Archive for the ‘Email’ Category

The Internet Balckhole that Is North Korea

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

NY Times:
Tom Zeller

[edited]…This is an impoverished country where televisions and radios are hard-wired to receive only government-controlled frequencies. Cellphones were banned outright in 2004. In May, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York ranked North Korea No. 1 — over also-rans like Burma, Syria and Uzbekistan — on its list of the “10 Most Censored Countries.”

That would seem to leave the question of Internet access in North Korea moot.

At a time when much of the world takes for granted a fat and growing network of digitized human knowledge, art, history, thought and debate, it is easy to forget just how much is being denied the people who live under the veil of darkness revealed in that satellite photograph.

While other restrictive regimes have sought to find ways to limit the Internet — through filters and blocks and threats — North Korea has chosen to stay wholly off the grid.

Julien Pain, head of the Internet desk at Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group which tracks censorship around the world, put it more bluntly. “It is by far the worst Internet black hole,” he said.

That is not to say that North Korean officials are not aware of the Internet.

As far back as 2000, at the conclusion of a visit to Pyongyang, Madeleine K. Albright, then secretary of state, bid Mr. Kim to “pick up the telephone any time,” to which the North Korean leader replied, “Please give me your e-mail address.” That signaled to everyone that at least he, if not the average North Korean, was cybersavvy. (It is unclear if Ms. Albright obliged.)

These days, the designated North Korean domain suffix, “.kp” remains dormant, but several “official” North Korean sites can be found delivering sweet nothings about the country and its leader to the global conversation (an example: — although these are typically hosted on servers in China or Japan.

Mr. Kim, embracing the concept of “distance learning,” has established the Kim Il-sung Open University Web site, — aimed at educating the world on North Korea’s philosophy of “juche” or self-reliance. And the official North Korean news agency, at, provides tea leaves that are required reading for anyone following the great Quixote in the current nuclear crisis.

But to the extent that students and researchers at universities and a few other lucky souls have access to computers, these are linked only to each other — that is, to a nationwide, closely-monitored Intranet — according to the OpenNet Initiative, a human rights project linking researchers from the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School and Cambridge and Oxford Universities in Britain.

A handful of elites have access to the wider Web — via a pipeline through China — but this is almost certainly filtered, monitored and logged.

Some small “information technology stores” — crude cybercafes — have also cropped up. But these, too, connect only to the country’s closed network. According to The Daily NK, a pro-democracy news site based in South Korea, computer classes at one such store cost more than six months wages for the average North Korean ( The store, located in Chungjin, North Korea, has its own generator to keep the computers running if the power is cut, The Daily NK site said.

“It’s one thing for authoritarian regimes like China to try to blend the economic catalyst of access to the Internet with controls designed to sand off the rough edges, forcing citizens to make a little extra effort to see or create sensitive content,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford.

The problem is much more vexing for North Korea, Professor Zittrain said, because its “comprehensive official fantasy worldview” must remain inviolate. “In such a situation, any information leakage from the outside world could be devastating,” he said, “and Internet access for the citizenry would have to be so controlled as to be useless. It couldn’t even resemble the Internet as we know it.”

But how long can North Korea’s leadership keep the country in the dark?

Writing in The International Herald Tribune last year, Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, suggested that North Korea’s ban on cellphones was being breached on the black market along China’s border. And as more and more cellphones there become Web-enabled, she suggested, that might mean that a growing number of North Koreans, in addition to talking to family in the South, would be quietly raising digital periscopes from the depths.

Of course, there are no polls indicating whether the average North Korean would prefer nuclear arms or Internet access (or food, or reliable power), but given Mr. Kim’s interest in weapons, it is a safe bet it would not matter.

“No doubt it’s harder to make nuclear warheads than to set up an Internet network,” Mr. Pain said. “It’s all a question of priority.”


Silibank offers email and remittances to DPRK

Sunday, August 20th, 2006

I stole this from Wikipedia

SiliBank is a financial institution based in Shenyang, Liaoning, China, closely related to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The name “sili” means “true profit” in both Chinese and Korean.

In 2001 the bank began offering a limited electronic mail relay service to and from North Korea where Internet access with outside is limited. Along with, SiliBank appears to be one of only two e-mail gates to DPRK.

SiliBank maintains dedicated servers in Pyongyang and Shenyang, between which e-mail transmissions are exchanged once every 10 minutes (when the service commenced, this was hourly).

The fee for sending an e-mail to North Korea from abroad (as of May 10, 2003) costs 10 Eurocents per kilobyte for up to 40 kilobytes, and 0.2 Eurocents for each additional kilobyte in each e-mail transmission. The minimum charge per e-mail is 1 Euro. Customers must first pre-register with SiliBank with prepayment for estimated usage over a three-month period. SiliBank only allows e-mail relay between registered users of this service.


North Korea’s Kim Allows Tentative Stirrings of Profit Motive

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Bradley K. Martin

A sign of North Korea’s fledgling moves toward a market economy can be found at the Pyongyang monument commemorating the 1945 founding of the Workers’ Party. Beneath a 50-meter-tall rendition of the party’s logo — a hammer, sickle and writing brush — sits a street photographer.

A handmade sign displays her price list and sample photos, mostly of groups of North Korean visitors, with the monument as background.

The photographer is one of countless sidewalk entrepreneurs – – most of them selling food and drink — who have set up shop in North Korea since 2002. Before that, they would have been hauled off to re-education camps for profiteering. In the late 1990s, North Korea’s Civil Law Dictionary described merchants as a class to be eradicated because they “buy goods from producers at a low price and sell them to consumers at a high price by way of fraud, deceit and spoils.”

Since then, the party newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, has quoted Kim Jong Il, who’s held supreme power since the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, as favoring profits under socialist economic management.

North Korea, one of the world’s last Stalinist regimes, has gradually begun permitting commerce. On a four-day visit to Pyongyang, the capital, in October — arranged and scripted by the government — a group of 17 Western journalists got a glimpse of the changes. Clean, new restaurants were packed with paying customers while the streets — almost empty in 1979 and only lightly traveled in ’89 and ’92 — bustled with bicycles, motorbikes and Japanese sedans.

Casino Pyongyang

In the state-owned Yanggakdo Hotel on an island in the Taedong River, a mostly Chinese clientele played slot machines, cards or roulette at the Casino Pyongyang. Since 1998, Macau billionaire Stanley Ho, through his Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau SARL, has invested $30 million in the casino, whose staff is also Chinese.

Now some investors from farther afield are joining pioneering Chinese and South Koreans in plunging into a country once so isolated it was known as the Hermit Kingdom. In September, Anglo- Sino Capital Partners, a London-based fund manager, said it had formed the Chosun Development & Investment Fund, which plans to raise $50 million for investments in North Korea.

“It’s the last virgin economy,” says Colin McAskill, 65, a director of Anglo-Sino and chairman of Koryo Asia Ltd., which is investment adviser to the new fund.

Natural Resources

Besides recent changes in the economic system, a 99 percent literacy rate and a minimum wage for workers in foreign-invested ventures of only $35 a month, McAskill says, he was drawn by North Korea’s rich natural resources — including iron ore, copper, lead, zinc, molybdenum, gold, nickel, manganese, tungsten, anthracite and lignite.

The fund will concentrate on North Korean companies that have been active internationally in the past, with track records as foreign currency earners, says McAskill.

He negotiated on behalf of North Korea with foreign bank creditors in 1987, when the country was unable to repay some $900 million in balance-of-payment loans that had enabled the regime in the 1970s to purchase Western industrial technology — Swiss watch-making machinery, for example — as well as such non-capital goods as 1,000 Volvo sedans from Sweden.

Oil Potential

The country’s petroleum potential lured Dublin-based Aminex Plc and its Korea-focused subsidiary, Korex Ltd., which in August announced the signing of a nine-year production-sharing agreement to explore and develop 66,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) of North Korean territory. The agreement covers areas in the Yellow Sea’s West Korea Bay and in the Sea of Japan as well as onshore.

While North Korea lacks proven petroleum reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the West Korea Bay in particular may contain hydrocarbon reserves, as it’s considered to be a geological extension of China’s oil-rich Bohai Bay.

More foreign investment may come, says Tony Michell, a Seoul- based consultant on North Korea. Michell, a 58-year-old Briton, says he has recently shepherded 20 senior managers of international companies, representing seven nationalities, to Pyongyang.

“They’re big players,” says Michell, declining to identify his clients by name or company. “They’re looking at everything, from services to manufacturing. They want to get the measure of the North Koreans and be ready if the six-party talks succeed.”

Six-Party Talks

The so-called six-party talks — between North Korea and China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. — are aimed at ending the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. In September, the six countries agreed on a statement of principles to govern further talks. It called for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, a peace treaty and economic cooperation in energy, trade and investment.

Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute, an affiliate of the Hyundai Group, projected in September that a successful outcome to the talks would be worth as much as $55 billion to the economy in the North — and more than twice that in the South.

Optimism about the economy has boosted the prices of defaulted North Korean debt originally owed to hundreds of creditors, mostly European banks, which in the 1970s began meeting as a London-based ad hoc group to discuss restructuring options. In the 1990s, that so-called London Club turned a portion of the debt into Euroclearable certificates, securities that were denominated in Swiss francs and German marks.

The certificates are trading at about 20-21 percent of face value, up from 12 percent in 2003, according to London-based Exotix Ltd., a unit of Icap Plc, one of a few financial firms that make an over-the-counter market in them.

Excessive Optimism

The debt’s price has risen in the past on excessive optimism about the country’s future. In early 1998, the debt was trading at nearly 60 percent of face value amid rumors that North Korea would collapse imminently and be absorbed by wealthy South Korea, which would then make good on the entire outstanding debt.

That had not happened by the time of the crash later that year in global emerging-market securities, when the North Korean debt price sank to about 25 percent of face value.

Exotix estimates that North Korea owes the equivalent of some $1.6 billion in principal and interest to banks out of a total $14 billion in principal and interest owed globally to mainly communist and formerly communist countries.

Although a cease-fire was declared in 1953 in the war between North Korea and China on one side and the United Nations — under whose flag the Americans, South Koreans and others had fought — on the other side, no peace treaty has ever been signed.

The U.S. maintains sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act that restrict trade and financial transactions with North Korea — and apply to Americans and permanent residents of the U.S. and to branches, subsidiaries and controlled affiliates of U.S. organizations throughout the world.

China, Russia

North Korea’s flirtations with capitalism are belated compared with those of China and the former Soviet Union, which began opening their economies in the 1970s.

North Korea did pass a law legalizing foreign investment in 1984. The law, which permitted equity joint ventures between state enterprises and foreigners, attracted only $150 million in investment during the following decade, largely because investors were put off by the country’s poor roads, railroads, power systems and phone networks and by official interference in joint ventures’ recruitment, dismissal and compensation of workers, according to a 2000 thesis by Pilho Park, a postgraduate student at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison.

Vietnam Example

In contrast, Vietnam lured $7.5 billion in investment in the first five years after it opened its economy to foreign capital in 1988, Park wrote.

Following the collapse of European communism in the early 1990s, North Korea opened the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone on the northeastern border with China and Russia. A brief flurry of investor interest ensued and then fizzled out when a crisis over the country’s nuclear weapons program took North Korea to the brink of war with the U.S. and South Korea in 1994.

In the mid ’90s, catastrophic floods, combined with the collapse of the global communist system of aid and preferential trade, caused a severe energy shortage that crippled the economy. As much as 70 percent of manufacturing capacity went idle, according to the South Korean central bank.

Also in the mid ’90s, famine killed as many as 2.5 million North Koreans, by the estimate of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Food Insecurity

Since then, food aid from abroad, an absence of large-scale natural catastrophes and a 2005 harvest that was the biggest in 10 years have kept North Korea from the massive starvation that’s taken place elsewhere, including Niger, says Richard Ragan, North Korea director for the United Nations World Food Program.

Still, “the country faces chronic food insecurity,” Ragan says. “One of the things that happened with the food shortages is that marginal lands became less controlled. You see people trying to farm on some of the most inhospitable plots of land you could imagine.”

In October, steep, unterraced hillsides were plowed outside Pyongyang. The crops can then wash down, rocks and all, during rainstorms, harming water supplies and damaging farmland – fertility.

A second nuclear weapons crisis boiled up in 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret uranium enrichment program — to replace a plutonium program that it had frozen as part of a settlement of the earlier crisis.

Economic Rules

That same year, the regime proceeded with what then Prime Minister Hong Song Nam described as dramatic new economic measures, which helped bring arbitrarily set prices and foreign exchange rates closer to those prevailing on the black market.

The North Korean won consequently dropped to 150 won to the dollar in December 2002 from 2.15 to the dollar a year earlier. The official rate is currently about 170 won, while on the black market, one dollar can bring about 2,000 won.

The government also introduced pay incentives aimed at boosting worker productivity. The system is in operation at enterprises such as the Pyongyang Embroidery Institute, where some 400 women stitch elaborate pictures for framing and sale.

Employees who don’t perform up to expectations aren’t fired; they’re denied raises, says spokeswoman Woo Kum Suk. Unable to live on their minuscule basic salary, equivalent at black market rates to something over a dollar a month, non-performers eventually quit and go elsewhere, Woo says. Good workers can see their salaries raised as much as fivefold.


“In my opinion, it’s good to have this system,” she says. “Although the government supplies things to us, sometimes there’s something more we want to buy.”

North Korea has some way to go before many investors rush in. According to a UN report, net investment inflow for 2003 — the most recent year for which statistics are available — was a negative figure: minus $5 million.

Currently the country is constructing a new special economic zone at Kaesong, just north of the South Korean border, where several small companies from the South already employ North Koreans to make clothing, footwear and household goods. Authorities declined to let Western reporters visit it, permitting only a glimpse from a highway bridge a mile away.

Those who are investing are taking a long-term view. Singaporean entrepreneur Richard Savage was looking at least five years into the future in 2001, when he formed a joint venture tree plantation with the Ministry of Foreign Trade. The company, Evergreen Kormax Paulownia Ltd., is 30 percent-owned by the government, which has assigned Savage 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) on a 50-year lease with an option to extend for 20 more.

Timber Business

Savage, 58, says he, family members, friends and a few other investors have put $3 million into the project so far. Savage says he hopes that by the time the paulownia trees mature — they grow as fast as 7 centimeters (2.85 inches) a day on his farm, and some may be ready for harvesting five years after planting — he’ll be able to sell the wood in a unified Korean market.

When the Northern economy takes off, the first beneficiary will be the building industry, he says. “That’s why I’m in timber,” he says, adding that his fallback plan is to sell the wood to China, Japan and South Korea.

It’s not the first venture in North Korea for Savage, who wears a cowboy hat and whose e-mail moniker is WildRichSavage. In 1994, he introduced North Korean officials to Loxley Pcl, a Thai telecommunications company. In 1995, an affiliate formed for the purpose, Loxley Pacific Co., signed a joint venture agreement with North Korea’s post and telecommunications ministry to create modern telecommunications in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone. The venture earns about $1 million a year, Loxley Pacific Chief Financial Officer C.C. Kuei, 56, says.

Mining for Gold

North Korea’s 1992 Foreign Investment Law guaranteed that foreign investors’ shares of profits could be repatriated, a promise that’s now being tested by Kumsan Joint Venture Co., a gold mining concern that’s half owned by a Singapore-led group of Asian investors and half owned by Hungsong Economic Group, a large trading, mining and manufacturing group in Pyongyang that’s controlled by North Korea’s military.

Roger Barrett, a Beijing-based British consultant, has helped arrange financing and technology for Kumsan. Barrett, 50, introduced Kumsan to the foreign investors, whom he declined to identify.

The company used its investment to buy secondhand mining equipment from Australia in 2004 for the venture’s mine 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level near the city of Hamhung. In the first year the new equipment was used, Barrett says, the mine produced about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of gold, half of which the foreign investors took out of the country. He says doing business with North Koreans has proved to be absolutely normal. “It’s working very well,” he says.

Foreign-Run Bank

The business environment in North Korea is surprisingly welcoming, says Nigel Cowie, 43, a former HSBC Holdings Plc banker who was hired a decade ago by Peregrine Investment Holdings Ltd. to start North Korea’s only foreign-run bank.

When Peregrine collapsed in 1998, Cowie and the North Korean joint venture partner kept the local unit operating. He and three other investors bought Peregrine’s 70 percent stake in it from the firm’s liquidators in 2000. Cowie, who’s general manager of what’s now called Daedong Credit Bank, says the bank has about $10 million in assets and has only foreigners as customers, mostly Chinese, Japanese and Western individuals and institutions. Only North Korean-owned banks can do business with state enterprises and North Korean individuals.

Better Living Conditions

Living conditions for expatriates have improved significantly in the past three or four years, Cowie says over a meal of Korean barbecue in the capital’s Koryo Hotel. “For me, personally, it’s things like creature comforts, more shops, Internet, e-mail,” he says. While the Internet is available to foreigners, it is forbidden to most North Koreans.

Cowie says his biggest challenge at the bank comes from outside North Korea. In September, the U.S. Treasury Department barred U.S. financial institutions from dealing with a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, that it said had been “a willing pawn” in corrupt North Korean activities and represented a risk for money laundering and other financial crimes.

The bank and North Korea both denied the charges, but the Macau government took over the bank and announced it would provide no services to North Korea in the future. Cowie says the action tied up a big chunk of Daedong Credit Bank’s customers’ assets because Banco Delta Asia had been a main correspondent bank for North Korean banks.

The Treasury Department in October broadened its dragnet by ordering a freeze of the assets, wherever in the world the U.S. could assert its jurisdiction, of eight North Korean companies it suspected of involvement in proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

`WMD Trafficking’

The department explained its action in an Oct. 21 statement on its Web site: “The designations announced today are part of the ongoing interagency effort by the United States Government to combat WMD trafficking by blocking the property of entities and individuals that engage in proliferation activities and their support networks.”

North Korea sought to connect the Treasury actions to Washington’s position in the six-party talks. The country’s Korean Central News Agency, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said on Dec. 2 that “lifting the financial sanctions against the DPRK is essential for creating an atmosphere for implementing the joint statement and a prerequisite to the progress of the six-party talks.”

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to the talks, had said in a Nov. 11 press conference that the asset freeze wasn’t directly related to the talks.

Money Laundering Banned

Cowie says he doubts the U.S. action was intended to harm Daedong, which had already issued a manual prohibiting money laundering. He says he fears such U.S. actions could damp investor enthusiasm for North Korea. “It can cause the people doing legitimate business to just give up,” he says.

Cowie isn’t packing up to leave, though. Neither is Felix Abt, a Swiss native who heads a new European Business Association in Pyongyang. “I am very busy with visiting foreign business delegations,” Abt, 50, says. “Take it as a sign that the economy is developing and that more foreign business activities are under way.”

Outsiders’ investment on capitalism’s farthest frontier is gradually bringing benefits to North Koreans, too, says Savage, the tree farmer. “I can’t convert the whole country, but for the people who work for me, I’m giving them a better standard of living,” he says. “Slowly, people will prefer not to work for the government.”

If Savage and his fellow pioneers have their way, it’s only a matter of time before capitalism takes root in North Korea.


Controlling Internet Café in North Korea

Wednesday, July 13th, 2005

Daily NK
Yang Jung A

Pictures of the “Information Technology Store,” also known as “internet café” in other parts of the world and the “study guide” used by the Party members and workers to control circulation of South Korean soap opera DVDs were revealed to the public for the first time.

Rescue! The North Korean People Urgent Action Network (RENK), a Japanese North Korean human rights NGO and Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights (NKnet) together held a press conference and revealed three pictures of “Information Technology Store,” and a study guide with the title, “About Completely Destroying Enemies’ Maneuvers to Spread Conspicuous Life Style.”

The pictures and documents revealed at the conference were obtained by Kim Man Chul (pseudo name), the same staff of RENK who took pictures of Japanese food aid sold in the open markets in North Korea in May. It was known that pictures Kim provided RENK were taken by not himself but others inside North Korea.

Existence of Internet Café in North Korea Not Connected to the Outside World

The revealed pictures contain scenes of outside of the store that says, “Information Technology Store,” inside of the store and the boys playing computer games. This internet café is located in Chungjin, North Korea.

Han Kihong, director of NKnet stated, “The “Information Technology Store” is similar to an internet café, and computer classes are also provided at the price of 20,000won per month (average monthly wage of a worker is 2,500~3,000won). It is known that internet connection is good for computer games and email but only connects within North Korea, and the connection does not reach to outside information.”

Mr. Han said, “The “Information Technology Store” has state permission and operate as individual business or small enterprise. Since the price is so expensive, common people would not be able to enter.”

“The computers in the “Information Technology Store” are used computers brought in from China but due to the severe energy situation, in case electricity is cut off, it has its own electricity generator,” added Mr. Han.

The “study guide” presented to the reporters contained critical writings that characterizes circulation of South Korean soap opera DVDs, music CDs, or radio broadcastings as unsound and demoralizing and ways to fight against such conspicuous life style.

Appeasement Outside, Stricter Control of the People Inside

Mr. Han explained, “Recently there have been presuppositions that North Korea pursues appeasement outside and reformation inside thanks as the result of the frequent inter-Korean talks. However, this document (study guide) is the evidence that North Korean government is strengthening the level of control of the people from the outside world.”

This “study guide” also include criticism on Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcastings, which states, “It (RFA) is a kind of cultural interference of the US to invade and dominate Asia” and showed how much it is alert about RFA’s influence.

About this kind of phenomenon, Mr. Han said, “Until 2000, social and educational broadcasting of KBS were popular among the North Korean people, now they trust FRA much more as reliable news source.”

The study guide also emphasizes importance of fighting against outside influence in every parts of living including hair style, manner of greetings, and eating habits. The government of North Korea is ultimately trying to strengthen internal control.

Lee Young Hwa, director of RENK, criticized the North Korea government at the conference saying, “Kim Jong Il’s conspicuity of controlling hair style and eating habits of the people who are starving to death is a maneuver that must be completely destroyed.”


North Korea Development Report 2003/04

Friday, July 30th, 2004

KIEP has published the North Korea Development Report 2003/04 (follow the link to download all several hundred pages!)

Summary: As a result of North Korea’s isolation from the outside world, international
communities know little about the status of the North Korean economy and its
management mechanisms. Although a few recent changes in North Korea’s economic system have attracted international interests, much confusion remains as to the characteristics of North Korea’s recent policy changes and its future direction
due to the lack of information. Therefore, in order to increase the understanding of readers in South Korea and abroad, KIEP is releasing The North Korea Development Report in both Korean and English. The motivation behind this report stemmed from the need for a comprehensive and systematic investigation into North Korea’s socio-economic conditions, while presenting the current status of its industrial sectors and inter-Korean economic cooperation. The publishing of this second volume is important because it not only supplements the findings of the first edition, but also updates the recent changes in the North Korean economy. The topics in this report include macroeconomics and finance, industry and infrastructure, foreign economic relations and inter-Korean economic cooperation, social welfare and science & technology.

This report also covers the ‘July 1 Economic Reform’ launched two years ago and
subsequent changes in the economic management system. The North Korea
Development Report helps to improve the understanding of the contemporary North
Korean economy.
Table of Contents  
Part I Macroeconomic Status and Finance
Chapter 1 Current Status of the North Korean Economy and Its Prospects
Chapter 2 National Financial Revenue and Expenditure
Chapter 3 Banking and Price Management

Part II Industrial Management and Problems
Chapter 4 The Industrial Sector
Chapter 5 The Agricultural Sector
Chapter 6 Social Overhead Capital
Chapter 7 Commerce and Distribution Sector
Chapter 8 The Defense Industry

Part III International Economic Activities
Chapter 9 Foreign Economic Relations
Chapter 10 Special Economic Zones
Chapter 11 Inter-Korean Economic Relations

Part IV Social Security and Technology Development
Chapter 12 Social Security and Social Services
Chapter 13 Science and Technology Sector

Part V The Recent Economic Policy Changes
Chapter 14 The Contents and Background for the Recent Policy Changes
Chapter 15 The Features and Problems of the Recent Economic Policy Changes
Chapter 16 Prospects and Future Tasks of the July 1 Economic Reform  


Through a glass, darkly

Thursday, March 11th, 2004

The Economist

So far as a visitor can tell in this secretive land, North Korea’s economic reforms are starting to bite. But real progress will require better relations with the outside

COMMUNIST North Korea has started to experiment with economic reform, and opened its door a crack to the outside world. Though its culture of secrecy and suspicion stubbornly persists, it was deemed acceptable for your correspondent to visit Pyongyang’s Tongil market last week. Here, stalls are bursting with plump vegetables and groaning with stacks of fresh meat. You can even buy imported pineapples and bananas from enthusiastic private traders.

But how about a photograph? Most foreigners think of North Korea as a famished nation, and the authorities are evidently keen these days to tell the world about the great strides their economy has made since reforms were introduced in July 2002. Logic might seem to suggest that a snap showing the palpable result of the reforms would be acceptable too. But it is not. The officials were friendly but firm: no pictures of fat carrots.

The July 2002 reforms were ground-breaking for North Korea: the first real step away from central planning since the dawn of communism there in 1945. The government announced that subsidies to state-owned enterprises were to be withdrawn, workers would be paid according to how much they produced, farmers’ markets, hitherto tolerated, would become legal and state enterprises would be allowed to sell manufactured products in markets. Most of these enterprises, unless they produced “strategic items”, were to get real autonomy from state control.

Almost two years on, how to assess the success or failure of these reforms? That climate of secrecy makes it deeply frustrating. Even the simplest of statistics is unavailable. Li Gi Song, a senior economist at Pyongyang’s Academy of Sciences, says he does not know the rate of inflation. Or maybe he is not telling. After all, he says, “We can’t publish all the figures because we don’t want to appear bare before the United States. If we are bare then they will attack us, like Afghanistan or Iraq.” So what follows can be little more than a series of impressions.

The indications are that the reforms are having a big impact. For a start, North Korea has recently acquired its first advertisement (pictured above)—for foreign cars, assembled locally by a South Korean majority-owned company. Or, to be more basic, take the price of rice, North Korea’s staple. Before the reforms, the state bought rice from state farms and co-operatives at 82 chon per kilo (100 chon make one won, worth less than a cent at the official exchange rate). It then resold it to the public through the country’s rationing system at eight chon. Now, explains Mr Li, the state buys at 42 won and resells at 46 won.

North Korea’s rationing system is called the Public Distribution System (PDS). Every month people are entitled to buy a certain amount of rice or other available staples at the protected price. Thus most North Koreans get 300g (9oz) of rice a day, at 46 won a kilo. According to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), that is not nearly enough. Anything extra has to be bought in the market.

In theory, even in the market the price of staples is limited. Last week, the maximum permitted rice price was marked on a board at the entrance to Tongil as 240 won per kilo. In fact, it was selling for 250. WFP officials say that in January it was selling for 145 won, which points to significant inflation, for rice at least. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since it means that the price is coming into line with the market.

The won’s international value is also adjusting. Since December 2002, the euro has been North Korea’s official currency for all foreign transactions. In North Korean banks, one euro buys 171 won. In fact, this rate is purely nominal. A semi-official rate now exists and the price of imports in shops is calculated using this.

Last October, according to foreign diplomats, a euro bought 1,030 won at the semi-official rate. Last week it was 1,400. A black market also exists, in which the euro is reported to be fetching 1,600 won—which implies that the won is approaching its market level. It also means, however, that imported goods have seen a big price-hike. For domestically-produced goods, like rice, prices may well go on rising for a good while longer.

What about earnings? Before the 2002 reforms, most salaries lay in the range of 150-200 won per month. Rent and utilities, though, were virtually free, as were (and are) education and health care. Food, via the PDS, was virtually given away. Now, pay is supposed to be linked to output, though becoming more productive is not easy for desk-bound civil servants or workers in factories that have no power, raw materials or markets.

Rents and utilities have gone up, though not by crippling amounts. A two-bedroom flat in Pyongyang including electricity, water and heat costs just 150 won a month—that is, about a tenth of a euro.

Earnings have gone up much more: a waitress in a Pyongyang restaurant earns about 2,200 won a month. A mid-ranking government official earns 2,700. A worker at a state farm earns in the region of 1,700, a kindergarten teacher the same, and a pensioner gets between 700 and 1,500. A seamstress in a successful factory with export contracts can earn as much as 5,000 won a month. Since that seamstress’s pay equates to barely three euros a month, wages still have a long way to adjust.

The prices of food and other necessities, to say nothing of luxuries, has gone up much more than rent has. According to the WFP, some 70% of the households it has interviewed are dependent on their 300 gram PDS ration, and the WFP itself is targeting 6.5m vulnerable people out of a total population of some 23m. Not all suffer equally: civil servants in Pyongyang get double food rations from the PDS.

There are some encouraging stories. In Pukchang, a small industrial town 70km (40 miles) north-east of Pyongyang, Concern, an Irish aid group, has been replacing ancient, leaking and broken-down water pipes and pumps, and modernising the purification system. This has pushed the amount of clean water available per person per day from 80 to 300 litres. Kim Chae Sun is a manager at the filtration plant, which is now more efficient. Before July 2002 she earned 80 won a month. Afterwards she earned 3,000 won. Now she earns 3,500.

As Mrs Kim speaks, three giant chimneys belch smoke from the power station that dominates the town. All workers have been told they can earn more if they work harder, but certain groups have been told they will get even more money than everyone else. In energy-starved North Korea these include miners and power workers. Mrs Kim says her husband, who works in the power plant, earns an average of 12,000 won a month. Her rent has gone up from eight to 102 won a month, and in a year, she thinks, she will be able to buy a television or a fridge.

A lot of people, in fact, are buying televisions. The women who sell the sets from crowded Tongil market-stalls get them from trading companies which they pay after making a sale. The company price for an average set is 72,000 won, the profit just 1,000 won. After they have paid for their pitch, the traders can expect an income of 10,000-12,000 won a month.

Mystery sales
Which makes for a puzzle. Who can afford a good month’s salary for a locally made jacket in Tongil, costing 4,500 won? How come so many people are buying televisions, which cost more than two years of a civil-servant’s pay? How come the number of cars on the streets of the capital has shot up in the past year? Pyongyang still has vastly less traffic than any other capital city on earth, but there are far more cars around than a year ago. Restaurants, of which there are many, serve good food—but a meal costs the equivalent of at least a white-collar worker’s monthly salary. Many of these restaurants are packed.

Foreign money is part of it. Diplomats and aid workers say many new enterprises seem to have opened over the last year. Nominally they are state-owned, but sometimes they have a foreign partner, often an ethnic Korean from Japan. The majority are in the import-export business. Some have invested in restaurants and hotels and some in light industry. Thanks to the 2002 reforms, these firms have a degree of autonomy they could not have dreamed of before. An unknown number of people also receive money from family abroad, but there are still no North Korean-owned private companies.

Farmers are among the other winners: they can sell any surpluses on the open market. But two out of three North Koreans live in towns and cities, and only 18% of the country is suitable for agriculture. The losers include civil servants, especially those outside Pyongyang who do not get double food rations and have no way to increase their productivity.

Factory workers have it the hardest. A large proportion of industry is obsolete. Though Pyongyang has electricity most of the day, much of the rest of the country does not. Despite wild talk of a high-tech revolution, the country is not connected to the internet, though some high-ups do have access to e-mail service. In the east of the country lies a vast rustbelt of collapsing manufacturing plants.

Huge but unknown numbers of workers have been moved into farming, even though every scrap of available land is already being cultivated. The extra workers are needed because there is virtually no power for threshing and harvesting and no diesel for farm vehicles. This requires more work to be done by hand. Ox-carts are a common sight.

The innocent suffer
Markets are everywhere. But this does not mean that there is enough food everywhere. In Pyongyang, where there are better-off people to pay for it, there is an ever-increasing supply. Outside the capital, shortages are widespread.

No one knows how many died during the famine years of 1995-99; estimates range from 200,000 to 3m. In Pukchang, officials say that 5% of children are still weak and malnourished. In Hoichang, east of Pyongyang, schools and institutions tell the WFP that about 10% of children are malnourished. Masood Hyder, the senior UN official in North Korea, says that vulnerable households now spend up to 80% of their income on food.

And yet some things are improving. Two surveys carried out in 1998 and 2002 by the North Korean government together with the WFP and Unicef showed a dramatic improvement in children’s health between those years. The proportion of children who fail to reach their proper height because of malnutrition fell from 62% to 39%, and the figures are thought to be still better now. However, Unicef says that though children may no longer die of hunger, they are still dying from diarrhoea and respiratory diseases—which are often a side-effect of malnutrition.

To a westerner’s eye, a class of 11-year-olds in Hoichang is a shocking sight. At first, your correspondent thought they were seven; the worst-affected look to be only five. Ri Gwan Sun, their teacher, says that apart from being stunted some of them still suffer from the long-term effects of malnutrition. They struggle to keep up in sports and are prone to flu and pneumonia. They are also slower learners.

Pierrette Vu Thi of Unicef says that North Korea’s poor international image makes it hard for her agency, the WFP and others to raise all the money they need. The country is in a chronic state of emergency, she says, and to get it back on its feet it would need a reconstruction effort on the scale of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such bleak talk is echoed by Eigil Sorensen of the World Health Organisation. He says that health services are extremely limited outside the capital. Medicines and equipment are in short supply, large numbers of hospitals no longer have running water or heating and the country has no capacity to handle a major health crisis.

None of this is likely to change very fast. With no end yet to the nuclear stand-off between North Korea and the United States, American and Japanese sanctions will remain in place. And nukes are only part of it. Last week the American State Department said it was likely that North Korea produced and sold heroin and other narcotics abroad as a matter of state policy. North Koreans who have fled claim that up to 200,000 compatriots are in labour camps. North Korea denies it all.

Reform, such as it is, has plainly made life easier for many. But rescuing the North would take large amounts of foreign money, as well as measures more far-reaching than have yet been attempted. At present, there is no way for the government to get what it needs from international financial institutions like the World Bank. Such aid as comes will be strictly humanitarian, and investment in so opaque a country will never be more than tentative. Domestic reform on its own cannot fix an economy wrecked by decades of mismanagement and the collapse of communism almost everywhere else.