirmed the North’s willingness to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facilities during the first round of working-level talks in Pyongyang on Feb. 6–8, while demanding the partial loosening of sanctions as a corresponding measure for allowing inspections of the facilities. The North Korean side said it “could offer more generous steps” if the US were to even partially loosen sanctions as a corresponding measure, the source reported.

Politically,  this makes a great deal of sense. Yongbyon dismantlement would make for great photo-ops and video clips, regardless of the actual substantive meaning of such actions. For North Korea, partially loosened sanctions would be highly beneficial for several reasons. For one, it could be a tacit signal to China and Russia that the US will no longer be as vigilant on sanctions monitoring as it has been in the past. Moreover, should North Korea push for the ceiling on its oil imports to be lowered, that would likely save the regime substantial amounts of hard currency that it now has to put towards more expensive, illicit transfers and the like. Gas prices in the country have stabilized over the past few months, but are still higher than in normal times. (I dig into this more in a new working paper published by the Stimson Center, click here to read it.)

And not least, any sanctions exemptions on Mt Kumgang and the like could – hopefully, from the regime’s point of view – be a first step to more South Korean investments and cash flows to tourism in North Korea, one of Kim Jong-un’s hallmark industries.

According to Hankyoreh, none of this is out of the question:

Biegun stated in no uncertain terms that the US would not be able to loosen or lift sanctions. At the same time, he reportedly suggested it may consider loosening sanctions if North Korea were to offer the Yongbyon dismantlement “plus something extra.”

And:

Accordingly, they suggested that if North Korea adopts a more forward-thinking approach on the Yongbyon dismantlement issue during negotiations, the US may grant priority consideration to projects involving inter-Korean cooperation, including partial resumption of the Kaesong Complex and Mt. Kumgang tourism. This prediction was based on the limited range of measures available to the US without touching the current sanctions framework. Indeed, many Korean Peninsula experts have noted that the Mt. Kumgang tourism venture individually would not be in violation of UNSC resolutions and suggested that it should be quickly resumed.

I’m no judicial sanctions expert, but I suspect that this might not be entirely accurate. If sanctions are strenuous enough to prevent South Korean reporters to bring in laptops into North Korea, it’s easy to wonder how large-ish-scale tourism to North Korea through Kumgangsan wouldn’t risk violating sanctions. In a way, the multilateral UN sanctions are easier to loosen in practice. A strong, even informal signal from the US to China could make the latter re-interpret its sanctions interpretations, and make monitoring and enforcement much more loose. Truck traffic has reportedly already increased across the border compared to a few months ago, and it’s a trend that’ll likely become increasingly more pronounced the less vigilant the US is about pushing for rigid sanctions implementation.

Article source:
N. Korea demands partial relaxation of sanctions in exchange for Yongbyon inspections
Kim Ji-eun
Hankyoreh
2019-02-14

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Gas prices down in North Korea after Kim’s China visit

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A while back, I speculated that fuel prices in North Korea might go down after Kim Jong-un’s visit to China. This is precisely what happened, Daily NK reports. Causality is of course impossible to prove, but given circumstances (and the historical pattern of fuel price movements, which I write about in a forthcoming working paper), a connection doesn’t seem unlikely.

“The cost of 1 kg of fuel has fallen by around 2,500 KPW from 13,000 KPW two weeks ago,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on January 22. “The fall of 2,500 KPW per kg is a lot, so it’s being welcomed by merchants.”

The drop in fuel costs has impacted gasoline prices in the country’s northern region, with the source adding that truck drivers he spoke with have reported that the fuel prices in Pyongyang are similar.

Despite the restrictions on oil imports into the country due to international sanctions, smuggling across the country’s porous sea and land borders have kept gasoline supplies (including diesel) steady in the country, the source said.

The cost of fuel in North Korea last year fluctuated considerably due to sanctions pressure. News outlets reported last year that fuel prices reached 27,000 KPW per kg in early January 2017, a 60% spike from December 2016 prices.

The prices dipped back down to around 15,000 per kg, before settling at 15,500 KPW in December 2018. This suggests that gasoline prices in North Korea are more sensitive to international sanctions than other commodities like rice.

The recent fall in prices is likely due to a reduction in the price of smuggled fuel from China and the rising volumes of diesel fuel being refined and sold in the country.

Domestically refined diesel is generally supplied to the military and state-run factories, but also finds its way to the markets through different avenues. The source reported that there is now more diesel fuel being circulated in the markets.

Also, see this on the general ease of smuggling conditions/border controls after the visit.

Full article:
Optimism rising as fuel prices dip in North Korea
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-01-28

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UN panel says North Korea is selling fishing rights

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

One of the many ways in which North Korea earns hard currency is sales of fishing rights to vessels from China. This is also supposedly one of the reasons for the North Korea “ghost ships” drifting to Japan. Because many fishings rights near North Korea are sold to Chinese vessels, North Korean boats have to go further out, often without adequate fuel supplies. Kyodo News reports that the UN panel of experts will soon publish their report detailing some of these fishing rights sales, which breach the sanctions currently in place:

The claim is based on information provided by two unnamed member states, though one has been identified as Japan, according to officials in Tokyo.

It is also expected to be reported that more than 15 Chinese fishing vessels were inspected and found to be carrying licenses from North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, during the reporting period of January-November 2018.

It is anticipated that information obtained from fishermen who were questioned will reveal that around 200 Chinese fishing vessels were operating in North Korean waters. Based on another interview, it was discovered that the price of a single fishing license cost about 50,000 yuan ($7,250) per month.

The fishing vessels apparently displayed fishing permit number plates that were attached to the outside of the vessels, flown on flags, or both in combination.

These actions violate a Security Council resolution adopted in December 2017 in response to Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launch the previous month. In it, the 15-member council clarified that any sale of fishing rights by North Korea was strictly prohibited.

Last September, Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono highlighted concerns about the sale of fishing rights as well as ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products as two examples of the North’s “sophisticated efforts to evade and circumvent” past resolutions.

The resolutions were imposed on the country in escalating fashion as it carried out a total of six underground nuclear tests and numerous missile launches using banned equipment.

Each year, the panel prepares its report based on information analyzed by its eight members, who have expertise on a variety of issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and export trade control.

Full article:
N. Korea likely to be accused of illegally selling fishing rights
Kyodo News
2019-01-31

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South Korea and the US consider what incentives to offer North Korea in negotiations

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

Bloomberg reports that sanctions relief may be used as an incentive for North Korea in the current negotiations, by South Korea and the US. The better question is, how could it not…?

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told a news conference Wednesday in Seoul that the allies were reviewing various packages of incentives that Washington could bring to the table in the meeting. While Kang provided few details other than to say restarting stalled business projects were being discussed, the term can cover everything from sanctions relief to moves to formalize the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

[…]

Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have sputtered since Trump and Kim Jong Un signed an agreement during their first meeting in June to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” without defining the phrase or setting any deadlines. North Korea argues the deal implied a step-by-step approach, where each of its actions are met by U.S. responses, while Trump administration officials assert that Kim Jong Un accepted his country’s “final, fully verified denuclearization.”

Kim Jong Un warned in his New Year’s address this month that he could be forced to take a “new path” in talks if Trump didn’t relax sanctions pressure. He pressed for U.S. concessions to reward his decisions last year to halt weapons tests and dismantle some testing facilities, without offering additional steps.

Full article:
U.S., South Korea Mulling Incentives for Kim in Nuclear Talks
Youkyung Lee
Bloomberg News
2019-01-16

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Could Xi Jinping give Kim Jong-un fuel deliveries for his 35th birthday?

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At the present time of writing, Kim Jong-un is still in China, though some signs suggest his train may have taken off back to North Korea. Kim spent is 35th birthday in Beijing, and visited a high-tech factory zone and other sites relevant to his economic and industrial policy focus.

But what did Xi Jinping give Kim for his 35th birthday?

If the past is any indicator, Xi’s present may have been sanctions relief in the form of increased fuel deliveries. The data suggests that this is precisely what happened after Kim’s third visit to China last summer, on June 19th of 2018. Consider the following graph, from a forthcoming working paper:

Average gasoline and diesel prices on markets in three North Korean cities, January–August 2018. Data source: Daily NK price index. Graph: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein/North Korean Economy Watch.

(If the image is too small, click it to see a larger size.)

Look closely at the dip in the blue line, in the right-hand side of the graph. This shows a significant drop — 50 percent! — in average gas prices on markets in three North Korean cities. This price drop came right at the time of Kim’s third visit.

Coincidence? Could be.

Market prices, however, tend to move for a reason, and there are no obvious factors that can explain this particular price drop. Other than Kim’s visit, that is. This is, of course, circumstantial speculation, but it makes a great deal of sense. China may have simply upped fuel deliveries to North Korea as a show of good faith prior to Kim’s visit, or after a direct request from Kim.

Should Kim have asked Xi for similar sanctions relief during this visit, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. It’s also worth noting that exchange rate for both US dollars and Chinese renminbi have gone up quite significantly on North Korea’s markets in the past few weeks, as I noted a couple of days ago, hinting that the economy may be under some distress. North Korea may not be under any general economic crisis as a result of the sanctions, but things surely aren’t looking great.

We should know when the next price update from Daily NK or other sources comes in, and just because Kim seems to have gotten sanctions relief at one point after a meeting with Xi doesn’t mean it’s a given for every single occasion. But it is reasonable to expect that Kim did get something from the trip. It did, after all, coincide with his birthday.

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