Archive for the ‘China’ Category

Chinese Foreign Ministry on rail link trade resumption

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This Bloomberg story on the resumption of railroad traffic carries an interesting quote by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson:

China says trade via a railroad link with North Korea has restarted, giving a much-needed boost to Kim Jong Un’s battered economy as the neighbors restored a service Pyongyang cut about a year and a half ago due to pandemic fears.

“After friendly consultations between the two sides, freight in goods in Dandong has resumed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday at a regular press briefing, referring to a Chinese border city.

“This work will be conducted while ensuring pandemic prevention and safety, and to help normal trade exchanges between the two countries,” he added.

Kim’s decision to close borders at the start of the pandemic slammed the brakes on the little legal trade it had with China, his state’s biggest benefactor. It also helped push the sanctions-hit economy into its biggest contraction in more than two decades, with Kim making rare admissions of the country’s difficulties in recent months.

(Source: “China Says Rail-Borne Trade With North Korea Has Restarted,”  Bloomberg News, January 17th, 2022.)

This statement certainly does suggest that the resumption is intended to be permanent, and that the two countries will work to restore trade the way it was before the Covid-19 border lockdown.

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Has China-North Korea trade via rail resumed, and what could it mean?

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Today (January 16th), a freight train from North Korea crossed into China for the first time since the pandemic border shutdown began. Reuters reports, based on statements by several Chinese businesspeople involved in border trade, that this marks a more permanent, long-term resumption of trade between the countries.

It is too early to say if this is a long-term change or a unique event, and the coming weeks and months will confirm whether or not this marks a permanent change. It will also, hopefully, give us some sort of clue about how quarantine procedures are supposed to work on the North Korean side.

It goes without saying that this would be a welcome change for the North Korean economy. The pause in North Korean exports to China has created significant difficulties, but as Bill Brown has often pointed out, the blockade against North Korean imports from China also creates severe problems for several industries. As an example, see this Radio Free Asia report about the bottlenecks in the economy that tire shortages are causing:

The source said that two of the four cars owned by his company cannot be used due to the tire shortage.

“Drivers will use the same tires until the treads are worn out and shiny, so it has become the norm to re-use punctured or torn tires by putting a small piece of an old tire tube over them. Sometimes they have to be put in at an angle because the tires they are using are either larger or smaller than the vehicle’s specifications,” the source said.

“I have never seen new tires produced locally. Since international trade is stopped due to the border closure, it has become difficult to import used tires,” said the source.

The ban has become problematic for many North Korean drivers who use their vehicles for supplemental jobs in the country’s nascent market economy, the source said.

“They can no longer drive their cars to earn a little extra income because they don’t have tires.”

(Source: Chang Gyu Ahn, “North Korean tire shortage grounds vehicles, disrupts commerce,” Radio Free Asia, January 13th, 2022.)

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North Korea’s tense food situation

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As usual, it’s very difficult to get a read on the domestic availability and production of food in North Korea. Nonetheless, the overarching picture continues to be grim, and the fears over the Omicron-variant seems to be making it all worse. This is also what the South Korean government assesses:

The cost of groceries and daily necessities in North Korea is estimated to be rapidly increasing in the face of a prolonged border lockdown to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic, Seoul’s unification ministry said Monday.

The North has imposed a strict border control since last year, which is believed to have taken a toll on its economy already hit by crippling sanctions.

“North Korea is experiencing chronic food shortages with around 1 million tons of foods falling short every year,” ministry spokesperson Lee Jong-joo told a regular press briefing. “As the coronavirus-driven border lockdown has prolonged, it is likely to be having difficulties in securing necessary foods from abroad.”

The North was seen preparing to reopen its land border with China, with South Korea’s spy agency estimating its cross-border rail services could resume as early as in November. But the spread of the omicron variant is apparently delaying the reclusive regime’s planned border reopening.

“Though we do have limits in having access to accurate information, the government’s estimation … is that the volatility of foods and necessities prices is growing (in North Korea) and some items are witnessing a rapid price hike,” Lee said.

Yet, referring to experts’ assessments the North’s crop output could improve this year due to better weather conditions, she said the government will continue monitoring its situation in line with a review on the need for a humanitarian cooperation.

(Source: “Prices of food, daily necessities estimated to be rapidly soaring in N. Korea: gov’t,” Yonhap News, 6/12/21.)

The last paragraph here is a crucial caveat, as North Korea’s food production is highly volatile and dependent on weather conditions. Over the past few years, there have sometimes been reason to suspect that the state has exaggerated the direness of its food situation rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the prolonged border closure is hitting hard against the economy as a whole. There have been several reports over the past few months indicating that Pyongyang might soon unseal the border, but no major changes seem to have taken place. I’m not sure that means those reports were necessarily wrong. Rather, the government may well have planned to ease the border lockdown at several points only to back down in the face of a new development, be it Covid-19 spreading in China’s northeast, or the rise of the Omicron variant.

It’s difficult to see what could really change if the government continues to both refuse to let the outside world assist in a vaccination campaign, and at the same time responds to each new wave or variant of the virus by further tightening or extending the border lockdown. It’s not a sustainable strategy but given the regime’s fear of the havoc that a significant spread of the virus could wreak in society, given its very fragile health system, it might not change anytime soon.

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Faltering expectations of increased trade strengthens North Korean won against foreign currencies

Thursday, November 25th, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Daily NK reports (thus far only in Korean) that a recent decision to strengthen border control measures has caused foreign currencies to depreciate versus the domestic currency. In normal times, when the Amnok (Yalu) river freezes, smuggling activities increase. This year, people expect things to be very different given the tightened border shutdown:

북한 원·달러 환율이 또 다시 4천원대로 하락했다. 최근 북한 당국이 국경지역에 대한 방역 조치를 강화하자 무역에 대한 기대감 하락이 환율에 영향을 미친 것으로 분석된다.

24일 기준 북한 원·달러 환율은 평양 4700원, 신의주 4690원, 혜산 4620원으로 조사됐다. 이달 14일 달러 환율이 평양 5500원, 신의주 5500원, 혜산 5350원이었던 것과 비교하면 열흘만에 약 15%가 하락한 것이다.

지난해 국경봉쇄 이후 북한 환율은 무역에 대한 기대감에 따라 5% 내외 수준으로 등락을 거듭하고 있지만 무역 또는 방역과 관련된 당국의 조치가 하달될 경우 10% 이상 급락하는 양상을 보여왔다.

취재결과 지난 22일 중앙당 조직지도부는 중앙비상방역사령부와 국가보위성, 조선인민군 총참모부에 국경지역 방역수칙을 강화하라는 내용의 지시문을 하달한 것으로 알려졌다.

But, as their source says, smuggling can never be stopped entirely regardless of the measures:

소식통은 “지금도 밀수가 되고 있고 국경지역 밀수는 기본적으로 비(위안화)가 사용된다”면서 “아무리 국경을 봉쇄하고 통제해도 어떤 방법으로든 밀수가 이뤄질 것”이라고 말했다.

(Full article and source: Jang Seul-gi, “北, 국경통제 강화 지시에 달러 환율 ‘뚝’…무역재개 포기 분위기,” Daily NK, 25/11/2021.)

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More dire trade figures for North Korea

Thursday, November 18th, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Amid speculation on when trade flows between North Korea and China might again be restored, new numbers show a significant dip in trade between the two countries in October. According to new Chinese customs figures, trade fell 40 percent between September and October, after a fairly steady but moderate climb in the months before.

Officially recorded trade, that is. There is likely a limit to what quantities of bulky goods such as coal can be smuggled, but it would be surprising, given China’s demand for coal at the moment, if total Chinese imports from North Korea during the last month weren’t higher than reported. North Korean coal is relatively cheap and China is virtually a monopoly buyer.

At the same time, these numbers do break the general but modest trend of increasing trade in the months before. While the construction of quarantine facilities and refurbishments of the cross-border infrastructure do indicate that trade might resume in a not too distant future, when this might be still remains an open question.

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Kim Jong-un on North Korea’s import problem

Tuesday, October 26th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few weeks, Kim Jong-un has made a few interesting statements on reducing North Korea’s imports reliance. This is not a new theme by any means, and economic self-reliance is, at least in theory, a cornerstone of North Korean ideology. At the same time, the timing is probably no coincidence. The Covid-19 border closure has led to serious shortages of imported goods in particular causing, among other things, a lack of ink and paper to print the domestic currency.

In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly on September 30th, 2021, Kim spoke about the need to strengthen state “guidance” over the economy, and to make “all trade activities” in the “direction” of “decreasing the reliance on imports”:

대외경제사업에 대한 국가적지도를 심화시켜 모든 무역활동이 경제부문의 수입의존성을 줄이고 자립성을 강화하는 방향에서 확대발전되도록 하며 경제관리분야에서 국가경제지도기관들의 집행력을 강화하고 근로자들의 리익을 보장하기 위한 과학적인 방안들을 진지하게 연구적용할데 대하여 말씀하시였다.

(Source: Choson Sinbo, “김정은원수님께서 력사적인 시정연설 《사회주의건설의 새로운 발전을 위한 당면투쟁방향에 대하여》를 하시였다,” Choson Sinbo, September 30th, 2021.)

On October 19th, as reported by Yonhap here, a North Korean TV-broadcast made virtually the same statement, with the addition that the “economic guidance organs” are taking “active action” to implement the state’s decision.

These are merely two data that points document North Korean concerns about import reliance. Again, it’s nothing new, and I suspect we’ll see more similar statements in the future, perhaps more and more often.

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North Korea’s October 19th missile test and the economy

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

North Korean missile tests often lead to discussions about what they can tell us about the country’s overall strategic position and thought. So it is natural to ask after today’s missile launch, what does it tell us about North Korea’s economic situation? Is it a display of confidence, crisis, or neither?

I’m not going to attempt to give a solid, certain answer here, but two things are interesting about the timing and contest.

First, the launch came the day after news reports that trade has expanded significantly between China and North Korea. Imports by China have more than doubled, as have exports from China to North Korea. None of these figures are near pre-pandemic levels, but the increases are still significant. Daily NK reports confirm that the authorities are concerned about and trying to mitigate the soaring prices of imported goods, driven largely by the virtual blockade of the border to China. So from this point of view, the missile launch may express confidence that the domestic economic situation is improving or will soon improve.

Second, and contrary to the above, it may express confidence in North Korea’s ability to pull through the current difficulties despite the lack of clear improvements on the horizon. After all, the uptick in trade data may be an anomaly, and what’s most important is whether it is part of a longer-term pattern. In other words, a missile launch at a time when the economy is in many ways near a crisis, may attempt signal Pyongyang’s ability to persevere and continue its weapons development despite the difficult economic circumstances.

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North Korea is more connected to global markets than you might think

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

After a hiatus during the summer following my PhD defense, I now plan to get back to posting regular analyses and news content here. First up, an interesting example of why the North Korean economy is in fact more connected to global commodity markets than many might think.

Over the past few weeks, coal prices have skyrocketed in China, following energy shortages record-high coal prices. In September, the country’s coal imports surged by 76 percent, fueled flooding in one of the country’s main coal producing regions.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Chinese demand for North Korean coal — the commodity at the heart of international sanctions on North Korea — is reportedly growing. As Daily NK reports:

According to a source in Pyongyang on Wednesday, there have been noticeably more requests for coal from Chinese traders since North Korea’s national foundation day holiday on Sept. 9. He said there have been several illegal transshipments of coal for export over the last month.

China has recently limited trade with private North Korean traders, dealing instead with official North Korean trading bodies. The source said, however, that Beijing now approves transactions with any North Korean entity that can provide China with coal, including private ones.

In fact, the Chinese government has reportedly launched no particular crackdowns on private imports of North Korean coal.

Rather, according to a source in China, some provincial civil servants in China are advising traders to take care not to get photographed when they transship coal. Essentially, the Chinese government is turning a blind eye to imports of North Korean coal, an internationally sanctioned item. At the same time, they are asking traders to exercise caution, aware that the international community is watching.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “Amid coal shortages, Chinese traders on the hunt for more North Korean coal,” Daily NK, 7/10/2021.)

There are several things worth noting about this. First, again, it should not be surprising. China’s enforcements of sanctions against North Korea depends primarily on whether Beijing believes it to be in the national interest to clamp down on trade or smuggling. Clearly, China now needs cheap coal, and it’s been a long time since the North Korea issue was at the center of international politics and diplomatic tensions. So there appears to be comparatively little to lose in increasing trade for the moment, although China has been significantly letting up on its sanctions enforcement for several years now, since the days of “maximum pressure” in 2016–2018.

Second, North Korea still appears to be getting shafted by China, who exploits its position as the almost exclusive monopoly buyer buyer to purchase coal from North Korea at prices lower than world market prices or Chinese domestic prices. The precise proportions are uncertain, but Daily NK reports that China is paying less than half of world market prices for coal imports from North Korea, although their source also notes that the North Korean side is using the global shortage as leverage to jack up prices. In other words, while China may in some sense be North Korea’s “patron”, commercial market logic is much more important in coal trade than often assumed, and China isn’t necessarily doing it to help North Korea.

Third, and to tie back to the title of this piece, North Korea, despite its policies of economic autarky, is in fact deeply connected to global commodity markets. This isn’t just true for currency prices. Although the size of North Korea’s foreign trade remains comparatively abysmal, its economy is, just like most other economies today, tied to the broader dynamics of global supply and demand.

It still remains to be seen how much trade can expand under the current North Korean border shutdown. Though some goods are getting through, the border largely remains under lockdown due to Covid-19 despite intermittent news reports that trade might restart and return to its former scale. As many analysts have noted, Covid-19 has succeeded in closing the border more tightly to trade than most sanctions regimes have. How much Pyongyang is willing to meet Chinese demands and let coal shipments go across the border in larger scale, potentially increasing the country’s exposure to the virus (in the eyes of the leadership) remains to be seen.

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March, 2021: what to make of the rise in North Korea-China trade?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to Chinese customs data, Chinese exports to North Korea increased by 400 times in March, compared to the combined shipments in January and February of this year. As South China Morning Post reports:

Trade between China and North Korea grew to a six-month high in March, figures from Chinese customs show in the latest sign that the two neighbours are easing border restrictions amid tensions with the United States.

Exports from China to North Korea jumped from a paltry US$3,000 in February to US$12.98 million in March, according to Chinese customs data released on Sunday.

That was nearly 400 times more than the US$33,000 combined shipment of January and February, and was the highest by value since September, when China recorded outbound shipments valued at US$18.88 million to the isolated neighbour. Pyongyang imposed strict controls on goods transport ahead of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party in October.

According to Chinese customs, China imported US$1.308 million of North Korean goods in March, compared with US$1.75 million in February.

(Source: Laura Zhou (and Reuters), “China-North Korea trade jumps after pandemic slump but sanctions curb business with Pyongyang,” South China Morning Post, April 19th, 2021.)

What to make of this?

It could, of course, be the start of a trend reversal from the past year’s catastrophically low trade figures. Perhaps the North Korean government has begun to let up on border restrictions. In the past few weeks, news reports have said that China plans on restarting trade and open the new bridge between Sinuiju and Dandong. NK News has found evidence of new disinfection centers for goods on the North Korean side in April. The Russian ambassador to North Korea also recently said in an interview that trade will restart soon.

At the same time, I’m not sure these figures themselves give evidence of resumed trade. They could be a mere glitch in the data caused by a change in accounting routines or the like. Just look at the reported figure for Chinese exports to North Korea in February: $3,000. It simply isn’t realistic. Perhaps a portion of that month’s trade was recorded instead for March for reasons related to payments or contracts. China, moreover, ships much more goods to North Korea than what’s officially recorded as “trade”.

As so often, we will simply have to wait and see. When Chinese data is published on the specific items traded, we should also get a better sense of what this trade upswing really means.

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Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “worst-ever situation”

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Perhaps I am late to the game already (the long weekend here in Israel is to blame for that), but it has been puzzling to see the media reporting on Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea faces its “worst-ever” economic situation at the moment, under both international sanctions and a self-imposed border lockdown.

It seems that Kim’s words have been misinterpreted or lost in translation. Colleagues at 38 North have rightly and importantly pointed out that the original Korean-language statement is not nearly as drastic. This is often the case with KCNA articles and translated statements from North Korea:

In the vernacular report, however, this term read kuknanhan (극난한), which would be better translated as “very hard” or even “extremely difficult.”[2] North Korea’s English-language media sometimes omit passages or provide translations that are different from the vernacular text, and without analyzing years’ worth of data, it is impossible to conclude whether they do so deliberately, or if they are simply oversights.

It is clear, however, that Kim did not say “the worst-ever situation” at this event. Even if he had, the North Korean leader has made similar remarks in connection with the country’s current circumstances in recent months. For example, Kim’s opening address at the Eighth Party Congress in January referred to the past five years as a period of “unprecedented, worst-ever trials.”

None of this means that the situation is not bad. But “worst-ever” would be extremely drastic for a country where the failings of the economic system led to a famine in the 1990s and early 2000s that took the lives of between 600,000-1.5 million people. Today’s conditions simply aren’t grave enough to warrant such comparisons.

Precisely how difficult conditions are remains hard to tell. The Russian ambassador to North Korea recently gave an interview where he said that the country’s food situation is not at all catastrophic, and that there are no signs suggesting an ongoing famine. He is probably right, but at the same time, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much about the situation in the provinces, for example, based on an assessment of the store shelves in Pyongyang. The country’s society is highly stratified and its economy relatively fragmented. The situation in one locality may well be much more dire than in another.

At the same time, we should also be careful not to take Kim Jong-un at his word. What, except for Kim’s own statement, suggests that today’s situation is worse than the one in 1995, after both economic collapse and heavy flooding took a severe toll on the economy? Sure, things are incredibly messy right now, a view that both circumstances and data support. Kim’s own statement, not least, is another solid data point showing just how grim things appear to be. But famine, meaning large numbers of people dying from starvation or malnourishment, is simply a different dimensions. Let us hope that North Korea does not get there, neither now nor in the future.

There are reasons to believe that it will not. The market system, for its faults and flaws, is able to react to changes in supply and demand, unlike the state distribution system in the 1990s. Moreover, China would likely step in with serious quantities of food aid if the situation got truly disastrous. Many signs suggest that North Korea and China expect to resume and even expand trade in the short-term. Should a drastic need arise, China would likely increase humanitarian shipments as well, although it is far from certain.

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