Archive for the ‘Statistics’ Category

Of price controls and panic: North Korean market prices under Corona

Friday, March 27th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(Note: the graphs in this piece are from a shortly forthcoming article on 38 North.)

It’s almost like those mandatory disclaimers that often follow advertisements in the United States, but the statement that all information from inside North Korea is uncertain can sometimes not be repeated often enough. This is especially true in a situation like the current one, where the country’s borders are virtually shuttered, and global anxiety is high to begin with.

With that, let’s take a look at some numbers…

With North Korea’s border closing earlier this year, market prices quickly shot up as consumers most likely hoarded goods in anticipation of future shortages. Particularly curious was the fact that prices seemed to differ so widely between cities, as I wrote about here. This suggested that internal restrictions on movement between localities, a measure the state took to control the spread of coronavirus, were working. A few weeks later, however, both market prices and the differences between cities seemed to go down again.

Differences in rice prices, in percentage, between three North Korean cities, until March 7th. Data source: Daily NK.

So did market prices in general. In the latest price data observation from Daily NK, from March 7th, average rice prices are about 25 percent higher than a year ago, and 29 percent higher than in early December, before the border closure. That’ a lot, but somewhat less than the initial 36 percent increase when the border was closed initially. Even the slightly lower price increase would spell severe difficulties for many North Koreans in buying food. Note: the latest price observation is from March 7th, that is, several weeks ago.

Average rice prices in North Korea, until March 7th. Data source: Daily NK.

So, what happened here? There are two possibilities that I think are more likely and realistic than others. One is that markets overreacted in their initial anxiety. Put simply, people may have thought that supply would become much lower than it ended up being. This is a common mechanism in markets in general. People often react more strongly than called for to anticipated, future changes, and then adapt their economic behavior once it’s clearer what actual conditions of supply and demand are. It’s also possible that the government let up on conditions for imports and trade, easing the burden on supply.

But there is another possibility. Both Rimjingang and Chosun Ilbo have reported that the government has instituted price controls to prevent prices from rising. This was only to be expected, as it is one of the few tools the state has at its disposal to control market anxiety. Price controls, however, are rarely (if ever) effective in the long run in countries such as North Korea. Either trade moves to the black market, or sellers run out of goods as they are forced to sell for less than consumers are willing to pay.

Aside from the two aforementioned reports, there are other potential signs that price controls may be in place. The price difference between Hyesan and Pyongyang/Sinuiju went down to a conspicuously low level, one that is actually lower than normal, a very odd coincidence. It got there only over the span of a few weeks, getting close to the 5,000 won-level reported by Chosun as the price ceiling. As far as currently available information can tell, no conditions changed on the ground. It would be reasonable to assume that at some point, the government may let up on restrictions on trade to ease conditions, but we don’t know whether that has happened yet. Reports of harsh measures against smuggling continue, and such measures would signal to the markets that state enforcement of the border closure remains and will remain harsh. So while in theory it makes sense that prices would go down somewhat after the initial spike, conditions on the ground have not changed noticeably, as far as we know.

So, what might have happened is that at least around March 7th, the government was still somewhat successful at enforcing its price ceiling, at least in parts of the country. One of Chosun’s sources reports that as of March 18th, rice cost 6,300 won per kg in Hyesan, much closer to the initial price level after the border closure. Price ceilings can usually only be enforced for a limited period of time, particularly when real shortages loom of essential products. Prices either rise beyond the ceiling, goods run out, or a black market arises. If the regime is indeed enforcing a price ceiling, and it continues to do so for a long time, perhaps we will see an increase in back-alley markets and other type of economic activity that the government has been relatively successful at curbing by integrating the markets into the official economic system over the past decade and a half or so.

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Weekly update, March 6th: the coronavirus and the North Korean economy

Thursday, March 5th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The coronavirus continues to dominate the news cycle and everyday life developments of people around the world, and North Korea is no exception.

The government is taking very, very serious measures to protect the country. Chinese residing in areas along the North Korean borders have been warned not to get too close, or risk being shot at by North Korean border guards. I cannot recall anything similar to this in the past few decades of Sino-Korean relations and border conditions. Reuters:

Residents of the Chinese cities of Jian and Baishan were warned that people who get too close to the border might be shot, according to three people who received the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters.

“We’re told that we may get killed if we get too close to the border area,” said one restaurant owner in Jian, which is separated from North Korea by the Yalu River, declining to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.

Residents are prohibited from fishing, grazing livestock or throwing rubbish near the river, according to the notice issued this week.

Strict controls are in force domestically as well. I wrote about price divergences between cities a few days ago, a potential sign that North Korea’s internal controls are severely limiting movement between provinces in the country. While this is likely a good thing from a virus prevention point of view, it’s very problematic for North Korean consumers. It may even be a bigger one than the closure of many of the goods transport routes over the Chinese border.

Aside from goods from different provinces not reaching markets in other localities and limiting supply, there’s a broader question looming. What happens with these goods? In China, as restaurants see demand drop to catastrophic lows, ingredients lay idle and rot. North Korea has limited electricity supply and refrigeration is not common in homes, and likely not with market traders in large parts of the country either. When people stock up on goods, they most likely choose those that will not perish easily, such as rice. And what happens with unsold, fresh goods? Are they sold at below-market value, causing losses for farmers down the supply chain, or perhaps in some cases not sold at all because they can’t be transported to the right markets?

North Korea’s quarantine situation is also interesting. State media has said that 7,000 people are under “medical monitoring”, whatever that means, and 3,920 under quarantine. For the quarantine figure, that’s 0.00015 persons per capita (assuming a population of 25 million). By comparison, Denmark has 0.00004 people per capita under quarantine. This is perhaps not surprising as Denmark is a wealthy country, far away from China with good testing  and monitoring capacities. Still, it underscores the point that 3,920 people under quarantine is certainly not nothing. To some extent, authorities may be over-vigilant, but there’s likely a foundation there somewhere.

More to come next week, surely.

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The UNCTAD claim on North Korea’s GDP-growth in 2019

Saturday, January 18th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that North Korea saw a real-GDP growth of 1.8 percent in 2019. Marcus Noland once wrote that one should not “[…] trust any datum on North Korea that comes with a decimal point attached.” This is perhaps even more true of large-scale, macro figures such as this. For one, you need an estimated inflation rate to calculate real GDP, and I have no idea which number UNCTAD may be using. You can find the figure on p. 178 here, together with a quite optimistic prognosis for 2020 and 2021. Even with that growth, North Korea barely recaps the negative growth of 2018. Let me say again that all of these numbers build on little but more or less qualified guesswork. That’s important to keep in mind since this one line in a UN report graph has made quite a few international headlines already.

Most likely, UNCTAD builds their projections upon the somewhat lower decline in exports in 2019 compared with 2018. It’d be interesting to know if they also take into account the seemingly decreased vigilance in sanctions enforcement by China, and how one could possibly quantify this. More on the possible variables here.

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Did North Korea really see its best harvest “on record last year?

Friday, January 17th, 2020

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As I and Peter Ward discovered some weeks ago, the claim by Kim Jong-un that North Korea had its “best harvest on record” did not make it into the English-language summary of Kim’s plenum speech put out by KCNA. Several media outlets have picked up on this claim, and that is not surprising. Not even a year ago, last spring and summer, both the North Korean government and UN organs sounded the alarm bells that North Korea’s harvest was so disastrous as to suggest a famine might be looming.

So what happened?

First of all, it should be noted, as always, that one must be extremely cautious in studying data on anything related to the North Korean economy. Most people who follow North Korea are well aware of this but especially when it comes to an issue like this, one cannot be cautious enough.

I focus here on the claim by Kim that the harvest was the best “on record”. It may well have been a good harvest, or at least a much better one than anticipated. This seems to be the case. The only attempt I’ve seen at a numerical estimate comes from South Korea’s Rural Development Administration. They estimate that North Korea’s harvest grew by around two percent in 2019 over 2018. This sounds fairly plausible and could perhaps be explained by weather conditions unexpectedly improving, or fertilizer donations from China, and the like. Or the government and FAO’s projections were simply wrong from the beginning.

To understand why it is so unlikely that this year’s harvest would be the best on record, we have to look at what ‘the record” really says. The following graph shows North Korean harvest figures between 1990 and 2017, as recorded by the FAO. These figures are not independently recorded or verified but, to the best of my knowledge, generated by FAO in cooperation with the North Korean government, or provided directly by the government. Usually, that would be a problem, but here, it’s actually quite helpful since it helps us analyze the claim about the “record”.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: FAOSTAT.

I downloaded these numbers from the FAO database some months ago. For whatever reason, I’m unable to access the data at their website at this time of writing, and therefore, can’t fill in the data further back. This data also differs somewhat from other data on North Korean harvests from the World Food Program and FAO. Still, they match quite closely with other data the two organizations have published in recent years about North Korean food production. Again, keep in mind that this data is produced and published in concert with the North Korean government. In that sense, these numbers are the “record”.

Over the past few years, estimated harvests have gravitated between four and five million tons in milled rice equivalent.  (You can read more here about what that actually means.) In 1993, North Korea’s record of harvests notes 7.5 million tons. Harvests hovered around 8 million tons in the 1980s – again, to the best of my recollection, as I can’t access the FAO statistics database numbers of North Korea at this time of writing.

Graph by NK Econ Watch/Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. Data source: WFP/FAO. 2019 is a projected figure.

For Kim’s claim to be true, therefore, this past year’s harvest would have had to go from around five million tons in 2018, to surpassing eight million tons in 2019. I am no agricultural economist, but Kim would likely need something like a miracle of nature for this to happen. I am not aware of North Korea’s landmass suddenly doubling, for example, or the amount of arable land increasing by one third overnight. Therefore, Kim’s claim is most likely, beyond reasonable doubt, simply not true. Note also that outlets such as Daily NK have reported that the government has taken predatory measures against grain trade as a result of what the outlet describes as “poor agricultural yields”.

In other words, there is very little to back up the claim made by Kim (and subsequently by North Korea-affiliated Choson Sinbo). This claim is a break with a pattern over the past few years, where North Korean media has been very frank – often, probably exaggerating – in describing difficulties and damage caused by flooding and inclement weather. There are several reasons why this may have changed with regards to the harvest. For one, food security a very basic need for any country. With bad food security, North Korea appears weak in the face of sanctions. It would hardly be the first time the North Korean government lied for strategic, propaganda purposes. It is also possible that harvests were much better than anticipated, and that Kim’s claim is merely a strong exaggeration. Perhaps “best on record” should be read as a superlative, rhetorical claim rather than a literal one. At the end of the day, we simply don’t know, and the ways of the inefficient North Korean bureaucracy are mysterious.

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What explains North Korea’s exchange rate drop? How significant was it?

Sunday, August 25th, 2019

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few weeks, both Asia Press and Daily NK have reported the North Korean won depreciating against the dollar on the markets.

According to the figures from Asia Press, it seems the won first fell drastically, but that the initial FX-rise was a so-called “overshoot”, a disproportionately high rise of the exchange rate, but later corrected itself to levels more reflective of actual availability of dollars. The Asia Press index rose from 8,593 won/1$ on July 19th, to 9,463 won/$1 on August 6th, to 8,625 won/$1 on August 21st. Asia Press notes that the reason for the dollar appreciation is unclear, and speculates that it may be related to sanctions. That’s true, but it’s unclear what would have changed so suddenly and drastically in sanctions implementation as to cause a sudden rise of around ten percent. All in all, discounting the sudden and very temporary rise,  the exchange rate rose by not even one percent.

Reporting by Daily NK confirms the exchange rate spike reported earlier by Asia Press:

Daily NK conducted a market survey on August 6 that found the price of US dollars in North Korea was 7,850 KPW in Pyongyang, 7,880 KPW in Sinuiju and 7,900 KPW in Hyesan. The price ballooned some 800 to 900 KPW in just two weeks.

North Korea’s currency rate regularly sees significant volatility, but the last time the rate increased by 900 KPW in just two weeks was in 2015. During the second half of 2015, the North Korean authorities conducted harsh crackdowns on Chinese-made products and heightened international sanctions came into effect. The combination of these two factors caused the exchange rate to skyrocket more than 700 KPW.

There were even areas of the country that temporarily saw a spike to more than 9,000 KPW. In Rason, North Hamgyong Province, the exchange rate rose to 9,740 KPW on August 14 but has since retreated to between 8,500 and 8,700 KPW.

A Daily NK source in North Hamgyong Province said that the rising exchange rate may be related to stagnation in North Korea’s domestic markets. “The currency rate changes every day and it rose in August again,” he said. “The spike in the currency rate this year suggests that businesses aren’t doing so well and it may also be due to external factors.”

The source suggested that the external factors include the US-China trade war and China’s recent intentional devaluation of the yuan. For the first time in 11 years, the Chinese yuan broke past seven renminbi to the dollar on August 5.

Source:
USD – North Korean Won exchange rate spikes in North Korea
Kang Mi Jin
Daily NK
2019-08-22

The FX-rate spikes aren’t reported in the Daily NK price index, so it doesn’t even appear in the broader exchange rate graph. The following graph shows the exchange rate from 2015 until Daily NK’s latest report, only a few days ago:

Graph 1. North Korean won/$1, 2015–August 2019. Graph by NK Econ Watch, data from Daily NK price index.

The won has depreciated against the dollar, for sure. Particularly in the short run. The past few weeks have seen slightly more volatility than usual. But still, in the big-picture context, things look fairly stabile.

Graph 2. North Korean won/$1, September 2018–late August 2019. Graph by North Korean Economy Watch. Data source: Daily NK.

A spike such as the one reported earlier in August can happen for many reasons. There is likely so little of US-dollars in circulation in North Korea that fairly minor changes can make a big dent in the market exchange rate. Communications function so poorly in North Korea that rumors spread easily with little possibility for quick confirmations or denials.

I and Peter Ward have previously argued, among other things, that the dollar isn’t a currency of general use in North Korea. The main holders of dollars are, most likely, state-owned corporations and other non-human entities. One move by a major holder could therefore have a significant impact on the market as a whole. The RMB has held completely stabile, so it’s very likely not a matter of any general stress on the markets. Had the source been something related to sanctions implementation, upped pressure, significantly changed expectations, or the like, we should have seen changes in the won-to-RMB-rate as well. As things stand right now, the market exchange rate does not look to be out of its normal range.

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Chinese tourism to North Korea rising

Tuesday, August 6th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Yonhap:

In the report on North Korea published by the state-run Korea Development Institute, Kim Han-gyu, a deputy director at the Korea Tourism Organization, estimated that the number of Chinese tourists to North Korea hit a record high last year, and the trend is likely to persist for the time being.

“This is a probable scenario if current relations between North Korea and China, and the international political situation either persist or improve,” Kim said.

In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited North Korea for the first time since he came to power in 2012, a trip that suggested that bilateral relations are back on track after being strained over Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in recent years.

The bilateral ties — once described as being as close as “lips and teeth” — had been soured over the North’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.

North Korea has stepped up efforts to attract more tourists in an apparent bid to earn hard currency in the face of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear tests and its long-range rocket launches.

In 2002, 121,000 Chinese visited North Korea, accounting for 62.4 percent of all foreign tourists to the North that year.

The number of Chinese tourists fell sharply to 24,000 in 2009, when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test in May that year.

Source:
Chinese tourists to N. Korea on rise: official
Yonhap News
2019-07-31

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Rice prices up in North Korea, market price data says. How bad is it?

Friday, August 2nd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Asia Press reports that rice prices have “skyrocketed” in North Korea this month:

The price of domestic rice, which stood at roughly 4,500 won (about 0.53 USD) per kilogram for most of the year, began to rise in July, surpassing 5,500 won (about 0.65 USD) per kilogram by the end of the month.

Multiple reporting partners living in the northern regions of the country were asked to investigate the reason behind the rise in the price of rice.

A reporting partner living in a city in Hamgyong Province explained, “The rice merchants say that, ‘domestic rice is scarce, so it is only a matter of time before it runs out’. The rise in price will likely continue from after the next harvest until the end of the year.”

Still, rice is not disappearing from the markets. Imported Chinese rice is sold at stable prices across all markets.

Most of this Chinese rice, however, is old and was harvested some time ago. The North Korean government, though, continues to import the low-quality, cheap Chinese rice, favoring ‘quantity over quality’.

Domestically produced North Korean rice, on the other hand, is not old and sticky. Due to its higher popularity, it is generally 5% more expensive than Chinese rice. This slight price difference was very stable and had remained unchanged over the last 20 years.

The cause of the domestic rice’s scarcity and subsequent rise in price is presumed to be the effects of last year’s heat wave and drought on production.

A rise from 4,500 won to 5,500 in only a few weeks is indeed quite noteworthy and potentially alarming. But what does context tell us?

I know very little about where in the country Asia Press sources its price data from, but I suspect it’s primarily or perhaps even only North Hamgyong province. It does seem like this steep price rise may be a somewhat localized phenomenon. Looking at the Daily NK price data gives us a little bit of a clue. It hasn’t been updated since July 23rd, so it may be that it will catch up and register similar shifts later on. But looking at the numbers for the past few weeks, prices in Hyesan have increased much more than in Pyongyang and Sinuiju.

So this might, for various reasons, be a localized phenomenon.

It should also be noted that prices usually rise during the summer months, as the next harvest draws closer, and storage runs lower and lower. Prices last summer around this time were much lower than present, but in 2017, they were significantly higher. So I would caution against drawing any hard conclusions as of now, and hopefully the next report by Daily NK will tell us more.

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North Korea’s economic contraction in 2018: what the BoK numbers tell us

Friday, July 26th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The Bank of Korea has released its yearly estimate of North Korea’s economic trends for last year. The estimate gives a contraction of the economy by 4.1 percent. Reuters/Channel News Asia:

North Korea’s economy shrank in 2018 for a second straight year, and by the most in 21 years, hit by international sanctions to stop its nuclear programme and by severe drought, South Korea’s central bank said on Friday (Jul 26).

North Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 4.1 per cent last year in real terms, the worst since 1997 and the second consecutive year of decline after a 3.5 per cent fall in 2017, the South’s Bank of Korea estimated.

North Korea does not disclose any statistics on its economy. The South Korean central bank has been publishing its estimates since 1991, based on information from various sources including the South’s foreign trading agencies.

North Korea’s international trade fell 48.4 per cent in value in 2018 as tougher international sanctions in late 2016 and 2017 cut exports by nearly 90 per cent, the Bank of Korea said.

Output in the mining sector shrank 17.8 per cent because of sanctions on exports of coal and minerals, while the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector contracted by 1.8 per cent because of drought, it said.

North Korea’s population was estimated at 25.13 million and annual income per head at S$1,298, the South Korean central bank said.

Article source:
North Korea’s economy shrinks most in 21 years in 2018: South Korea
Reuters/Channel News Asia
2019-07-26

I won’t go into much depth on the methodological issues with all this, but suffice to say that because Bank of Korea doesn’t release much information on their models, estimates, assumptions and the like, their analysis is always difficult to evaluate. That’s why it’s not particularly helpful to state that it’s the lowest growth (or largest contraction) since 1997. That may be true, but proportions aren’t necessarily all that relevant or accurate here.

That said, broadly, the estimate makes sense. In fact, it may be a slight lowball estimate. South Korean economist Kim Byung-yeon put estimated a 5-percent contraction for 2017, which sounds more reasonable to me.

The BoK estimate of the mining sector is particularly interesting. They give a contraction of 17.8 percent of the sector as a whole for 2018, after claiming in 2017 that it shrank by 11 percent. On the one hand, it’s interesting to think about how all this might look domestically. This would mean that around 70 percent of the mining sector which operated in 2016, continues to operate today. So what’s happening with all that coal, and all those minerals? Well, we get a hint of that in the estimates for electricity generation and water. This was down by -2.9 percent in the estimate for 2017.

Now, the estimate instead gives an increase of 5.7 percent. This positive effect for domestic electricity generation has been anecdotally reported by outlets such as Daily NK for quite a while. Cheaper electricity has made supply much better in parts of the country. This is a relatively minor positive, as the revenue loss from decreased exports is much greater. Nonetheless, there may be a slight impact here of cheaper electricity cushioning some of the lower demand for industrially manufactured goods.

Here’s a graph comparing the 2017-2018 estimates, based on the BoK data (which you can find here).

Bank of Korea estimates of North Korean GDP growth, by sector, 2017 and 2018. Graph by NK Econ Watch.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the baseline here was fairly high. North Korea has experienced a few years of solid economic trends, so a negative growth of four percent isn’t necessarily catastrophic. Of course, it’s very bad, but there are more nuances to these things than full stability or complete disaster.

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China-North Korea trade up in first half of 2019

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

A fairly minor recovery from an already low level, one should bear in mind. SCMP reports:

China’s trade with North Korea recovered in the first half of this year after a sharp fall in 2018, Beijing said on Tuesday.

The announcement comes as ties between the countries improve, with Chinese President Xi Jinping making his first state visit to Pyongyang last month.

Total trade with North Korea reached US$1.25 billion between January and June, up 14.3 per cent compared to the same period a year earlier, Ministry of Commerce figures showed.

Exports to North Korea amounted to US$1.14 billion – a rise of 15.5 per cent – while imports rose 3.2 per cent to US$110 million.

China remains North Korea’s sole military ally and biggest trading partner. Trade in 2018 was worth US$2.7 billion, down 48.2 per cent year on year, the Seoul-funded Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency said last week.

North Korea’s trade with China fell sharply in 2018, taking its overall foreign trade to less than US$3 billion for the first time since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took power in 2011.

[…]

Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said China was “doing its work under the UN sanctions regime” but that North Korea might have the strength to work through its economic hardships.

“The country is always economically isolated from the rest of the world, and North Korean people are used to this situation. In fact, self-reliance has been their way of life for a very long time,” Zhang said.

Article source:

China-North Korea trade up 14.3 per cent in first half to US$1.25 billion
Lee Jeong-ho
South China Morning Post
2019-07-24

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Seoul wires $8 million to North Korea in humanitarian aid

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Note: this is not a lot of money in context. It covers only a small part of what WFP and others estimate as the funding need.

Yonhap:

South Korea on Tuesday sent a pledged donation of US$8 million to U.N. agencies to support their efforts to provide assistance to North Korean women and children in need, the unification ministry said.

Last week, the Seoul government endorsed the donation plan for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for their projects to support the nutrition of children and pregnant women in North Korea and address their health problems.

Of the total, $4.5 million was allocated to the WFP and the remainder to UNICEF.

The money was remitted to the agencies Tuesday afternoon, according to the unification ministry.

A ministry official said earlier in the day that it will take more time before the money will be actually spent on the agencies’ projects in North Korea, adding that they are working on reducing the time before its implementation in consideration of the urgent need of many North Korean people.

Article source:
Seoul wires promised money to U.N. agencies for N.K. projects
Yonhap News
2019-06-11

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