Archive for the ‘International trade’ Category

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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More news on trade potentially resuming between North Korea and China

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Media outlets with sources inside North Korea, such as Daily NK, have reported for some weeks that trade might be restarting between China and North Korea. Daily NK reported in February that the USD-KRW rate began to climb after the 8th Party Congress amid rumors of the border opening again. Now, Nikkei Asia reports, based on anonymous sources in the Chinese border region, that preparations are being made to restart trade:

“I heard that North Korea is planning to accept Chinese goods from mid-April,” a Chinese man in his 30s at a trading company in Dandong, a city across the Yalu River from North Korea, told Nikkei. He said the information came from the North Korean side and he was preparing to restart his business.

A number of other trading companies also confirmed that bilateral trade is expected to resume in April.

At first, goods will only travel between Dandong and Sinuiju in North Korea, by rail over the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which is the main route of trade between the two countries.

In Sinuiju, COVID-19 testing sites are being prepared. All being well, transport by ship and trucks will also be resumed.

North Korea needs medicines to treat diabetes, infections and other diseases, said a person familiar with the matter. “Bilateral trade” is in fact Chinese aid to North Korea, the source said. Sources also say that North Korea is asking for chemical fertilizers as the spring seeding season approaches.

In late January 2020, North Korea suspended flight and rail services from China and Russia to prevent coronavirus contagion. Overseas visitors were banned and goods restricted.

Pyongyang partially eased transport restrictions in May last year but reimposed them in October due to another wave of infections in China. Trade by road, rail and sea have almost entirely been suspended.

Meanwhile, a new bridge over the Yalu River is about to open. On March 9, the provincial government of Liaoning in China announced invitations for the tender of safety inspections for the New Yalu River Bridge, saying in those documents that the crossing would soon be open.

(Full article and source: Shin Watanabe and Tsukasa Hadano, “China and North Korea to revive trade in April amid US tension,” Nikkei Asia, March 30th, 2021.)

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March 2021: North Korea’s skyrocketing corn prices

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Given the self-imposed border lockdown North Korea is under at the moment, the recent rise in food prices should come as no surprise. The precise factors are difficult to pin down, but whatever they are, there is some serious cause for concern.

The main reason is the rapid rise in the price of corn as of late. One Daily NK-source in North Korea attributes it to large-scale state purchases of corn for snacks manufacturing in honor of Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16th.

The article makes clear, however, that this is only a partial explanation. Indeed, looking at the price index, it’s clear that the rise started long before February. On November 15th last year, the average price for a kilo of corn was 1350 won. On February 23rd this year, the average price was 3137 won. That’s a rise of 135 percent in a relatively short period of time. Prices of corn have often risen in the beginning part of the year, but not by this much.

Average corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Looking at individual cities, the rise is even more staggering. In Hyesan, where food prices tend to be higher in general, corn prices rose from 1450 won/kilo on November 15th last year to 3620/kilo on February 23rd. That’s an increase of 150 percent in only a few months.

Corn prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

Why is this a concerning development for corn prices specifically?

First, corn is, in the North Korean context, rice’s less desired sibling. Corn always makes up a significant part of the diet for a big proportion of the North Korean population. However, when food becomes more scarce, people switch over a larger portion of their diets to corn, since it gives more food for the same amount of money. So a rise in corn prices may be a signal of growing scarcity overall.

Second, even if a large proportion of the rise was indeed caused by increasing state purchases, this is also a troubling indicator for the state of the North Korean market for food. If state procurement for snacks manufacturing for one single day can impact prices so much, this suggests a market under considerable stress and volatility to begin with.

At the same time, rice prices have remained conspicuously low and stabile. Rice prices in the last observation in the price index are around their seasonal normal. I’d be careful to assume too much based on this, however. Rice prices are lower right now than around the same time last year. This may – and I want to stress how little we know for certain – indicate that they are in fact lower not because supply is stabile, but because demand is lower. More consumers switching over their consumption to cheaper foods such as corn would put downward pressure on rice prices.

Average rice prices in Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Hyesan, from 2015 and onward. Graph by NKEconWatch, data source: Daily NK.

The current situation will only be possible to fully evaluate in a few weeks when we have more data points available. Suffice to say for now that, with all the caveats about the trappings of data from North Korea, the situation looks concerning.

Update March 16th, 2021: DailyNK recently published more info about the corn price situation, reporting that prices have stabilized in much of the country. Still, 3,000 KWP/kg, reported in “other inland regions” (than Hyesan), is high. It’s more than double the average price reported in Daily NK’s price index around one year ago.

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China delivers oil to North Korea, stabilizing fuel prices

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

On the supply side, fuel prices in North Korea are largely a factor of deliveries from China, as I have shown in a 38 North report. Daily NK confirmed this pattern in a dispatch last month:

Oil prices in North Korea plummeted late last month after climbing at the start of the year. North Korea has reportedly been receiving supplies of oil from China as the two nations show signs of growing closer.

The price of diesel was KPW 3,500 in Pyongyang, KPW 6,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 6,300 in Hyesan as of Jan. 25. This was respectively 56%, 24% and 23% less than it was on Jan. 11, as determined by Daily NK.

The price of oil, on which North Korea completely depends on imports, fluctuates relatively wildly depending on supply. Even so, this was a 23-56% fall in just two weeks.

Particularly in the case of Pyongyang, the price of diesel fell to KPW 3,500, the first time it has done so since 2011, a decade ago.

Gasoline prices fell relatively less than diesel. Gasoline was KPW 10,000 a kilogram in Pyongyang, KPW 11,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 12,000 in Hyesan as of Jan. 11. As of Jan. 25, it was KPW 6,700 in Pyongyang, KPW 11,000 in Sinuiju and KPW 11,100 in Hyesan.

As in the case with diesel, the price drop for gasoline was most pronounced in Pyongyang, where prices fell 33% from Jan. 11.

In Hyesan, however, gasoline prices fell just 7.5% from two weeks earlier, and in Sinuiju they did not change at all.

Diesel prices fell more than gasoline prices because the new supplies from China reportedly focused on diesel.

According to a source, diesel accounted for a large share of the imports smuggled into North Korea by way of illegal transhipment in international waters from ships leaving the Chinese port of Dalian in Liaoning Province.

The source claims North Korea has smuggled oil from China “countless times” since the middle of last month.

Prices fell most precipitously in Pyongyang seemingly because the capital received not only the first supplies but also the most.

(Source and full article: Jang Seul Gi, “North Korea appears to have received supplies of oil from China,” Daily NK, February 4th, 2021.)

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Continuity and change in North Korea-China relations

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The recent appointment of Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s ambassador to China hints at ambitions for greater economic exchange with China, as reported here. As Ri has a strong background in institutions in North Korea related to foreign trade, not least as the country’s trade minister and, later, vice premier in the country’s cabinet.

Above all, the appointment of Ri is interesting as a sign of continuity rather than change in North Korea’s external economic relations. At the moment, cross-border trade is in its deepest lull in many, many years, as a result of the North Korean government’s self-imposed border shutdown to protect against Covid-19. This border shutdown came on top of already harsh and heavy sanctions.

But this border shutdown, like other measures around the world related to Covid-19, has an expiration date. There’s been rife speculation that the border may reopen soon. And when it does, business will likely, at some point, return to the old normal of China being North Korea’s only meaningful source of economic exchange. The appointment of Ri is one data point to suggest this, but there are many other data points that show an increasingly close relationship between China and North Korea since 2018, after a lull in the preceding years of frequent North Korean missile tests and other destabilizing action. For example, North Korea and China and started expanding 12 of its 13 road or rail crossings only in 2020, despite the pandemic.

While all this may only amount to business as usual, it is interesting and noteworthy for several reasons. For one, North Korea’s previous five-year economic strategy, launched in 2016 and subsequently abandoned, reportedly sought trade diversification away from China as one of its main objectives. North Korean publications have long lamented overt dependence on one single country for foreign trade, noting that it easily translates to political dependance as well.

At the same time, North Korea’s trade dependence on China has actually increased over the past few years. Xi Jinping has long since promised Kim Jong-un that China would fund cross-border infrastructure refurbishment and special economic zones along the border. For all the talk of the potential for economic exchange between North and South Korea back in the heyday of inter-Korean diplomacy between Moon and Kim, the fact remains that if any party is likely to expand its economic ties and influence in North Korea, it’s China.

So the recent appointment of Ri as ambassador to China should be seen as a sign of continuity, not change. Given the dire state of the economy, and the economic policy retrenchment drive as of late, North Korean policymakers are likely to stay cautious and safe in economic measures for some time to come. That is precisely the sort of move that strengthening ties and trade with China would be.

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Fertilizer factory shutdown and goods shortages

Monday, February 8th, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

KITA has a new briefing paper out about some developments relating to North Korea’s domestic economy and external trade. If true, the shutdown of the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex (청년화학연합기업소) is one of several examples of how the border shutdown due to Covid-19 is hurting basic industries through a shortage of spare parts. Goods such as cooking oil are also reportedly in short supply on the markets, and local government incomes from market stall fees are also reportedly dropping. As always with this sort of information, none of it is fully confirmed.

You can find the report here (in Korean), below is an excerpt from a summary by Nikkei:

The Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, north of Pyongyang, produces fertilizer and coal gas using anthracite mined in the area. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the site in 2013.

High-pressure valves and jet sprays at the complex have become too worn for continued use, according to reports the Korea International Trade Association received from North Korea in January. Without replacement parts, it is unclear when the plant can resume work.

The suspension hinders North Korea’s push to lift its meager agricultural output. Kim last year ordered a boost in fertilizer production and attended a completion ceremony for a separate fertilizer plant. Coal gas also serves as a valuable industrial energy source for the country, which faces an oil embargo in response to its nuclear and missile testing.

[…]

The resulting shortages also have struck North Korea’s jangmadang informal markets, which have flourished under Kim’s tenure. At one market in the city of Pyongsong, the volume of available flour and cooking oil has halved. Many stalls that used to sell Chinese-made apparel and appliances have shut down as well.

The slowdown of the jangmadang is eating into the coffers of North Korea’s regional authorities. South Pyongan Province, home of the Namhung plant, made about half as much from overseeing these markets in the last quarter of 2020 as in the year-ago period, heavily impacting provincial spending, the KITA report says.

(Source: Yosuke Onchi, “Key North Korea factory shuts down from COVID-19 parts shortage,” Nikkei Asia, February 8th, 2021.)

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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…

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North Korean coal trade: the questions that really matter

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

I have long argued, on this blog and elsewhere, that the question of North Korea and economic sanctions is not a binary one. We don’t have either perfect sanctions implementation with complete suppression of trade, or smuggling and trade under the radar, with or without the complicity of the Chinese government, making sanctions on North Korea meaningless. Rather, sanctions were never going to work perfectly to begin with — government measures rarely do. What sanctions do do, however, is to impose high additional costs to anyone trading with North Korea. North Korea would still import and export sanctioned goods to some extent, but reap lower revenues from exports and pay more for imports.

US intelligence claims over the past few months have contained some information that is highly relevant to that end. Ship-to-ship (STS) transfers are complicated and expensive, but it seems that this method of transferring North Korean coal to Chinese buyers has begun to decrease. Wall Street Journal reports (paywall) that direct deliveries to China, through the Ningbo-Zhoushan area, have increased in frequency over the past few months. Chinese ships have also gone directly to North Korea’s Nampo port to fetch coal deliveries.

The UN Panel of Experts noted this trend already in its March 2020 report:

67. Ship-to-ship transfers in the Gulf of Tonkin (see S/2019/691, para. 20) have decreased substantially in favour of increased deliveries to the Ningbo-Zhoushan and Lianyungang port areas in China. The increase reinforces the need for port and customs authorities to heighten scrutiny of vessels and their shipping documentation, and to impound any vessel suspected of transporting prohibited items.

We still don’t know how widespread such trade is, but it significantly lowers the transaction costs of North Korea’s coal trade, and thereby lessens the impact of sanctions on North Korea’s export revenue.

What about proportions?

  • According to the WSJ report and US intel sources, North Korea exported 4.1 million metric tons of coal between January and September 2020.
  • No one knows what North Korea paid, but the WSJ report assumes a price of $80–100 per ton in 2020. This places the value of the exports between $330 and $410 million.
  • Is that a little or a lot? Well, it depends. According to UN Comtrade figures, North Korea exported on average 1.7 million metric tons of coal per month to China in 2015. In contrast, 4.1 million metric tons between January and September gives close to half a million metric tons per month. In April 2016, coal exports totalled 1.53 million metric tons, to the tune of $72.3 million.
  • The WSJ figures place North Korean revenue at $36.6-$45.5 million on average per month for January-September. Using the 2016 April figure as a benchmark, it is absolutely not an insignificant number. At the same time, it is nowhere near — really, less than half by one measure — what North Korea has received for its coal exports in the past.

This by no means gives a perfect representation of the proportions at hand. After all, both 2015 and 2016 were boom years for North Korean coal exports to China. At the same time, judging from this limited data, we should not assume that things are back to normal only because China’s sanctions implementation seems to have begun to taper off. At the moment, it’s also very difficult to tell what proportions of the downturn in trade originates from North Korea’s own, self-imposed border lockdown, and from sanctions respectively.

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September, 2020: the Latest UN Panel of Experts Report and the North Korean Economy

Tuesday, September 29th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The latest UN Panel of Experts Report is out. Some points relating to the overall state of the North Korean economy, after a quick read:

  • Ship-to-ship-transfers of fuel (“refined petroleum products”) continue. This is nothing new. Only between January and May 2020, North Korea is estimated to have broken the sanctions-mandated ceiling of 500,000 barrels per year. As I have argued elsewhere, many times, even with STS transfers and other illicit methods to flout sanctions, they are taking a toll on the North Korean economy since they are expensive. North Korea has to compensate sellers for the added risk of smuggling somehow. So sanctions, in this sense, are certainly not without impact.
  • Coal deliveries are also happening via STS and other transportation means. Again, this is not new, and rather, is part of the steady state for North Korea under sanctions. As with oil and fuel products, North Korea must be taking a financial hit to compensate buyers for the added risk of violating sanctions. The report says that coal exports resumed, after a Covid-19-pause, in March of this year.
  • The report does note that illicit tanker deliveries decreased thus far in 2020 as compared to 2019. Whether that means that less fuel was actually supplied is unclear. Indeed, according to the report, the delivery tankers had higher capacity than in the past.
  • Overall, it seems that judging from the PoE estimates, North Korea may not be suffering from fuel shortages at all, on the whole. Of course, we know next to nothing about how the illegally imported fuel is used and distributed within the country. Fuel prices have, however, not really been outside the span of the generally normal (or at times even lower), suggesting that the amounts coming in are roughly similar to normal times.

One quick reflection on the exports issue, particularly of coal and other sanctioned export goods: it’s clear that coal trade is happening, seemingly relatively undisturbed, on a scale that is troubling from a sanctions-implementation perspective. What’s tricky, though, is that we know fairly little about proportions. How much coal is North Korea actually able to sell, and to what prices?

As of now, all we know is that coal is being exported on a substantial scale. From an analytical perspective, that leaves a lot to be desired.

However, it is crucial to note the myriads of ways in which the government is able to at least partially compensate for the loss in export income stemming from sanctions. The report details several of these, including a wide range of cyber crime.

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