Archive for the ‘State Offices’ Category

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.

Share

The Pyongyang General Hospital delay

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As previously reported by 38 North, neither the Pyongyang General Hospital nor the Wonsan-Kalma resort were completed on schedule. A recent report by Radio Free Asia, based on sources within North Korea, confirms that a lack of goods that need to be imported from China is what’s holding construction back (among other things). At the same time, it isn’t necessarily a lack of funds that’s being cited, but rather, the inability of imports to get through due to the border lockdown:

Work on the hospital began in March 2020, but it has been several months since construction was put on hold.

The pet project of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should have had a guaranteed supply of materials, an official of Pyongyang’s municipal government told RFA’s Korean Service Jan. 21.

“However, the interior work has not been started at all. Electric wiring, lighting, marble, other interior materials and medical equipment should have been imported from China, but they have not been brought in due to the coronavirus,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

North Korea and China shut down the Sino-Korean border in January 2020 and suspended all trade, a move that has all but closed the North Korean economy off from the rest of the world.

Though builders tapped domestic suppliers to begin construction on the hospital’s exteriors in March, work cannot continue until imports resume.

During the ruling party’s eighth congress, held Jan. 5-12, the party ordered factories and other government agencies to wean themselves off of imports so the country’s economy could be more self-sufficient.

But RFA reported last week that because the congress decided to invest heavily in North Korea’s tourism sector, government officials were scrambling to find ways to import materials for building interiors in anticipation of a building boom.

“Inpatient facilities will go in the two main high-rise buildings, so elevator installation is the core of all interior work,” the source said.

“Last year, they signed a contract to import elevators and escalators from a company in Shanghai… but the coronavirus has prevented them from being brought in,” said the source.

(Source: Hyemin Son, Leejin Jun, and Eugene Whong, “Construction Delayed on Showcase Hospital Project in North Korean Capital,” Radio Free Asia, January 26th, 2021.)

On the one hand, it would seem sensible to not prioritize prestige projects when overall funds are so low. On the other hand, Kim Jong-un did recently have his beachside manor upgraded, as reported by NK Pro. Whenever equipment really needs to get purchased or imported, there are ways of making it happen…

Share

North Korean coal market routines changing

Sunday, June 14th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

That’s essentially the story told by Daily NK here, and it appears like some mines may be successfully cutting out a middleman:

“Coal mined from state-run coal mines is supposed to go to an agency in charge of distribution, but [these days] not all of the coal is being supplied to the appropriate agency,” the source said. “Coal mines have to make a profit to feed the large number of workers they have, so they decided to start doing business directly with the procurement and sales departments at companies.”

Some companies that received coal from this distribution system now have to buy the coal directly from coal mines, the source said, adding, “In these cases, coal mines sell the coal at a cheaper price than the usual market price.”

Some trading companies have reportedly begun working with railway authorities to transport large amounts of coal by train rather than by truck.

“They are making efforts to reduce distribution costs by going to coal-scarce areas and selling coal there while buying and then reselling that region’s specialty goods,” the source said.

“Of course there is still wholesale selling of coal taking place among merchants located near the mines. Since coal is a commodity that is always in demand, buyers are flocking to the markets,” the source added.

Generally, coal in North Korea used to be sold at around KPW 300,000 per ton, but by the end of 2017, after the implementation of more severe international sanctions, the price had plummeted to around KPW 200,000. Yet, due to smuggling and other factors, coal prices crept back up to KPW 290,000 per ton last year, according to the source.

(Source: Kang Mi Jin, “State-owned coal mines are finding new ways to make money,” Daily NK, June 11th, 2020.)

Share

North Korea’s 2020 parliamentary session and the budget: the main points

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This past Sunday, the 12th of April, the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly met at Mansudae Assembly Hall, the grand, majestic room where the assembly sits. Out of the six items on the SPA’s agenda, at least three – half – dealt in some shape or form with the economy, and arguably, some others could also fit into that category:

The agenda items of the Third Session of the 14th SPA of the DPRK were decided at the session:

1. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on recycling resources

2. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on tele-education

3. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on providing living conditions for discharged officers

4. On the work of the Cabinet of the DPRK for Juche 108 (2019) and its tasks of Juche 109 (2020)

5. On implementation of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019) and the state budget for Juche 109 (2020).

6. Organizational matter.

(Source: “Third Session of 14th SPA of DPRK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, April 13, 2020.)

I include the Cabinet report given the strong emphasis over the past years of the cabinet’s leading role in economic management. A separate KCNA-report from the same day, “Report on Work of DPRK Cabinet for Juche 108 (2019) and Its Tasks for Juche 109 (2020),” summarized this report of the cabinet’s work. I paste it here with some annotating comments. Yes, the whole first paragraph below is one sentence:

According to the report on the work of the Cabinet delivered at the Third Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly(SPA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), last year the Cabinet organized a drive of putting the overall national economy on a new higher stage with a main emphasis put on accomplishing the sustained economic development, ensuring the local production of equipment, raw and other materials and revitalizing production by boosting the capability of independent development of the country, true to the important tasks set forth by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in his report at the Fourth Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and in his historic policy speech at the First Session of the 14th SPA.

None of these phrases (“local production of equipment” etc) are new or surprising, and the most notable fact is perhaps the absence of anything unusual in such an unusual time (coronavirus, sanctions).

The report said that last year all sectors and units of the national economy carried out the gross yearly industrial production value at 108 percent, and ministries, national institutions, the city and county people’s committees and industrial establishments over-fulfilled their national economic plan.

The electrical power industrial sector carried out the hydraulic power generation plan at 103 percent and made sure that production was increased by properly carrying on the repair and readjustment of generating equipment.

Now this is interesting – repairing and readjusting could either mean a claim that the industry is doing fine even without imports of Chinese machine parts and the like, because it can simply repair and readjust what’s already there. Or, it’s a claim that in fact, despite sanctions, the country’s industries are able to replenish whatever equipment it needs to stay afloat.

The thermal power plants provided a guarantee for stabilizing the electric power production without relying on heavy oil.

The coal industrial field respectively showed 23 percent and 22 percent increases in the coal production and the supply of coal for thermal power generation over last year, and the large-scale coal mines rich in deposits and with favorable mining conditions provided a foundation to increase coal production.

In the field of the metallurgical industry the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex has shown 22 percent, 2 percent and 37 percent increases in the production of pig iron, steel and rolled steel over last year. The chemical industry achieved large growth in the production of chemical fertilizer, carbide and caustic soda.

Of course, any claims of over-fulfillment of quotas and the like should be taken with a grain of salt, as such claims are classical in North Korean propaganda regardless of their foundation in reality (the genre was born in the Soviet Union). Still, trying out a charitable reading, there are theoretical ways in which claims over over-fulfillment could technically be true, particularly in these sectors. We know nothing about the revenue of these products, for example, and mines and factories could churn out production in great magnitudes but with questionable value when the products can’t be exported or sold at a profit at all. Because coal prices have dropped so much under sanctions, industry could well be powered at a lower cost, but the value of this is, again, questionable.

[…]

On the agricultural front the peak-year level was exceeded in the grain production even under unfavorable weather conditions.

A repetition of the claim of a bumper harvest last year, which remains highly unlikely, as I argued here.

A fishing campaign for supplying more fish to the people was launched in the fishery sector, and the fishing was put on a higher scientific level with the help of the updated aid system for detecting fishing ground.

Again, the sector may certainly produce and supply more, but its incomes will still be lower than they would be without sanctions.

The field of the land and environment protection turned the important projects including the Wonsan Kalma coastal tourist area and the Yangdok Hot Spring Resort into thick woodland and greenery and face-lifted all roads including Pyongyang-Hyangsan and Pyongyang-Wonsan Motorways.

A hint that investment continued in the tourism industry, and that the state expects this industry to blossom in the future, despite the currently dire situation. By extension, perhaps also a suggestion of expected solid economic ties and exchange with China.

The report contains a great deal of interesting detail, but in the interest of time, I’ll skip ahead to the most central parts (my own emphasis):

The report emphasized that all the achievements made last year clearly proved once again that as long as there is the wise guidance provided by the Party, we can live on our own and open up the road of our own development and prosperity no matter how desperately the enemies may try.

The report also said that serious mistakes were found in the work of the Cabinet last year.

They taught a serious lesson that if the officials in charge of providing economic guidance fail to fulfill their duty, it would be impossible to successfully attain the goals of economic construction set forth by the Party, the report said.

It clarified that we face heavy yet responsible tasks to unconditionally and thoroughly carry out the economic construction tasks set forth at the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK under the uplifted slogan “Let’s Break through Head-on All Barriers to Our Advance!”

It went on:

The Cabinet will put a main emphasis on organizing the economic work on the principle of subordinating everything to the health and safety of the people, conducting courageous head-on breakthrough in the spirit of achieving prosperity by dint of self-reliance, and fully meeting the needs for the national economy and for the people’s living by readjusting the economic foundation of the country and by fully tapping the production potential, in order to thoroughly carry out the tasks set forth in the joint resolution of the WPK Central Committee, State Affairs Commission and the Cabinet.

The Cabinet will rationally readjust the economic work system and order and boost its role as the organizer of the state economy.

It will put efforts into holding full control of the resources and fund sources of the state, and securing financial ability and execution power capable of managing and operating the country’s economy in a unified manner.

There are some key phrases below as well, but these two paragraphs are especially noteworthy. The message seems fairly clear that the state’s role in the economy needs to get stronger, and that while independent management methods may certainly be encouraged, the state is in charge. This message is familiar from Kim Jong-un’s December CC Plenum speech.

It will establish a strict discipline for the state development and use of the underground natural resources that are of strategic significance in the state economic development, and also take strong measures to protect and multiply aquatic resources.

It will bring about innovation in the work system, order and method on the principle of ensuring smooth transaction in the overall trade, and thoroughly guarantee the economic benefits of the country through the application of strict discipline and order in the import and export.

Perhaps both a reference to easing some rules and regulations for trade, while also combatting the rampant trade deficit?

[…]

The coal industrial sector will fully meet the demand for coal from several fields of the national economy including electricity, metal and chemical industries.

Note the absence here of any reference to coal exports.

[..]

The light industrial field will expand the variety of daily necessities and boost their quality. It, regarding the local production of raw and other materials as the lifeline, will rely on the locally available raw and other materials as much as possible for the production of consumer goods, put efforts into the development of local industry and contribute to the improvement of people’s standard of living.

Making consumer goods production and supply more local, and less reliant on imports, has been one of the chief goals through Kim Jong-un’s tenure. Judging by, for example, this recent report about consumer choice in kitchen items, it seems to be going quite well.

The Cabinet, corresponding to its position and duty as the economic command, will ensure the definite provision of unified operation and command for implementing the economic policies of the Party, and guarantee the meticulous economic organization and persevering practices and thus fulfill its responsibility and duty in glorifying this year marking the 75th founding anniversary of the Party as a year of victory to be specially recorded in the history of the country, the report stressed.

The report ends with one final emphasis on the Cabinet, and thus, the state, and not grassroots, independent actors, as the main holders of power in the economic realm. “The economic command” is about as clear of an expression as you could imagine. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the state will try to curb the market system anytime soon, but it will continue to subvert market forces into its own institutions where they can be more easily controlled and generate cash to the state.

The above is just a brief overview and quick read of the budget report. For more on the proportions and overall economic conditions that the report speaks of, check out Ruediger Frank’s recent 38 North article on the SPA session as a whole.

Share

Politburo meets, but SPA postponed (till following Sunday)

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The SPA was expected to meet this past Friday. It didn’t. (Update 13/4/: it instead met on the following Sunday.) Instead, the politburo held a meeting to discuss measures the SPA would be adopting. There were scant but clear references to economic affairs (highlighted below), though the KCNA report is very vague. NK News suggests the SPA may instead convene Monday.

It adopted the joint resolution of the Central Committee of the WPK, the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and the Cabinet of the DPRK “On more thoroughly taking national measures for protecting the life and safety of our people from the worldwide epidemic disease”.

The joint resolution detailed the goals of continuously intensifying the nationwide emergency anti-epidemic services and pushing ahead with the economic construction, increasing national defence capability and stabilizing the people’s livelihood this year, and indicated the tasks facing every field and every unit including Party and government organs and working people’s organizations and armed forces organs and ways of carrying them out.

It studied and approved “On the execution of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019) and the state budget for Juche 109 (2020)”, the second agenda which is to be presented to the Third Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly.

(Source: Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, Korean Central News Agency,” 12/4/2020.)

Update 13/4/2020: the SPA was held on Sunday instead. KCNA:

The third Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was held at the Mansudae Assembly Hall on Sunday.

The SPA deputies attended the session.

Seen on the platform were Choe Ryong Hae, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), first vice-chairman of the State Affairs Commission (SAC) of the DPRK and president of the Presidium of the SPA, and Pak Pong Ju, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, vice-chairman of the SAC of the DPRK and vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee.

Also seen there was Kim Jae Ryong, member of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, member of the SAC of the DPRK and premier of the Cabinet.

The platform was also taken by Ri Il Hwan, Choe Hwi, Ri Pyong Chol, Kim Tok Hun, Kim Yong Chol and members of the SAC of the DPRK and the Presidium of the SPA.

The chairman and vice-chairpersons of the SPA took their seats.

The opening address was made by Chairman Pak Thae Song.

The agenda items of the Third Session of the 14th SPA of the DPRK were decided at the session:

1. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on recycling resources

2. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on tele-education

3. On adoption of the law of the DPRK on providing living conditions for discharged officers

4. On the work of the Cabinet of the DPRK for Juche 108 (2019) and its tasks of Juche 109 (2020)

5. On implementation of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019) and the state budget for Juche 109 (2020).

6. Organizational matter.

The first, second and third agenda items were discussed at the session.

Deputy Thae Hyong Chol, vice-president of the Presidium of the SPA, made a report on the three agenda items.

He referred to the importance and significance of the laws to be discussed and adopted at the session, and explained the chapters of the laws.

He laid the adoption of the three laws before the SPA.

Ordinance of the SPA of the DPRK “On adoption of the law of the DPRK on recycling resources “, “On adoption of the law of the DPRK on tele-education” and “On adoption of the law of the DPRK on providing living conditions for discharged officers” were adopted with unanimous approbation at the session.

There was a discussion on the basis of an in-depth study of the reports on the fourth and the fifth agenda items.

The speakers said that the work of the Cabinet and the execution of the state budget for last year were correctly summed up, and that the tasks of the Cabinet for this year were clearly set and the state budget was properly worked out in the direction of implementing the decisions adopted at the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the WPK and the joint resolution adopted at the Meeting of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee. They voiced full support and approval.

In their speeches they analyzed and reviewed the successes, experience, mistakes and lessons in the work of their fields and units last year and referred to the methods of opening a broad avenue to the socialist construction and propping up the self-supporting economic power.

There adopted decision of the SPA of the DPRK “Report on the work of the Cabinet of the DPRK and on approving the implementation of the state budget for Juche 108 (2019)” and ordinance of the SPA of the DPRK “On state budget of the DPRK for Juche 109 (2020)”.

The session discussed the sixth agenda item.

At the request of Deputy Choe Ryong Hae, first vice-chairman of the SAC and president of the Presidium of the SPA upon authorization of the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK, Deputy Choe Pu Il and Deputy No Kwang Chol were recalled from the membership of the SAC.

Also recalled were Ri Su Yong, Thae Jong Su and Ri Yong Ho.

Deputies Ri Pyong Chol, Kim Hyong Jun, Kim Jong Gwan, Ri Son Gwon and Kim Jong Ho were by-elected as members of the SAC.

Upon authorization of the Political Bureau of the WPK Central Committee, Deputy Ko Kil Son was by-elected as the secretary general of the Presidium of the SPA and Deputy Kim Yong Hwan as a member of the Presidium of the SPA.

Members of the Cabinet were newly appointed.

Upon authorization of the WPK Central Committee, Deputy Yang Sung Ho was appointed as vice-premier, Deputy Kim Chol Su as minister of Natural Resources Development, Kim Jong Nam as minister of Machine-building Industry, and Ri Song Hak as minister of Light Industry.

Chairmen of the Subcommittees of the SPA were recalled and by-elected.

Deputy Kim Jong Ho was by-elected as chairman of the Legislation Committee of the SPA, Deputy Kim Tok Hun as chairman of the Budget Committee and Deputy Kim Hyong Jun as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Chairman Pak Thae Song made a closing address.

(Source: “Third Session of 14th SPA of DPRK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, 13/4/2020.)

Share

North Korea needs to counter the economic impacts of COVID19, but what can it really do?

Friday, April 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Many countries are adopting stimulus measures to counter the economic impacts of the drastic economic slowdown resulting from measures to counter the COVID19 outbreak. North Korea, too, badly needs to counter the likely devastating impacts of its border shutdown to China, but it has no funds to adopt measures even nearly comparable to ordinary stimulus measures. As Yonhap speculates here, the Supreme People’s Assembly today (Friday April 10th) are scheduled to meet and may announce policies to counter the economic impacts, but it’s unclear what they can really do:

North Korea’s rubber-stamp legislature was to hold a once-or-twice-a-year session on Friday, with economic and public health issues expected to take center stage amid its ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus.

The Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) usually meets in April every year to address the state budget and Cabinet reshuffling, but it has been closely watched from outside for any glimpse into the reclusive state’s stance on foreign affairs, including its stance on denuclearization talks with the United States.

Friday’s meeting, however, is expected to center on discussions of major domestic issues, given that Pyongyang has been making all-out efforts to block the outbreak of COVID-19 on its soil.

North Korea is among just a few countries in the world that claim to have no coronavirus infections, generating speculation that it might be hushing up an outbreak.

Pyongyang has tightened control of its borders with China, where the coronavirus originated in late December. It has also toughened quarantine criteria and restricted the movement of people and goods.

In particular, the border closure with China could weigh on its already moribund economy long crippled by global sanctions, as it depends heavily on the neighboring ally for its trade.

It is unclear whether leader Kim Jong-un will attend the SPA meeting. Observers say that he is unlikely to be present as he was not among deputies elected in March last year to the parliament.

Kim attended last year’s meeting to give a policy speech at the session.

Earlier in the day, state media reported that Kim has supervised a mortar firing drill. It did not provide details on when and where the drill took place, but such military activity is usually reported a day after it happened.

But there have been no state media reports on a politburo and a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, which used to be held with Kim in attendance ahead of an SPA session.

Experts say that the North could announce an increase in its budget to improve public health infrastructure and unveil measures aimed at cushioning the impact of its anti-virus campaign on its economy during the SPA meeting.

(Source: “N. Korea set to hold parliamentary meeting amid nationwide virus fight,” Yonhap News, April 10th, 2020.)

The North Korean government doesn’t entirely lack resources, but it doesn’t have the sort of budgetary flexibility that a government needs to launch serious stimulus programs. It could theoretically ease up on restrictions on economic activity, such as decrease fees for market traders (markets are themselves problematic given the risk of the virus spreading there), ease up on permit regimes for various sorts of economic activity, lower mandatory fees and taxes, and the like. This is unlikely to happen, since the state itself already faces serious economic woes, and local-level government institutions likely will not be content with having a crucial source of income curtailed. More to follow after the SPA meeting results are announced.

Share

North Korean public health expert claims zero coronavirus cases

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In an interview with Kyodo earlier this year:

Pak Myong Su, president of North Korea’s State Hygienic Control Board, made the remark in an interview with Kyodo News and other foreign media outlets.

“If such a virus spreads in our country with a small population and a small territory, a serious disaster could not be avoided, in which thousands or tens of thousands of people are deprived of their lives,” Pak said in Pyongyang.

In mid-March, Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, said at a press conference that North Korea “is a closed-off nation, so we can’t say emphatically that they have cases, but we’re fairly certain they do.”

South Korean media have also reported that many North Koreans have died from the pneumonia-causing virus currently sweeping the world.

Late last month, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters in Tokyo, “If there is no infected person in North Korea, which is contiguous with China and South Korea, it is extremely miraculous.”

Pak stressed that North Korea has stepped up measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, including cutting off traffic to and from China and Russia since earlier this year.

He added that citizens have been urged by the country’s health authorities to wear masks when they go outside.

(Source: “N. Korea has no infected people with new coronavirus: expert,” Mainichi/Kyodo, April 2nd, 2020.)

I’ve written here about why this is extremely unlikely to be true, bordering on the impossible.

Share

Musan mine at less than half capacity due to coronavirus measures

Friday, March 13th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Musan mine, already (at least periodically) hit hard by sanctions, now operates at below half capacity, according to Daily NK. Despite the UN sanctions prohibiting countries from importing North Korean mining products, the Musan mine has kept up a certain level of production (after experiencing severe difficulties under harsher Chinese sanctions implementation), exporting mining products to the Chinese Sanhe region. But now with North Korea itself enforcing a virtual border shutdown, exports, too, have stopped:

“The Musan Mine is operated at less than 50% of capacity,” a North Hamgyong Province-based source told Daily NK on Wednesday. “Only two of the five mining areas in the complex are operating at full capacity. The shutdown of the border with China has led to slowdowns in drilling and ‘ore dressing’ [mechanically separating grains of ore minerals from gangue minerals – mineral processing].”

North Korea closed its border to China at the end of January to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The move reportedly ended all smuggling operations along the border and also impacted operations at the Musan Mine, which is located in North Hamgyong Province.

North Korea has been banned from exporting minerals since the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2397 in 2017. The regime, however, has continued to earn large amounts of foreign currency from the sale of iron ore produced in Musan Mine. Daily NK reported in late 2018 [in Korean] that iron ore from Musan Mine was being smuggled to China’s Sanhe region after passing through Hoeryeong.

North Korea and China reportedly ended their joint production of iron ore at the mine following the coronavirus outbreak. Musan Mine now only produces iron ore for domestic consumption, Daily NK sources said.

BLASTING TO MORE PRODUCTION

Rodong Sinmun reported recently that Musan Mine blasted through 400,000 tons of earth on Jan. 2 at Cholsan Peak. Daily NK sources reported that this at expanding production have largely failed because of the lack of equipment and logistics issues.

The Rodong Sinmun claimed that the blasting had been successful and that expansion of production would enable the complex to produce more iron ore. The newspaper also stated that all necessary equipment was acquired and prepared “without issue” and transported to the mine “on time.”

(Source: “Sources: Musan Mine operating at less than half of full capacity,” Daily NK, 3/13/2020, https://www.dailynk.com/english/musan-mine-operating-less-than-half-full-capacity/.)

Share

Rodong Sinmun on state control of economy

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A short article in Rodong Sinmun from earlier this month, emphasizing the importance of state (specifically cabinet) control over economic management:

Important Issues Arising in Putting the Economic Work System and Order
on the Right Track

What is important in straightening the economic work system and order at present is, first of all, to intensify the Cabinet-responsibility system and the Cabinet-centered system.

It is also important to adjust the state machinery as a whole to spur economic development and enhance the role of officials.

Besides, it is important to vigorously push ahead with the work of improving economic management.

Author: Ri Yong Nam, date of publication: March 7th, 2020.

 

Share

North Korea’s coronavirus border shutdown: “Nobody is to come into contact with Chinese people”

Wednesday, February 5th, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korean authorities seem to have basically ordered the country’s border to China shut entirely in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though it’s still unclear to what extent these orders are being implemented. Reuters:

“They’re keeping the cargo out and they’re keeping the Chinese out; nobody can go in or out,” said one source with firsthand knowledge of the situation at the China-North Korea border.

Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector in Seoul who reports for the Daily NK website, also confirmed that the border appears to have been almost entirely shut down since at least Jan. 30.

“The Ministry of People’s Armed Forces ordered all guard posts to bar smuggling as well,” she said. “People, freight, nothing can come in or go out.”

Pyongyang has reportedly asked Beijing not to repatriate North Korean defectors detained in China, according to one South Korean pastor who works with refugees.

According to the source with knowledge of the situation at the border, North Koreans who work in restaurants and elsewhere in China, violating United Nations sanctions, are in “virtual captivity” in their homes under instructions from authorities back in North Korea.

North Korea is typically adept at implementing public health interventions and acted “swiftly and decisively” to try to stop the disease from entering the country, but sanctions restrictions could make it difficult for them to get medical supplies, said Harvard Medical School’s Kee Park, who has worked on health care projects in North Korea.

“Their actions, very costly in terms of revenue from tourists and trade as well as administratively for quarantining people, reflect their concerns regarding their health system’s capacity to handle an outbreak,” Park said.

The efforts – which appear to have been successful in preventing any cases in North Korea so far – mean North Korea has severed or drastically restricted the economic ties it relies on.

“There could be a huge impact not just on the North’s market economy, but also on the entire economy of the country,” Kang said. “North Korea promotes localization, but even for products – candies, crackers, or clothing – manufactured in the country, the raw materials come from China.”

Upcoming North Korean political holidays, which usually include gifts of sweets and crackers for children, may be more less festive than usual if the country’s supplies of sugar, flour, and other ingredients are scarce, she said.

Source and full article: “Burdened by sanctions, North Korea sees coronavirus threaten economic lifelines,” Josh Smith, Reuters, 4/2/2020.

Daily NK reports similar that the government has, quite incredibly, shut the crucial Sinuiju port for shipments to and from China:

Daily NK sources reported that with the port’s shutdown, maritime transportation of goods near the Sino-North Korean border have completely come to a halt.

“All the harbors at Sinuiju Port, which were open until at least Jan. 24, have been completely shut down as of Jan. 25,” a North Pyongan Province source told Daily NK on Friday.

“Authorities are prohibiting the movement of both personnel and goods to stop the coronavirus from entering the country,” he added.

Daily NK sources explained that ships leaving for sea must normally receive a confirmation document and undergo a series of inspections at port customs, but all the customs offices are currently closed and all the boats are docked.

Sinuiju Port, which sits opposite the Chinese city of Dandong in Liaoning Province, is a hub for smuggling as well as official trade with China.

Government ships charged with clamping down on smuggling on the Yalu River have also halted operations, Daily NK sources reported.

“Since all the boats are docked, all the anti-smuggling boats working along the Yalu River have anchored as well,” one source said. “The military unit overseeing the boats have given orders that ‘nobody is to come into contact with Chinese people.’”

Smuggling along the Yalu River also appears to have largely stopped, according to Daily NK sources.

”The current atmosphere is such that if anyone were to say they were going out to smuggle, they would be branded a traitor,” one source said.

With North Korea constantly emphasizing the danger posed by the Wuhan coronavirus through state media along with intensifying its border security, smugglers are on their toes, Daily NK sources said.

Not only is there a fear of infection, but smugglers are also worried that being caught smuggling while the government is so intensely guarding the border might lead to much harsher punishment than usual.

Article source: “N. Korea shuts down Sinuiju Port amid coronavirus fears,” Mun Dong Hui, Daily NK, 4/2/2020.

The state is taking very serious measures. According to another Daily NK report (in Korean), medical staff has been dispatched to all customs houses along the Chinese border, and are checking the vitals of everyone who enters from China. In the Nampo port, North Korea’s commercially most important one, foreign passengers are forbidden from leaving their ships and entering the country.

As NK Pro reports, tourism is essentially completely banned, and border crossings with China and Russia completely shut aside from outbound movements of people (with some exceptions, as reported here by Daily NK). Goods may still cross by land between the countries. People who have been to China are quarantined for one month.

Predictably, goods prices have soared as a result of the border closings, particularly on manufactured and imported goods from China. Prices for goods like flour have gone up by 47 percent since January. This is itself very interesting, since we’ve seen such small or non-existent market price changes following sanctions thus far. The most likely reason is that sanctions actually do not greatly impact most goods that matter to people’s everyday lives, and the North Korean government won’t exactly stop goods from crossing the border. Here, however, the government itself is enforcing a blanket ban on crossings. It’s serious, and reportedly even for smugglers.

Share