Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

North Korean rice prices stabilize in September

Friday, September 23rd, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Following a quite usual pattern, rice prices have stabilized in the past few weeks after climbing during July, the country’s “lean season” in food. Daily NK reports:

North Korean rice prices appear to be falling this month after climbing past KPW 6,000 a kilogram in late July.

According to Daily NK’s regular survey of North Korean market prices, a kilogram of rice in Pyongyang cost KPW 5,600 as of Sept. 18. This is about 11% less than it cost on July 26, when a kilogram of rice climbed to KPW 6,280.

In fact, the price of rice in Pyongyang has continued to fall since the July 26 survey.

In other regions such as Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province and Hyesan, Yanggang Province as well, rice prices have continued to drop, falling 8 to 12% since late July.

It appears rice prices are falling from July because double-cropped wheat, barley and potatoes have been harvested, and because the authorities provided some North Koreans with unglutinous rice, glutinous rice, wheat flour and other foodstuffs earlier this month to mark the anniversary of North Korea’s founding on Sept. 9.

However, the provisions were primarily aimed at Pyongyang residents and cadres of state agencies. Ordinary people in the provinces received nothing in particular.

According to the source, in some regions such as Yanggang Province, rice of relatively poor quality is currently circulating in markets. Considering the poor state of the musty, moldy rice, it appears some low-quality rice in military storage found its way into markets after it was given to soldiers.

North Korean authorities recently ordered officials dispatched overseas to obtain grains such as unglutinoius rice, corn and soybeans. However, the authorities have yet to provide the imported grains to ordinary people.

According to another source in the country, some military units have gone directly to Nampo, where the imported grain is being stored, to load up on unglutinous rice.

(Source and full article: Seulkee Jang, “N. Korean rice prices fall after climbing past KPW 6,000 per kilogram in late July,” Daily NK, 23 September, 2022.)

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Is the North Korean economy in crisis territory?

Thursday, September 8th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 11th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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Market conditions in North Korea, amid rising prices

Monday, July 11th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North Korea’s problematic Covid-19 numbers

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Oil and fuel supply shortages on North Korean markets?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North 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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March, 2021: what to make of the rise in North Korea-China trade?

Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

According to Chinese customs data, Chinese exports to North Korea increased by 400 times in March, compared to the combined shipments in January and February of this year. As South China Morning Post reports:

Trade between China and North Korea grew to a six-month high in March, figures from Chinese customs show in the latest sign that the two neighbours are easing border restrictions amid tensions with the United States.

Exports from China to North Korea jumped from a paltry US$3,000 in February to US$12.98 million in March, according to Chinese customs data released on Sunday.

That was nearly 400 times more than the US$33,000 combined shipment of January and February, and was the highest by value since September, when China recorded outbound shipments valued at US$18.88 million to the isolated neighbour. Pyongyang imposed strict controls on goods transport ahead of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party in October.

According to Chinese customs, China imported US$1.308 million of North Korean goods in March, compared with US$1.75 million in February.

(Source: Laura Zhou (and Reuters), “China-North Korea trade jumps after pandemic slump but sanctions curb business with Pyongyang,” South China Morning Post, April 19th, 2021.)

What to make of this?

It could, of course, be the start of a trend reversal from the past year’s catastrophically low trade figures. Perhaps the North Korean government has begun to let up on border restrictions. In the past few weeks, news reports have said that China plans on restarting trade and open the new bridge between Sinuiju and Dandong. NK News has found evidence of new disinfection centers for goods on the North Korean side in April. The Russian ambassador to North Korea also recently said in an interview that trade will restart soon.

At the same time, I’m not sure these figures themselves give evidence of resumed trade. They could be a mere glitch in the data caused by a change in accounting routines or the like. Just look at the reported figure for Chinese exports to North Korea in February: $3,000. It simply isn’t realistic. Perhaps a portion of that month’s trade was recorded instead for March for reasons related to payments or contracts. China, moreover, ships much more goods to North Korea than what’s officially recorded as “trade”.

As so often, we will simply have to wait and see. When Chinese data is published on the specific items traded, we should also get a better sense of what this trade upswing really means.

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