Archive for March, 2008

World oil and grain prices up, DPRK feels the pinch

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Bfrief No. 08-3-13-1

International fuel and food prices are skyrocketing, while the cost of Chinese goods continues to rise, so that this so-called ‘triple-threat’ is sending shockwaves through the North Korean economy. In this year’s New Year’s Joint Editorial, North Korea championed the banner of a ‘strong and prosperous nation’, and declared that this year would focus on the economy, however this ‘triple-threat’ will likely make it extremely difficult for the North to meet its policy goals.

With oil prices peaking at over 110 USD per barrel, if these high oil prices continue, North Korea, which imports crude and refined oil from China, Russia and other countries, will face a growing import burden. In accordance with the February 13th agreement reached through six-party talks, South Korea, the United States and others will provide some heavy fuel oil, and the agreement stipulated the amount of oil to be delivered, rather than the value, so this will not be affected by rising prices. However, this oil does not cover all of the North’s needs, and as for the remaining portion, either the amount imported will have to be reduced, or the North will have no choice but to invest considerably more in fuel. In addition, as a large portion of North Korea’s oil is imported from China, Pyongyang’s trade deficit with its neighbor will also grow.

According to the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), North Korea imported 523,000 tons of crude oil from China in 2005, 524,000 tons in 2006, and 523,000 tons last year, each year accounting for approximately 25 percent of total oil imports. North Korea’s trade deficit with China has shown a steadily growing trend, reaching 212,330,000 USD in 2004, 588,210,000 USD in 2005, and 764,170,000 USD in 2006. With grain prices also skyrocketing, and North Korea depending largely on China and Thailand for rice and other grain imports, the burden on the North’s economy is growing, and this is one factor in the instability of domestic prices in the DPRK.

According to the Chinese Customs Bureau, North Korea imported 81,041 tons of rice and 53,888 tons of corn last year, increases of 109.9 percent and 37.4 percent, respectively. North Korea’s corn, rice and oil imports from China are subject to market price controls, so that rising international prices directly affect the North’s cost burden. Last year, the price of Chinese goods rose 4.8 percent, recording the largest jump in ten years, and this trend extends to a wide variety of goods. 80 percent of disposable goods in North Korea are produced in China, and rising Chinese prices are directly reflected in North Korean import costs, which is passed on to DPRK citizens.

As North Korea emphasizes the building of its economy, it appears unlikely that residents will feel any direct effects of Pyongyang’s promise to prioritize the stability of its citizens’ livelihoods.


(Update) Lee Jong-seok slams Bank of Korea (and CIA) estimates of North Korean economy

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

UPDATE 2: On March 6, 2008 the CIA World Fact Book on North Korea was updated. Yonhap reports that the CIA’s estimate of North Korean GDP in 2007 (adjusted for PPP) is unchanged from 2006 at $40 billion and that per-capital GDP has increased from $1,800 to $1,900.  But the story also reports that the CIA has estimated an increase in North Korea’s population–23,301,725 in 2007, up from 23,113,019 in 2006.

So my quesiton is this…

If GDP is unchanged, how do you increase per capita GDP without reducing the population numbers?

On a side note…one of my former economics professors used to say, “Stalin increased per capita GDP in the Soviet Union by reducing the denominator.”

Update 1: From Dr. Petrov:
Per-capita GNI at $368 to $389 seems to be right [from the revised estimate below]. It’s approximately 1/3 of the Soviet figure by the time it collapsed (around $1000 per-capita). These days North Koreans still live poorer than people in the USSR.

Original Post: Yonhap reports that Lee Jong-suk, former Minister of Unification and senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, claims that the South Korean Bank of Korea has radically overestimated North Korea’s Gross National Income and military spending.

In August, the Bank of Korea (BOK) announced that North Korea’s nominal gross national income (GNI) amounted to US$25.6 billion in 2005, about 35 times smaller than South Korea’s. GNI refers to a nation’s gross domestic product plus its trade loss or gain arising from changes in trade. The bank also estimated North Korea’s per-capita GNI at $1,108 that year, about 17 times smaller than that of its rival South Korea.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) latest estimate of North Korea’s nominal GNI is $40 billion.

“If the BOK statistics are true, North Korea’s per-capita GNI represents two thirds of China’s $1,736, and nearly double Vietnam’s $616,” Lee said in a monthly magazine published Friday by the institute in the southern suburbs of Seoul. “Nobody would believe it if someone said North Korea is two times wealthier than Vietnam that is close to resolving its food problems,” Lee said.

The bank used a “wrong method” of employing South Korea’s price and value-added rate information in calculating North Korea’s GNI, the expert said. One dollar is about 150 North Korean won and about 950 South Korean won.

Lee said he commissioned financial experts to calculate North Korea’s GNI using “a method generally used by countries over the world” while in office. “North Korea’s GNI came to $8.4 to 8.9 billion with a per-capita GNI at $368 to $389 based on the 2005 foreign currency market rate,” he said, adding the estimates better reflect North Korea’s economic reality.

North Korea’s defense spending would be around $2.1 to $2.6 billion, not $5 billion, when the same calculation method is used, he said.

Read all of the stories here:
N. Korea’s GDP estimated at $40 billion: CIA

N. Korean economy overestimated says expert


DPRK-Oracsom mobile phone deal update

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

From Reuters

[Naguib Sawiris, CEO] said he was “astonished” how quickly the North Korean authorities wanted the service to start and he had high hopes for business in the country.

“We firmly believe that in the next three or four years we will be having a couple of million subscribers there and we will be seeing ARPUs in the range of $12 or $15 (a month),” he added.

Sawiris said that of the $400 million the company plans to invest in North Korea over the next three years, about $200 million would probably come in the first year, with $100 million in each of the two subsequent years.

Read the full story here:
Egypt’s OT seeks 100,000 N Korean subscribers from May


6,000 North Korean children receive vaccines…

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

…against Japanese encephalitis, meningitis

The one-day campaign on Feb. 29 was a pilot project to study the feasibility of introducing both vaccines to the north’s routine inoculation program, the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute said in a statement.

Some 3,000 children in Sariwon, south of Pyongyang, received the encephalitis vaccine, while the others in the city of Nampo, southwest of the capital, were administered with a vaccine against Haemophilus influenza type B – a bacteria that causes meningitis, it said.

Read the full story here:
6,000 North Korean children receive vaccines against Japanese encephalitis, meningitis
Associated Press


Working logistics for the Eugene Bell Foundation in North Korea…

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

…does not sound like very easy job based on the most in-depth media coverage of their operations published in the Washington Post.

The story portrays the sad state of the DPRK’s medical facilities and shows just how much local doctors struggle to serve their patients.  According to Eugene Bell Foundation Chairman Stephen Linton:

“I’ve seen doctors who tried to capture sunlight by reflecting it from a mirror,” [during surgery] he says.

By North Korean standards, [this] patient is fortunate. She’s been given a local anesthetic, which is rare in a country where surgeons routinely etherize patients, strap them down and try to finish the operation before they come to.


Like most hospitals and care centers in North Korea, the facility employs a direct-fluoroscopy machine, an X-ray device that irradiates the patient from behind while the doctor examines an image projected on a fluoroscopic plate of glass between them. “The negative is the doctor’s retina,” says Linton, who frequently admonishes physicians for submitting themselves to the machines’ potentially fatal doses of radiation. Most physicians in North Korea use them regularly, and suffer the consequences. The radiologist at Kosong, for example, has receding gums and low hemoglobin, common signs of radiation sickness. Three of his colleagues have died over the years — one from radiation overdose, another from cancer and a third from tuberculosis.

But the toll poor infrastructure takes on the provision of good health care is only exacerbated by the difficulties the DPRK bureaucracy puts in his way:

Of the 36 NGOs that began operations in North Korea as famine gutted the rural population in the mid-1990s, all but a handful have left in frustration. And Linton is particularly demanding: He insists on delivering his supplies personally, lest they be diverted to another facility or end up on the black market. When government officials balk, Linton refuses to resupply the site. So each of his two resupply visits annually is preceded by lengthy and sometimes rancorous negotiations.

“They say they want to save wear and tear on the vehicles, so they need to cut our sites by a third. Fine. I’ll cut theirs as well. Mary, I’ll need a red marker.”

Most of the cancellations involve small sanatoriums in rural areas — the very sites his donors are so keen to support. Linton suspects his hosts want to avoid those facilities because, relative to the urban care centers, their poor sanitation makes them legitimately hazardous. And the wear-and-tear issue isn’t just a red herring. Spending days crisscrossing the countryside on unpaved roads takes a huge toll on the delegation’s fleet of SUVs — vehicles that, between Linton’s visits, the ministry is allowed to use for its own purposes. In resource-starved North Korea, even government officials must barter to replace broken fan belts and transmissions. The last thing the bureaucrats want is to risk losing a precious automobile.

Linton is also apparently given a curfew when he is required to be back at this guest house in Pyongyang.

It seems Tuberculosis is running rampant at the moment:

South Korean sources suggest that tuberculosis has affected as much as 5 percent of North Korea’s population of 23 million. Linton estimates the Eugene Bell Foundation has treated up to 250,000 patients, 70 percent of whom might have otherwise died.

The whole article is well worth reading.

Donations can be made here.

The full article can be found here:
Giving Until It Hurts
Washington Post
Stephen Glain
3/9/2008, Page W16


KFA wraps up business delegation to DPRK…

Monday, March 10th, 2008

In the words of Alejandro himself:

[The] Korean Friendship Association concluded its first busines [sic] delegation, headed by Mr. Alejandro Cao de Benos, Special Delegate and KFA President, in collaboration with the DPRK Committee for Cultural Relations, Ministry of Trade and the DPRK Chamber of Commerce. The group included companies from Australia, France, Spain and Lebanon in different sectors like ship building, foodstuff production, medicine, IT and infrastructure, etc. The visit was a big success and 75% of the investors signed letter of intentions and contracts. All of the participants agreed that DPR Korea has a huge potential and new market with many interesting opportunities with the lowest taxes and wages but with the most skilled, motivated workforce. The companies fullfiled [sic] all their plans and resolved the questions during the visit and they had meetings with their Korean counterparts as well as with the officials of Trade, Chamber of Commerce, Banking authorities and logistics.

They visited a Foodstuff factory,  Heavy Machinery complex, Ostrich farm as well as the ‘Kaesong Industrial Zone’ in the border with South Korea, were they had a briefing by the Director representative of Hyundai-ASAN.

After that, the investors visited a South Korean cable-making factory and a garment manufacturing plant specialized in high quality sport brands.

From KFA we congratulate the companies that concluded agreements and established Joint Ventures in the DPRK and wish them success in their projects.

From a follow up post on the KFA forum, one of the attendees appears to be Mr. Kevin Liu, head of Asian Division of London-based Exclusive Analysis.


Taedonggang Brewery…

Monday, March 10th, 2008

Reuters has a write up of my favorite North Korean beverage, Taedonggang Beer:

North Korea’s quest to produce decent beer began in earnest in 2000 when it started talks with Britain’s Ushers brewery about acquiring its Trowbridge, Wiltshire plant that had ceased operations.

The North Koreans took apart the brewery that had been producing country ales for about 180 years, shipped it piece by piece to Pyongyang and reassembled it under the banner of its Taedonggang Beer Factory.

By April 2002, it was up and running. In June 2002, the North’s leader Kim Jong-il, known for his fondness of expensive brandy and wines, went on a brewery tour.

“Watching good quality beer coming out in an uninterrupted flow for a long while, he noted with great pleasure that it has now become possible to supply more fresh beer to people in all seasons,” North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said.

Taedonggang beer, named for a river that runs through Pyongyang, is a full-bodied lager a little on the sweet side, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Still not the choice of locals:

Taedonggang is one of several brews in North Korea and it has quickly become the top brand, according to foreigners living in the reclusive country.

Park Myung-jin, of distributor Vintage Korea which used to sell the beer in the South, said the North’s leader Kim wanted a showpiece brewery.

“They used the best quality material without thinking of the production cost,” Park said. He stopped selling the beer in the South in 2007 due largely to a sudden price hike.

The North taps into overseas markets for ingredients, Park said. It has abundant supplies of fresh water because its hobbled factories do not produce enough to cause pollution problems.

Beer is not the drink of choice for most North Koreans, who prefer cheaper rice-based liquor that packs a big punch.

Dont expect to see it in your local pub:

But do not expect to see Taedonggang or any North Korean beer invading overseas markets any time soon.

North Korea may have solved the riddle of making a robust beer but it has not completely solved the problem of bottling it.

The brewery has occasional trouble sealing bottles properly and the glass it uses is fragile.

The transport system in North Korea is also a mess, making it unlikely that the beer can become one of the few legitimate exports from a country shunned by the developed world for its defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons and a human rights record cited by the United States as one of the world’s worst.

The full article can be found here:
North Korean beer: great taste, low proliferation risk
Jon Herskovitz


Pueblo television upgrade

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

I have just been watching the VICE Guide to North Korea on  I am not easily impressed with footage filmed in North Korea because, frankly, I have seen a lot of it.  Still, every now and then you catch something fairly obscure which makes the time spent watching it worthwhile. 

The guys who filmed the video had the same guide as me, Mr. Lee, which means they were traveling under the auspices of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.  They have also gotten other journalists in as well (See here). Note to all the journalists out there.

Another thing I noticed was that the DPRK has made investments in upgrading their tourism facilities…even on the USS Pueblo.

pueblo2.jpg pueblo.JPG

In 2004, the Pueblo propaganda movie was shown on a traditional cathode television.  In 2007 it seems they have upgraded to a flat screen.  The ‘paean‘ of television technology.


1946 Land Reform and early DPRK state…

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

Dr. Lankov publishes some great information on the relationship between the early DPRK state and the Soviet Union…

[F]rom the very start the land reform program in North Korea was planned by the Soviet military authorities, and Kim Il-sung simply signed the documents, which had been prepared for him by the Russian officers.

This fact is well-known, since Russian papers on the land reform issue were declassified and published in South Korea almost a decade ago.


[E]ven a cursory look through the available documents clearly indicates: in 1945-1950, the North Korean regime operated under the complete control of the Soviet supervisors. Who drafted the above-mentioned land reform law? The Soviet advisers. Who edited and, after some deliberation, confirmed the North Korean Constitution? Stalin himself. Who arrested all the major opponents of the emerging Communist regime? The Soviet military police. Where were they sent to do their time? To prison camps in Siberia, of course!

The available papers leave no doubt that even the relatively mundane actions of the North Korean government needed approval from Moscow. The Soviet Politburo, the supreme council of the state, approved the agenda of the North Korean rubber-stamping parliament and even “gave permission” to stage a parade in 1948. The much-trumpeted conference of the politicians from the North and South in the spring of 1948 was another Soviet idea, even if the leftist historians now love to depict it as yet another expression of Pyongyang’s will to negotiate based on its alleged national feelings. The most important speeches to be delivered by the North Korean leaders had to be pre-read and approved in the Soviet Embassy.

My favorite story in this regard happened in December 1946, when the first elections for the North were being prepared. On Dec. 16, the Soviet Colonel-General Terentii Shtykov discussed the composition of the North Korean proto-parliament with two other Soviet generals. The generals (no Koreans were present) decided that the Assembly would consist of 231 members. They did not forget to distribute the places among the various parties, decided how many women would become members, and the social composition of the legislature. If we have a look at the actual composition of the Assembly, we can see that these instructions were followed with only minor deviations.

Read the full story here:
Southern Biases About North Korea
Korea Times
Andrei Lankov


Sunday speculation: The end of ‘Songun’?

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

The Daily NK reports that preparations for Kim Jong il’s successor government are ushering in an end to Songun:

North Korea has embarked on a rehabilitation of the Chosun (North Korea) Workers’ Party’s authority, meaning a return to party-centered politics from military-oriented politics, various inside sources suggest. The move could be related Kim Jong Il’s choice of successor.

In late February, a number of sources told the Daily NK through telephone interviews that instructions came down from the Party to each province on February 1st to “pay more respect to the local party apparatus than to the armed forces.”

Various sources said, “The rumours say that the instructions are intended for everyone (resident of Hoeryong)”, “Foreign currency-earning workers were given a mass lecture on this subject in mid-February (resident of Chongjin)”, and “People welcomed the command, hoping for less harassment from the army (resident of Hyesan)”.

Wat is happening in the government?

Last October, Kim Jong Il reappointed his brother-in-law and closest advisor, Jang Sung Taek, to the Director of the Administration Department, which has the responsibility for the National Security Agency, the People’s Safety Agency, and the Prosecutors’ Office. More recently, the Guidance Department undertook a large-scale inspection of the United Front Department, which signals an attempt to strengthen the Party.

The Guidance Department of the Party is the department tasked with leading and inspecting the Party apparatus. It also resides at the core of the North Korean power structure and is under Kim Jong Il’s direct control, so its involvement demonstrates the gravity of this investigation.

Sohn Kwang Ju, the chief editor of Daily NK and an expert on Kim Jong Il, suggested that, “Kim Jong Il, thinking that North Korea has already achieved military strength through the possession of nuclear weapons, is now starting to reconstruct the Party-centered order and revive the Party’s authority.”

Will it work?

Hwang Jang Yop, President of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea and the former North Korean Foreign Secretary, gave a similar analysis. According to him, “Kim Jong Il, sooner or later, will strengthen the Party’s authority, especially that of the Guidance Department because the Vice-Director position of the Guidance Department should eventually be taken by one of Kim’s sons.”

Nevertheless, many experts expect difficulty for Kim Jong Il in his effort to strengthen the authority of the Party.

Han Ki Hong, the president of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights, said that “Kim Jong Il has been running his country under the abnormal system of the Military-First policy for over a decade. Throughout that time, the Party’s authority totally collapsed and the armed forces’ power and authority has increased beyond control, and this is irrevocable.”

The full article can be read here:
Possible Shift from the Army to the Party in 10 years
Daily NK
Choi Choel Hee & Lee Sung Jin