Archive for the ‘Political economy’ Category

North Korea’s Korean Worker’s Party Secretariat statement on Party discipline and social control

Tuesday, June 14th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Korean Worker’s Party Secretariat met this past Sunday (June 12th) and discussed, among other things, social disobedience and discipline within the Party, in no uncertain or soft words (as reported by Yonhap here.) Statement below in its entirety:

Meeting of Secretariat of WPK Central Committee Held

The Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Sunday held a meeting at the office building of the WPK Central Committee to discuss major issues of the Party work.

The respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, presided over the meeting.

Attending it were Jo Yong Won, Pak Jong Chon, Ri Pyong Chol, Ri Il Hwan, Kim Jae Ryong, Jon Hyon Chol and Pak Thae Song, secretaries of the WPK Central Committee.

The meeting discussed the major tasks to be fulfilled in the Party’s immediate activities and its building.

It discussed the issue of scrupulously conducting the organizational and political work to firmly arm the Party organizations at all levels with the spirit of the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK and inspire them to the implementation of the Party decisions and of decisively improving the role of the Party organizations in the overall Party and state affairs this year, and assigned relevant revolutionary tasks.

The Secretariat of the WPK Central Committee discussed importantly the issue of establishing the traits of firmly preserving discipline within the Party and waging a more intensive struggle against unsound and non-revolutionary acts including the abuse of power and bureaucratism revealed among some Party officials.

Clarifying the immediate work and prospective tasks for taking organizational and institutional measures and establishing the efficient work system to further strengthen the Party Central Inspection Commission and intensify the discipline supervision system among the local Party organizations at different levels, including the basic ones, and for putting the norms of supervision, discipline examination and penalty on a more detailed basis, the respected General Secretary called for expanding and strengthening the authority and function of discipline inspection departments for aiding the work of the Inspection Commission, enforcing the strict supervision work system, discipline examination order and stern penalty system in keeping with the legitimate demand of the essence and strengthening of the Party’s line of building discipline, and thus thoroughly guaranteeing the realization of the monolithic leadership of the Party Central Committee and the broad political activities of the Party through the strong discipline system.

Saying that it is necessary to prioritize the work for encouraging and raising the high political principle, fighting spirit, revolutionary style and communist moral traits within the organizations of the whole Party to thoroughly carry forward the nature, mission and duty of the revolutionary party and develop the fighting efficiency of the socialist ruling party, he stressed that, to this end, it is essential to push ahead with as an indispensable priority task the work to strictly establish the strong habit of observing the rules and discipline of the Party and the supervision work system and rectification system over the execution of the Party’s line and policies and embodiment of sound working style and moral life.

Clarified at the meeting was the important and strategic party-building idea of the General Secretary on regarding the building of the Party’s discipline as its prior important task and major line in the party building and activities, more firmly consolidating the Party’s foundation, improving the revolutionary and militant efficiency in the Party’s political activities and enhancing, improving and strengthening the Party’s role and trait.

The Secretariat of the WPK Central Committee decided to take institutional measures for thoroughly applying the original idea and theory of the General Secretary on building the Party’s discipline to the Party work and activities.

The meeting also discussed other major issues of improving the Party inspection and guidance work and enhancing its interior work.

Political News Team

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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.

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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.

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Another data point on North Korea and the world economy

Monday, April 25th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At 38 North, I recently looked at how world market price swings impact the North Korean economy. Given the lack of consistent price data for coal in North Korea, I was unable to look at the potential impact of global coal price changes on domestic prices (and export prices) in North Korea. But with global coal prices shooting up following bans on imports of Russian coal and other energy products, North Korean producers will likely benefit significantly, at least in the short- to medium-term. So although global food price hikes following Russia’s attempted invasion of Ukraine may hurt the North Korean economy in some ways, rising coal prices will benefit it in others.

Daily NK notes this in an interesting recent report. According to their sources, prices paid by Chinese importers for North Korean coal have risen by 40 percent in a short time:

According to multiple Daily NK sources in North Korea on Wednesday, Chinese traders are paying an average of USD 70 per ton for smuggled North Korean coal.

That is not even one fourth of international price coals, including Australia’s benchmark Newcastle index, which have been climbing at a frightening rate due to the EU’s ban on Russian coal imports.

The price of smuggled North Korean coal is about half that of the local price in China, where there is a price cap. However, it is also more than double the price of exported North Korean coal prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, even compared to early October, when smuggled coal sold for about USD 50 a ton, the current price represents a more than 40% climb from six months earlier.

At the time, Chinese coal prices were skyrocketing due to local shortages following Beijing’s suspension of Australian coal imports due to trade disputes with Canberra.

In the end, the price of North Korean coal is essentially hitching on to continuously rising global coal prices.

Moreover, the sources said North Korea is selling high-quality coal of more than 7,000 calories to China. Accordingly, more Chinese traders are reportedly demanding North Korean coal.

They further said that while coal exports are not as brisk as they were prior to the pandemic, North Korea has been continuously exporting coal through the port of Nampo as of late.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “N. Korea sees coal prices rise as international energy prices skyrocket,” Daily NK, April 21st, 2022.)

It is always striking and interesting to note just how much of a buyer’s monopoly North Korea is subject to when it comes to China’s coal imports. Because China is the only country of true significance for North Korean coal exports, it is to a large extent free to set the prices. As the article notes, the prices Chinese importers pay for North Korean coal are not even one-fourth of global prices. It’s worth keeping in mind when China is referred to as North Korea’s economic “lifeline”. It may be somewhat true, but it’s far from that simple.

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Kim Jong-un on North Korea’s import problem

Tuesday, October 26th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few weeks, Kim Jong-un has made a few interesting statements on reducing North Korea’s imports reliance. This is not a new theme by any means, and economic self-reliance is, at least in theory, a cornerstone of North Korean ideology. At the same time, the timing is probably no coincidence. The Covid-19 border closure has led to serious shortages of imported goods in particular causing, among other things, a lack of ink and paper to print the domestic currency.

In a speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly on September 30th, 2021, Kim spoke about the need to strengthen state “guidance” over the economy, and to make “all trade activities” in the “direction” of “decreasing the reliance on imports”:

대외경제사업에 대한 국가적지도를 심화시켜 모든 무역활동이 경제부문의 수입의존성을 줄이고 자립성을 강화하는 방향에서 확대발전되도록 하며 경제관리분야에서 국가경제지도기관들의 집행력을 강화하고 근로자들의 리익을 보장하기 위한 과학적인 방안들을 진지하게 연구적용할데 대하여 말씀하시였다.

(Source: Choson Sinbo, “김정은원수님께서 력사적인 시정연설 《사회주의건설의 새로운 발전을 위한 당면투쟁방향에 대하여》를 하시였다,” Choson Sinbo, September 30th, 2021.)

On October 19th, as reported by Yonhap here, a North Korean TV-broadcast made virtually the same statement, with the addition that the “economic guidance organs” are taking “active action” to implement the state’s decision.

These are merely two data that points document North Korean concerns about import reliance. Again, it’s nothing new, and I suspect we’ll see more similar statements in the future, perhaps more and more often.

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North Korea’s October 19th missile test and the economy

Tuesday, October 19th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

North Korean missile tests often lead to discussions about what they can tell us about the country’s overall strategic position and thought. So it is natural to ask after today’s missile launch, what does it tell us about North Korea’s economic situation? Is it a display of confidence, crisis, or neither?

I’m not going to attempt to give a solid, certain answer here, but two things are interesting about the timing and contest.

First, the launch came the day after news reports that trade has expanded significantly between China and North Korea. Imports by China have more than doubled, as have exports from China to North Korea. None of these figures are near pre-pandemic levels, but the increases are still significant. Daily NK reports confirm that the authorities are concerned about and trying to mitigate the soaring prices of imported goods, driven largely by the virtual blockade of the border to China. So from this point of view, the missile launch may express confidence that the domestic economic situation is improving or will soon improve.

Second, and contrary to the above, it may express confidence in North Korea’s ability to pull through the current difficulties despite the lack of clear improvements on the horizon. After all, the uptick in trade data may be an anomaly, and what’s most important is whether it is part of a longer-term pattern. In other words, a missile launch at a time when the economy is in many ways near a crisis, may attempt signal Pyongyang’s ability to persevere and continue its weapons development despite the difficult economic circumstances.

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North Korea is more connected to global markets than you might think

Wednesday, October 13th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

After a hiatus during the summer following my PhD defense, I now plan to get back to posting regular analyses and news content here. First up, an interesting example of why the North Korean economy is in fact more connected to global commodity markets than many might think.

Over the past few weeks, coal prices have skyrocketed in China, following energy shortages record-high coal prices. In September, the country’s coal imports surged by 76 percent, fueled flooding in one of the country’s main coal producing regions.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Chinese demand for North Korean coal — the commodity at the heart of international sanctions on North Korea — is reportedly growing. As Daily NK reports:

According to a source in Pyongyang on Wednesday, there have been noticeably more requests for coal from Chinese traders since North Korea’s national foundation day holiday on Sept. 9. He said there have been several illegal transshipments of coal for export over the last month.

China has recently limited trade with private North Korean traders, dealing instead with official North Korean trading bodies. The source said, however, that Beijing now approves transactions with any North Korean entity that can provide China with coal, including private ones.

In fact, the Chinese government has reportedly launched no particular crackdowns on private imports of North Korean coal.

Rather, according to a source in China, some provincial civil servants in China are advising traders to take care not to get photographed when they transship coal. Essentially, the Chinese government is turning a blind eye to imports of North Korean coal, an internationally sanctioned item. At the same time, they are asking traders to exercise caution, aware that the international community is watching.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “Amid coal shortages, Chinese traders on the hunt for more North Korean coal,” Daily NK, 7/10/2021.)

There are several things worth noting about this. First, again, it should not be surprising. China’s enforcements of sanctions against North Korea depends primarily on whether Beijing believes it to be in the national interest to clamp down on trade or smuggling. Clearly, China now needs cheap coal, and it’s been a long time since the North Korea issue was at the center of international politics and diplomatic tensions. So there appears to be comparatively little to lose in increasing trade for the moment, although China has been significantly letting up on its sanctions enforcement for several years now, since the days of “maximum pressure” in 2016–2018.

Second, North Korea still appears to be getting shafted by China, who exploits its position as the almost exclusive monopoly buyer buyer to purchase coal from North Korea at prices lower than world market prices or Chinese domestic prices. The precise proportions are uncertain, but Daily NK reports that China is paying less than half of world market prices for coal imports from North Korea, although their source also notes that the North Korean side is using the global shortage as leverage to jack up prices. In other words, while China may in some sense be North Korea’s “patron”, commercial market logic is much more important in coal trade than often assumed, and China isn’t necessarily doing it to help North Korea.

Third, and to tie back to the title of this piece, North Korea, despite its policies of economic autarky, is in fact deeply connected to global commodity markets. This isn’t just true for currency prices. Although the size of North Korea’s foreign trade remains comparatively abysmal, its economy is, just like most other economies today, tied to the broader dynamics of global supply and demand.

It still remains to be seen how much trade can expand under the current North Korean border shutdown. Though some goods are getting through, the border largely remains under lockdown due to Covid-19 despite intermittent news reports that trade might restart and return to its former scale. As many analysts have noted, Covid-19 has succeeded in closing the border more tightly to trade than most sanctions regimes have. How much Pyongyang is willing to meet Chinese demands and let coal shipments go across the border in larger scale, potentially increasing the country’s exposure to the virus (in the eyes of the leadership) remains to be seen.

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Some brief thoughts about North Korea’s food situation, late June 2021

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

By all accounts, the current food situation in North Korea appears difficult. It’s a crucially important topic that I unfortunately have not had much time to follow over the past few weeks. A few brief thoughts:

First, it’s important to keep in mind when hearing phrases such as “worst in a decade” that North Korea went through an actual famine in the 1990s and early 2000s. So that the food situation has gotten better over the last decade, while the country was arguably still rebounding from the famine, should not come as a surprise.

Second, it’s difficult to tell precisely how bad things are. Food production estimates, though only approximations, paint a picture of relative shortage compared to the past few years, but still not near disaster levels. North Korean authorities and international organs often sound the alarm bell over looming disasters, while little follow-up is done about what actually happened in the end. Anyone remember the famine warnings in early 2019, by the state and some foreign analysts alike? It’s impossible to tell how representative this report by Daily NK is, but if it’s true, the government is failing to stabilize prices because consumers choose not to buy rice in bulk for cheaper but lower quality from state-owned stores. If the country was approaching a genuine famine, this likely wouldn’t be the case.

Third, all this said, things do seem difficult. Bill Brown outlines in an excellent and thorough report here some of the alarming signs: relatively major fluctuations in both exchange rates and food prices. Although price levels aren’t at levels never seen before, fluctuations like this are relatively unusual. I suspect much of it is driven by future expectations of shortages based on information suggesting that the state will not open the border to China for trade within the foreseeable future.

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Kim Jong-un’s claim of the “worst-ever situation”

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Perhaps I am late to the game already (the long weekend here in Israel is to blame for that), but it has been puzzling to see the media reporting on Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea faces its “worst-ever” economic situation at the moment, under both international sanctions and a self-imposed border lockdown.

It seems that Kim’s words have been misinterpreted or lost in translation. Colleagues at 38 North have rightly and importantly pointed out that the original Korean-language statement is not nearly as drastic. This is often the case with KCNA articles and translated statements from North Korea:

In the vernacular report, however, this term read kuknanhan (극난한), which would be better translated as “very hard” or even “extremely difficult.”[2] North Korea’s English-language media sometimes omit passages or provide translations that are different from the vernacular text, and without analyzing years’ worth of data, it is impossible to conclude whether they do so deliberately, or if they are simply oversights.

It is clear, however, that Kim did not say “the worst-ever situation” at this event. Even if he had, the North Korean leader has made similar remarks in connection with the country’s current circumstances in recent months. For example, Kim’s opening address at the Eighth Party Congress in January referred to the past five years as a period of “unprecedented, worst-ever trials.”

None of this means that the situation is not bad. But “worst-ever” would be extremely drastic for a country where the failings of the economic system led to a famine in the 1990s and early 2000s that took the lives of between 600,000-1.5 million people. Today’s conditions simply aren’t grave enough to warrant such comparisons.

Precisely how difficult conditions are remains hard to tell. The Russian ambassador to North Korea recently gave an interview where he said that the country’s food situation is not at all catastrophic, and that there are no signs suggesting an ongoing famine. He is probably right, but at the same time, we should be careful not to extrapolate too much about the situation in the provinces, for example, based on an assessment of the store shelves in Pyongyang. The country’s society is highly stratified and its economy relatively fragmented. The situation in one locality may well be much more dire than in another.

At the same time, we should also be careful not to take Kim Jong-un at his word. What, except for Kim’s own statement, suggests that today’s situation is worse than the one in 1995, after both economic collapse and heavy flooding took a severe toll on the economy? Sure, things are incredibly messy right now, a view that both circumstances and data support. Kim’s own statement, not least, is another solid data point showing just how grim things appear to be. But famine, meaning large numbers of people dying from starvation or malnourishment, is simply a different dimensions. Let us hope that North Korea does not get there, neither now nor in the future.

There are reasons to believe that it will not. The market system, for its faults and flaws, is able to react to changes in supply and demand, unlike the state distribution system in the 1990s. Moreover, China would likely step in with serious quantities of food aid if the situation got truly disastrous. Many signs suggest that North Korea and China expect to resume and even expand trade in the short-term. Should a drastic need arise, China would likely increase humanitarian shipments as well, although it is far from certain.

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Are fears of market crackdowns in North Korea exaggerated?

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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