On the DPRK’s crab exports

The Financial Times indirectly brings up the impact of a basic economic lesson, the tragedy of the commons, in a recent story on the DPRK’s fisheries. According to the article:

Supply disruptions are a fact of life in doing business with North Korea. “They are always stopping work for different reasons, for the anniversaries of leaders’ birthdays or whatever,” said Sha Zhibiao, manager of a fish shop in Yanji, the biggest Chinese city near the north-eastern tip of North Korea.

The main transit point for the crabs is Hunchun, a bustling Chinese border town that is a few hours from the North Korean port of Rajin.

While the North Koreans queue for meagre state hand-outs of grain, the Chinese traders in Rajin eat at Chinese-run restaurants or cook for themselves with supplies they bring in.

Doing business with North Koreans is fraught with uncertainty, according to Lu Zhentie, Mr Gao’s partner. “We agree on a price and then at the last second if they find someone who will pay more they cancel the entire deal. We cannot trust them.”

Mr Lu said the North Korean fishermen operate individually – a sliver of private-sector enterprise in the state-run economy – and their crabs are sold in a grey market that local officials allow to exist. “We give them sometimes Rmb10,000 ($1,580) for a catch. Some have become rich, but I have no idea what they do with their money. Even those who are rich still wear clothes like this,” Mr Lu said, pointing at a tear in his trousers.

All three said that Chinese demand for North Korean crabs had boomed in recent years – and that the North Koreans were flirting with trouble in trying to satisfy it. Mr Lu pointed to small crabs in his tanks, saying that the North Koreans should have thrown these back into the sea to sustain their fishery. “If they keep taking all these out, I don’t know how much longer their resource will last,” Mr Lu said.

Although the bulk of the article deals with challenges to the DPRK business environment that result from a poor institutional environment  (unannounced policy changes and unenforceable contracts) towards the end of the article another important idea is indirectly introduced: The tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons occurs when multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally, will ultimately deplete a common-pool resource, even when everyone knows that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

In the past, over-fishing was probably not a problem in the DPRK as all activity was coordinated through the Ministry of Fisheries. If anything, incentives in the socialist economic system probably resulted in fishing at levels below the sustainability threshold.  Today, however, de-facto independent fishermen are able (and encouraged) to over-fish the DPRK’s waters so they can export their catch to earn hard currency. Over-fishing is probably not an outcome that anybody wants, however, in the absence of a credibly enforced fishing quota or private property rights in fisheries, rational individual fishermen (who are competing with each other) will be financially rewarded for catching more and increasingly smaller fish and crabs, because if they do not, the next guy (a competitor) will.

Read the full story here:
Crabs offer lifeline for North’s economy
Financial Times


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