Archive for the ‘International trade’ Category

Is the North Korean economy in crisis territory?

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Is the North Korean economy in a crisis following years of tough sanctions and the Covid-19 border closure? In a new report, the Bank of Korea’s answer is yes. They point to factors such as vast price increases on several basic goods to show that shortages have led to a price inflation virtually across the board for crucial consumer products:

The price of sugar in North Korea has multiplied by a factor of 8.3 between 2017 and late June of this year, from 5,201 won to 43,000 won per kilogram. During the same time period, the price of flour grew 3.7 times in the country as well, from 5,029 won to 18,700 won per kilogram.

Sugar and flour are two of the main food products North Korea imports from other countries. The extent to which their prices jumped in North Korea exceeds what might be observed in South Korea today due to high inflation. What could have happened in North Korea in the past five years to occasion such a surge in prices?

On Monday, the Bank of Korea published a report titled “North Korea’s Economy in the Past Five Years and Its Future Outlook,” which pointed to how the country’s economic environment changed during the time period. In a nutshell, the report argued that North Korea’s economy has entered yet another period of crisis after the 2000s, when its economy grew, following the 1990s, when the country experienced an economic crisis and a famine, also known as the Arduous March. North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 2.4% on average every year from 2017 to 2021 and is estimated to have dropped by a total of 11.4% during this time period.

What prompted the crisis in North Korea were economic sanctions against the country as well as border closures due to COVID-19.

(Source: Park Jong-O, “Why the price of sugar went up 726% in N. Korea over the last 5 years”, Hankyoreh, September 6th, 2022.)

Broadly speaking, given the data available, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion. At the same time, it is crucial to keep a few things in mind. First, much of the economy is adapted to a situation with very little foreign trade, because even in a normal year, North Korea’s external trade is exceptionally small compared with most countries in the world.
Second, there’s like to be considerable regional variation in the economic situation. Transportation inside North Korea has improved considerably over the last 10-15 years but getting goods from, say Hyesan in the northeast to Pyongyang, or a southern city like Sariwon, is still difficult, complicated and time consuming. So we are not necessarily talking about one, unified market with similar conditions across the country, but rather about a very fractured system.

Third, the word “crisis” in the context of the North Korean economy comes with very serious connotations since the famine of the 1990s. But we are decidedly not talking about a situation with mass starvation, and the Bank of Korea acknowledges this. Because of the expansion of the market system, the economy can respond very differently to shortages today than it could in the 1990s and early 2000s. Consumers can and likely have switched to less desired goods that can be procured and produced domestically. Both flour and sugar can, after all, to some extent be substituted for less desired but more easily available goods. We’ve also seen an increase in the price over corn over rice, which exemplifies this well: when the more desired good (rice) becomes more expensive, a greater number of people switch over to corn. This does suggest economic conditions have worsened, but not necessarily that they are disastrous.

Share

Chinese region near North Korean border suffers from lockdowns

Thursday, September 1st, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

New York Times recently ran an interesting dispatch from Shenyang in northeastern China, about an hour’s high-speed train ride from North Korea. This report highlights something important: while trade with North Korea is negligible for China as compared to the country’s total trade volume, North Korea as a trading partner does matter for the Chinese border regions specifically:

….And in a region often referred to as China’s Rust Belt, the local economy had already been shaky for years.

Possibly the main problem, though, is that Ms. Wen’s primary customer base has virtually evaporated.

“With North Korea closed because of the virus, they can’t come or go at all,” she said from behind the counter of her store in Shenyang’s Koreatown, where signs advertising steep discounts on imported South Korean styles had done little to draw in shoppers. “Before, we’d have maybe dozens of North Korean customers every day. Now you don’t even get 10.”

China’s continuing strict coronavirus controls have battered local economies across the country. But Shenyang has endured a double blow. Just 150 miles from the North Korean border, it is suffering not only from the restrictions in China, but also from those imposed by the even more isolated country next door.

(Source and full article: Vivian Wang, “Lockdowns in China, and North Korea, Bring Double Blow to Bridge City,” New York Times, August 30th, 2022.)

Share

Putin’s letter to Kim Jong-un

Monday, August 15th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

In another data point on Russia and North Korea growing increasingly close, President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory letter to Kim on the occasion of North Korea’s Liberation Day (August 15th) from Japanese rule. There are clear limits on how far increased economic exchange can go at the moment between the two countries, but interest from both seems genuine and high. From KCNA:

Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Receives Congratulatory Message from President of Russian Federation

Pyongyang, August 15 (KCNA) — Kim Jong Un, president of the State Affairs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, received a message of greeting from Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, president of the Russian Federation, on August 15.

In the message, Putin extended sincere felicitation to the respected Comrade Kim Jong Un on the occasion of the day of liberation, a national holiday.

The message noted that the two countries have deeply kept the memories of servicepersons of the Red Army and patriots of Korea who fought shoulder to shoulder for the liberation of Korea.

The glorious traditions of friendship and cooperation gained in the grim days serve as a durable foundation for developing the good neighborly relations between the Russian Federation and the DPRK today, it stressed.

It said that we would continue to expand the comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations with common efforts, adding that this would entirely conform with the interests of the peoples of the two countries and contribute to strengthening the security and stability of the Korean peninsula and the whole of the Northeastern Asian region.

It wished Kim Jong Un good health and success and all citizens of the DPRK happiness and prosperity.

Share

North Korea-China railway freight could start again soon, for two reasons

Monday, August 8th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Railway freight between Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea, a crucial channel for the flow of goods between the two countries, started back up in January after a two-year border closure, and was shut down again in April due to the Covid-19 situation in both China and North Korea. Now, Radio Free Asia reports that railway freight could start again today or tomorrow (August 8th or 9th), citing North Korean sources:

Rail freight shipments between the northern Chinese city Dandong and North Korea’s Sinuiju will resume next week, providing a vital lifeline of goods to the pariah state, North Korean sources said.

“Starting around Aug. 8 or 9, the international freight train between Sinuiju and Dandong will resume its operation,” an official from a trading organization in North Pyongan province told RFA on Thursday.

“There has been an order from the Central Committee for all trading companies to prepare import and export materials to load,” he said, referring to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea.

North Korean authorities proposed the resumption of service to the Chinese government because the country faces economic difficulties due to a serious shortage of supplies, he said.

North Korea is dependent on trade and aid from China, its main ally and trading partner. Restrictions on the flow of goods from the country during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns devastated North Korea’s already chronically unstable economy.

Freight train service between Sinuiju and Dandong, the hub of North Korea-China trade, was halted in August 2020 because of the pandemic. It resumed on Jan. 16, but was closed by the Chinese again on April 25 after outbreaks in both countries.

Maritime trade with North Korea was also halted at that time but was partially resumed in mid-July after repeated requests from authorities in North Korea.

Trading company representatives, including ones from firms in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, are stationed in Sinuiju, which sits across the international border of the Yalu River from Dandong, the source in North Pyongan said.

“They have been ordering goods from their Chinese counterparts to import construction materials and basic food. They are trying to secure foreign currency to pay for the imports,” he said.

A North Korean source in Dandong, with knowledge of the situation, also told RFA on Thursday that the Dandong-Sinuiju freight train service was about to resume.

“Since yesterday, a Dandong-based logistics company has been recruiting truck drivers to transport goods to the Dandong freight station and manpower to load goods on the freight train in preparation for the resumption of Dandong-Sinuiju freight train operations,” he said.

The logistics company must collect basic food such as sugar and flour, iron products, and construction materials ordered from North Korea from all over China and transport them to Dandong freight station, said the source, who declined to be named so as to speak freely.

Additionally, Dandong quarantine authorities will directly manage the freight station and the trains that return to China after transporting goods to North Korea, he said.

Chinese workers who load and unload goods on freight trains in Dandong must have received COVID-19 vaccinations, the source added. Workers will be tested daily for the virus and can continue on the job if their results are negative.

The freight train will operate 15 to 17 cars at a time and will go directly to the Uiju quarantine facility, formerly the Uiju Airfield, near North Korea’s northern border with China, the source said.

(Source: Hyemin Son, “Rail freight service between China and North Korea to resume in days,” Radio Free Asia, August 5th, 2022.)

This may just be one individual news report, but the overall context also seems to speak for this in many ways. North Korea recently announced the end of its first Covid-19 wave. It might not be a coincidence that this report comes at the same time. Indeed, declaring the Covid wave over was more or less a prerequisite for re-opening rail freight traffic. It may be that signals from the Chinese government that they were willing to re-open the railway link factored into the North Korean authorities’ decision to declare the first wave over.

Share

North Korea and Syria discuss economic cooperation

Thursday, August 4th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

If this development actually goes somewhere (a similar meeting was held in 2014 without any significant results) it’d provide a terrific data point on the increasingly emerging global, sanctions-evading sphere of authoritarian states. Here’s what the Syrian state news agency wrote on a meeting between Syria’s Minister of Industry and North Korea’s chargé d’affaires in the country:

Minister Sabbagh underscored the importance of working to strengthen joint cooperation between Syria and the DPRK to upgrade bilateral relations in the industrial field to be up to the level of the political relations in order to achieve the common benefit of the two friendly countries and peoples.

The Minister stressed the need to activate the memos of understanding and industrial agreements concluded between the ministry and the Korean side, which were suspended due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.

In turn, Chargé d’affaires, Kim Hey Ryong, stressed standing in the face of the imperialist sanctions imposed on both friendly countries and the need to confront them with their own resources to advance in the face of the imposed economic blockade.

Ryong expressed his country’s interest in the projects proposed by the Syrian Ministry of Industry for investment, particularly in the field of pharmaceutical industries, alternative energies and the aluminum industry.

During the meeting, it was agreed to form a joint technical committee to set the initial principles for the fields of joint industrial cooperation, follow-up and activate the memo of understanding signed between the two sides.

(Source: Manar Salameh/ Ruaa al-Jazaeri, “Syria, DPRK discuss ways to enhance industrial cooperation,” Sana, 3/8/2022.)

Share

Was North Korea’s Covid-19 “victory” planned from the beginning?

Wednesday, July 20th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Since last month, there’s been strong signs that North Korea may soon declare “victory” over Covid-19. Its claims of progress against the virus are puzzling, like many claims the country has made about its Covid-19 situation, especially at a time when cases were climbing in the rest of the region. The most recent example came this past Monday, when the regime said it was close to solving the crisis completely:

“The anti-epidemic campaign is improved to finally defuse the crisis completely,” the Korean Central News Agency said. It added that the North had reported 310 more people with fever symptoms.

The World Health Organization has cast doubts on North Korea’s claims, saying last month it believed the situation was getting worse, not better, amid an absence of independent data.

The North’s declaration could be a prelude to restoring trade long hampered by the pandemic, one analyst said.

“Under the current trend, North Korea could announce in less than a month that its COVID crisis is over and that could be a prelude to resuming crossborder trade,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute’s North Korea studies centre in South Korea.

(Source: Reuters, “North Korea says nearing end of COVID crisis,” Reuters, 18/7/2022.)

Signs that North Korea may soon declare victory began to appear only a little over a month after the country even admitted to having any cases of the virus in the first place. As AP put it a few weeks ago:

According to state media, North Korea has avoided the mass deaths many expected in a nation with one of the world’s worst health care systems, little or no access to vaccines, and what outsiders see as a long record of ignoring the suffering of its people.

[…]

What’s clear, though, is that the daily updates from state media make it appear inevitable that the nation will completely defeat a virus that has killed more than 6 million people around the world. According to the official tally, cases are plummeting, and, while 18% of the nation of 26 million people reportedly have had symptoms that outsiders strongly suspect were from COVID-19, less than 100 have died.

The South Korean government as well as some experts believe that North Korea may soon declare that it has beaten the virus. This will be linked, of course, to Kim’s strong and clever guidance.

[…]

“There are two sides to such a declaration,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “If North Korea says that COVID-19 has gone, it can emphasize that Kim Jong Un is a great leader who has overcome the pandemic. But in doing so, it can’t maintain the powerful restrictions that it uses to control its people in the name of containing COVID-19.”

(Source: Hyung-jin Kim, “‘It always wins’; North Korea may declare COVID-19 victory,” Associated Press, 21/6/2022.)

Indeed, a declaration of final victory is by no means a certainty, and the government would indeed lose a powerful reason for the stronger measures of social control it has implemented over the past few years.

But what about all the state has to win by declaring victory over Covid-19? I’m not talking here about the propaganda value for Kim Jong-un and his “clever guidance”, but about the economy. I speculated when the North Korean government first admitted that Covid had spread to the country that it could be a step toward normalizing the situation and, in the longer run, a step toward opening the border back up for trade with China.

When the government recognized it had been hit by Covid, it turned it from a risk to be avoided at all cost into a problem to be dealt with. By doing so, it made the border closure more or less superfluous; if the virus is already in the country, no more need to keep trade at close to a standstill.

In this light, declaring victory over the virus would be a natural step, and that would itself be a step toward fully normalizing trade and easing or abolishing internal restrictions. Several recent signs indicate that this may be happening. North Korea seems to, more or less, want to open trade back up with China, no longer fearing that the virus will enter the country. To the contrary, Chinese authorities are now weary of the virus coming in from North Korea. As Daily NK reports:

Although North Korea is making a show of confidence, claiming that the coronavirus situation in the country has “completely stabilized,” the Chinese government is tightly controlling trade with the North due to concern about the state of the pandemic in the country.

According to a Daily NK source in China on Monday, as coronavirus cases decrease, factories and restaurants are reopening in regions of China that border North Korea, including Liaoning and Jilin provinces. With highways, railways, ports and other inter-regional transportation links soon set to reopen as normal, the movement of goods and people within China is expected to improve.

However, in contrast to moves to relax domestic disease control measures, the Chinese government has yet to begin easing controls and inspections regarding trade with North Korea. In regions that border North Korea, Chinese authorities are reportedly cracking down hard on Chinese people directly contacting or doing business with North Koreans.

The source told Daily NK that the Chinese government is levying fines of at least RMB 300,000 (around USD 44,450) on people caught smuggling with North Koreans, a measure that has helped prevent Chinese traders from readily dealing with their North Korean counterparts.

On the other hand, North Korean trade officials are making more requests for imports from Chinese traders. With North Korean authorities recently allowing certain North Korean trading companies to participate in or expand existing trade with China, these companies appear to be responding by increasingly asking for items to import.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “China still appears wary about reopening trade with North Korea,” Daily NK, 20/7/2022.)

North Korean firms, presumably on order by or at least approval from the state, are in other words trying to start trade ties back up while Chinese authorities are weary.

Internally, too, authorities have eased restrictions. According to Radio Free Asia, travel restrictions were virtually dismantled late last month:

North Korea has lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions nationwide, a sign the government may soon claim victory over the coronavirus pandemic, RFA has learned.

After two years of denying the virus had penetrated its closed borders, North Korea in May acknowledged COVID had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade the previous month and declared a “maximum emergency” to fight the disease.

As part of its response, the government restricted movement between provinces and prohibited large gatherings. But now, after a partial lifting of the travel ban in late May, North Korea ended the limitations completely on June 12, a source from the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Residents are able to travel to other provinces and even to the capital city, Pyongyang,” the source said. “The new order from the National Emergency Quarantine Command was given to residents of each neighborhood in Pohang district.”

Each neighborhood watch unit held meetings to explain the policy change to residents, the source said.

“They have been unable to travel outside the provincial borders with only the partial lifting of restrictions, so they welcome the news,” he said. “It is especially great news for merchants who rely on long-distance travel between provinces for their businesses.

“But even if the restrictions are completely ended, there is still a separate procedure that requires travelers to carry a COVID-19 test certificate issued by the quarantine command. We can get a travel pass only if we have the test certificate,” he said.

North Korea requires passes for travel between provinces even under normal circumstances.

Residents with mobile phones can access test certificates through a smartphone app, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA. Others must travel to receive a paper copy.

“In rural areas such as Pakchon county, you have to visit the town quarantine center, which is miles away, to get a COVID-19 test certificate,” the second source said. “If a resident who wants to get a test certificate does not have a mobile phone, it is inconvenient.”

But she agreed that most residents are happy the restrictions are ending.

“Now they hope that the residents will have their livelihoods restored as soon as possible, but also by lifting the blockade of the border with China,” she said.

After briefly restarting rail freight shipments from China earlier this year, new outbreaks in China forced Beijing and Pyongyang to suspend trade again. Aside from the short respite, trade has been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020, with disastrous effects on the North Korean economy.

The first source said that not all residents were overjoyed at the lifted restrictions, believing that the government had an underlying and unsaid motive.

“There are speculations that restrictions were lifted in order to mobilize the residents,” the first source said, referring to the government practice of forcing residents to provide free labor for construction, farming and other state projects.

“The COVID-19 lockdown restricted mobilizations on national construction projects and on rice planting duties,” he said.

Nevertheless, the government has been saying that it is the leadership of Kim Jong Un that has eradicated the coronavirus, the second source said.

Sources told RFA that North Korean traders and their Chinese counterparts are preparing to resume trade quickly once the Sino-Korean border reopens. They anticipate that cross-border trade will resume once coronavirus case numbers subside.

(Source: Jieun Kim, ,”North Korea ends COVID-19 travel restrictions as ‘fever cases’ subside,” Radio Free Asia, 22/6/2022.)

It seems, thus, that the admission of Covid back in the spring may have been the first step to normalizing the situation. It is a change that the North Korean economy very much needs.

Share

The North Korean gov’t tightens the screws on foreign trade

Wednesday, June 8th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past year, Daily NK (and primarily its stellar reporter Seulkee Jang) has reported on what seems to be a fairly consistent effort by the North Korean regime to strengthen its controls over foreign trade permits. The Covid-19 border lockdown has made this, as other repressive measures of economic policy, a much easier task than it otherwise would have been. The purpose of this post is to summarize the development to date by gathering the reports in one place, hopefully generating a somewhat holistic picture of what’s been happening.

Tight government regulation of foreign trade is, of course, nothing new in North Korea. Trade has always occurred at the mercy of the state, making it a fertile ground for corruption. From May 2019:

The continuing international sanctions on North Korea are causing difficulties for the country’s traders, who are having trouble finding items not on the sanctions list to sell as well as having to pay “loyalty payments” to the state and bribes to government officials.

“Traders are saying that the business environment in North Korea is poor and that they have a lot of difficulty importing materials from China that don’t violate the sanctions. Even if products clear Chinese customs without a problem, traders face issues in North Korea […] North Korean customs agents demand bribes and the traders say they’re left with nothing,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK.

“The customs officials demand bribes and justify their demands with excuses like ‘The state is building this or that project so be a patriot and hand over the money’ […] Traders don’t have much choice, so they just pay the bribes.”

[…]

Traders are faced with being branded “anti-socialist” and punished if they refuse to contribute money for so-called state construction projects.

Government officials ultimately decide whether such payments really go to state construction projects or are accepted as personal bribes. Some of the customs officials may be sending some of the money to state coffers while keeping the rest for themselves.

It is not only imports of contract-manufactured materials imported from China that are facing difficulties. Traders who manufacture products in North Korea and export them to China also face demands from customs officials for bribes.

(Mun Dong Hui, “North Korean customs officials continue to demand bribes from traders,” May 5th, 2019.)

In November 2020, the Supreme People’s Assembly revised the country’s enterprise law to strengthen state control over firms engaging in foreign trade. Late that month, a source for the Daily NK claimed that the revision reduced what private traders have to pay to the state while strengthening control over these units:

According to a Daily NK source in Pyongyang, the bill to revise and supplement the Enterprise Act includes provisions that reduce what private “kiji” pay to the state and encourage foreign exchange earning and trading activities.

A kiji is a small private business organization of about seven people that is nominally attached to a trading company.

The act has permitted payments to the state (in cash or kind) to be cut by a third and private business operators are now allowed to take a greater share. The relevant cadres have been ordered to encourage the establishment of enterprises by telling prospective entrepreneurs that they “may pay just 10% of their profits.” It remains unconfirmed, however, whether this has been clearly included in the legislation.

“Since the (individual’s) take has been increased, it could also be read as an instruction to do more private business or earn more foreign currency,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In particular, the authorities reportedly prepared the legal basis to reinvigorate trade through the latest revision to the Enterprise Act.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea’s recent revision of Enterprise Act appears aimed at increasing trade,” November 25th, 2020.)

Some five months later, in April the following year, DNK reported that the state had ordered trading agencies to apply for new waku or trading permits, meaning that they would be required to submit a wide range of documents for scrutiny:

The agencies that will begin conducting trade on Apr. 20 received direct orders from the party to continue trade even after the border was closed at the end of January 2020. As companies belonging to powerful North Korean institutions, these agencies will simply have to undergo an inspection to confirm their activities. As soon as this is complete, they will be permitted to participate in official trade.

The authorities reportedly shortlisted trading companies that are a part of the Central Committee or the Munitions Industry Department (MID) to receive permission to resume trade.

Meanwhile, the authorities ordered that individual traders working for non-priority trading companies or agencies apply for new waku.

The Ministry of External Economic Relations gave each trading agency written instructions to reapply for new waku during the three days between Apr. 12 and Apr. 14. Trading agencies and companies reportedly submitted their applications and authentication materials via the North Korean intranet per the guidelines.

Even agencies and individuals who have been issued waku in the past must apply again for a new permit. If there are no issues, the firms will receive their newly-issued waku after an evaluation period of three to four weeks and be able to participate in official trade from the beginning of May.

Materials needed for the waku application reportedly include certificates regarding partner companies in China, records of previous imports and exports, and plans for future trade.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea hands down order regarding issuance of trade certificates,” April 20th, 2021.)

Around the same time, the authorities reportedly began to more thoroughly investigate traders to crack down on smuggling, partially as a result of the above-mentioned scrutiny:

A Daily NK source recently reported that the authorities have been ferreting out and punishing traders involved in smuggling. This crackdown could be an attempt to encourage trade workers to be cautious until the authorities open the border.

“From the beginning of this month until recently, the authorities have been arresting anyone who engaged in smuggling and those who did not submit their ‘loyalty fees’ to the party on time. [The authorities] have exiled some of them to remote areas, or sentenced them to re-education through labor or even death,” a source in North Pyongan Province said on May 18. “They are being punished because they misappropriated trade profits for their own personal gain and not for the benefit of the country.”

The hunt for those who participated in or abetted smuggling and those who failed to pay party “loyalty fees” reportedly came to a close in late April. North Korean authorities also investigated traders and firms applying for new waku (trade certificates) during the same period.

North Korean authorities accepted new waku applications from Apr. 12 and Apr. 14. After receiving the applications, the Central Committee’s Department of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and the Ministry of State Security began screening them.

“Twenty people ended up being targeted for punishment,” the source said. “[The authorities] arrested all of them at the same time and their punishments were meted out immediately.”

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korean authorities ferret out traders involved in smuggling,” May 24th, 2021.)

These increasingly intense investigations targeting “unauthorized trade” continued through the summer, as DNK reported in June and July:

The KPW-USD rate broke past KPW 7,000 on May 18, just before the new waku were issued. The renminbi was also going beyond KPW 1,000.

Daily NK has found that the exchange rates – which had been climbing continuously on the back of expectations surrounding the reopening of trade, and the issuance of new waku – suddenly collapsed because of new trade controls recently enacted by the North Korean authorities.

According to a high-ranking source, the Central Committee issued an order on June 3 telling recipients of new waku that their certificates did not mean they could participate in trade “right away.” If they do participate in trade without Workers’ Party approval, warned the order, it would be regarded as smuggling and subject to severe punishment.

(Seulkee Jang, “US dollar and Chinese reminbi plummet against North Korean won once again,” June 9th, 2021.)

And the report from July:

North Korean authorities are conducting large-scale inspections aimed at cracking down on unauthorized trade. This has led some North Korean trading companies involved in the trade of “unauthorized items” to cancel their transactions with Chinese traders.

According to a Daily NK source in China on Sunday, an unnamed North Korean trading company recently requested its Chinese partner suspend a transaction. The Chinese partner found this absurd as it was already prepared to ship the construction materials, paper, soap, and other sundries that had been ordered.

[…]

A Daily NK investigation – based on information from multiple sources in North Korea – has determined that the Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Social Security, and disease control authorities launched a joint inspection into illegal trading activity last month.

On June 3, North Korean authorities issued an order that warned traders against engaging in trade without prior approval from the Workers’ Party, regardless of whether they received a new waku (trade certificate). According to the order, unauthorized trade will be regarded as “smuggling” and subject to punishment.

The authorities subsequently formed inspection teams, which are now scrutinizing recent transactions by the country’s trading companies.

Trading companies that tried to import unauthorized goods along with authorized items now appear to be “scrambling” to cancel their deals with Chinese traders or are simply refusing to accept the cargo.

“North Koreans say you can trade only if you’ve gotten permission from that person [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] – even if you’ve got a waku,” one of the sources in China told Daily NK. “Instead of trade returning to [pre-pandemic] levels, it’s getting harder [for Chinese traders] to conclude deals with North Korea.”

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korea conducts large-scale inspections aimed at ending unauthorized trade,” July 6th, 2021.)

Only days later, DNK reported that approximately 20 trading company heads had been arrested in the crackdown against unauthorized trade. The reference to quarantine procedures is a clear example of how anti-epidemic measures have often intertwined with enhanced state controls:

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Thursday, the authorities arrested around 20 heads of trading companies during a “joint inspection” of trade-related entities that began last month. Hundreds of trade workers have also been arrested and are undergoing questioning.

The ruling party’s Organization and Guidance Department is reportedly taking overall command of the joint inspection.

Those arrested are being charged with either importing items outside their approved import lists or distributing imported items that have not gone through proper quarantine procedures.

North Korean authorities are reportedly applying heavy punishments on importers who circumvent quarantine procedures, rather than focusing on just the import of unapproved items.

Daily NK understands that the items imported by companies busted in the latest inspection include consumer goods scarce in most of the country’s markets, including seasonings, soybean oil, sesame seeds, and sugar.

Based on Daily NK’s information, the authorities have confiscated all of the unapproved imported items. They have also confiscated the waku (trade certificates) of the relevant trading companies.

[…]

Daily NK’s source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the authorities are making no exemptions in this latest crackdown – not even for trading companies attached to Bureau 39, which handles the ruling Kim family’s slush funds. If companies are caught engaging in illegal trade, they apparently face severe and “merciless” punishment.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has reportedly ordered that individuals caught in the inspection face criminal proceedings rather than “party-related punishments”; that busted cadre-level trade officials be stripped of their party credentials; and that the authorities apply the same criteria in their crackdown to companies affiliated with “special institutions.”

Given that North Korean authorities regard illegal trade by trading companies as “political activity,” offenders apparently face the severest of punishments — including death or confinement in a political prison camp — depending on the severity of their crimes.

“At the very least, nobody will get away with a mere slap on the wrist, like time in a forced labor or reeducation camp,” the source said.

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korea arrests around 20 trading company heads in latest crackdown on unauthorized trade,” July 16th, 2021.)

The crackdown continued even in the face of food shortages that underscored the need for more imports, fast:

The source said the committee also pointed to blocked provisions of raw materials and supplies in all areas of economic activity and serious energy shortages. The committee said discussions of trade must focus on these problems, essentially calling for traders to resolve food shortages and normalize enterprise operations by promptly restarting trade.

However, the source said the committee focused more on “system compliance.” It told traders that they must abandon rushed “campaigns” and deeply analyze trade as it involves the import and export of the state’s foreign exchange.

Moreover, it criticized officials in higher-level work units for personal and institutional selfishness, bragging about their “special” status. This well worn practice must be “uprooted,” it said.

The committee targeted corruption as well. Officials said they would show no forgiveness for traders collaborating with certain individuals to “mix goods” that have nothing to do with the national economy into their imports. It warned that “non-socialist and anti-socialist behavior” would face punishment by the party, administrative organs, or through the legal system.

(Jong So Yong, “Yanggang Province’s provincial party committee discusses China-North Korea trade,” December 31st, 2021.)

For some months, DNK reports on the issue took a pause, suggesting that the campaign may have ceased to grow in intensity for some time. In early April 2022, however, Jang Seulkee reported that a large-scale restructuring appears to be going on in the foreign trade sector, strengthening cabinet control:

North Korean authorities are disbanding trading firms that fail to produce results, and restructuring the trade sector to give the Cabinet direct supervision over the import and export details of all trading companies, as well as their profits.

According to multiple Daily NK sources in North Korea on Friday, the authorities have been placing trading companies across the nation under the direct control of the Cabinet. Trading companies that have failed to take part in import or export activity over the last couple of years are being merged out of existence, even if they are under the jurisdiction of “special bodies” like the security services.

The authorities have also created a report system that allows the Cabinet to manage or supervise trading companies’ accounting records and cash flow.

[…]

North Korea has apparently started to structurally readjust the trade sector as part of efforts to restore the state’s “unitary trading system.”

In a report on economic affairs to the Supreme People’s Assembly in February, Premier Kim Tok Hun said he would continue to push activities to restore the state’s unitary trading system in the external economic relations sector.

North Korean authorities have granted enterprises some degree of trade autonomy since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power, but the premier’s comment could be seen as a declaration that the state would be the sole trading actor going forward.

North Korean authorities have begun merging trading companies and bringing them under Cabinet supervision as their first effort to restore the state’s unitary trading system in an apparent bid to resolve the problem of bloated trading companies making illicit gains.

(Seulkee Jang, “North Korea restructures trade sector to give Cabinet more direct supervision over imports/exports,” April 4th, 2022.)

Ten days later, Jang reported that trade certificates of several trading companies of significant size had been confiscated by the authorities, who also arrested some ten trade officials:

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on Wednesday, the Central Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested about 10 trade officials this month, confiscating the waku of their trading companies as well.

During North Korea’s efforts over the last month to merge trading companies, the authorities have discovered cases where companies have taken on excessive debt. The government has taken issue with officials of these companies for poor accounting practices and filing false financial reports.

Daily NK recently reported that North Korean authorities have started restructuring the country’s trade sector as the first step to restoring the state’s “unitary trade system.” These efforts have included merging and disbanding trading companies and making companies directly report their trading and sales details to the country’s Cabinet.

The individuals arrested in the latest round-up include officials with trading companies attached to major state institutions, including the Supreme Guard Command, Ministry of State Security, and External Construction Guidance Bureau. North Korea has apparently punished individuals and companies when their financial audits have turned up problems, regardless of the company’s size or parent organization.

However, trading companies that had their waku confiscated are crying foul. They say it is wrong for prosecutors to take away their waku simply because “rash financial audits” turned up “excessive debts” or missing numbers when the prosecutors themselves know nothing about the companies’ trade transactions.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea confiscates the trade certificates of several mid- to large-sized trading companies,” April 14th, 2022.)

All of this was, naturally, related to the state effort to collect more foreign currency in the face of what must be depleting supplies:

North Korean authorities are reviewing how well provincial trade bureaus have met their foreign currency quotas in the first quarter of the year and are auditing bureaus that failed to meet their quotas, Daily NK has learned.

“The government has assigned officials from the State Planning Commission and the Ministry of External Economic Relations to audit the provinces that failed to provide the state with the planned amount of foreign currency funds in the first quarter of the year. The auditors are supposed to review the results and correct what went wrong,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Wednesday.

[…]

“The current objective of the audit is to figure out how persistently and energetically provincial trade bureaus have been in delivering foreign currency to the state. But another objective is to pressure the bureaus to unconditionally meet the state’s foreign currency quota in the future,” the source said.

The auditors have mostly been examining documents provided by managers, bookkeepers, and statisticians at trade companies in North Hamgyong Province. After marking problem areas in red, they are meeting with the people involved to check on their work processes and outcomes, the source explained.

According to him, the auditors in North Hamgyong Province have looked through all the documents not only from the first quarter of the year but from the last two years as well. They are asking hard questions about the province’s failure to meet the foreign currency quota. The auditors reportedly believe that low-level trade organizations did not make a serious effort to meet the quota.

Trade organizations did manage to get permission in Sinuiju for sending imports and exports through the Uiju quarantine center. However, the auditors were greatly disappointed by the fact that these organizations, thinking they had no way of meeting the quota, attempted to shirk responsibility for not sending any foreign currency to the government over more than two years.

(Jong So Yong, “N. Korea conducts audits on how well provincial trade bureaus met foreign currency quotas,” April 29th, 2022.)

As is often the case, provincial administration incentives appear to be misaligned with the central government’s orders:

North Hamgyong Province’s trade bureau is working hard to ensure the survival of as many trade companies as possible following orders by the central government to merge or close companies deemed ineffective.

“The provincial trade bureau is under a great deal of stress due to the government’s instructions regarding the merger and closure of trade companies,” a source in the province told Daily NK on Monday.

North Korea is carrying out several measures to either combine trade companies or eliminate them altogether as part of broader efforts to restore a system in which all trade is administered by the state, he explained.

With trade companies facing the very real prospect of elimination, many are making every effort to survive, with the hope that trade will resume in earnest once the country’s borders are reopened, the source added.

The source said that the North Korean government believes that it does not need trade companies that focus solely on either imports or imports. During the trade company registration process, the government is setting precise figures for imports and exports and emphasizing that only trade companies that can actively pursue both activities serve the state’s economic interest.

(Jong So Yong, N. Hamgyong Province’s trade bureau under stress to save as many trade companies as possible,” May 4th, 2022.)

As of last month, the process to tighten trade administration was still ongoing. The aforementioned state surveys of trading companies revealed that all of them carry substantial amounts of debt:

North Korean authorities are pushing the dissolution and merging of trading companies as the first stage of the restoration of the unitary state-led trading system. However, things are reportedly moving slowly due to debt problems with the trading companies.

According to a high-ranking Daily NK source in North Korea on Thursday, North Korean authorities started dissolving and merging trading companies to build a state-led trading system in March, making the Cabinet responsible for managing all import and export breakdowns. They have yet to complete the process, however.

This is because financial surveys conducted to dissolve and merge the companies revealed that every firm carried significant debt.

[…]

The source said the most likely plan is for the North Korean authorities and trading companies to split the debts 50/50.

The problem is that North Korean authorities lack the financial wherewithal to assume 50% of the debts. Another Daily NK source familiar with North Korea’s trade situation said no trading officials believe the authorities will take care of 50% of the debts, even if they say they will.

North Korean authorities currently set the official exchange rate at a very low KPW 150 to the dollar. Compared to the rate of KPW 6,500 to the dollar at a market in Pyongyang on May 1, the government currently sells the dollar at a price over 40 times lower than market value.

Because of this, if the North Korean authorities assume the debt using the official exchange rate, the high-level trade agencies will assume virtually all the debt.

This being the case, both the subordinate trading companies and the superordinate ones that will absorb them are complaining.

(Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea’s efforts to dissolve and merge trading companies are hitting snags,” May 16th, 2022.)

It seems fairly clear that the state intends to fully subordinate foreign trade under cabinet control, drastically tightening the screws on companies that engage in foreign commerce. It is an ambitious project given that foreign trade was relatively decentralized for some years, but it is an ambition that the state has held since at least 2018. We may see some limited measures of retreat but the overall goal will likely persist for some time.

Share

North Korea’s problematic Covid-19 numbers

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

North Korea’s admission of a Covid-19 outbreak has understandably drawn global attention. It’s one of two countries – the other one being Eritrea – that have not yet started administering Covid-19 vaccines. North Korea also claimed, until just a few days ago, to have had zero cases of infections.

Naturally, the government’s data is highly interesting in this situation, and you can follow the officially reported numbers here at 38 North‘s tracker. Due to the lack of testing kits, North Korean authorities report cases of “fever” as a proxy for Covid-19.

These numbers perhaps tell us more about how the government perceives the situation, than how many North Koreans have actually been infected with Covid-19. That North Korean authorities are now signalling a greater level of pragmatism in tackling the virus does not mean their claims until a few days ago about zero cases were true. The zero cases claim defies common sense and logic, not least since North Korea borders Chinese provinces where we know there have been significant outbreaks. Outlets such as Daily NK, Rimjingang, Radio Free Asia and others with sources inside North Korea have reported since the start of the pandemic about large numbers of people coming down with Covid-19 symptoms.

Already in March 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, sources in North Korea told Daily NK that over 20 North Koreans had died from the virus. By November last year, Daily NK reported that more than 100,000 people with symptoms were housed in government quarantine facilities. These are only two examples out of a large number of such reports. There is of course no way to confirm any of the information about Covid outbreaks in North Korea. Most  reports, however, have used roughly the same metric as the government uses right now to count cases — fever symptoms.

North Korean state media reports of the number of people in treatment per province also raises a lot of questions. Consider the map below, from the 38 North tracker:

It is possible that Pyongyang and its surroundings, Kaesong, and Rason, all have significantly higher numbers of cases than, say, North Hamgyong province. After all, Pyongyang is a relatively crowded city by North Korean standards, making infections spread more easily. But these are also sensitive areas and it may well be that the government is simply paying more attention by testing (for fever) more and monitoring numbers more closely. All three, in fact, are so-called “administrative special cities” (특별시/t’ŭkpyŏlssi), placing them under more direct central government administration than other cities. Pyongyang, moreover, is politically sensitive as the country’s power center, and Kaesong sits on the tense border with South Korea. Rason holds a special economic zone and is close to North Korea’s borders with Russia and China. Perhaps the government pays greater attention to these cities because of this common denominator.

The question is still why the North Korean government chose to acknowledge the presence of Covid-19 in the country this month. Since the announcement, the state has strengthened quarantine measures, some of which were already in place, and imposed a nationwide lockdown, though there’s been some questions raised about how sternly it is implemented. It is still possible, as I noted in a previous post, that the government is changing to a more pragmatic Covid-19 policy overall, starting with recognizing the virus.

As of now few data points point in this direction, although it is still much too early to tell. It may also be that the government made the announcement to set the stage for accepting vaccines and other assistance from abroad. Even with such assistance, it remains unclear how the rollout would work in practice given North Korea’s lacking equipment for, for example, storing vaccines and keeping them cold while transported around the country.

Share

North Korea finally admits a case of Covid-19. Is there a trade connection?

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Finally, after over two years of denial, North Korean state media has acknowledged a case of Covid-19 in the country:

Next, the Political Bureau discussed the issue of coping with the epidemic prevention crisis state prevailing in the country.

It recognized as follows:

A most serious emergency case of the state occurred: A break was made on our emergency epidemic prevention front where has firmly defended for two years and three months from February, 2020.

The state emergency epidemic prevention command and relevant units made deliberation of the result of strict gene arrangement analysis on the specimen from persons with fever of an organization in the capital city on May 8, and concluded that it coincided with Omicron BA.2 variant which is recently spreading worldwide rapidly.

Informed at the meeting was the spread state in the whole country. Urgent measures were presented and deliberated to take the strategic initiative in the epidemic prevention campaign for the future.

The Political Bureau censured the epidemic prevention sectors for their carelessness, relaxation, irresponsibility and inefficiency as they did not sensitively cope with the public health state which infectors of all kinds of variants are increasing worldwide including surrounding regions of our country.

The Political Bureau recognized that it is necessary to switch over from the state epidemic prevention system to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system to cope with the present circumstance.

All measures were taken for the Party, administrative and economic organs at all levels, sectors of public and state security and national defence and all organs and sectors of the country to establish the proper work system to make the state work be done smoothly in line with the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system coming into force.

Adopted at the meeting was a resolution of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK on switch over from the state emergency epidemic prevention work to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system to cope with the prevailing epidemic prevention crisis.

Concluding the meeting, Kim Jong Un raised principles to be maintained thoroughly in the emergency epidemic prevention work and tasks to do so.

He outlined and analyzed the current epidemic prevention crisis of the country and noted that the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system is mainly aimed to stably contain and control the spread of COVID-19 that made inroads into the country and to quickly cure the infections in order to eradicate the source of the virus spread at an early date.

Pointing out that more dangerous enemy of us than the malicious virus are unscientific fear, lack of faith and weak will, he affirmed that we will surely overcome the current sudden situation and win victory in the emergency epidemic prevention work as we have strong organizing ability with which the Party, government and people are united as one and there are high political awareness and self-consciousness of all the people that have been fostered and cemented during the prolonged emergency epidemic prevention campaign.

He called on all the cities and counties of the whole country to thoroughly lock down their areas and organize work and production after closing each working unit, production unit and living unit from each other so as to flawlessly and perfectly block the spread vacuum of the malicious virus.

Stressing the necessity of quickly organizing scientific and intensive examination and treatment campaign, he said that the Party and the government decided to take a measure to mobilize reserve medical supplies that have been stored up for the emergency until now.

He underscored the need for the public health sector and the emergency epidemic prevention sectors to strictly conduct intensive examination of all the people, take proactive measures for medical observation and treatment, intensify disinfection of all areas ranging from workplaces to living space and thus block and terminate the source of the malicious epidemics spread.

Though the epidemic prevention situation is harsh at present, it cannot block our advance toward the overall development of socialist construction, and there should be nothing missed in the planned economic work, the General Secretary said, stressing that the Cabinet and other state economic guidance organs and relevant units should conduct fuller organization, guidance and command over the economic work in conformity with switching over from state epidemic prevention system to the maximum emergency epidemic prevention system so as to speed up the immediate farming work and the production at major industrial sectors and industrial establishments to the maximum and flawlessly compete within the appointed date the cherished works of our Party for the people such as the construction of 10 000 flats in the Hwasong area and the Ryonpho Greenhouse Farm.

The Party and power organs should minimize inconveniences and agonies the people would suffer under the strong blockade situation, stabilize their lives and take thoroughgoing measures so that slightest negative phenomena are not be revealed, he noted.

Stressing the need to more firmly cement the outposts of the state defence and guarantee the victory of the great epidemic prevention campaign with arms, he specially emphasized that guard duty should be further strengthened on the fronts, borders, seas and air and the best measures be taken to make security vacuum not be revealed in the national defence.

The people-first politics by our Party and state that have displayed the great vitality, overcoming all troubles of history, and the strength of our people who are united single-mindedly are the most powerful guarantee to win victory in the current great epidemic prevention campaign, he said, adding that all the Party organizations and power organs should prove in practice their loyalty to the Party and revolution, devotion to the people and responsibility for their duty at the present great epidemic prevention campaign to defend the lives and security of the people.

He warmly appealed to all the people and officers and men of the People’s Army to triumphantly conclude the great epidemic prevention campaign with firm confidence and great redoubled efforts and thus defend to the end our precious lives and future with our faith, will and unity.

The Political Bureau of the C.C., WPK examined and approved the written emergency instructions of the Central Military Commission of the Party and the Cabinet and made sure that they are issued.

(Source: “8th Political Bureau Meeting of 8th Central Committee of WPK Held,” Korean Central News Agency, May 12th, 2022.)

A few thoughts:

First, it’s very unlikely that this is actually North Korea’s first case. It defies common sense and logic, especially given the country’s proximity to China. There is a solid stream of anecdotal reports to strongly suggest that North Korea has already seen outbreaks in several parts of the country.

Second, recall that Chinese authorities, upon North Korea’s request, recently ceased railway traffic between the two countries again after it had been open for only four months. The following part of the KCNA statement, depending on how you read it, seems to suggest that the recently re-imposed “blockade” may last for quite a while, and won’t necessarily go away when case numbers in Chinese border provinces drop:

The Party and power organs should minimize inconveniences and agonies the people would suffer under the strong blockade situation, stabilize their lives and take thoroughgoing measures so that slightest negative phenomena are not be revealed, he noted.

It seems to me that Kim Jong-un’s message could be: buckle down, again, for the long-haul. The four months of somewhat restored railway links were the exception.

Third, however, it is also possible that the country’s admission of a case is part of a normalization of government policies related to the virus. Dropping the zero-cases claim would allow the government to manage the virus as a strategy, rather than seek to contain it entirely. In other words, if the government would recognize the virus as part of a new reality, it could move away from tight border lockdowns toward testing measures and, eventually, a mass vaccination campaign. Recognizing the spread of the virus and opting to manage it would expand policy options beyond closing the border every time infection numbers go up across the border in China.

Share

Four months after re-opening, China-North Korea rail traffic shuts again

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Only four short months after traffic started up again following a two-year shutdown, Chinese authorities announced late last week that railway traffic between Dandong and Sinuiju was to be halted again from May 1st, this past Sunday. According to Chinese authorities, this was done at the request of the North Korean government. The reason is the recent rise in Covid-19 cases in Dandong which has prompted a strict quarantine regime in the city, as in many Chinese localities. This move comes a few weeks after border guards in North Korea were apparently ordered to wear gas masks following the rise of cases in China.

As long as North Korea continues to hold zero Covid cases rather than mass vaccinations as the main policy goal, and China’s strict quarantine policies continue, this is like how trade between the two countries will continue for some time, with intermittent stops every now and then when cases rise in China. It still remains to be seen how long the pause in trade will last.

It is, of course, troubling for the North Korean economy. Goods such as fertilizer, pesticides and other farming inputs are badly needed imports. Radio Free Asia reports that traders have been purchasing these goods, in addition to food, as “national emergency goods”, most likely a priority category created by the North Korean government:

Days before the closure, traders made preparations for the last shipments, the source said.

“The freight station is now filled with fertilizer, pesticide and food purchased by North Korean trading companies as national emergency goods. The last trains will be shipped to a quarantine facility in Uiju either tomorrow or the day after,” he said.

RFA reported last year that North Korea had completed a new rail line between Sinuiju and a quarantine facility in Uiju, in anticipation of trade reopening prior to the end of the pandemic. The new facility allows entire trainloads of cargo to be sterilized prior to distribution to Pyongyang and the rest of the country.

A second source familiar with Sino-North Korean trade in Dandong confirmed that rail freight would stop at the beginning of May.

“North Korea urgently needs farming materials and fertilizer, so the two sides have both agreed to bring the supplies to Sinuiju by the end of this month,” he said. “People expect that the freight train between Dandong and Sinuiju will resume only after COVID-19 disappears and the city lockdown is lifted throughout China.”

(Source: Hyemin Son, “Zero-COVID policy in Chinese border city stops freight to North Korea,” Radio Free Asia, May 2nd, 2022.)

The resumption of train traffic earlier this year was not the end of the border quarantine but, rather, the beginning of a new phase with intermittent shutdowns for the time being. As of now, this may help clear some of the backlog of imports in quarantine in North Korea. But as long as these dynamics continue, they will disrupt trade between the two countries and inflict serious damage on the North Korean economy.

Share