Archive for the ‘International trade’ Category

More anti-smuggling measures by the North Korean government

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

The North Korean government is reportedly clamping down even further on smuggling across the Chinese border. As Daily NK notes, it’s a measure partially directed against corruption, which will most likely just increase bribery amounts. It’s also part of a broader state drive to assert its power over economic activity. Daily NK:

North Korean authorities recently ordered that ships travelling near the Sino-North Korean border must have a security official on board as part of efforts to crack down on smuggling, Daily NK has learned.

“The order concerns ships travelling along the Yalu River and states that they must have a Ministry of State Security [MSS] agent on board,” a source in China told Daily NK on June 25. “The order applies to all ships, regardless of whether they are container ships or fishing boats, and irrespective of their affiliation or purpose.”

Earlier this month, the MSS announced that anyone caught engaging in criminal activity near the border, including smuggling and attempting to defect, will be subject to strong punishments rather than rehabilitative measures, such as time at a forced labor camp.

The announcement of several measures pertaining to illegal activity near the border in the space of a month demonstrates how sensitive North Korean authorities are to smuggling and information leaks in the area.

BREAKING CORRUPTION

The order is also aimed at preventing corruption between local security officials and smugglers, according to the source.

Since it is common for smugglers to bribe local security officials, the MSS will reportedly send agents from the central government rather than local officers to work on the ships.

Smugglers say that the new order will only lead to more expensive bribes.

“You can earn up to RMB 10,000 [around USD 1,412] a day taking goods across the Yalu River,” the source said. “Because there’s so much money to be made, the measures won’t stop the smuggling. Smugglers will just have to pay higher bribes to the security officials.”

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea focuses on ending ship-based smuggling on border,” Daily NK, June 29, 2020.)

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The North Korean economy is doing badly, but keep some perspective

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Sanctions and Covid-19 have fused together to put the North Korean economy in what can only reasonably be described as an awful situation. Trade first plummeted through sanctions, and then even further because of North Korea’s and China’s anti-Covid19 measures. And the fall continues, as these figures in Hankyoreh show:

Figures from the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) and Chinese customs authorities reviewed on June 18 show a major drop in the value of North Korean goods being exported to the Chinese market: US$10.7 million in January and February (-71.7% year on year), US$600,000 in March (-96.2%), and US$2.2 million in April (-90%). The value of North Korean exports to China, which stood at US$2.63 billion in 2016, has fallen since economic sanctions were toughened, decreasing to US$1.65 billion (-37.3%) in 2017 and US$195 million in 2018 (-88.2%). Exports rebounded in 2019, to US$285 million, but that was still less than a tenth of the value of exports in 2016.

But how bad are things?

Bloomberg ran an article yesterday with the angle that the North Korean economy is the “worst” in two decades, and that this is why the country is lashing out against South Korea with renewed vigor. To support the former claim, it cites figures claiming that the country’s economy will contract by a total of 6 percent this year due to the combination of sanctions and Covid-19.

But how reasonable is this take?

There is no doubting that things are bad, but some context is badly needed. One of course cannot equate an economic contraction with the overall situation. (Never mind that any number on this will be qualified guesswork at best.) A contraction is only the economy shrinking, and it means nothing if we don’t know what the starting point is. In 1997, North Korea was perhaps at the height of a devastating famine, after the economy crumbled following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and China vastly scaling back support.

Today, North Korea may be in an economic crisis of sorts. But it entered it on the back of several years of steadily increasing exports to China. These exports, in fact, grew by more than a factor of ten between 1998 and the record year of 2013. So the situation is so different that a comparison is hardly meaningful.

This is also true for the food situation. According to numbers from the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, whose data is questionable but highly valuable, food production stood at 3.3 million tonnes in 2008, not an unusually low figure for the time. Contrast this with the projection that this year’s harvest will be 4.6 million tonnes. Not great, lower than it should be, lower than a few years ago, yes. But still not nearly the level of the disaster years.

Also, it is crucial to remember that even in ordinary times, a not insignificant proportion of trade with China occurs off the books. Throw an increasingly lower Chinese sense of caring what the US thinks about its sanctions implementation into the mix and you’ve got, well, likely a lot more trade happening under the radar. This is what news reports from inside North Korea have been saying for quite a while.

Not that things aren’t bad, or that North Korea’s recent actions have to do with sanctions (they almost certainly do). But don’t forget about context or proportions.

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Update on North Korea and Covid19: June 7th, 2020

Sunday, June 7th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A little over a week ago, I wrote an essay for Foreign Policy Research Institute about Covid-19 in North Korea. The long-term challenge of Covid-19, combined with sanctions, of course poses a major economic challenge for North Korea. However, as I attempt to lay out, there’s another issue. Much of Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy and policy focus has been tied up with economic construction and raising the people’s living standard. That looks like an increasingly distant prospect. With “just” sanctions, trade could have resumed and even expanded depending on the political moods in Beijing, and to a lesser extent, Moscow. Now with Covid-19, considerations are totally different:

Over the past few months, however, the tone of state rhetoric has changed. While before it breathed optimism, North Korean state propaganda now speaks much more—and more realistically—about problems and obstacles to economic development and about the old themes of autarky and economic self-reliance. For the time being, any plans to lift North Korea to a higher plane of economic development have largely been put on hold.

What does this mean politically for Kim Jong-un, who staked much of his credibility on delivering economic progress? The truth is that no one really knows. On the one hand, North Korea is perhaps the harshest dictatorship in the world, and the regime crushes even the slightest hint of dissent with an uncompromising iron fist. Over 100,000 people are estimated to be imprisoned in labor camps, many for crimes of political nature (or “speaking mistakes” as the Korean term goes), some for life. Kim Jong-un was in fact absent not just for one period of several weeks—the initial one that drew so much international attention—but for two different periods, and only appeared in North Korean media four times in all of April and May. Kim may be recovering from a medical procedure, but his absence may also be caused by caution against COVID-19. He may simply not want to conduct public visits or meeting sessions due to the risk of infection. In a system where so much power is centered around one single leader, his health is a top priority for national security in the eyes of the state, and will always be strongly guarded.

On the other hand, no dictatorship can truly function sustainably without any sense of at least tacit support from part of the population, such as the privileged, political core class. Kim has catered to this class in North Korea by overseeing their access to an essentially Western upper-middle class lifestyle in many respects, such as luxury department stores and a water park. The provinces have seen little of this development, and the massive and growing cleavage between the capital city and everywhere else is another long-term problem for the regime. Even so, life in the countryside has improved overall, albeit more marginally, thanks to the growth of the market system.

What happens when, over the course of a longer period of time, things not only cease to improve, but become markedly more difficult? The general public may heed the state’s call to get ready for some difficult times ahead for a while, but in the longer run, it may lead to widespread discontent. What that will mean for the North Korean regime, which has already survived challenges that seemed impossible, only time will tell.

(Full article here.)

In North Korea, it seems the regime is letting up on some of the strongest restrictions. For example, it will – and this says a great deal about the country’s complex economic system, where boundaries between illegal and legal trade are often unclear – “permit” smuggling to a greater extent:

North Korean authorities have decided to permit smuggling activities across some portions of the Sino-North Korean border from mid-June on the condition that smugglers pay foreign currency to purchase trade permits, Daily NK has learned.

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea on May 29, North Korea decided to allow traders in Sinuiju, Ryongchon, Uiju and Nampo Special City to conduct their activities from June 15. Traders who fall within the purview of the new measure include those working for trade companies affiliated with the military, Cabinet and other government agencies along with individual smugglers registered with companies.

WAKU BACK TO YOU

Traders must fulfill two conditions to restart their activities: 1) pay for their trade license (waku) in foreign currency; and, 2) in addition to their own imports, import items designated by the state and donate half of these imports to the government.

Even companies or individuals that already possess a waku must buy new permits with foreign currency because the permitted import lists on their trade permits must be changed to accommodate the import needs of the state.

North Korean authorities have reportedly ordered smugglers to include rice, flour, oil (cooking oil), sugar, MSG and other foods on their list of imports. Even traders who previously specialized in electric appliances or clothes must now include food items in their imports to be allowed to begin trading again.

The inclusion of these food items is likely the result of a measure handed down by the country’s Central Committee and Cabinet on Apr. 17 that restricted all “unnecessary” imports until the end of the year.

Following the announcement of the import restrictions, the prices of MSG, soybean oil and flour skyrocketed; there now appears to be great discontent among North Koreans about the scarcity of certain food products and the generally higher prices of food items. Daily NK’s source said that the addition of these food items to import lists is a direct result of this discontent.

North Korean officials have also announced that smugglers who hand over 70% of the food products – more than just the minimum of 50% – they import to the state will be given so-called “patriotic donation certificates.”

All in the all, the latest measure to open up smuggling across the border is aimed at both acquiring foreign currency (through the sale of trade permits) and stabilizing market prices by importing food items in demand.

UNEQUAL FOOTING

The decision to open up smuggling in certain areas is likely due to difficulties in controlling smuggling activities in places like Ryanggang Province and North Hamgyong Province.

Smugglers in those regions are reportedly faced with the significant burden of having to move their operations to North Pyongan Province or Nampo.

Moreover, they have to submit a “letter of intent” to a North Korean agency saying they will be importing items from a particular Chinese trader and the existence of these traders in China must be confirmed by the North Korean embassy in China. These traders also have to compete with traders already based in North Pyongan Province and develop trading routes from scratch.

Ryanggang Province-based traders have mixed opinions on the move to open up smuggling across the border. Some believe that they need to take the opportunity to start trade again, while others think they should wait until the authorities officially permit smuggling across the border in the province.

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “N. Korea to permit smuggling over parts of Sino-NK border,” Daily NK, 1/6/2020.)

Meanwhile, schools are now open, with video clips to show it:

Schools in North Korea were supposed to start new semesters in early April, but the vacation period was extended repeatedly due to the coronavirus pandemic, though some colleges and high schools were allowed to open in mid-April.

In the footage, students were seen wearing masks, as were parents and teachers. Masks stayed on inside classrooms.

The resumption of schools might suggest concerns over the coronavirus have recently eased in North Korea or it could be aimed at projecting Pyongyang’s the country’s ability to contain the virus.

(Source: “N. Korean schools reopen during pandemic,” Yonhap, 3/6/2020.)

Meanwhile, news continue to come out of the country about deaths from symptoms similar to Covid-19, though of course, everything remains unconfirmed:

Dozens of people in two South Pyongan Province hospitals recently died after suffering symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19 infections, Daily NK has learned.“The dozens of people who died recently were all patients at a facility caring for tuberculosis patients and the hepatitis care center at the Pyongsong City Hospital,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on June 4.

The Pyongsong City Tuberculosis Care Center and the Hepatitis Care Center at the Pyongsong City Hospital are both focused on treating patients with infectious diseases. Patients in these facilities are typically discharged only after receiving permission from their doctors.

The patients who died were all being hospitalized for preexisting conditions, but expired while receiving intensive care after they began showing signs of COVID-19 infections.

Both hospitals quickly blamed tuberculosis or hepatitis for the deaths and hospital workers were ordered to stay silent about the dead patients, the source said.

The sudden spike in deaths led some patients in the hospitals to run away from the facilities out of fear of COVID-19.

“Groups of patients left the hospitals out of fear that they could die if they stayed there any longer,” the source told Daily NK, adding, “Local authorities along with hospital managers were alarmed by this.”

Local and hospital authorities were reportedly concerned that the runaway patients might infect broader society with their diseases.

Local rumors about the runaway patients reportedly focused on the reaction of the authorities, which suggested that officials are still concerned about COVID-19.

Late last month, public health authorities in South Pyongan Province reportedly conducted a province-wide survey of people who showed symptoms similar to those caused by COVID-19 infections.

According to the source, the survey found that there are around 1,500 people quarantined either at home or at medical facilities in the province after complaining of high fevers, coughing, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms. Most of them are self-quarantining at home, while only a few with severe symptoms are in medical facilities.

(Source: Jang Seul Gi, “Source: Dozens recently died at two Pyongsong hospitals,” Daily NK, 5/6/2020.)

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The wild fluctuations of North Korean exchange rates

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

New market prices for North Korea came out recently, and lots is happening. Rice prices are down significantly, but compared to last year, the levels so far are quite normal. We should expect them to rise as the country goes further into the lean season between May and September (roughly). Foreign exchange rates, perhaps most interestingly, are fluctuating quite significantly, and the dollar especially so. The USD took a dive late last month, but it’s been fluctuating quite significantly before that as well, which would be more visible if not for the recent dive in the graph:

KPW-USD rates in three North Korean cities. Data source: Daily NK.

It seems that uncertainty itself is one of the main reasons. One in-country source told Daily NK:

“Even ordinary sellers who have long conducted relatively stable transactions in foreign currency are now afraid of losses because of dramatic fluctuations in the exchange rate,” the source told Daily NK. “Recently, the changes have been so frenzied that it’s not exaggerating to say that the prices in the afternoon will be different from the prices in the morning.”

“Wholesalers at the Pyongsong Market whose main patrons are other wholesalers throughout the country are complaining about the impact of the fluctuations in the exchange rate,” continued the source. “There are such major changes in the exchange rate between when wholesalers receive goods and then pass them along to retailers that uncertainty prevails.”

Citing exchange rate fluctuations of around KPW 1,000 in the past, some people reportedly do not believe that the fluctuations are a big deal. Yet, “most people think that we can’t sit idly by because the prices of imported goods are [also] increasing,” the source said.

“The damage done to businesses due to the exchange rate [fluctuations] and the increase in commodity prices are making things difficult for those who deal with transactions in foreign currency,” he added.

(Source: Kang Mi Jin, “Fluctuating exchange rates cause headaches for N. Korea’s business people,” Daily NK, 19/7/2020.)

It’s not just the government’s Covid19-measures themselves, such as the border closure, that impact the exchange rate. As noted on this website yesterday, the state is taking coercive actions of various forms to bring in funds, such as reportedly banning the use of foreign currency for domestic transactions in the hope that people will see no choice but to exchange their foreign money for domestic, bringing in much needed foreign exchange to the state.

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“New” bridge between China and North Korea getting a little closer to completion. But what does it really mean?

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Another day, some more progress on the so-called “bridge to nowhere”. It’s now been around six years since construction started on the new bridge between North Korea and China, crossing the Yalu river. The currently operational one between Dandong and Sinuiju already (in normal times) operates over capacity, and frequently needs repairs. Last year, in June, Xi Jinping supposedly promised Kim Jong-un funding to finally complete the bridge and to connect it to North Korea’s road networks to make it operational. Recently, work has finally taken off again on the North Korean side to do just that. Dong-a Ilbo:

North Korea resumed the construction of a road on last Sunday, according to multiple sources and photos posted on a Chinese social media platform.

With the help of China’s investment, the six-lane bridge was completed in 2014 as a replacement of the Sino–North Korean Friendship Bridge, an old and narrow bridge built in 1943. The New Yalu River Bridge was expected to boost trade between the two nations.

(Source: Wan-Jun Yun, “New Yalu River Bridge gears up to open six years after its construction,” Dong-a Ilbo, May 4th, 2020.)

The Dong-a headline appears somewhat premature, however, since customs buildings and other essential infrastructure still isn’t built. As Daily NK reports:

The opening of the bridge has long been delayed because North Korea had demanded that China pay for the construction of the North Korean road to the bridge.

While Daily NK has been unable to confirm whether any agreement on the payment issue has been reached, the efforts to complete the road suggest that the two countries have reached some sort of agreement.

There may, however, be obstacles in the way of the bridge opening any time soon.

“Customs-related buildings need to be built even if the road is finished,” the source said.

“The closure of the Sino-North Korean border due to COVID-19 and international sanctions on North Korea make it difficult to know when the bridge will open,” he added.

North Korean authorities are also highly sensitive to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic despite their moves to restart the road construction.

“Sinuiju residents were practically confined to their homes when COVID-19 posed a clear threat to the city, but the authorities have restarted construction – perhaps because the threat has gone away,” the source said.

“That doesn’t mean, however, that Chinese engineers and materials are entering the country [in quantities] like before,” he added.

A Chinese company had been managing the construction of the North Korean road to the bridge before work was halted. Now the North Koreans have completely taken over the construction process – none of the Chinese workers and their equipment are present at the construction site anymore, the source explained.

The lack of Chinese labor and equipment may be due to the North Korean government’s fears over COVID-19, but the country’s efforts to finish the road suggest that North Korean leaders are keen to use the bridge when Sino-North Korean trade begins again.

(Source: Mun Dong Hui, “N. Korean road connected to New Yalu River Bridge nears completion,” Daily NK, May 11th, 2020.)

There are two quite different ways of looking at these developments. I’d argue the bridge is, despite how things may seem, not a very good metric for the prospects of trade between China and North Korea. Surely, China would not likely invest in a new bridge unless it envisioned growing economic activity along the border. There are good reasons to believe that this is indeed the case, and that these border regions in particular regard North Korea as a driver for local growth and advantage. At the same time, planned economies such as China often make investment decisions for reasons unrelated to actual economic prospects. Perhaps infrastructure like this is also intended to boost the region itself, or at least, make it look like that is what the central government is doing. Moreover, it is also possible that China and North Korea merely envision replacing the current bridge over time. Last but not least, it may well be a political gesture of good faith and friendship to North Korea. Or, most likely, a mix of all of the above.

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What to make of the panic buying in Pyongyang and beyond

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

There’s been a few reports over the past few weeks about panic buying in Pyongyang, particularly of imported goods. The foremost reason appears to be the government’s restrictions of imports, aside from essential goods (whatever these are). A quick thought:

On the one hand, on a closer reading beyond the term “panic buying”, it’s apparent that we aren’t really talking about fundamental, daily necessities for the most part, but about imported items such as batteries and certain vegetables. When we monitor economic developments for social stability, such analyses tend to focus on items like rice and, at least in countries other than North Korea, fuel, and not least the stability of the currency. So it may not matter all that much if people in a northern province cannot buy lighters imported from China, or if Pyongyangites can’t buy imported pepper and other non-staple goods. (As you will see in one of the articles below, Daily NK has not heard reports of panic buying in Hyesan at all.)

At the same time, however, these imported goods are quite essential in the everyday lives of many people. We don’t know how much of imported goods the average person consumes, and I suspect it’d differ greatly between provinces. Since at least a significant proportion of the population consumes imported goods on a regular basis, these difficulties in acquiring items imported from China would in many cases cause great annoyance and, in others, disrupt production processes of firms and industries, although some exceptions are granted for “essential” items. Who determines what’s essential is likely hinges on political and economic clout, and it certainly won’t be the mom-and-pop-shops of the backstreet markets.

I’ve gathered a few related articles here. AP wrote about the topic on May 7th, 2020, with intelligence sources in Seoul confirming the news:

The NIS said it cannot rule out a virus outbreak in North Korea because traffic along the China-North Korea border was active before the North closed crossings in January to try to stop the spread of the virus, according to the lawmaker.

The NIS declined to confirm Kim’s comments in line with its practice of not commenting on information it provides to lawmakers. Kim did not discuss how the NIS obtained its information.

Last Friday, Kim Jong Un ended his 20-day public absence when he appeared at a ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang. His time away triggered rumors about his health and worries about the future of his country.

The NIS repeated a South Korean government assessment that Kim remained in charge of state affairs even during his absence. His visit to the factory was aimed at showing his resolve to address public livelihood problems and inject people with confidence, Kim Byung Kee cited the NIS as saying.

The NIS said the virus pandemic is hurting North Korea’s economy, mainly because of the border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and aid provider. China accounts for about 90% of North Korea’s external trade flow.

The trade volume between North Korea and China in the first quarter of this year was $230 million, a 55% decline from the same period last year. In March, the bilateral trade volume suffered a 91% drop, the NIS was quoted as saying.

This led to the prices of imported foodstuffs such as sugar and seasonings skyrocketing, Kim Byung Kee quoted the spy agency as saying. He said the NIS also told lawmakers that residents in Pyongyang, the capital, recently rushed to department stores and other shops to stock up on daily necessities and waited in long lines.

The NIS said prices in North Korea “are being stabilized a little bit” after authorities clamped down on people cornering the market, Kim said in a televised briefing.

(Source: “Seoul reports panic buying in N. Korea amid economic woes,” AP/Mainichi, May 7, 2020.)

NK News was one of the first outlets to cover the topic, in an article on April 22nd:

“Panic buying” sprees have been spotted taking place in some of Pyongyang’s stores and groceries since Monday, multiple informed sources told NK News, resulting in increasingly empty shelves and a growing shortage of key staples.

It’s unclear what’s led to the sudden surge in demand, with one source describing empty shelves and a sudden absence of staples like vegetables, flour, and sugar.

Locals have been buying “whatever is there,” one expat said, saying that “you can hardly get in” to some stores.

Both the expat and another person in Pyongyang said the surge was particularly notable on Wednesday.

Another source said large groups of locals were seen buying big amounts of mostly-imported products in some grocery stores, resulting in abrupt shortages.

(Source: Chad O’Carroll, “North Koreans “panic buying” at Pyongyang shops, sources say,” NK News, April 22nd, 2020.)

Daily NK, of course, has reported extensively on the topic, from both Pyongyang and the provinces. Imported goods are not only consumed in Pyongyang:

“The prices of Chinese goods have risen sharply in markets across the province, including the Yonbong and Wuiyon markets in Hyesan,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on Apr. 28.

According to the source, the price surge has mainly affected Chinese products, including daily necessities such as sugar, flour, and other cooking products.

For example, the price of Chinese seasoning has increased fourfold to a KPW 40,000 (around USD 6). Flour, rice and other grain prices have also increased. Two weeks ago, imported Chinese rice was being sold at KPW 4,400 per kilogram but is now being sold at KPW 5,500.

The price hikes have not just affected food. Chinese cigarettes have also increased in price: a box of Chinese-made Chang Baishan cigarette packs, for example, which used to cost KPW 12,000, is now KPW 17,000.

“Even Chinese lighters, which usually cost around KPW 700, have seen a price hike of nearly threefold and now cost KPW 2,000,” the Hyesan-based source added.

The main reason for these price surges is the halt in Sino-North Korean trade following the closure of the North Korean-Chinese border in late January. The effects of the steep fall in Sino-North Korean trade were made clear in recent data published by China’s General Administration of Customs. According to this data, Chinese-North Korean trade in March dropped by 91.3% compared to the same period last year to just USD 18.64 million.

“Just two weeks ago merchants were feeling more optimistic given the improved situation in China. Now, they’ve lowered their expectations quite a bit,” the Hyesan-based source told Daily NK, adding, “Prices are rising because business people are intentionally sitting on their stocks with the hope that prices will increase even more.”

[…]

Meanwhile, Daily NK is unaware of any reports of panic buying in Hyesan [emphasis added].

(Source: Kang Mi Jin, “Ryanggang Province witnesses price spikes,” Daily NK, April 30th, 2020.)

And, more recently, a report from Pyongyang:

“There are a lot of ordinary stores that have closed or are unable to sell anything because they have no stock left,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK on Apr. 30. “Right now 100 grams of imported pepper costs KPW 40,000, 450 to 500 grams of MSG costs KPW 48,000 and sugar can’t be found at all.”

PRICE SPIKES

The prices of imported food items nearly doubled after Apr. 17, when the North Korean government announced restrictions on imported goods deemed “unnecessary” for the North Korean economy. Prices began to rise rapidly once more before the publishing of this article in Korean on May 1.

According to Daily NK’s Pyongyang source, the price of imported pepper was just KPW 8,000 per 100 grams before the announcement, but doubled to KPW 16,000 after the decision was released. Now, the price has reportedly risen to KPW 40,000.

“The price of watch batteries and other small batteries for common household appliances like remote controllers for TVs have tripled or quadrupled,” the source further reported. “The price of batteries had remained stable even after the announcement, but several days ago it started to rise suddenly. The spike is probably because so many people began hoarding them.”

Although the price of batteries has risen to an unprecedented degree, Pyongyang residents reportedly continue to buy them in bulk, in boxes of 50, and as much as 10 boxes at a time. The hoarding is likely due to concerns that the price will only continue to rise and that soon there may not be any batteries left to buy.

“Many of the electronics stores throughout the city have closed down,” the source said, adding, “Stores that still have stock have closed perhaps because of rumors that Chinese products will no longer enter the country.”

In short, the source’s report suggests that state-run electronics stores, which command 20% of the market, have no stock left, while privately-run stores that take up the remaining 80% of the market have closed up despite still having stock on hand.

Based on the source’s report, owners of privately-run stores may have closed down their shops with the intent to sell their goods at prices even higher than they are now. The owners are likely under the belief that the recent import restrictions announcement means that various electronics accessories will no longer enter the country from China for some time.

(Source: Ha Yoon Ah, “Pyongyangites continue to hoard as prices keep rising,” Daily NK, May 4th, 2020.)

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Why Kim Jong-un “came back” at a fertilizer factory

Wednesday, May 6th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The choice of a fertilizer factory inspection as the place for Kim Jong-un to “return” after his three-week absence was no coincidence. On May 2nd, Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim had toured and cut the tape at the Sunchon Fertilizer Factory. To do this in the month of May especially is highly symbolic, and we should understand it as a signal that Kim and the state are very serious about alleviating North Korea’s perpetually difficult food situation.

Sure, in the budget report at the Supreme People’s Assembly in the middle of last month, the claim was repeated of a bumper harvest last year. This claim is extremely unlikely to be true, as the numbers show, but should not be read literally in any case. Indeed, given North Korea’s economic situation, the food situation is remarkably stable, although always difficult. But still, these two claims aren’t necessarily inherently contradictory. Kim can claim a bumper harvest while also working to stabilize the food situation over the long run. Fertilizer has long been an achilles’ heel for North Korean agriculture, and historically the country has been highly dependent on chemical fertilizer. One of the main catalysts for the famine in the 1990s was the Soviet Union and China cutting of oil subsidies. North Korea’s ability to produce such fertilizers, whose production process is very energy-intensive, subsequently collapsed. The Rodong article announcing Kim’s “return”, unsurprisingly, highlights the completion of the fertilizer factory as a victory for North Korea’s independence and self-reliance.

This focus on fertilizers is not unique in North Korean media. Just the other day, on May 5th, an article in Rodong lauded the factory construction as a crucial step for North Korea to remain independent and reject “reform and opening”. Another the same day covered a new organic fertilizer factory in Sinyang County. Articles about fertilizer factories – particularly organic ones – have been highly prolific, especially since around 2016. That focus also isn’t new. The extensive use of chemical fertilizer damaged North Korea’s soil badly, and Kim Jong-il once gave an entire speech wholly focused on the supremacy of organic fertilizers.

Just like the focus on fertilizers, it’s no coincidence that it happens in May. This month marks the beginning of the main planting season in North Korea. The food security situation is already concerning, not least with the country’s coronavirus prevention measures keeping crucial shipments of agricultural inputs such as seeds reportedly backed up and waiting to enter the country. China has previously provided crucial fertilizer aid to North Korea (in addition to grain shipments), and perhaps still does so. But with China highly concerned about keeping re-infections out, as well as watching out for its own stability first and foremost, it may be more reluctant than it otherwise would to provide aid to North Korea to make up for a difficult harvest, should it be necessary.

Moreover, a significant question mark remains around North Korea’s fertilizer production efforts. Oil is still a central input for fertilizer manufacturing, as well as for irrigation efforts. How does North Korea intend to operate and power factories such as the one Kim visited in the long run? Regardless of what factories it builds, resources scarcity will continue to be a significant stumbling block for now.*

 

*(For some reading related to this issue, see the recent debate between Hazel Smith and James Kelly at PacNet.)

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April 27th, 2020: Worrying signs of distress in the North Korean economy

Monday, April 27th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Readers of this blog know that market prices have risen over the past few weeks, largely as a result of North Korea’s anti-COVID19-measures. Over the past few weeks, however, other signs than market prices have surfaced that the economic situation may be getting more difficult, unrelated to Kim Jong-un’s health situation.

  • On April 17th, the Cabinet and WPK Central Committee reportedly announced a ban of all non-essential imports. The reason, ostensibly, is anti-COVID19-protections. One can also imagine it has to do with keeping the country’s hard currency base in place.
  • This measure, and perhaps combined with the overall mood, led to panic buying of import products in Pyongyang shops.
  • Prices on imported goods have increased drastically, Daily NK reports, with the price of imported soybean oil going from 45 RMB to 100 RMB for 5kg.
  • We should also view the issue of the public bonds in this context. In mid-April, the state issued public bonds which it ordered the bureau in charge of constructing the Pyongyang General Hospital to use to pay suppliers. This may be a sign that the state lacks cash of its own to fund the project, and it may expand the bonds issuing program. Moreover, the state may require entrepreneurs to purchase them. If the state begins exerting pressure on economic actors to purchase these bonds, such policies could become measures to essentially confiscate the assets of private economic actors, because the state lacks funds of its own.

Lots of uncertainties as always, but these trends are well-worth keeping an eye on.

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

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Organizational matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It went on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Note the absence here of any reference to coal exports.

[..]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 10th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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