Archive for January, 2010

DPRK scholar admits currency reform goal was expanded public finances

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No.10-01-29-1

The director of the (North) Korea Institute of Social Sciences has publically stated that the shocking currency reforms announced last November were aimed at filling the state’s public finance coffers.

In an interview for the Choson Sinbo, a newspaper distributed by the pro-North ‘General Association of Korean Residents in Japan,’ director Kim Cheol Jun revealed, “[last year’s] currency exchange program in [North Korea] was effectively carried out…through the currency exchange, socialist economic management principles could be better realized and a public finance foundation was prepared on which leaping advancements in the lives of the people will be achieved.”

Many experts in South Korea and abroad had speculated that the North’s objective in revamping its currency was to boost public coffers, but this was the first time that anyone from North Korea had publicly alluded to such goal. Director Kim stated that last year was a year ‘carved into history’ as the year in which the nation was turned around toward the realization of the goals set for 2012, noting that new seeds had been developed to boost crop yields, and that double- and triple-cropping as well as improved potato and bean crops had been accomplished.

Director Kim also stated that a decisive turn-around had been made in resolving food shortage problems, noting the successful development of Lyosell as one example of improved production in North Korea. Lyosell is a silk-like material made from wood pulp transformed into cellulose, and is softer and more hygroscopic than cotton, yet almost as strong as polyester.

Director Kim added that last year also saw the completion of the Yeoungwon Powerplant, the Yeaseong River No. 1 Youth Powerplant, and the Keumya River Powerplant, as well as the installation of Computer Numerical Control (CNC) systems in the Taean Heavy Machinery Complex, the Cheollima Steel Complex, and the Hyecheong Construction Machinery Factory.

Following the currency reform, there was a total lack of policy to stabilize the lives of the North Korean people, and the ban on foreign currency, closing of markets and other control measures only pushed residents to the brink. On December 28, North Korean authorities released a memorandum completely banning the use of foreign currency, and since the beginning of the new year, markets throughout the country have been closed, causing people in the North to turn to barter in order to obtain food. However, the schedule for the closing of markets varies by region, and the state authorities have been unable to enforce state-set pricing as the government has been faced with more than a little resistance to the currency reforms.


North Korea wants to revive search for US MIAs

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Michael Rank

I posted last year about a British Korean War pilot who is buried in North Korea. This got me interested in MIAs (missing in action) in the Korean War more generally, particularly Americans as there was in the 1990s rather surprisingly a joint US-North Korean programme to recover their remains.

This Clinton-era project foundered after a few years, not at all surprisingly, but there are now, equally surprisingly, signs the North Koreans want to revive it.

Admiral Robert F. Willard, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, said on Jan 27: “We’re going to enter into discussions with [North Korea] [about MIAs]. That is what we know right now.”

“They are willing to talk about it and we’re willing to address the particulars with them.”

“It’s a complex problem. We’ve been in (North Korea for recovery missions) before, and it appears that we’re being invited to consider going back again,” Willard told reporters at Camp Smith, Hawaii, according to the Honolulu Advertiser. “It’s something that we’ll take seriously and we’ll enter into dialogue with them and find out where it will lead.”

No date has been agreed on restarting the search for the remains. More than 8,100 Americans remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the Department of Defense.

During Operation GLORY in 1954, North Korea returned the remains of over 2,000 Americans, the Department of Defense says .

“Between 1954 and 1990, the U.S. was not successful in convincing North Korea to search for and return additional U.S. remains,” the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) states on its website.

“However, from 1990 to 1994, North Korea exhumed and returned what they claimed were 208 sets of remains. Unfortunately, their records and recovery methods have hampered U.S. efforts to identify most of these. The North Koreans co-mingled the remains and the associated personal effects. These difficulties underscored clearly the need for joint field activities in which U.S. expertise would guide the recovery process and improve the identification results.”

Larry Greer, director of public affairs of the DPMO in Arlington, VA, confirmed to me that the North Korean army “informed the United Nations that they were willing to talk about remains recovery operations. That was at a Panmunjom meeting on the 26th [Jan], our time. The U.S. has not yet responded.”

The US military newspaper Stars and Stripes last year quoted a US Defense Department anthropologist who had taken part in the hunt for MIA remains in the North as saying he was frustrated that the operation north of the border had been suspended.

“I am always disappointed when politics interfere with human rights and bringing closure to families whose relatives died in Korea so long ago,” said Jay Silverstein during a search for remains in South Korea close to the border with the North.

He said he hoped some day to return to North Korea to continue to search for the remains of U.S. service personnel. “I found the North Koreans very pleasant to work with,” said Silverstein, who was overseeing the excavations in Hwacheon county about eight miles from the border with North Korea.

“My experience was very positive. It gave me a lot of hope for the future … that relations between the North and the South and the West and the rest of Asia will someday be improved.

“I found [the North Koreans] to be very reasonable people. Very friendly. We could sit down and have a beer, or smoke a cigar, and talk. It was quite pleasant,” he added. [Surely the first time a US military official has ever said anything nice about North Koreans? Ed]

Apart from the suspended agreement with North Korea, the United States reached an agreement with China in 2008 “to formalize research in Chinese archives on Korean War POW/MIA matters.”

The Chinese side seems to have been reluctant to share much information with the Americans so far, but the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported last October that “Chinese military archivists have identified more than 100 documents that could lead to the repatriation of the remains of the United States personnel who disappeared during and after the Korean War”.

It added that “China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Archives Department has been combing more than 1.5 million archives of the then People’s Volunteer Army (PVA), the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the PLA headquarters during the Korean War.

“Archivists have given at least four valuable archives found in the first 10 percent to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

The Chinese report mentioned how archivists had located the site where a U.S. bomber crashed in 1950 in the southern province of Guangdong. “After visiting the site and interviewing 19 witnesses who helped them identify the burial site of U.S. crew, they believe the possibility of finding the remains is high,” it added.

The DPMO’s Greer said that “We are making slow steady progress” in the joint archive project.

He said that in September 2009 the US hosted six PLA archivists for annual discussions and to review arrangements, and that the archivists provided additional information on the Guangdong crash site which was part of their annual report in June 2009.

In October 2009, General Xu Caihou 徐才厚, vice-chairman of the PLA’s Central Military Commission, presented four Chinese-language documents to Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Washington.

“The documents concerned the Guangdong site and a F-86 Korean War crash site in China about which we were already aware.We have requested permission to investigate the Guangdong Province crash site in April this year,” Greer told me in an email.

“At the September 2009 meeting we also discussed amending our arrangement to facilitate the transfer of actual documents from the PLA archives to us and to permit joint PLA archives-DOD accounting community remains recovery work in China. The amendment process is underway now, but not final,” he added.

The South Koreans, who lost tens of thousands of soldiers in the war, would also like to hunt for their remains in the North.

President Lee Myung-bak said in a New Year’s address this would be an appropriate way to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.

But relations between the two Koreas are so frigid that I would lay a much bigger bet on the US search for MIAs restarting than on a similar agreement being signed between Pyongyang and Seoul.

With many thanks to Daily NK for drawing my attention to North Korea’s interest in reviving the MIA search.

The US has rejected the DPRK offer.  According to Reuters:

The United States on Thursday rebuffed a North Korean offer to reopen talks on finding U.S. soldiers missing since the Korean War, saying Pyongyang must first resume discussions on ending its nuclear ambitions.


DPRK price level and exchang rate still unstable

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

According to the Choson Ilbo:

North Korea is struggling to apply its new official foreign exchange rate, revised on Jan. 1, to hotels and shops in Pyongyang, according to a source.

A foreign diplomat stationed in Pyongyang said that the exchange rate is still “fuzzy,” citing hotel exchange rates in the capital dropping to W40 to one euro and rising to W51 a few days later. This is even after the North’s Central Bank initially set the rate at W138 to one euro earlier this month.

The source also said that shops near railway stations had stacks of goods unsold due to uneven prices.

New N.Korean Currency’s Value ‘Anyone’s Guess’
Choson Ilbo


DPRK diplomat defects from Ethiopian embassy

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

According to Yonhap:

A diplomat at the North Korean Embassy in Ethiopia defected to South Korea late last year after seeking asylum at the South Korean Embassy in the African country, an informed source said Tuesday.

The 40-year-old North Korean man, identified only by his surname of Kim, stormed into the South Korean embassy in October and spent several weeks there before arriving in Seoul in November, the source said, asking not to be identified.

The relationship between the DPRK and Ethiopia goes way back…to some dark days in Ethiopia’s history. 

Here are a few previous posts on the DPRK-Ethiopia relationship

Read the Yonhap story here:
N. Korean diplomat based in Ethiopia defects to S. Korea: source


Daily NK going mainstream

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Since the Daily NK became the first to move on the DPRK’s currency revaluation the number of references they have received in the mainstream media have soared.  I have found the Daily NK a terrific resource from the earliest days of this blog so I am thrilled to see their reports become so widely read.

This week, the New York Times published an interesting article pulling back the curtain on the Daily NK‘s operations (about which I know little).  According to the article:

For a journalist who helped break one of the biggest stories out of North Korea in the past year, Mun Seong-hwi keeps an extremely low profile. The name he offers is an alias. He does not reveal what he did in North Korea before his defection in 2006, aside from mention of a “desk job,” in order to protect relatives left behind.

He also maintains a wall of secrecy around his three “underground stringers” in North Korea, who he says do not know he works for Daily NK, an Internet news service based in Seoul and reviled by Pyongyang.

“I take pride in my work,” Mr. Mun, a man in his early 40s with brooding eyes and a receding hairline, said in an interview. “I help the outside world see North Korea as it is.”

Daily NK is one of six news outlets that have emerged in recent years specializing in collecting information from North Korea. These Web sites or newsletters hire North Korean defectors and cultivate sources inside a country shrouded in a near-total news blackout.

While North Korea shutters itself from the outside — it blocks the Internet, jams foreign radio broadcasts and monitors international calls — it releases propaganda-filled dispatches through the government’s mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency.

But, thanks to Daily NK and the other services, it is also possible now for outsiders to read a dizzying array of “heard-in-North Korea” reports, many on topics off limits for public discussion in the North, like the health of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

The reports are sketchy at best, covering small pockets of North Korea society. Many prove wrong, contradict each other or remain unconfirmed. But they have also produced important scoops, like the currency devaluation and a recent outbreak of swine flu in North Korea. The mainstream media in South Korea now regularly quote these cottage-industry news services.

“Technology made this possible,” said Sohn Kwang-joo, the chief editor of Daily NK. “We infiltrate the wall of North Korea with cellphones.”

Over the past decade, the North’s border with China has grown more porous as famine drove many North Koreans out in search of food and an increasing traffic in goods — and information — developed. A new tribe of North Korean merchants negotiates smuggling deals with Chinese partners, using Chinese cellphones that pick up signals inside the North Korean border.

These phones have become a main tool of communication for many of the 17,000 North Korean defectors living in the South trying to re-establish contact with their families and friends in the North.

Mr. Sohn, a former reporter with the mainstream daily newspaper Dong-A in Seoul, has South Korean “correspondents” near the China-North Korea border.

These volunteers, many of them pro-democracy advocates during their student years, secretly meet North Koreans traveling across the border and recruit underground stringers. The volunteers use business visas, or sometimes pretend to be students or tourists.“It’s dangerous work, and it takes one or two years to recruit one,” Mr. Sohn said.

In the past year, the quality of the information these news services provide has improved as they have hired more North Korean intellectuals and former officials who defected to the South and still have friends in elite circles in the North, said Ha Tae-keung, a former student activist who runs Open Radio for North Korea and a Web site.

“These officials provide news because they feel uncertain about the future of their regime and want to have a link with the outside world, or because of their friendship with the defectors working for us, or because of money,” said Mr. Ha, who also goes by his English name, Young Howard.

All these news outlets pay their informants. Mr. Ha pays a bonus for significant scoops. Daily NK and Open Radio each have 15 staff members, some of them defectors, and receive U.S. congressional funding through the National Endowment for Democracy, as well as support from other public and private sources.

Recently, they have been receiving tips from North Koreans about corrupt officials.

Read the full article below:Nimble Agencies Sneak News Out of North KoreaNew York TimesChoe Sang Hun1/24/2010


Google Earth as a historical document

Monday, January 25th, 2010

As I continue to make updates to the North Korea Google Earth project, I have begun mulling over the idea of Google Earth as a historical document. Being new, I believe it is underused by the academy, but it really is amazing what Google Earth captures in its historical imagery that would be lost forever–were it not saved in this software.  Here are a few minor examples from North Korea:

Sometimes the Propaganda goes away:

3-23-2006-propaganda.JPG 10-5-2007-propaganda.JPG

12-10-2001-propaganda1.JPG 11-12-2006-d-propaganda.JPG

4-28-2002-propaganda.JPG 12-26-2008-propaganda.JPG

3-10-2002-propaganda.JPG 11-12-2006-b-propaganda.JPG

11-12-2006-c-propaganda.JPG 12-28-2006-propaganda.JPG

1-8-2007-propaganda.JPG 12-16-2007-propaganda.JPG 

Hoeryong market: Hoeryong has undergone significant changes in the time between 2002 and 2008 (when the Google Earth images were taken).  It is well worth checking out all of the changes, but I point out below how the market has been moved farther from the town center and displaced a high school.  It looks like a new building is going up where the market used to be:

hoeryong-4-28-2002.JPG hoeryong-12-26-2008.JPG

Other Market expansions: despite the regime’s crack down on market activity in the last few years, we can see how these markets have grown (in number and scale) on Google Earth:

6-16-2003-market-a.JPG 9-29-2008-market-a.JPG

This market in Pyongyang was closed and moved to a better facility

6-5-2004-py-mkt-c.JPG 4-7-2005-py-mkt-c.JPG

This street market in Songrim also got a recent upgrade:

11-12-2006-songrim-market.JPG 4-17-2009-songrim-market.JPG

Here is a previous post on a Sinuiju market upgrade.

Here is a previous post on Haeju’s upgraded markets.

Villages removed: Some entire villages have been torn down.

10-9-2004-villages.JPG 11-12-2006-village.JPG

Environmental impact of new projects:Such as dam construction…

9-29-2004-dam.JPG 10-5-2007-dam.JPG

There are plenty of pictures of dam construction which you can easily access.  The dam below flooded a former air force training area:

5-4-2004-kpaf-flood.JPG 9-29-2008-kpaf-flood.JPG

Historical restoration: Kim Ung So House (North of Nampo).

1-10-2004-restoration.JPG 3-2-2005-restoration.JPG 10-2-2006-restoration.JPG

Seeing through the camoflauge: POL storage

4-7-2005-camo.JPG 9-29-2008-camo.JPG

Some of this was picked up in an RFA article here.


DPRK ships (2)* Vs. Somali Pirates (1)

Monday, January 25th, 2010

(* = assist from the US Navy)

DPRK sailors (or DPRK flagged ships) have come under attack from Somali pirates three times since October 2007. 

In the first attack, the DPRK ship overcame the pirates with the assistance of the US Navy. More here

In November 2009, a North Korean crew was taken hostage by Somali pirates. I still don’t know what happened to them, but I hope they were released safely. More here

This week Josh points out an AP story about a third attackon a Yemeni-owned, DPRK-flagged vessel:

The U.S. Navy says it overtook a suspected Somali pirate skiff that tried to attack a commercial ship in the Gulf of Aden.

A Navy statement issued Sunday says a security team aboard the merchant vessel Napht Al Yemen 1 repelled the Jan. 20 pirate attack without U.S. help.

The USS Porter stopped and boarded the pirate skiff later that day.

The commercial ship is Yemeni owned but sails under a North Korean flag.

The incident marked a rare example of the U.S. military aiding North Korea, a reclusive rogue nation.

Piracy is among the fastest ways to make money in Somalia, a nation plagued by war and no functioning government.

Somali pirates seized 47 vessels last year. They currently hold about 200 crew members hostage.


DPRK currency reform: rice and dollars

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

(H/T Josh) The price of rice has reportedly skyrocketed since the “anti-inflation” currency reforms.  According to Good Freinds:


The “inflation fighting” reforms have also caused a devaluation of the new won realtive to foreign currencies:


You can read the full Good Friends report here

The Daily NK keeps a running graph of price and exchange rate information.  See it here.

As with all hyperinflation economies, North Koreans are reportedly turning to barter.  According to the AFP:

Seoul-based Internet newspaper DailyNK also reported last week that bartering has made a comeback.

“For now, state-designated prices are still not public, so people think that selling goods for cash now would mean making a loss,” it quoted a defector who talked to his family in the North as saying.

“Therefore, bartering has become the main method of trading for the people.”

The defector said the barter value of products is decided according to their value in old money, with trade carried out privately to avoid detection.

Before the redenomination, one fish was worth 1,500 won and a kilogram of corn was 900 won, so people barter one fish for a little less than two kilograms of corn, DailyNK said.


Port-au-Prince on Google Earth

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

This is not North Korea related, but Google published high quality imagery of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Google Earth.

The level of damage is staggering. 

You should definitely check out the imagery–then please make a contribution (somewhere) to help relieve the suffering there.


Friday Fun Smörgåsbord

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Item 1: Koryo Credit Development Bank. This bank is located in the Yangakdo Hotel and is accessible to foreign visitors.  Here are the marketing materials they provide to “encourage” foreigners to set up hard currency accounts: Folder (PDF), Inserts (PDF).

Item 2: DPRK Customs Form (PDF)

Item 3: The Ryugyong Hotel is looking more like a spaceship (Source here. Date: 12/2009)

Click for larger version

Too bad it will never take off

Item 4: DPRK Transportation. Last September I linked to a collection of vehicles manufactured in the DPRK.  See them here.  This month Kernbeisser posted a great collection of photos he has taken of vehicles on the DPRK’s roads.  Seem them here