Archive for the ‘Economic reform’ Category

North Korea’s agricultural production grew last year, South Korean data says

Thursday, August 11th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

South Korea’s Bank of Korea (BOK) recently published its GDP estimates for North Korea in 2021. Overall, their estimates (the faults and flaws of which are many) are consistent with the general impression that last year wasn’t great for North Korea, but also relatively stabile.  An estimated GDP decrease of 0.1 percent in 2021, after all, is a whole lot less than the contraction estimated by BOK for 2020, minus 4.5 percent.

Agriculture (including forestry and fisheries) is, interestingly, estimated to have grown by 6.2 percent. Such precise numbers are rather pointless in estimates like this. Nonetheless, the direction seems to confirm assessments by the World Food Program and others that agricultural production last year performed somewhat better than the years before.

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Yoon’s “audacious plan” may be doomed to fail from the start, but that’s not the point

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

There’s been an increasing amount of reporting on the Yoon government’s “audacious plan” for the North Korean economy over the past few weeks. A recent example here from Yonhap:

South Korea is seeking to coordinate with the United States and other countries before announcing the details of its “audacious plan” to revive North Korea’s economy in the event it accepts denuclearization, a presidential official said Monday.

Yoon outlined the plan in his inauguration speech on May 10, saying if North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, South Korea will be prepared to present an “audacious plan” to vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people.

Last week, he asked Unification Minister Kwon Young-se to come up with the details.

[…]

“It’s far more realistic and likely to be accepted by North Korea if we announce it after sufficient consultations with the United States and other relevant countries, so we’re trying hard to include such details,” the official said.

(Source: “S. Korea seeks to coordinate with U.S. over ‘audacious plan’ for N. Korea,” Yonhap News, July 25th, 2022.)

I’ve already covered the “audacious plan” a little here on the blog. Here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote in May:

It seems likely to me that Yoon is aware of all of this – he presumably gets high-quality briefings on North Korean policies – but that this was the least bad thing to say, since he had to say something about his vision for North Korea policy. Subin Kim, who analyzes South Korean politics at his excellent website Koreakontext, pointed out in an email that most of Yoon’s national security team consist of the same people who advised Lee Myung-bak on North Korea policy. Perhaps this is simply a way of avoiding the topic by repeating tired and tried phrases. In any case, such suggestions are a dead end with North Korea, and Yoon likely knows it.

“All of this” being the many ways in which North Korea has declared it is not interested in “economic cooperation” in the sense that South Korean politicians often do, namely with heavy South Korean involvement in management and administration. South Korea most likely wants to consult with the US about the plan not to strengthen its implementation through cooperation, but as a courtesy to a close ally.

We will likely see the plan revealed soon, but I’m not too optimistic it will continue anything truly new or bold. Rather, each South Korean president simply needs his or her plan for North Korea, and Yoon is likely launching this in large part to meet that expectation.

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Market conditions in North Korea, amid rising prices

Monday, July 11th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Unfortunately, Daily NK recently ceased general publication of their detailed price data, but a recent report details how prices are rising in the country. In combination with the crackdown on unauthorized small-scale trade, conditions are tough for the many North Koreans sustaining themselves through market trade:

A recent spike in the price of staples such as rice and corn at North Korean markets is making things even tougher for ordinary people in the country.

A source in Yanggang Province told Daily NK on Wednesday that the price of rice at markets in the city of Hyesan has been increasing since the beginning of last month.

Moreover, since June 30, the price of one kilogram of rice has gone above KPW 6,000, leaving more North Koreans without access to grain and stoking anxiety among the public, the source said.

He also reported that rising food prices have made things even harder for street vendors, who were already hit hard when the North Korean authorities closed the national borders  and intensified crackdowns on the vendors.

According to the source, one resident of Hyesan who supports herself by selling rice cakes on the street has made few sales since June. Crackdowns by the Ministry of Social Security have kept her from selling rice cakes, putting her further in debt.

Without any income, the woman cannot even keep up with the interest on the loans she took out to fund her business. If she misses a second deadline for making her interest payment, the interest will balloon and her credit will collapse, leaving her unable to borrow any more money, he explained.

On top of her predicament, food prices in the market continue to rise, and the woman is now afraid she will become completely destitute.

“Even though the ‘barley hump’ has passed, food prices just keep getting higher and higher. The mood among the populace is so grim that some are afraid people will resort to cannibalism if things keep on like this. Many people are so famished because of the high cost of food that they can’t even go to work,” the source said.

(Source: Lee Chae-un, “Recent spike in rice and corn prices make things even more difficult for ordinary N. Koreans,” Daily NK, July 8th, 2022.)

Price data from Rimjingang also reflects this trend. Prices in their data set went from 5,400 won/kg for rice on June 10th, to 6,700 on the 17th and 6,600 on the 24th, and stabilized somewhat at 6,300 won on July 8th. In USD terms, that’s an increase from 0,72/kg to 0,86 most recently, an increase of almost 20 percent.

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Oil and fuel supply shortages on North Korean markets?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

It’s been a couple of months since railroad traffic opened again between China and North Korea. Although it isn’t very much time to fully evaluate such a drastic change, we can see some interesting price movements on the country’s markets. (Click to see the full graph.)

Average of market prices for rice, gas, diesel, USD and RMB in three North Korean cities. Graph by NK Econ Watch. Data source: Daily NK. 

First, and unsurprisingly, foreign exchange rates have gone up drastically. This makes perfect sense, since news of trade resuming would make more North Koreans want to hold foreign currency, to import and purchase goods from abroad.

Second, both diesel and regular fuel prices have gone up, and quite drastically. As Daily NK notes, the fuel price increase in North Korea is much higher than that of global oil prices. This is also logical, since businesses have likely increased their purchases of fuel in anticipation of increased demand as border trade increases. I’m not sure, however, that the entire magnitude of the increase can be explained this way, since in some localities, prices have more than doubled. Diesel prices have also skyrocketed, which is somewhat unusual since gas and diesel prices tend not to fluctuate this much together. (Gas prices are some of the most volatile on North Korean markets and often fluctuate with the geopolitical situation.)

Price hikes in China, on both diesel and gasoline, are likely a strongly contributing factor. Another significant factor, reported by Daily NK in the article above, is likely moves by the North Korean government to restrict private fuel sales, perhaps leading hoarding by sellers. The rapidly rising exchange rate also makes fuel more expensive, but fuel prices have risen faster than the exchange rate.

Increased supply from China may come to stabilize fuel prices, but given global oil price increases, such deliveries to North Korea are increasingly costly for China as well.

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North Korean authorities call street vending a “crime against the people”

Wednesday, December 8th, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

North Korean authorities recently designated streetside commerce as a “crime against the people” and have begun ideological education efforts to tamper down discontent surrounding government crackdowns on street merchants.

Daily NK recently obtained “political activity materials” written by the Central Committee’s Propaganda and Agitation Department entitled “Let’s Completely Eliminate the Phenomenon of Commerce near Markets and in the Streets.” The materials were used during lectures at factories, enterprises and inminban (people’s units) throughout the country from early to mid-November.

The materials start by saying, “COVID-19 is causing great anxiety and concern in the international community as it spreads throughout the entire world, while the appearance of variants is causing a major global disaster.”

The materials then say that with the authorities declaring a national quarantine emergency and closing the border to stop infections, some “unawake” people were in a flap over “temporary difficulties” and obstructing quarantine efforts by carrying out “chaotic” commerce near markets and on the streets. Essentially, the authorities are stressing the justification for the controls on streetside commerce.

Daily NK previously reported that North Korean authorities — led by the Ministry of Social Security — have strengthened their controls on streetside commerce since March, forcefully confiscating the wares of so-called “grasshopper merchants,” as streetside merchants are called in North Korea. They have gradually strengthened their crackdown since then, dragging off people involved in the trade to forced labor camps.

Despite the “mop-up operation,” however, locals reportedly continue to engage in streetside commerce to overcome economic difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, evading surveillance by regulators. People have also expressed considerable bitterness over being prevented from doing business as they like. Aware that people are very unhappy, the authorities have begun ideological education efforts in response.

The materials condemned “many people” for “creating disorder near markets and on the street, failing even to wear masks” and “threatening quarantine efforts by serving food of questionable sanitation and safety,” all out of an obsession with “earning just a few coins more.”

(Source: Kim Chae Hwan, “North Korea calls streetside commerce a ‘crime against the people’,” Daily NK, 6/12/2021.)

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Some news on the donpyo implementation

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

An interesting and illustrative reminder of how much economics is about the public’s trust (or lack thereof) in the system… Daily NK:

There was a recent incident at a market in Pyongyang’s Sosong District in which a money changer refused a request by an employee of the financial section of a particular enterprise to change donpyo for foreign currency. Ultimately, the money changer exchanged the vouchers at a rate of KPW 2,500 for each KPW 5,000 voucher, but he was arrested by police after they were called to the scene.

The incident suggests that North Korean authorities are paying enterprises that need state funds in donpyo rather than cash, and that those enterprises are putting money together by changing the vouchers into foreign or local currency through money changers.

The source said that the financial sections of enterprises are also trying to get rid of their donpyo as quickly as they can by immediately exchanging them or depositing them in banks. This suggests just how little faith locals have in the vouchers.

Meanwhile, the groups will reportedly focus their efforts on improving the public image of the donpyo, even as they crack down on rumors about the vouchers and businesses that refuse to change or accept them.

The source said the authorities do not believe locals will voluntarily use the donpyo if they start by “strongly making examples” of people. He said the party ordered that educational efforts to teach the principles behind the donpyo should be prioritized over forcing people to use the vouchers.

(Full article here: Seulkee Jang, “North Korea organizes inspection teams to ensure smooth distribution of money vouchers,” Daily NK, 22/11/2021.)

 

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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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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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Are fears of market crackdowns in North Korea exaggerated?

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In a recent article at 38 North, North Korea economy scholars Eun-Ju Choi and Young Hui Kim argue that the rumors of the death of Kim Jong-un’s reformist policies are highly exaggerated. Their full article is available here. As someone who has written about the increasingly anti-market policy signals coming from the North Korean regime over the past two or so years, I’d like to add a couple of thoughts.

First, Choi and Kim make a very good point: we have in fact not seen much in the way of practical, tangible evidence of a market crackdown actually going on. Indeed, most of this evidence is anecdotal and small-scale: scattered news via Daily NK and other outlets. There are two things to note about this. One is that, unfortunately, this is often how the news flow from North Korea works. When we can sufficiently say what is a broad, overarching trend and what is scattered but few news reports is often only clear in hindsight. At this time of writing, I’d argue we have enough of this anecdotal evidence to confirm that something is going on, but we don’t yet know of the scale of the process. (One could of course regard the entire border closure as an anti-market policy measure, at least in part.)

Second, however, Choi and Kim’s main argument seems to be that the fruits of the first few years of Kim Jong-un’s policy experimentation still stand. That may well be true — to this date we have seen no wholesale repudiation of any of the policy changes enacted in the first few years of Kim’s tenure. At the same time, Choi and Kim seem to be banking on Kim and the North Korean government simply not implementing the policies set out at the 8th WPK congress and before. Looking at what the government has said that it’s going to do, the anti-market policy turn becomes overwhelmingly evident. Choi and Kim, I would argue, are doing a bit of cherry-picking in their reading of these policy changes, focusing disproportionately on interpreting the emphasis on, for example, the Cabinet’s role in the economy. But there are many, many more examples.

Still, I hope that Choi and Kim end up being right, and that myself and many others end up being wrong. Only time will tell.

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