A crackdown on the North Korean market economy?

December 1st, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(This is a rather long post with two parts: the first analyzes some recent events suggesting a government crackdown against the market economy, while the second recaps the some recent events within this trend. For readers interested primarily in the latter, I suggest scrolling down to the subheading “The events: a brief recap” below.)

Is the North Korean government cracking down on the market economy as such?

I would argue that we are not quite there yet, but an ever-increasing number of news seem to be suggesting that economic policy may be going in this direction. It’s also entirely possible that there is in fact no coherent strategy. One should not overestimate governments in general when it comes to coherence – this is nothing unique to North Korea. Nonetheless, these developments are crucial to keep a close eye on.

This post goes through some of the most central developments over the past few weeks below, but in short, some of these events are:

  • the general rhetoric and personnel politics from Kim Jong-un over the past year or so, repeated statements from high official organs about the need for economic control (most recently in a politburo meeting on November 30th),
  • the crackdown on foreign currency use and the reported execution of a foreign currency trader,
  • a reported change in the management of general markets to greater centralization and direct state control,
  • and last but not least (for now), an amendment to the enterprise law, effectively placing a common form of private enterprise under state scrutiny and administration.

This list is by no means exhaustive. For example, North Korean academic journals, often good proxies for what’s cooking in the policy circles, have repeatedly emphasized the need to “create an administrative system” since late last year. In North Korean parlance, this is likely code for increased state oversight and control. (Hat-tip to my good friend and colleague Peter Ward, perhaps the most thorough and dedicated researcher of North Korean journals in the analyst community.)

As I write more about in a forthcoming article for 38 North, the state has placed a high priority on reigning in – and at the very least, governing and administering – the market economy for some time, and with heightened intensity since the 2019 December plenum in particular.

There may, however, be more to it. There still is not sufficient evidence to conclude that the state is actively trying to stomp out markets or market mechanisms as such, but it is a possibility.

First, a basic question: if there is a general crackdown going on against the market economy, what would be the purpose? Again, no one knows, but one can speculate about a few different possibilities.

Perhaps most basically, North Korea is still, at least nominally and theoretically, a communist state with a centrally planned economy. Legally, private property does not exist. There has yet never been an official, explicit, major break with this model. We have often taken the state’s reluctance to crack down on the markets, and indeed, its occasional embrace of market mechanisms, as tacit acceptance that they are in the North Korean economy to stay. Maybe this assumption was wrong all along, or maybe things have changed over the past couple of years.

On the same theme, let’s not forget that North Korea’s political and social system is highly totalitarian. It is only natural that it would tend towards greater control, ultimately aiming to either eradicate or (more likely) tame groups such as the donju and integrate them into the official system. Economic reform and liberalization will always be potentially threatening, as they expand a sphere beyond state control, whether it be in the economy or society overall. Perhaps the North Korean leadership thinks the limit has been reached and it is time for a general rollback.

There may also be a pragmatic purpose to it all. As I have argued before, growing resource scarcity is a likely driver for increased economic control by the state. This is perhaps the most charitable and optimistic reading, as it suggests that the trend may one day be reversed.

Whatever the case, this is all troubling. The state and Kim Jong-un personally may very well be overestimating the capacity and potential of the state economy as an alternative to the market sphere. North Korea is a state with relatively capable governance in some areas, but with a very low capacity in others. Quite likely, the state simply has little grasp of the size of economic activity, and little overview of what this activity consists of. (See, for example, this recent report by Daily NK about a general survey of firms and enterprises leading up to the Party Congress in January 2021.) The border closure due to Covid-19, among other examples, shows that the state is prepared to accept a high degree of suffering among the general public for the purpose of social stability.

The events: a brief recap

The latest data point came a couple of days ago, at the latest of a staggering eleven politburo meetings this year. The KCNA summary contains two highly concerning paragraphs (my emphasis):

”The meeting discussed and studied as key agenda items the issue of hearing a report on the preparations for the 8th Congress of the WPK and taking corresponding measures, the issue of reorganizing a relevant department mechanism of the Party Central Committee to strengthen the field of the Party ideological work, to more thoroughly establish the Party’s leadership system in relevant institutions and to intensify policy guidance and Party guidance over them and important issues of improving the Party guidance over economic work and carrying out immediate economic tasks. Then decisions were made on them.”

And:

”The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK harshly criticized the economic guidance organs for failing to provide scientific guidance to fields under their charge under the subjective and objective environment and the prevailing conditions, and for failing to overcome subjectivism and formalism in their work. It stressed the need to put the operation and command for carrying out the Party’s economic policies on a scientific basis and display great dedication and responsibility.”

 

(Source: “Enlarged Meeting of 21st Political Bureau of 7th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, November 30th, 2020.)

This comes against the backdrop of several similar statements from the politburo and other organs through the year and, not least, worrying measures, such as the reported execution of a foreign currency (among other measures) trader amid a strange appreciation of the won against the US dollar. Maeil Kyungje:  

“코로나19 확산에 위기감이 높아진 김정은 북한 국무위원장이 `비합리적 대응`을 하고 있는 것으로 보고됐다. 방역 위기에 경제적 어려움이 겹친 상황에서 환율 급락을 이유로 평양의 환전상을 처형하고 바다에서 어로와 소금 생산을 금지하는 등 무리한 조치를 취하고 있다는 것이다.

국회 정보위원들은 27일 국가정보원에서 최근 북한 동향을 이같이 보고받았다고 밝혔다. 정보위 야당 측 간사인 하태경 국민의힘 의원은 “김 위원장이 과잉 분노를 표출하고 있으며 상식적이지 않은 조치를 내놓고 있다”고 평가했다. 이날 국정원 보고에 따르면 김 위원장은 지난 10월 말 `평양의 거물 환전상`을 처형했다. 북한 내 환율이 최근 들어 급락했는데 이에 대한 책임을 물어 비공개 처형했다는 것. 북한은 외화난이 상시화했지만 국경 봉쇄로 외화 수요가 줄어 환율이 급락한 것으로 보인다. 하 의원은 또 “바닷물이 코로나19로 오염되는 것에 대한 우려 때문에 (김 위원장이) 어로와 소금 생산을 금지했다”고 말했다.”

(Source: Park Jae-wan, “Kim Jong-un executes foreign currency trader amid plunge in exchange rate,” Maeil Kyungje, November 27th, 2020.) See this Financial Times article for an English-language summary of events.

And then there’s the recent sudden appreciation of the won. Bill Brown explains this well here. It is, however, part of a broader push for people to use less foreign currency. There could be a whole host of reasons for this move, one of which could be to drive more of it out of circulation and into state hands. We still know too little to draw any firm conclusions.

Daily NK also reported a couple of weeks ago about new measures to centralize control over general markets under Party control. The report did not suggest direct measures to curtail market activity per se, but this may well be the consequence should the measure be fully implemented, with more red tape and central management further from the ground.

North Korea’s KCNA recently ran an article about two bills adopted by the Supreme People’s Assembly. One of them — a ban on smoking in certain areas — got quite a bit of attention, which lighter news from North Korea often does. The second one — an amendment to the country’s enterprise law — is, however, potentially much more significant, and could significantly curtail and hamper private business activity in the country. Here is what KCNA (5/11/2020) said about it:

”The amendments and supplements to the enterprise law newly point out such matters as of turning enterprises into labour-, energy-, cost-, and land-saving ones and making their employees patriotic working people who possess the spirit of economy as part of their mental qualities.

They also refer to the regulations which all the units must observe when organizing new enterprises or when changing their affiliations and those designed to ensure that production and business management are done on socialist principles under the unified guidance and strategic control of the state.”

Now, these few sentences reveal relatively little about what this could all mean in practice. Daily NK reported a few days later, however, that the government aims to centralize control of small business usually operating illegally, known as “kiji”, under official SOE frameworks. Corruption is certainly problematic in general, but given the fact that a massive proportion (or most) of private business in North Korea operates under frameworks that are technically corrupt, the ambition to strengthen government oversight may have serious adverse consequences. (For more on the “kiji” system, see this excellent journal article.)

In conclusion, it is too early to tell what the regime’s end goal is with these measures. At the very least, we can conclude that the state aims to lay more of the economy under its control and management. That is of course a central end goal in itself.

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North Korean government continues to strengthen market control

November 13th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The trend continues, Daily NK reports, as the government apparently is strengthening direct Party control over the market system, all in line with the broader policy trend of stronger government control over the economy under Kim Jong-un. As I’ve pointed out in many previous posts and articles, stronger control doesn’t necessarily mean repression of market activity per se, but rather, the ability to more closely manage, direct and not least better tax market activity. This news reports suggests that that’s the case for this recent order as well (see my emphasis in bold):

North Korea recently crafted new market management regulations to give the Workers’ Party greater involvement in and control over markets, handing down orders to this effect to regional administrative organizations and market management offices.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Tuesday that a written order entitled “Cabinet Decision on the New Market Management and Operation Regulations” was handed to the commercial departments of the provincial people’s committees and market management offices.

The new regulations were decided upon during an extended plenary meeting of the Cabinet on Oct. 19. Provincial people’s committees nationwide received copies of that decision one day in advance.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the new order calls for the establishment of a system where local provincial, municipal and county people’s committees manage the creation and dissolution of markets, with the commercial departments of the provincial people’s committees ultimately making reports to the Cabinet and the Central Committee’s Organization and Guidance Department. These changes ultimately broaden the ability of the Central Committee to monitor and exert control over the entire civilian economy.

In the past, only the commercial departments of people’s committees – which are administrative organizations – were involved in running the markets; party organizations had little to do with them. With the regulation changes, however, markets have now come under party management and control, according to the source.

The state appears to be trying a new tack with these regulation changes, the source said. According to him, North Korean authorities are “moving towards a system of direct management and control of markets nationwide through the Central Committee.” In the past, by contrast, the markets were managed and controlled by provincial people’s committees.

The order also encouraged local North Korean authorities to open new markets as needed so that they can “involve themselves in helping improve the lives of the people while also exercising control.” 

The order further instructed the commercial departments of people’s committees – in consultation with the Workers’ Party – to set the opening and closing times of markets according to the “time period” (season) and the “conditions” of each province, city and county, rather than making opening and closing times uniform across the country. It also ordered that fees on imported goods be increased.

The order directed people’s committees to regulate products in the markets while, at the same time, expand the list of goods available and – in consultation with party committees – set maximum and minimum prices. It further called for the promulgation and establishment of a system to fine those caught distributing goods at prices higher than those set by the state.

The order included a directive to restructure market use fees or payments to the state in accordance with the size of the markets or “distribution of urban populations,” and include these new fees and payments in “budget implementation.”

“The state’s new market management and operation regulations are still unknown to the general populace,” said the source, who further claimed that, “[The new orders] call for overlapping control of the markets and aim to raise market fees and other financial burdens, so they [ultimately] put ordinary people at a disadvantage.”

(Source: Kim Yoo Jin, “North Korea increases Workers’ Party control over markets,” Daily NK, November 6th, 2020.)

That is, the government wants market activity to be vigorous and rules and regulations to conform to what people actually want and need — but all under its own auspices.

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Asahi Shimbun: China provided North Korea with substantial amounts of food and fertilizer this year

November 4th, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In a piece of news that should surprise no one, Asahi Shimbun reports that South Korean government sources say China provided North Korea with 5-600,000 tons of food aid and fertilizer this year. Although it wouldn’t entirely make up for the estimated shortfall, it is still a highly significant contribution:

But several South Korean government sources said China has provided North Korea with between 500,000 and 600,000 tons of food along with the fertilizer this year.

It also sent about 600,000 tons of corn and other types of grain between June and August, according to Chinese sources with inside knowledge of ties with North Korea.

Pyongyang requested more assistance in the aftermath of the summer typhoon damage and Beijing is considering sending an additional 200,000 tons of food, the sources said.

The South Korean sources focused on the volume of fertilizer shipped to North Korea as such assistance is considered highly unusual.

North Korean authorities equate one ton of fertilizer to 10 tons of food assistance, a former high-ranking North Korean government official said.

“Due to chronic shortages, fertilizer is highly prized in North Korea,” the official added. “The amount sent this year is equivalent to 5.5 million tons of food, which exceeds the yearly production of food. It was a very unusual level of assistance.”

Although North Korea is no longer in the grips of famine that raged in the late 1990s and claimed countless lives, the U.N. World Food Program has estimated that between 2018 and 2019 about 10 million North Koreans did not have enough to eat.

The situation is believed to be worse this year.

North Korea was plagued by flooding and other damage due to typhoons and torrential rain in summer after near-drought conditions in spring.

A source at a Chinese government-affiliated agency who is well-versed in issues involving North Korean agriculture said that the harvest estimate at planting time was between 3.5 million and 3.8 million tons for a shortfall of about 1.5 million tons.

Rice prices were kept stable through the release of grain stockpiled for emergencies, but the situation without China’s assistance was expected to be dire from next spring.

China’s decision to bail out its unpredictable neighbor may reflect a strategy to keep North Korea in its corner as Beijing’s confrontation with Washington worsens. In this regard, Beijing made a big fuss of its involvement in joining fighting in the Korean War on the 70th anniversary of China’s participation.

“China and North Korea have always shared interests in terms of their view of the United States, but that has strengthened recently,” said a North Korean source. “China is sending a message to the United States through its appeal of a honeymoon period with North Korea.”

With no signs of progress in denuclearization talks with the United States, the easing of economic sanctions against North Korea appears unlikely in the short term.

That suggests North Korea will continue to lean on China for support, analysts said.

“If North Korea receives support from abroad, it will no longer be able to say it is getting by with its own efforts,” said a South Korean expert on the North Korean economy. “But North Korea can continue to save face because China does not announce the assistance levels.”

(Article source: Takeshi Kamiya in Seoul and Yoshikazu Hirai in Shenyang, “China bailout to North Korea: massive food and fertilizer aid,” Asahi Shimbun, November 3rd, 2020.)

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North Korea’s disaster management: a comment about a comment

November 4th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It might seem a strange topic to post about on the day after the US elections, but perhaps some readers might like a break from the incessant commentary for something completely different.

If so, I highly recommend the article that former ambassador James Hoare published yesterday on 38 North, partially as a comment to my earlier article about North Korean disaster management. Ambassador Hoare gives a highly interesting historical perspective partially based on his own experiences in the country, noting that deforestation is a problem on the Korean peninsula much older than North Korea itself. He also notes that North Korea is far from the only country where homes constructed near riverbeds are regularly flooded, and argues that North Korea’s flooding problems are, after all, not so unusual in an international context.

I fully agree with all of these points, and the historical context is very valuable and crucial for understanding the current situation. If anything, there are perhaps two points of minor disagreement that I have with Hoare’s text.

First, the current North Korean situation is in large part a result of changes that could have been avoided. Deforestation was acutely exacerbated during the Arduous March, because people had few other alternatives than to cut down trees for firewood and to clear the ground for farming. Deforestation and flooding, therefore, are not phenomena entirely endemic or “natural” neither to the Korean peninsula nor to North Korea in particular, because things were not always this way. There is nothing natural or inherently necessary about North Korea’s economic system, as the many former communist states who have adopted programs of systemic overhaul have shown. Natural disasters may be natural, but each state has a choice in how to meet them.

Second, ambassador Hoare rightly points out that one should perhaps applaud the progress being made rather than to note that improvements have a long way to go. My article neither sought to decry nor applaud any improvements, but simply to show where things stand, based partially on conversations with several people who have themselves worked in natural disaster mitigation in the country.

And despite the improvements that have been made, there is a real and substantive risks that North Korea’s disaster management improvement plans and ambitions will stop at being just that. In this realm, there should be little doubt that the government’s ambitions are high and praiseworthy. The problem is that we have seen too many examples of ambitions without implementation to conclude that they will in fact be realized. Oftentimes, the policy process, opaque as it is, often appears to stall, and political interest and attention may wane. In this, too, North Korea is not alone in the world.

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Corruption in Sinuiju, and Women’s Union push to “find” more arable land

November 2nd, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Daily NK’s newsletter this week highlights two interesting articles from last week:

First, corruption among officials in Sinuiju involved in border trade with China is reportedly becoming more intense and raising higher sums. This is a great example of a piece of news where what happens in North Korea is precisely what the economic logic would dictate. North Korea is often said, for some reason, to defy such logic because of its opaque economic system, but it can most often be found if one scratches the surface a little bit.

When border trade closes down through a ban enforced by the state, it will of course not stop entirely unless massive force is deployed. Rather, some trade does go through, and this pushes up the price for economic actors to participate. At the same time, skirting around the rules is more dangerous than before because of the severity of the ban. Ergo, officials have to take higher bribes for their participation in this trade to be worth it.

Second, Women’s Union organizations in Yanggang province have been tasked with “finding” more arable land. As this blog has covered many times in the recent months, the government is at a point where it can do quite little to stimulate and improve the economic situation under the current system and international context. So, factories and workers are told to simply produce “more”, and “better”, usually without being given any tools to do so. And in this case, a mass organization is being ordered to “find” more land.

We’re of course not talking about uncovering any new fields or the like. North Koreans have been growing food in unlikely spots, such as around train tracks, for much of the duration of the state. It is such spots — “highland areas and rivers, along major roads and waterways, the ridges between rice paddies, and even the spaces between vegetable gardens” — that the order concerns.

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North Korea reportedly suspends public bond program

October 27th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This blog has followed as closely as possible, over the past few months, the issue of North Korea’s public bonds program. It was in April of this year that news first surfaced of the North Korean government having issued public bonds, to drive in more cash to the state. The central worry with all this was that the state would use coercive methods to force people to purchase bonds, thereby creating significant distress among the public, and sucking out resources from the private economic sector.

For months, however, little subsequent reporting came on the bonds. This indicated that the state was perhaps not moving forward with the program all too aggressively.

It turns out this seems to have been what happened. Some days ago, Daily NK, who originally broke the story, reported that the North Korean government appears to have abandoned the project around early September, after what some claim was some initial success:

While the halting of the scheme appears to signal its overall failure, some North Korean officials believe that the bonds helped to quickly bring in funds the state needed to continue building the Pyongyang General Hospital and prepare for the Party Foundation Day celebrations on Oct. 10.

A Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK yesterday that the Central Committee’s Economic Affairs Department issued an order early last month to the Cabinet and its subordinate agencies that concerned “suspending the issuance of the bonds.”

The order noted that the “distribution of the state agency public bonds and state trade public bonds” would “temporarily be suspended”; that there would be a review of the bonds that were sold and those in stock by the State Planning Committee’s Financial Affairs Board; and, that bonds allotted to “each agency” would be collected, then gathered and “frozen” at the Central Bank. In short, the order stated that all bonds – except for those already in distribution or sold – will no longer be considered valid.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Daily NK that the order further stated that “in accordance with an order from the central [leadership], a review of the current financial status of agencies that have used the public bonds will be conducted and [their] planned quotas for this year may be adjusted.” This suggests that the leadership is willing to “eliminate difficulties” faced by “lower-ranking work units” that “loyally” took part in the bonds scheme and that they may receive unspecified “benefits.”

The Economic Affairs Department’s order was reportedly issued after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un acknowledged the failure of his country’s economic policies at a Workers’ Party plenary session in August.

“[The] economy was not improved in the face of the sustaining [sic] severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges,” Kim reportedly said during the plenary session. He also announced during the meeting that a new five-year economic development plan would be presented at the Eighth Party Congress next January.

It appears that after Kim acknowledged the failure of the country’s existing “five-year economic development strategy” and presented plans to establish new economic goals the Central Committee’s Economic Department discussed revising the scale of the public bonds scheme.

According to the source, the Economic Affairs Department order stated that it “permits the revision of tasks related to the five-year people’s economic plan of last year and this year due to the distribution of public bonds.”

As part of efforts to increase the country’s foreign currency stores, North Korean authorities gave members of the donju, North Korea’s wealthy entrepreneurial class, and private business people “business rights” in return for having them purchase the bonds in foreign currency. Now that the bonds are not longer being issued, it appears that the Economic Affairs Department has been forced to revise its plans.

[…]

An internal investigation by the Central Committee in August found that less than 20% of the bonds earmarked for the donju (“state trade public bonds”) were sold off.

The authorities tried to woo the donju and private business people to buy the bonds by offering them “patriotism awards” and “business rights”; when that did not work, the authorities resorted to “forced allocations.” All of these efforts apparently had little effect in getting the bonds sold. The failure to sell the bonds seems to have been a major factor in the Economic Affairs Department suspending the sale of the bonds.

Within the Economic Affairs Department, however, some argue that the public bond scheme has not “completely failed” and that it “significantly helped” the country prepare for the Party Foundation Day celebrations despite facing unexpected obstacles such as the COVID-19 pandemic, typhoons, and floods. They also claim that the public bonds scheme was an “experimental yet daring attempt.”

In contrast to this assessment, the source argued that the “public bonds [scheme] was a measure that completely failed to consider the realities of the people’s economy [civilian economy].”

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea suspended public bonds scheme in early September,” Daily NK, October 23, 2020.)

The allocation of “business rights” sounds an awful lot like an attempt to more strongly formalize practices on which the economy already runs…

In any case, this signals a comforting sense of pragmatism among North Korean economic policy makers on this particular issue. It’s impossible to rule out, however, that the idea might come up again should the economic situation continue to deteriorate, and perhaps, regrettably, with stronger methods of coercion to back it.

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Kim Jong-un announces 80-day speed battle until 2021 Party congress

October 6th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Kim Jong-un announced an 80-day speed battle today, in the run-up to the 2021 Party congress. KCNA:

Upon authorization of the Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un presided over the meeting.

The meeting discussed, as its first agenda item, the issue of successfully greeting the Eighth Congress of the Party by waging a dynamic 80-Day Campaign of the entire Party, the whole country and all the people.

A report on the first agenda item was made.

The report referred to the subjective and objective requirements for launching a fresh offensive under the current situation.

Today all the Party members and working people are dynamically waging the final all-out campaign to celebrate the 75th founding anniversary of the Party as a great festival of victors.

Now we are faced with a heavy and responsible task to grandly hold the celebrations for the 75th founding anniversary of the Party we have prepared with much effort and greet the Eighth Congress of the Party to be convened at the outset of the new year with proud labor successes.

We have only 80 odd days until the Eighth Congress of the Party to be etched as an important political event of epochal significance in the development of our Party and revolution.

(Source: “19th Meeting of Political Bureau of 7th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, 6/10/2020.)

Not to toot my own analytical horn, but I did predict around the time of the congress announcement that a speed battle campaign may be afoot. The reason is simple: North Korea is in large economic difficulties and there are few tools in the toolbox that the government can realistically use at this time. Speed battles like this one are a common temporary solution to long-term problems, sort of like those 1,000 houses recently built that may well wash away again during the next flooding season.

There isn’t much to say about the economic rationale of these speed battles. If the state forces people to put in a large amount of labor hours, that will certainly lead to more production for the moment, but it doesn’t change anything in the long run.

Many North Koreans I’ve spoken to point to such “voluntary”, extra labor as one of the most exhausting, irritating parts of everyday life in North Korea. No doubt many sighs could be heard through the country at this announcement.

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How fast can you build 1,000 houses in North Korea?

October 4th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A couple of days ago, KCNA followed Kim Jong-un to Kimhwa county (in Kangwon province) for a flooding damage reconstruction inspection visit. It’s a standard activity with fairly standard reporting, but what caught my eye was the timespan the article speaks of (my emphasis):

Vividly recalling the day in the mid-August when a helicopter was used to learn about the situation of the disaster after over 900 mm disastrous downpour cut off even the roads and when he was shocked to hear the horrifying report that more than 1 000 dwelling houses were destroyed, he said that they all seem to have happened just yesterday.

Hearing the report that about 88 percent of the total construction project has now been done for nearly 1 000 families- several-storey dwelling houses in township area and single-storey dwelling houses in the ri of the county, he said with great satisfaction that the People’s Army is making world-startling achievements under the energetic leadership and meticulous guidance of our Party.

(Source: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Inspects Sites of Reconstruction in Kimhwa County,” KCNA, 2/10/2020.)

So — flooding in mid-August. 1,000 dwelling houses swept away. Fast forward to early October, about a month and a half later, and 88 percent of these houses are now reconstructed?

Something sounds quite odd here, because that’s an awful lot of houses in a very short period of time. For a comparison, the average construction house in the US takes 7.7 months from construction start to finish.

I am by no means knowledgeable in engineering or housing construction, so if any readers can think of how this can all be squared, do please send an email.

What is possible is that many new houses have been built, but with speed rather than quality being the number one priority. Such houses would likely have a hard time withstanding future flooding, which will occur, because it does almost every year. Aid workers I spoke to for this article pointed to poor housing construction as one of the main causes for the high rates of material destruction and fatalities in flooding in North Korea.

That’s the thing about politically motivated deadlines and speed pressures — something has to give in the process, and often, it’s quality.

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September, 2020: the Latest UN Panel of Experts Report and the North Korean Economy

September 29th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The latest UN Panel of Experts Report is out. Some points relating to the overall state of the North Korean economy, after a quick read:

  • Ship-to-ship-transfers of fuel (“refined petroleum products”) continue. This is nothing new. Only between January and May 2020, North Korea is estimated to have broken the sanctions-mandated ceiling of 500,000 barrels per year. As I have argued elsewhere, many times, even with STS transfers and other illicit methods to flout sanctions, they are taking a toll on the North Korean economy since they are expensive. North Korea has to compensate sellers for the added risk of smuggling somehow. So sanctions, in this sense, are certainly not without impact.
  • Coal deliveries are also happening via STS and other transportation means. Again, this is not new, and rather, is part of the steady state for North Korea under sanctions. As with oil and fuel products, North Korea must be taking a financial hit to compensate buyers for the added risk of violating sanctions. The report says that coal exports resumed, after a Covid-19-pause, in March of this year.
  • The report does note that illicit tanker deliveries decreased thus far in 2020 as compared to 2019. Whether that means that less fuel was actually supplied is unclear. Indeed, according to the report, the delivery tankers had higher capacity than in the past.
  • Overall, it seems that judging from the PoE estimates, North Korea may not be suffering from fuel shortages at all, on the whole. Of course, we know next to nothing about how the illegally imported fuel is used and distributed within the country. Fuel prices have, however, not really been outside the span of the generally normal (or at times even lower), suggesting that the amounts coming in are roughly similar to normal times.

One quick reflection on the exports issue, particularly of coal and other sanctioned export goods: it’s clear that coal trade is happening, seemingly relatively undisturbed, on a scale that is troubling from a sanctions-implementation perspective. What’s tricky, though, is that we know fairly little about proportions. How much coal is North Korea actually able to sell, and to what prices?

As of now, all we know is that coal is being exported on a substantial scale. From an analytical perspective, that leaves a lot to be desired.

However, it is crucial to note the myriads of ways in which the government is able to at least partially compensate for the loss in export income stemming from sanctions. The report details several of these, including a wide range of cyber crime.

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North Korea and China strike agreement on border security

September 29th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Since North Korea closed the border with China due to fears of Covid-19, there have been reports of Chinese citizens being shot at and, in at least one instance, killed by North Korean border guards. The North Korean government ordered border guards to shoot anyone from the Chinese side entering buffer zones it set up along the border.

All of this seems to have been done rather hastily and with little coordination with the Chinese side. Moreover, as is often the case with governance in North Korea, most has been done through relatively unclear decrees. The same factor could possibly explain the recent killing of a South Korean man apparently intending to defect to North Korea over the northern limit line (NLL), for which Kim Jong-un later expressed regret.

Now, Daily NK reports, North Korea and China have struck an agreement about border security in the age of Covid-19:

North Korea and China recently signed an agreement to help ease tensions along their border following shooting incidents involving North Korean border guards and Chinese nationals, Daily NK has learned.

According to a Chinese diplomatic source familiar with the agreement, the Chinese requested consultations with the North Koreans to “protect their citizens” and an agreement on the “working-level measures” came about at the North Korean embassy in China on Sept. 10.

Based on this agreement, China will raise customs duties three-fold on goods entering the country (from North Korea) if North Korean border guards “indiscriminately” and “recklessly” shoot and kill a Chinese national. The agreement also requires North Korea to compensate a shooting victim with RMB 1,200,000 (around USD 175,922).

On Sept. 11, the Ministry of State Security and General Staff Department ordered the North Korean border patrol to abide by details of the agreement. The order was accompanied by a directive telling the border patrol to “refrain” from shooting at people in China who cross into North Korean territory.

“From this past Spring until last month, North Korean soldiers shot and killed several Chinese near the border but North Korea failed to apologize properly, so the Chinese government proposed [the agreement] as a way to protect their citizens,” the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told Daily NK.

The source said that the closure of the border because of the COVID-19 pandemic means that North Korea is unable to import many of the things it needs from China. “That’s why North Korea had no choice but to acquiesce to China’s demands,” he added.

CHANGING TACTICS ON THE BORDER

Another source in China who spoke to Daily NK on condition of anonymity recently reported on signs that North Korean border guards seem to be taking a different approach to Chinese who cross the border.

The source said that two Chinese men had brought their cow down to the Yalu River to drink water near Changbai, Jilin Province, on Sept. 21. When the men and the cow moved toward the line demarcating the Chinese border with Yanggang Province, North Korean border guards started to approach them.

Given that the North Korean border patrol had shot and killed a Chinese smuggler in May, the two men were reportedly “tense” because they feared they may be harmed by the border guards.

Despite their fears, the North Korean border guards just threw rocks at the two men while yelling at them to return to Chinese territory; the men took their cow and left the area without incident.

(Full article and source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea and China recently signed agreement aimed at easing border tensions,” Daily NK, September 25th, 2020.)

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