North Korea’s 2022 flooding season

July 1st, 2022

North Korea’s flooding season has begun. AP:

North Korea’s weather authorities predicted this year’s rainy season would start in late June and issued alerts for torrential downpours in most of its regions from Monday through Wednesday.

The official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday that authorities in the North’s central and southwestern regions “have concentrated all forces and means on the work to cope with possible flood and typhoon damage.”

Officials and workers were working to protect crops, equipment at metal and chemical industrial establishments, power plant facilities and fishing boats from heavy rains, KCNA reported. It said the country’s anti-disaster agency was reviewing the readiness of emergency workers and medical staff.

KCNA said North Korean officials are urging residents and laborers to abide by pandemic-related restrictions during the country’s monsoon season. It said medical workers were ready to deal with any potential major health issues and officials were working to ensure epidemic control measures at shelters for people evacuated from flood-damaged areas.

As flooding spreads, the work to contain the damage ramps up. As state media reported on June 30th:

Officials and working people across the country are striving to minimize the damage by disastrous abnormal weather to the crops.

As soon as a warning on downpour was issued, the North Hwanghae Provincial Party Committee sent its officials to reservoirs, emptying gates and drainage pumping stations and ensured that officials in cities and counties went to the medium and small rivers and co-op farms in their areas to take measures for flood damage prevention. The province also pays attention to the threshing and keeping of wheat and barley.

South Hwanghae Province takes the best possible steps to send powerful forces and means to stricken areas in an emergency. Hundreds of excavators, lorries, tractors, etc. are ready to go to the afflicted areas.

(Source: “Proactive Efforts Made in DPRK to Minimize Damage by Flood to Crops,” Korean Central News Agency, June 30th, 2022.)

How well prepared can we presume North Korea to be to meet this year’s floods? Over the past few years, the regime has directed increasing attention and effort to disaster risk mitigation. It is obviously not a coincidence that Premier Kim Tok Hun inspected the State Hydro-meteorological Administration and the State Emergency Disaster Committee this week:

Learning in detail about the weather observation of the State Hydro-meteorological Administration, he said that it is very important to ensure the exactness and promptness of weather forecast in guaranteeing the successful implementation of the state policy tasks for the latter half of the year, including the grain production plan for this year, set forth at the Fifth Plenary Meeting of the Eighth WPK Central Committee.

He stressed the need to minimize the damage from such disastrous weather phenomena as typhoon and downpour by enhancing the level of scientific forecast and analysis of the ever-changing weather conditions and their effect.
Visiting the State Emergency Disaster Committee, the premier called on all the sectors and units out in the campaign for preventing damage in rainy season to swiftly cope with any emergency and meticulously organize the work for protecting the state assets and ensuring the normal economic activity, regarding it as a core issue to protect the safety of the people.

He also called for establishing a proper work system and order to control in a stable way any crisis under the state’s unified direction and push ahead with the work for securing enough means and materials needed to tide over the crisis.

(Source: “Premier Inspects Hydro-meteorological Administration and Emergency Disaster Committee,” Korean Central News Agency, 29/6/22.)

I will continue to post updates on the events here as they are reported.

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North Korea’s Korean Worker’s Party Secretariat statement on Party discipline and social control

June 14th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Korean Worker’s Party Secretariat met this past Sunday (June 12th) and discussed, among other things, social disobedience and discipline within the Party, in no uncertain or soft words (as reported by Yonhap here.) Statement below in its entirety:

Meeting of Secretariat of WPK Central Committee Held

The Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Sunday held a meeting at the office building of the WPK Central Committee to discuss major issues of the Party work.

The respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, presided over the meeting.

Attending it were Jo Yong Won, Pak Jong Chon, Ri Pyong Chol, Ri Il Hwan, Kim Jae Ryong, Jon Hyon Chol and Pak Thae Song, secretaries of the WPK Central Committee.

The meeting discussed the major tasks to be fulfilled in the Party’s immediate activities and its building.

It discussed the issue of scrupulously conducting the organizational and political work to firmly arm the Party organizations at all levels with the spirit of the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK and inspire them to the implementation of the Party decisions and of decisively improving the role of the Party organizations in the overall Party and state affairs this year, and assigned relevant revolutionary tasks.

The Secretariat of the WPK Central Committee discussed importantly the issue of establishing the traits of firmly preserving discipline within the Party and waging a more intensive struggle against unsound and non-revolutionary acts including the abuse of power and bureaucratism revealed among some Party officials.

Clarifying the immediate work and prospective tasks for taking organizational and institutional measures and establishing the efficient work system to further strengthen the Party Central Inspection Commission and intensify the discipline supervision system among the local Party organizations at different levels, including the basic ones, and for putting the norms of supervision, discipline examination and penalty on a more detailed basis, the respected General Secretary called for expanding and strengthening the authority and function of discipline inspection departments for aiding the work of the Inspection Commission, enforcing the strict supervision work system, discipline examination order and stern penalty system in keeping with the legitimate demand of the essence and strengthening of the Party’s line of building discipline, and thus thoroughly guaranteeing the realization of the monolithic leadership of the Party Central Committee and the broad political activities of the Party through the strong discipline system.

Saying that it is necessary to prioritize the work for encouraging and raising the high political principle, fighting spirit, revolutionary style and communist moral traits within the organizations of the whole Party to thoroughly carry forward the nature, mission and duty of the revolutionary party and develop the fighting efficiency of the socialist ruling party, he stressed that, to this end, it is essential to push ahead with as an indispensable priority task the work to strictly establish the strong habit of observing the rules and discipline of the Party and the supervision work system and rectification system over the execution of the Party’s line and policies and embodiment of sound working style and moral life.

Clarified at the meeting was the important and strategic party-building idea of the General Secretary on regarding the building of the Party’s discipline as its prior important task and major line in the party building and activities, more firmly consolidating the Party’s foundation, improving the revolutionary and militant efficiency in the Party’s political activities and enhancing, improving and strengthening the Party’s role and trait.

The Secretariat of the WPK Central Committee decided to take institutional measures for thoroughly applying the original idea and theory of the General Secretary on building the Party’s discipline to the Party work and activities.

The meeting also discussed other major issues of improving the Party inspection and guidance work and enhancing its interior work.

Political News Team

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The North Korean gov’t tightens the screws on foreign trade

June 8th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past year, Daily NK (and primarily its stellar reporter Seulkee Jang) has reported on what seems to be a fairly consistent effort by the North Korean regime to strengthen its controls over foreign trade permits. The Covid-19 border lockdown has made this, as other repressive measures of economic policy, a much easier task than it otherwise would have been. The purpose of this post is to summarize the development to date by gathering the reports in one place, hopefully generating a somewhat holistic picture of what’s been happening.

Tight government regulation of foreign trade is, of course, nothing new in North Korea. Trade has always occurred at the mercy of the state, making it a fertile ground for corruption. From May 2019:

The continuing international sanctions on North Korea are causing difficulties for the country’s traders, who are having trouble finding items not on the sanctions list to sell as well as having to pay “loyalty payments” to the state and bribes to government officials.

“Traders are saying that the business environment in North Korea is poor and that they have a lot of difficulty importing materials from China that don’t violate the sanctions. Even if products clear Chinese customs without a problem, traders face issues in North Korea […] North Korean customs agents demand bribes and the traders say they’re left with nothing,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.

“The customs officials demand bribes and justify their demands with excuses like ‘The state is building this or that project so be a patriot and hand over the money’ […] Traders don’t have much choice, so they just pay the bribes.”

[…]

Traders are faced with being branded “anti-socialist” and punished if they refuse to contribute money for so-called state construction projects.

Government officials ultimately decide whether such payments really go to state construction projects or are accepted as personal bribes. Some of the customs officials may be sending some of the money to state coffers while keeping the rest for themselves.

It is not only imports of contract-manufactured materials imported from China that are facing difficulties. Traders who manufacture products in North Korea and export them to China also face demands from customs officials for bribes.

(Mun Dong Hui, “North Korean customs officials continue to demand bribes from traders,” May 5th, 2019.)

In November 2020, the Supreme People’s Assembly revised the country’s enterprise law to strengthen state control over firms engaging in foreign trade. Late that month, a source for the Daily NK claimed that the revision reduced what private traders have to pay to the state while strengthening control over these units:

According to a Daily NK source in Pyongyang, the bill to revise and supplement the Enterprise Act includes provisions that reduce what private “kiji” pay to the state and encourage foreign exchange earning and trading activities.

A kiji is a small private business organization of about seven people that is nominally attached to a trading company.

The act has permitted payments to the state (in cash or kind) to be cut by a third and private business operators are now allowed to take a greater share. The relevant cadres have been ordered to encourage the establishment of enterprises by telling prospective entrepreneurs that they “may pay just 10% of their profits.” It remains unconfirmed, however, whether this has been clearly included in the legislation.

“Since the (individual’s) take has been increased, it could also be read as an instruction to do more private business or earn more foreign currency,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In particular, the authorities reportedly prepared the legal basis to reinvigorate trade through the latest revision to the Enterprise Act.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea’s recent revision of Enterprise Act appears aimed at increasing trade,” November 25th, 2020.)

Some five months later, in April the following year, DNK reported that the state had ordered trading agencies to apply for new waku or trading permits, meaning that they would be required to submit a wide range of documents for scrutiny:

The agencies that will begin conducting trade on Apr. 20 received direct orders from the party to continue trade even after the border was closed at the end of January 2020. As companies belonging to powerful North Korean institutions, these agencies will simply have to undergo an inspection to confirm their activities. As soon as this is complete, they will be permitted to participate in official trade.

The authorities reportedly shortlisted trading companies that are a part of the Central Committee or the Munitions Industry Department (MID) to receive permission to resume trade.

Meanwhile, the authorities ordered that individual traders working for non-priority trading companies or agencies apply for new waku.

The Ministry of External Economic Relations gave each trading agency written instructions to reapply for new waku during the three days between Apr. 12 and Apr. 14. Trading agencies and companies reportedly submitted their applications and authentication materials via the North Korean intranet per the guidelines.

Even agencies and individuals who have been issued waku in the past must apply again for a new permit. If there are no issues, the firms will receive their newly-issued waku after an evaluation period of three to four weeks and be able to participate in official trade from the beginning of May.

Materials needed for the waku application reportedly include certificates regarding partner companies in China, records of previous imports and exports, and plans for future trade.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea hands down order regarding issuance of trade certificates,” April 20th, 2021.)

Around the same time, the authorities reportedly began to more thoroughly investigate traders to crack down on smuggling, partially as a result of the above-mentioned scrutiny:

A Daily NK source recently reported that the authorities have been ferreting out and punishing traders involved in smuggling. This crackdown could be an attempt to encourage trade workers to be cautious until the authorities open the border.

“From the beginning of this month until recently, the authorities have been arresting anyone who engaged in smuggling and those who did not submit their ‘loyalty fees’ to the party on time. [The authorities] have exiled some of them to remote areas, or sentenced them to re-education through labor or even death,” a source in North Pyongan Province said on May 18. “They are being punished because they misappropriated trade profits for their own personal gain and not for the benefit of the country.”

The hunt for those who participated in or abetted smuggling and those who failed to pay party “loyalty fees” reportedly came to a close in late April. North Korean authorities also investigated traders and firms applying for new waku (trade certificates) during the same period.

North Korean authorities accepted new waku applications from Apr. 12 and Apr. 14. After receiving the applications, the Central Committee’s Department of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and the Ministry of State Security began screening them.

“Twenty people ended up being targeted for punishment,” the source said. “[The authorities] arrested all of them at the same time and their punishments were meted out immediately.”

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korean authorities ferret out traders involved in smuggling,” May 24th, 2021.)

These increasingly intense investigations targeting “unauthorized trade” continued through the summer, as DNK reported in June and July:

The KPW-USD rate broke past KPW 7,000 on May 18, just before the new waku were issued. The renminbi was also going beyond KPW 1,000.

Daily NK has found that the exchange rates – which had been climbing continuously on the back of expectations surrounding the reopening of trade, and the issuance of new waku – suddenly collapsed because of new trade controls recently enacted by the North Korean authorities.

According to a high-ranking source, the Central Committee issued an order on June 3 telling recipients of new waku that their certificates did not mean they could participate in trade “right away.” If they do participate in trade without Workers’ Party approval, warned the order, it would be regarded as smuggling and subject to severe punishment.

(Seulkee Jang, “US dollar and Chinese reminbi plummet against North Korean won once again,” June 9th, 2021.)

And the report from July:

North Korean authorities are conducting large-scale inspections aimed at cracking down on unauthorized trade. This has led some North Korean trading companies involved in the trade of “unauthorized items” to cancel their transactions with Chinese traders.

According to a Daily NK source in China on Sunday, an unnamed North Korean trading company recently requested its Chinese partner suspend a transaction. The Chinese partner found this absurd as it was already prepared to ship the construction materials, paper, soap, and other sundries that had been ordered.

[…]

A Daily NK investigation – based on information from multiple sources in North Korea – has determined that the Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Social Security, and disease control authorities launched a joint inspection into illegal trading activity last month.

On June 3, North Korean authorities issued an order that warned traders against engaging in trade without prior approval from the Workers’ Party, regardless of whether they received a new waku (trade certificate). According to the order, unauthorized trade will be regarded as “smuggling” and subject to punishment.

The authorities subsequently formed inspection teams, which are now scrutinizing recent transactions by the country’s trading companies.

Trading companies that tried to import unauthorized goods along with authorized items now appear to be “scrambling” to cancel their deals with Chinese traders or are simply refusing to accept the cargo.

“North Koreans say you can trade only if you’ve gotten permission from that person [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] – even if you’ve got a waku,” one of the sources in China told Daily NK. “Instead of trade returning to [pre-pandemic] levels, it’s getting harder [for Chinese traders] to conclude deals with North Korea.”

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korea conducts large-scale inspections aimed at ending unauthorized trade,” July 6th, 2021.)

Only days later, DNK reported that approximately 20 trading company heads had been arrested in the crackdown against unauthorized trade. The reference to quarantine procedures is a clear example of how anti-epidemic measures have often intertwined with enhanced state controls:

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Thursday, the authorities arrested around 20 heads of trading companies during a “joint inspection” of trade-related entities that began last month. Hundreds of trade workers have also been arrested and are undergoing questioning.

The ruling party’s Organization and Guidance Department is reportedly taking overall command of the joint inspection.

Those arrested are being charged with either importing items outside their approved import lists or distributing imported items that have not gone through proper quarantine procedures.

North Korean authorities are reportedly applying heavy punishments on importers who circumvent quarantine procedures, rather than focusing on just the import of unapproved items.

Daily NK understands that the items imported by companies busted in the latest inspection include consumer goods scarce in most of the country’s markets, including seasonings, soybean oil, sesame seeds, and sugar.

Based on Daily NK’s information, the authorities have confiscated all of the unapproved imported items. They have also confiscated the waku (trade certificates) of the relevant trading companies.

[…]

Daily NK’s source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the authorities are making no exemptions in this latest crackdown – not even for trading companies attached to Bureau 39, which handles the ruling Kim family’s slush funds. If companies are caught engaging in illegal trade, they apparently face severe and “merciless” punishment.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has reportedly ordered that individuals caught in the inspection face criminal proceedings rather than “party-related punishments”; that busted cadre-level trade officials be stripped of their party credentials; and that the authorities apply the same criteria in their crackdown to companies affiliated with “special institutions.”

Given that North Korean authorities regard illegal trade by trading companies as “political activity,” offenders apparently face the severest of punishments — including death or confinement in a political prison camp — depending on the severity of their crimes.

“At the very least, nobody will get away with a mere slap on the wrist, like time in a forced labor or reeducation camp,” the source said.

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korea arrests around 20 trading company heads in latest crackdown on unauthorized trade,” July 16th, 2021.)

The crackdown continued even in the face of food shortages that underscored the need for more imports, fast:

The source said the committee also pointed to blocked provisions of raw materials and supplies in all areas of economic activity and serious energy shortages. The committee said discussions of trade must focus on these problems, essentially calling for traders to resolve food shortages and normalize enterprise operations by promptly restarting trade.

However, the source said the committee focused more on “system compliance.” It told traders that they must abandon rushed “campaigns” and deeply analyze trade as it involves the import and export of the state’s foreign exchange.

Moreover, it criticized officials in higher-level work units for personal and institutional selfishness, bragging about their “special” status. This well worn practice must be “uprooted,” it said.

The committee targeted corruption as well. Officials said they would show no forgiveness for traders collaborating with certain individuals to “mix goods” that have nothing to do with the national economy into their imports. It warned that “non-socialist and anti-socialist behavior” would face punishment by the party, administrative organs, or through the legal system.

(Jong So Yong, “Yanggang Province’s provincial party committee discusses China-North Korea trade,” December 31st, 2021.)

For some months, DNK reports on the issue took a pause, suggesting that the campaign may have ceased to grow in intensity for some time. In early April 2022, however, Jang Seulkee reported that a large-scale restructuring appears to be going on in the foreign trade sector, strengthening cabinet control:

North Korean authorities are disbanding trading firms that fail to produce results, and restructuring the trade sector to give the Cabinet direct supervision over the import and export details of all trading companies, as well as their profits.

According to multiple Daily NK sources in North Korea on Friday, the authorities have been placing trading companies across the nation under the direct control of the Cabinet. Trading companies that have failed to take part in import or export activity over the last couple of years are being merged out of existence, even if they are under the jurisdiction of “special bodies” like the security services.

The authorities have also created a report system that allows the Cabinet to manage or supervise trading companies’ accounting records and cash flow.

[…]

North Korea has apparently started to structurally readjust the trade sector as part of efforts to restore the state’s “unitary trading system.”

In a report on economic affairs to the Supreme People’s Assembly in February, Premier Kim Tok Hun said he would continue to push activities to restore the state’s unitary trading system in the external economic relations sector.

North Korean authorities have granted enterprises some degree of trade autonomy since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power, but the premier’s comment could be seen as a declaration that the state would be the sole trading actor going forward.

North Korean authorities have begun merging trading companies and bringing them under Cabinet supervision as their first effort to restore the state’s unitary trading system in an apparent bid to resolve the problem of bloated trading companies making illicit gains.

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korea restructures trade sector to give Cabinet more direct supervision over imports/exports,” April 4th, 2022.)

Ten days later, Jang reported that trade certificates of several trading companies of significant size had been confiscated by the authorities, who also arrested some ten trade officials:

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Wednesday, the Central Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested about 10 trade officials this month, confiscating the waku of their trading companies as well.

During North Korea’s efforts over the last month to merge trading companies, the authorities have discovered cases where companies have taken on excessive debt. The government has taken issue with officials of these companies for poor accounting practices and filing false financial reports.

Daily NK recently reported that North Korean authorities have started restructuring the country’s trade sector as the first step to restoring the state’s “unitary trade system.” These efforts have included merging and disbanding trading companies and making companies directly report their trading and sales details to the country’s Cabinet.

The individuals arrested in the latest round-up include officials with trading companies attached to major state institutions, including the Supreme Guard Command, Ministry of State Security, and External Construction Guidance Bureau. North Korea has apparently punished individuals and companies when their financial audits have turned up problems, regardless of the company’s size or parent organization.

However, trading companies that had their waku confiscated are crying foul. They say it is wrong for prosecutors to take away their waku simply because “rash financial audits” turned up “excessive debts” or missing numbers when the prosecutors themselves know nothing about the companies’ trade transactions.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea confiscates the trade certificates of several mid- to large-sized trading companies,” April 14th, 2022.)

All of this was, naturally, related to the state effort to collect more foreign currency in the face of what must be depleting supplies:

North Korean authorities are reviewing how well provincial trade bureaus have met their foreign currency quotas in the first quarter of the year and are auditing bureaus that failed to meet their quotas, Daily NK has learned.

“The government has assigned officials from the State Planning Commission and the Ministry of External Economic Relations to audit the provinces that failed to provide the state with the planned amount of foreign currency funds in the first quarter of the year. The auditors are supposed to review the results and correct what went wrong,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Wednesday.

[…]

“The current objective of the audit is to figure out how persistently and energetically provincial trade bureaus have been in delivering foreign currency to the state. But another objective is to pressure the bureaus to unconditionally meet the state’s foreign currency quota in the future,” the source said.

The auditors have mostly been examining documents provided by managers, bookkeepers, and statisticians at trade companies in North Hamgyong Province. After marking problem areas in red, they are meeting with the people involved to check on their work processes and outcomes, the source explained.

According to him, the auditors in North Hamgyong Province have looked through all the documents not only from the first quarter of the year but from the last two years as well. They are asking hard questions about the province’s failure to meet the foreign currency quota. The auditors reportedly believe that low-level trade organizations did not make a serious effort to meet the quota.

Trade organizations did manage to get permission in Sinuiju for sending imports and exports through the Uiju quarantine center. However, the auditors were greatly disappointed by the fact that these organizations, thinking they had no way of meeting the quota, attempted to shirk responsibility for not sending any foreign currency to the government over more than two years.

(Jong So Yong, “N. Korea conducts audits on how well provincial trade bureaus met foreign currency quotas,” April 29th, 2022.)

As is often the case, provincial administration incentives appear to be misaligned with the central government’s orders:

North Hamgyong Province’s trade bureau is working hard to ensure the survival of as many trade companies as possible following orders by the central government to merge or close companies deemed ineffective.

“The provincial trade bureau is under a great deal of stress due to the government’s instructions regarding the merger and closure of trade companies,” a source in the province told Daily NK on Monday.

North Korea is carrying out several measures to either combine trade companies or eliminate them altogether as part of broader efforts to restore a system in which all trade is administered by the state, he explained.

With trade companies facing the very real prospect of elimination, many are making every effort to survive, with the hope that trade will resume in earnest once the country’s borders are reopened, the source added.

The source said that the North Korean government believes that it does not need trade companies that focus solely on either imports or imports. During the trade company registration process, the government is setting precise figures for imports and exports and emphasizing that only trade companies that can actively pursue both activities serve the state’s economic interest.

(Jong So Yong, N. Hamgyong Province’s trade bureau under stress to save as many trade companies as possible,” May 4th, 2022.)

As of last month, the process to tighten trade administration was still ongoing. The aforementioned state surveys of trading companies revealed that all of them carry substantial amounts of debt:

North Korean authorities are pushing the dissolution and merging of trading companies as the first stage of the restoration of the unitary state-led trading system. However, things are reportedly moving slowly due to debt problems with the trading companies.

According to a high-ranking Daily NK source in North Korea on Thursday, North Korean authorities started dissolving and merging trading companies to build a state-led trading system in March, making the Cabinet responsible for managing all import and export breakdowns. They have yet to complete the process, however.

This is because financial surveys conducted to dissolve and merge the companies revealed that every firm carried significant debt.

[…]

The source said the most likely plan is for the North Korean authorities and trading companies to split the debts 50/50.

The problem is that North Korean authorities lack the financial wherewithal to assume 50% of the debts. Another Daily NK source familiar with North Korea’s trade situation said no trading officials believe the authorities will take care of 50% of the debts, even if they say they will.

North Korean authorities currently set the official exchange rate at a very low KPW 150 to the dollar. Compared to the rate of KPW 6,500 to the dollar at a market in Pyongyang on May 1, the government currently sells the dollar at a price over 40 times lower than market value.

Because of this, if the North Korean authorities assume the debt using the official exchange rate, the high-level trade agencies will assume virtually all the debt.

This being the case, both the subordinate trading companies and the superordinate ones that will absorb them are complaining.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea’s efforts to dissolve and merge trading companies are hitting snags,” May 16th, 2022.)

It seems fairly clear that the state intends to fully subordinate foreign trade under cabinet control, drastically tightening the screws on companies that engage in foreign commerce. It is an ambitious project given that foreign trade was relatively decentralized for some years, but it is an ambition that the state has held since at least 2018. We may see some limited measures of retreat but the overall goal will likely persist for some time.

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North Korea’s problematic Covid-19 numbers

May 18th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea’s admission of a Covid-19 outbreak has understandably drawn global attention. It’s one of two countries – the other one being Eritrea – that have not yet started administering Covid-19 vaccines. North Korea also claimed, until just a few days ago, to have had zero cases of infections.

Naturally, the government’s data is highly interesting in this situation, and you can follow the officially reported numbers here at 38 North‘s tracker. Due to the lack of testing kits, North Korean authorities report cases of “fever” as a proxy for Covid-19.

These numbers perhaps tell us more about how the government perceives the situation, than how many North Koreans have actually been infected with Covid-19. That North Korean authorities are now signalling a greater level of pragmatism in tackling the virus does not mean their claims until a few days ago about zero cases were true. The zero cases claim defies common sense and logic, not least since North Korea borders Chinese provinces where we know there have been significant outbreaks. Outlets such as Daily NK, Rimjingang, Radio Free Asia and others with sources inside North Korea have reported since the start of the pandemic about large numbers of people coming down with Covid-19 symptoms.

Already in March 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, sources in North Korea told Daily NK that over 20 North Koreans had died from the virus. By November last year, Daily NK reported that more than 100,000 people with symptoms were housed in government quarantine facilities. These are only two examples out of a large number of such reports. There is of course no way to confirm any of the information about Covid outbreaks in North Korea. Most  reports, however, have used roughly the same metric as the government uses right now to count cases — fever symptoms.

North Korean state media reports of the number of people in treatment per province also raises a lot of questions. Consider the map below, from the 38 North tracker:

It is possible that Pyongyang and its surroundings, Kaesong, and Rason, all have significantly higher numbers of cases than, say, North Hamgyong province. After all, Pyongyang is a relatively crowded city by North Korean standards, making infections spread more easily. But these are also sensitive areas and it may well be that the government is simply paying more attention by testing (for fever) more and monitoring numbers more closely. All three, in fact, are so-called “administrative special cities” (특별시/t’ŭkpyŏlssi), placing them under more direct central government administration than other cities. Pyongyang, moreover, is politically sensitive as the country’s power center, and Kaesong sits on the tense border with South Korea. Rason holds a special economic zone and is close to North Korea’s borders with Russia and China. Perhaps the government pays greater attention to these cities because of this common denominator.

The question is still why the North Korean government chose to acknowledge the presence of Covid-19 in the country this month. Since the announcement, the state has strengthened quarantine measures, some of which were already in place, and imposed a nationwide lockdown, though there’s been some questions raised about how sternly it is implemented. It is still possible, as I noted in a previous post, that the government is changing to a more pragmatic Covid-19 policy overall, starting with recognizing the virus.

As of now few data points point in this direction, although it is still much too early to tell. It may also be that the government made the announcement to set the stage for accepting vaccines and other assistance from abroad. Even with such assistance, it remains unclear how the rollout would work in practice given North Korea’s lacking equipment for, for example, storing vaccines and keeping them cold while transported around the country.

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North Korea finally admits a case of Covid-19. Is there a trade connection?

May 12th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Finally, after over two years of denial, North Korean state media has acknowledged a case of Covid-19 in the country:

Next, the Political Bureau discussed the issue of coping with the epidemic prevention crisis state prevailing in the country.

It recognized as follows:

A most serious emergency case of the state occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front where has firmly defended for two years and three months from February, 2020.

The state emergency epidemic prevention command and relevant units made deliberation of the result of strict gene arrangement analysis on the specimen from persons with fever of an organization in the capital city on May 8, and concluded that it coincided with Omicron BA.2 variant which is recently spreading worldwide rapidly.

Informed at the meeting was the spread state in the whole country. Urgent measures were presented and deliberated to take the strategic initiative in the epidemic prevention campaign for the future.

The Political Bureau censured the epidemic prevention sectors for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency as they did not sensitively cope with the public health state which infectors of all kinds of variants are increasing worldwide including surrounding regions of our country.

The Political Bureau recognized that it is necessary to switch over from the state epidemic prevention system to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system to cope with the present circumstance.

All measures were taken for the Party, administrative and economic organs at all levels, sectors of public and state security and national defence and all organs and sectors of the country to establish the proper work system to make the state work be done smoothly in line with the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system coming into force.

Adopted at the meeting was a resolution of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK on switch over from the state emergency epidemic prevention work to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system to cope with the prevailing epidemic prevention crisis.

Concluding the meeting, Kim Jong Un raised principles to be maintained thoroughly in the emergency epidemic prevention work and tasks to do so.

He outlined and analyzed the current epidemic prevention crisis of the country and noted that the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system is mainly aimed to stably contain and control the spread of COVID-19 that made inroads into the country and to quickly cure the infections in order to eradicate the source of the virus spread at an early date.

Pointing out that more dangerous enemy of us than the malicious virus are unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will, he affirmed that we will surely overcome the current sudden situation and win victory in the emergency epidemic prevention work as we have strong organizing ability with which the Party, government and people are united as one and there are high political awareness and self-consciousness of all the people that have been fostered and cemented during the prolonged emergency epidemic prevention campaign.

He called on all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas and organize work and production after closing each working unit, production unit and living unit from each other so as to flawlessly and perfectly block the spread vacuum of the malicious virus.

Stressing the necessity of quickly organizing scientific and intensive examination and treatment campaign, he said that the Party and the government decided to take a measure to mobilize reserve medical supplies that have been stored up for the emergency until now.

He underscored the need for the public health sector and the emergency epidemic prevention sectors to strictly conduct intensive examination of all the people, take proactive measures for medical observation and treatment, intensify disinfection of all areas ranging from workplaces to living space and thus block and terminate the source of the malicious epidemics spread.

Though the epidemic prevention situation is harsh at present, it cannot block our advance toward the overall development of socialist construction, and there should be nothing missed in the planned economic work, the General Secretary said, stressing that the Cabinet and other state economic guidance organs and relevant units should conduct fuller organization, guidance and command over the economic work in conformity with switching over from state epidemic prevention system to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system so as to speed up the immediate farming work and the production at major industrial sectors and industrial establishments to the maximum and flawlessly compete within the appointed date the cherished works of our Party for the people such as the construction of 10 000 flats in the Hwasong area and the Ryonpho Greenhouse Farm.

The Party and power organs should minimize inconveniences and agonies the people would suffer under the strong blockade situation, stabilize their lives and take thoroughgoing measures so that slightest negative phenomena are not be revealed, he noted.

Stressing the need to more firmly cement the outposts of the state defence and guarantee the victory of the great epidemic prevention campaign with arms, he specially emphasized that guard duty should be further strengthened on the fronts, borders, seas and air and the best measures be taken to make security vacuum not be revealed in the national defence.

The people-first politics by our Party and state that have displayed the great vitality, overcoming all troubles of history, and the strength of our people who are united single-mindedly are the most powerful guarantee to win victory in the current great epidemic prevention campaign, he said, adding that all the Party organizations and power organs should prove in practice their loyalty to the Party and revolution, devotion to the people and responsibility for their duty at the present great epidemic prevention campaign to defend the lives and security of the people.

He warmly appealed to all the people and officers and men of the People’s Army to triumphantly conclude the great epidemic prevention campaign with firm confidence and great redoubled efforts and thus defend to the end our precious lives and future with our faith, will and unity.

The Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK examined and approved the written emergency instructions of the Central Military Commission of the Party and the Cabinet and made sure that they are issued.

(Source: “8th Political Bureau Meeting of 8th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, May 12th, 2022.)

A few thoughts:

First, it’s very unlikely that this is actually North Korea’s first case. It defies common sense and logic, especially given the country’s proximity to China. There is a solid stream of anecdotal reports to strongly suggest that North Korea has already seen outbreaks in several parts of the country.

Second, recall that Chinese authorities, upon North Korea’s request, recently ceased railway traffic between the two countries again after it had been open for only four months. The following part of the KCNA statement, depending on how you read it, seems to suggest that the recently re-imposed “blockade” may last for quite a while, and won’t necessarily go away when case numbers in Chinese border provinces drop:

The Party and power organs should minimize inconveniences and agonies the people would suffer under the strong blockade situation, stabilize their lives and take thoroughgoing measures so that slightest negative phenomena are not be revealed, he noted.

It seems to me that Kim Jong-un’s message could be: buckle down, again, for the long-haul. The four months of somewhat restored railway links were the exception.

Third, however, it is also possible that the country’s admission of a case is part of a normalization of government policies related to the virus. Dropping the zero-cases claim would allow the government to manage the virus as a strategy, rather than seek to contain it entirely. In other words, if the government would recognize the virus as part of a new reality, it could move away from tight border lockdowns toward testing measures and, eventually, a mass vaccination campaign. Recognizing the spread of the virus and opting to manage it would expand policy options beyond closing the border every time infection numbers go up across the border in China.

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A blast from the past: Yoon’s outdated North Korea thinking

May 10th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol took the oath of office in Seoul earlier today. North Korea was hardly the main focus of his speech, but no South Korean president could avoid the topic, especially three days after a North Korean short-range ballistic missile launch. His idea for inducing denuclearization in North Korea appears very similar to former US president Donald Trump’s, namely to give North Korea lots of shiny, expensive things:

“북한이 핵 개발을 중단하고 실질적인 비핵화로 전환한다면 국제사회와 협력하여 북한 경제와 북한 주민의 삶을 획기적으로 개선할 수 있는 담대한 계획을 준비하겠습니다.”

(Source: Ji Song-rim, “취임 일성으로 ‘북한 비핵화’ 강조…경제적 보상 제안,” Yonhap News, May 10th, 2022.)

“While North Korea’s nuclear weapon programs are a threat not only to our security and that of Northeast Asia, the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat…If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people.”

(Source: Lee Haye-ah, “Yoon champions freedom, offers to revive N.K. economy with ‘audacious plan,'” Yonhap News, May 10th, 2022.)

Of course, it’s still unclear exactly what this “audacious plan (담대한 계획)” is. But in context, an “audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy” most likely entails South Korea and possibly others offering North Korea a shiny, brand new infrastructure for basically the entire country, investments, vast sums of aid, et cetera, in exchange for North Korea giving up  its nuclear weapons. Essentially what Trump suggested in 2019. I’m obviously simplifying here, but those may well be the broad strokes.

This line of thinking — assuming it’s genuine and not just a way to avoid the topic —  relies on inaccurate and, at best, outdated, ideas about North Korean economic policy. If handing over piles of cash was the solution, there wouldn’t still be a North Korean nuclear issue. Lee Myung-bak, for example, made similar suggestions through his “Denuclearization Development 3000 (비핵 개방 3000)” But North Korea has continuously reneged on deals in this spirit, or simply rejected, often in plain language, that they would ever trade the nuclear weapons for economic incentives.

North Korea has, moreover, declared the old model of special economic zones built and run by South Korea dead and gone. Kim Jong-un wants foreign investment, but he doesn’t want companies from the “southern puppet regime” dictating any of the conditions or managing special economic zones on his territory.

It seems likely to me that Yoon is aware of all of this – he presumably gets high-quality briefings on North Korean policies – but that this was the least bad thing to say, since he had to say something about his vision for North Korea policy. Subin Kim, who analyzes South Korean politics at his excellent website Koreakontext, pointed out in an email that most of Yoon’s national security team consist of the same people who advised Lee Myung-bak on North Korea policy. Perhaps this is simply a way of avoiding the topic by repeating tired and tried phrases. In any case, such suggestions are a dead end with North Korea, and Yoon likely knows it.

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Four months after re-opening, China-North Korea rail traffic shuts again

May 3rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Only four short months after traffic started up again following a two-year shutdown, Chinese authorities announced late last week that railway traffic between Dandong and Sinuiju was to be halted again from May 1st, this past Sunday. According to Chinese authorities, this was done at the request of the North Korean government. The reason is the recent rise in Covid-19 cases in Dandong which has prompted a strict quarantine regime in the city, as in many Chinese localities. This move comes a few weeks after border guards in North Korea were apparently ordered to wear gas masks following the rise of cases in China.

As long as North Korea continues to hold zero Covid cases rather than mass vaccinations as the main policy goal, and China’s strict quarantine policies continue, this is like how trade between the two countries will continue for some time, with intermittent stops every now and then when cases rise in China. It still remains to be seen how long the pause in trade will last.

It is, of course, troubling for the North Korean economy. Goods such as fertilizer, pesticides and other farming inputs are badly needed imports. Radio Free Asia reports that traders have been purchasing these goods, in addition to food, as “national emergency goods”, most likely a priority category created by the North Korean government:

Days before the closure, traders made preparations for the last shipments, the source said.

“The freight station is now filled with fertilizer, pesticide and food purchased by North Korean trading companies as national emergency goods. The last trains will be shipped to a quarantine facility in Uiju either tomorrow or the day after,” he said.

RFA reported last year that North Korea had completed a new rail line between Sinuiju and a quarantine facility in Uiju, in anticipation of trade reopening prior to the end of the pandemic. The new facility allows entire trainloads of cargo to be sterilized prior to distribution to Pyongyang and the rest of the country.

A second source familiar with Sino-North Korean trade in Dandong confirmed that rail freight would stop at the beginning of May.

“North Korea urgently needs farming materials and fertilizer, so the two sides have both agreed to bring the supplies to Sinuiju by the end of this month,” he said. “People expect that the freight train between Dandong and Sinuiju will resume only after COVID-19 disappears and the city lockdown is lifted throughout China.”

(Source: Hyemin Son, “Zero-COVID policy in Chinese border city stops freight to North Korea,” Radio Free Asia, May 2nd, 2022.)

The resumption of train traffic earlier this year was not the end of the border quarantine but, rather, the beginning of a new phase with intermittent shutdowns for the time being. As of now, this may help clear some of the backlog of imports in quarantine in North Korea. But as long as these dynamics continue, they will disrupt trade between the two countries and inflict serious damage on the North Korean economy.

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Another data point on North Korea and the world economy

April 25th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At 38 North, I recently looked at how world market price swings impact the North Korean economy. Given the lack of consistent price data for coal in North Korea, I was unable to look at the potential impact of global coal price changes on domestic prices (and export prices) in North Korea. But with global coal prices shooting up following bans on imports of Russian coal and other energy products, North Korean producers will likely benefit significantly, at least in the short- to medium-term. So although global food price hikes following Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine may hurt the North Korean economy in some ways, rising coal prices will benefit it in others.

Daily NK notes this in an interesting recent report. According to their sources, prices paid by Chinese importers for North Korean coal have risen by 40 percent in a short time:

According to multiple Daily NK sources in North Korea on Wednesday, Chinese traders are paying an average of USD 70 per ton for smuggled North Korean coal.

That is not even one fourth of international price coals, including Australia’s benchmark Newcastle index, which have been climbing at a frightening rate due to the EU’s ban on Russian coal imports.

The price of smuggled North Korean coal is about half that of the local price in China, where there is a price cap. However, it is also more than double the price of exported North Korean coal prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, even compared to early October, when smuggled coal sold for about USD 50 a ton, the current price represents a more than 40% climb from six months earlier.

At the time, Chinese coal prices were skyrocketing due to local shortages following Beijing’s suspension of Australian coal imports due to trade disputes with Canberra.

In the end, the price of North Korean coal is essentially hitching on to continuously rising global coal prices.

Moreover, the sources said North Korea is selling high-quality coal of more than 7,000 calories to China. Accordingly, more Chinese traders are reportedly demanding North Korean coal.

They further said that while coal exports are not as brisk as they were prior to the pandemic, North Korea has been continuously exporting coal through the port of Nampo as of late.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea sees coal prices rise as international energy prices skyrocket,” Daily NK, April 21st, 2022.)

It is always striking and interesting to note just how much of a buyer’s monopoly North Korea is subject to when it comes to China’s coal imports. Because China is the only country of true significance for North Korean coal exports, it is to a large extent free to set the prices. As the article notes, the prices Chinese importers pay for North Korean coal are not even one-fourth of global prices. It’s worth keeping in mind when China is referred to as North Korea’s economic “lifeline”. It may be somewhat true, but it’s far from that simple.

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New data: NK-China trade after the Covid border closure

March 24th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Numbers for China-North Korea trade are out from Chinese customs for the first two months after railroad traffic resumed in January. Overall, the data looks like what one would expect. Trade has skyrocketed by a factor of almost 41, from $3.27 million in January and February last year, to $136.5 million in the same period this year. The real figure is probably somewhat larger. The majority, $116.3 million, is constituted by North Korean imports from China, which goes a long way in explaining the exchange rate hike on North Korean markets that I wrote about yesterday here.

Despite the drastic increase, the numbers are about half of what they were pre-covid. That shouldn’t itself be surprising, since many trade connections have likely faltered during the long closure. Moreover, North Korean authorities seem determined to reconstitute the way they regulate trading rights and access.

Numbers source: Joongang Daily, here.

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Oil and fuel supply shortages on North Korean markets?

March 23rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It’s been a couple of months since railroad traffic opened again between China and North Korea. Although it isn’t very much time to fully evaluate such a drastic change, we can see some interesting price movements on the country’s markets. (Click to see the full graph.)

Average of market prices for rice, gas, diesel, USD and RMB in three North Korean cities. Graph by NK Econ Watch. Data source: Daily NK. 

First, and unsurprisingly, foreign exchange rates have gone up drastically. This makes perfect sense, since news of trade resuming would make more North Koreans want to hold foreign currency, to import and purchase goods from abroad.

Second, both diesel and regular fuel prices have gone up, and quite drastically. As Daily NK notes, the fuel price increase in North Korea is much higher than that of global oil prices. This is also logical, since businesses have likely increased their purchases of fuel in anticipation of increased demand as border trade increases. I’m not sure, however, that the entire magnitude of the increase can be explained this way, since in some localities, prices have more than doubled. Diesel prices have also skyrocketed, which is somewhat unusual since gas and diesel prices tend not to fluctuate this much together. (Gas prices are some of the most volatile on North Korean markets and often fluctuate with the geopolitical situation.)

Price hikes in China, on both diesel and gasoline, are likely a strongly contributing factor. Another significant factor, reported by Daily NK in the article above, is likely moves by the North Korean government to restrict private fuel sales, perhaps leading hoarding by sellers. The rapidly rising exchange rate also makes fuel more expensive, but fuel prices have risen faster than the exchange rate.

Increased supply from China may come to stabilize fuel prices, but given global oil price increases, such deliveries to North Korea are increasingly costly for China as well.

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