North Korean authorities call street vending a “crime against the people”

December 8th, 2021

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reports Daily NK:

North Korean authorities recently designated streetside commerce as a “crime against the people” and have begun ideological education efforts to tamper down discontent surrounding government crackdowns on street merchants.

Daily NK recently obtained “political activity materials” written by the Central Committee’s Propaganda and Agitation Department entitled “Let’s Completely Eliminate the Phenomenon of Commerce near Markets and in the Streets.” The materials were used during lectures at factories, enterprises and inminban (people’s units) throughout the country from early to mid-November.

The materials start by saying, “COVID-19 is causing great anxiety and concern in the international community as it spreads throughout the entire world, while the appearance of variants is causing a major global disaster.”

The materials then say that with the authorities declaring a national quarantine emergency and closing the border to stop infections, some “unawake” people were in a flap over “temporary difficulties” and obstructing quarantine efforts by carrying out “chaotic” commerce near markets and on the streets. Essentially, the authorities are stressing the justification for the controls on streetside commerce.

Daily NK previously reported that North Korean authorities — led by the Ministry of Social Security — have strengthened their controls on streetside commerce since March, forcefully confiscating the wares of so-called “grasshopper merchants,” as streetside merchants are called in North Korea. They have gradually strengthened their crackdown since then, dragging off people involved in the trade to forced labor camps.

Despite the “mop-up operation,” however, locals reportedly continue to engage in streetside commerce to overcome economic difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, evading surveillance by regulators. People have also expressed considerable bitterness over being prevented from doing business as they like. Aware that people are very unhappy, the authorities have begun ideological education efforts in response.

The materials condemned “many people” for “creating disorder near markets and on the street, failing even to wear masks” and “threatening quarantine efforts by serving food of questionable sanitation and safety,” all out of an obsession with “earning just a few coins more.”

(Source: Kim Chae Hwan, “North Korea calls streetside commerce a ‘crime against the people’,” Daily NK, 6/12/2021.)

Share

North Korea’s tense food situation

December 7th, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

As usual, it’s very difficult to get a read on the domestic availability and production of food in North Korea. Nonetheless, the overarching picture continues to be grim, and the fears over the Omicron-variant seems to be making it all worse. This is also what the South Korean government assesses:

The cost of groceries and daily necessities in North Korea is estimated to be rapidly increasing in the face of a prolonged border lockdown to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic, Seoul’s unification ministry said Monday.

The North has imposed a strict border control since last year, which is believed to have taken a toll on its economy already hit by crippling sanctions.

“North Korea is experiencing chronic food shortages with around 1 million tons of foods falling short every year,” ministry spokesperson Lee Jong-joo told a regular press briefing. “As the coronavirus-driven border lockdown has prolonged, it is likely to be having difficulties in securing necessary foods from abroad.”

The North was seen preparing to reopen its land border with China, with South Korea’s spy agency estimating its cross-border rail services could resume as early as in November. But the spread of the omicron variant is apparently delaying the reclusive regime’s planned border reopening.

“Though we do have limits in having access to accurate information, the government’s estimation … is that the volatility of foods and necessities prices is growing (in North Korea) and some items are witnessing a rapid price hike,” Lee said.

Yet, referring to experts’ assessments the North’s crop output could improve this year due to better weather conditions, she said the government will continue monitoring its situation in line with a review on the need for a humanitarian cooperation.

(Source: “Prices of food, daily necessities estimated to be rapidly soaring in N. Korea: gov’t,” Yonhap News, 6/12/21.)

The last paragraph here is a crucial caveat, as North Korea’s food production is highly volatile and dependent on weather conditions. Over the past few years, there have sometimes been reason to suspect that the state has exaggerated the direness of its food situation rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the prolonged border closure is hitting hard against the economy as a whole. There have been several reports over the past few months indicating that Pyongyang might soon unseal the border, but no major changes seem to have taken place. I’m not sure that means those reports were necessarily wrong. Rather, the government may well have planned to ease the border lockdown at several points only to back down in the face of a new development, be it Covid-19 spreading in China’s northeast, or the rise of the Omicron variant.

It’s difficult to see what could really change if the government continues to both refuse to let the outside world assist in a vaccination campaign, and at the same time responds to each new wave or variant of the virus by further tightening or extending the border lockdown. It’s not a sustainable strategy but given the regime’s fear of the havoc that a significant spread of the virus could wreak in society, given its very fragile health system, it might not change anytime soon.

Share

Faltering expectations of increased trade strengthens North Korean won against foreign currencies

November 25th, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Daily NK reports (thus far only in Korean) that a recent decision to strengthen border control measures has caused foreign currencies to depreciate versus the domestic currency. In normal times, when the Amnok (Yalu) river freezes, smuggling activities increase. This year, people expect things to be very different given the tightened border shutdown:

북한 원·달러 환율이 또 다시 4천원대로 하락했다. 최근 북한 당국이 국경지역에 대한 방역 조치를 강화하자 무역에 대한 기대감 하락이 환율에 영향을 미친 것으로 분석된다.

24일 기준 북한 원·달러 환율은 평양 4700원, 신의주 4690원, 혜산 4620원으로 조사됐다. 이달 14일 달러 환율이 평양 5500원, 신의주 5500원, 혜산 5350원이었던 것과 비교하면 열흘만에 약 15%가 하락한 것이다.

지난해 국경봉쇄 이후 북한 환율은 무역에 대한 기대감에 따라 5% 내외 수준으로 등락을 거듭하고 있지만 무역 또는 방역과 관련된 당국의 조치가 하달될 경우 10% 이상 급락하는 양상을 보여왔다.

취재결과 지난 22일 중앙당 조직지도부는 중앙비상방역사령부와 국가보위성, 조선인민군 총참모부에 국경지역 방역수칙을 강화하라는 내용의 지시문을 하달한 것으로 알려졌다.

But, as their source says, smuggling can never be stopped entirely regardless of the measures:

소식통은 “지금도 밀수가 되고 있고 국경지역 밀수는 기본적으로 비(위안화)가 사용된다”면서 “아무리 국경을 봉쇄하고 통제해도 어떤 방법으로든 밀수가 이뤄질 것”이라고 말했다.

(Full article and source: Jang Seul-gi, “北, 국경통제 강화 지시에 달러 환율 ‘뚝’…무역재개 포기 분위기,” Daily NK, 25/11/2021.)

Share

Some news on the donpyo implementation

November 23rd, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

An interesting and illustrative reminder of how much economics is about the public’s trust (or lack thereof) in the system… Daily NK:

There was a recent incident at a market in Pyongyang’s Sosong District in which a money changer refused a request by an employee of the financial section of a particular enterprise to change donpyo for foreign currency. Ultimately, the money changer exchanged the vouchers at a rate of KPW 2,500 for each KPW 5,000 voucher, but he was arrested by police after they were called to the scene.

The incident suggests that North Korean authorities are paying enterprises that need state funds in donpyo rather than cash, and that those enterprises are putting money together by changing the vouchers into foreign or local currency through money changers.

The source said that the financial sections of enterprises are also trying to get rid of their donpyo as quickly as they can by immediately exchanging them or depositing them in banks. This suggests just how little faith locals have in the vouchers.

Meanwhile, the groups will reportedly focus their efforts on improving the public image of the donpyo, even as they crack down on rumors about the vouchers and businesses that refuse to change or accept them.

The source said the authorities do not believe locals will voluntarily use the donpyo if they start by “strongly making examples” of people. He said the party ordered that educational efforts to teach the principles behind the donpyo should be prioritized over forcing people to use the vouchers.

(Full article here: Seulkee Jang, “North Korea organizes inspection teams to ensure smooth distribution of money vouchers,” Daily NK, 22/11/2021.)

 

Share

More dire trade figures for North Korea

November 18th, 2021

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Amid speculation on when trade flows between North Korea and China might again be restored, new numbers show a significant dip in trade between the two countries in October. According to new Chinese customs figures, trade fell 40 percent between September and October, after a fairly steady but moderate climb in the months before.

Officially recorded trade, that is. There is likely a limit to what quantities of bulky goods such as coal can be smuggled, but it would be surprising, given China’s demand for coal at the moment, if total Chinese imports from North Korea during the last month weren’t higher than reported. North Korean coal is relatively cheap and China is virtually a monopoly buyer.

At the same time, these numbers do break the general but modest trend of increasing trade in the months before. While the construction of quarantine facilities and refurbishments of the cross-border infrastructure do indicate that trade might resume in a not too distant future, when this might be still remains an open question.

Share

Squaring the conflicting news reports on North Korea’s border reopening

November 4th, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over the past few days, there’s been a flurry of news reports suggesting two seemingly conflicting things: 1) that North Korea may reopen its borders with China and Russia already in November and, 2) that the border closure may remain in effect for several years to come.

First, Yonhap:

North Korea is in the final stage of preparations to reopen its train routes with China following prolonged border controls to stave off the coronavirus, a unification ministry official said Thursday.

The North is expected to first resume cargo transportation via land routes, the official said, though adding it’s hard to tell exactly when the operations would begin.

“Our assessment is that various preparations for the resumption of goods exchange through train routes are at the final stage,” the official told reporters on background.

Seoul officials have said signs indicating preparations for trade resumption were detected in the North Korean regions bordering China, such as the construction of quarantine facilities.

Last week, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers the North is in talks with China and Russia to resume train operations across the border and those connecting Sinuiju and Dandong — border cities of the North and China, respectively — could resume as early as November.

(Source: “N. Korea in final preparations to reopen border with China: official,” Yonhap News, 4/11/2021.)

In addition, NK News have reported several times over the past few months on satellite imagery showing construction of quarantine facilities near the border with China as well as activity near border crossings suggesting that trade might soon resume.

At the same time, according to media outlets with grassroots sources in North Korea, the authorities have told the population to buckle down and prepare for hard times to continue, as the border lockdown won’t ease even partially this year. Daily NK:

In particular, the provincial party said the border closure was not just a measure to protect the people from COVID-19, but also to awaken government organizations, enterprises and people “full of illusions about imported goods” from their delusions. They stressed the need to satisfy the people’s demand for consumer goods with “products produced in our country (North Korea).”

The source added that the party said the goal of the light industry and commercial sectors was to produce “uniquely North Korean light industrial goods” independent of imports by substituting foreign materials for domestic ones, and to supply those goods to the people.

The provincial party also decided to promote domestically produced commercial goods, basic foodstuffs and groceries as good for one’s health as they are eco-friendly, and equal to those of any other country.

The source added that the party said the state would “thoroughly control” the import of raw materials for consumer goods or basic foodstuffs “that we could easily produce and use in our country (North Korea).” He also said the party said that controls could be placed on imports “unapproved by provincial, city or county commercial departments” at local markets “even if the border were reopened.”

Meanwhile, the source said the provincial party told officials that they should understand that the border closure “will never be lifted, even partially” this year and that they should supervise matters well.

(Source: Jong So Yong, “N. Korean Cabinet calls on commercial sector to eradicate the ‘import disease’,” Daily NK, 4/11/2021.)

As I noted on the blog earlier this week, Radio Free Asia has reported that authorities say the border won’t open for trade until 2025.

Obviously, you can’t keep the border both closed and open it at the same time. So how can these claims be squared? As with all news on North Korea relying on few sources or South Korean intelligence claims, a huge dose of skepticism is warranted. It is of course entirely possible that some of these claims will later prove to be inaccurate. No one knows when border trade might reopen.

But both reports could be true at the same time. Note especially this paragraph in the quote from Daily NK above:

In particular, the provincial party said the border closure was not just a measure to protect the people from COVID-19, but also to awaken government organizations, enterprises and people “full of illusions about imported goods” from their delusions. They stressed the need to satisfy the people’s demand for consumer goods with “products produced in our country (North Korea).”

This goes to the heart of the question about whether the government may be using the pandemic as an opportunity to push for policy changes it would have sought anyway. It has long been a central economic policy goal for North Korea to decrease its reliance on imports and instead improve domestic manufacturing. Kim Jong-un has spoken about it frequently, as did his father before him.

Particularly in this light, it seems possible that the government might resume some border trade with China that is particularly important for its political purposes (or otherwise urgent), such as construction materials, certain machine parts that cannot be domestically manufactured, and potentially fertilizer. At the same time, it might continue the overall border closure in the name of the pandemic, severely limiting the flow of goods, with decreasing the country’s reliance on imports as an important long-term policy goal in mind. So for the general public, the message may remain that they must cope with an economic reality where the border remains largely shuttered, while trade resumes in some strategically important goods.

Share

New time horizon on North Korea’s border shutdown?

October 31st, 2021

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

There have been many rumors on when the North Korean government might end the current shutdown and restore the border trade with China to a somewhat normal, pre-pandemic flow. This is a recent data point (among many) on this and should of course be taken with the customary generous pinch of salt, but Radio Free Asia reports that North Koreans have been told the hardships will last at least until 2025:

After the government informed citizens to expect more years of hardship, people complained that they might not be able to last through the coming winter–much less hold out through the middle of the decade.

“Two weeks ago, they told the neighborhood watch unit meeting that our food emergency would continue until 2025. Authorities emphasized that the possibility of reopening customs between North Korea and China before 2025 was very slim,” a resident of the northwestern border city of Sinuiju, across from China’s Dandong, told RFA’s Korean Service Oct. 21.

“The food situation right now is already clearly an emergency, and the people are struggling with shortages. When the authorities tell them that they need to conserve and consume less food until 2025… they can do nothing but feel great despair,” said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.

(Source: Jeong Yon Park, “North Korea tells hungry citizens to ‘tighten belts’ until 2025,” Radio Free Asia, October 26th, 2021.)

Share

Kim Jong-un on North Korea’s import problem

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.

Share

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

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.

Share

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

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.

Share