Posts Tagged ‘Corona’

North Korea-China railway freight could start again soon, for two reasons

Monday, August 8th, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Railway freight between Dandong in China and Sinuiju in North Korea, a crucial channel for the flow of goods between the two countries, started back up in January after a two-year border closure, and was shut down again in April due to the Covid-19 situation in both China and North Korea. Now, Radio Free Asia reports that railway freight could start again today or tomorrow (August 8th or 9th), citing North Korean sources:

Rail freight shipments between the northern Chinese city Dandong and North Korea’s Sinuiju will resume next week, providing a vital lifeline of goods to the pariah state, North Korean sources said.

“Starting around Aug. 8 or 9, the international freight train between Sinuiju and Dandong will resume its operation,” an official from a trading organization in North Pyongan province told RFA on Thursday.

“There has been an order from the Central Committee for all trading companies to prepare import and export materials to load,” he said, referring to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea.

North Korean authorities proposed the resumption of service to the Chinese government because the country faces economic difficulties due to a serious shortage of supplies, he said.

North Korea is dependent on trade and aid from China, its main ally and trading partner. Restrictions on the flow of goods from the country during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns devastated North Korea’s already chronically unstable economy.

Freight train service between Sinuiju and Dandong, the hub of North Korea-China trade, was halted in August 2020 because of the pandemic. It resumed on Jan. 16, but was closed by the Chinese again on April 25 after outbreaks in both countries.

Maritime trade with North Korea was also halted at that time but was partially resumed in mid-July after repeated requests from authorities in North Korea.

Trading company representatives, including ones from firms in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, are stationed in Sinuiju, which sits across the international border of the Yalu River from Dandong, the source in North Pyongan said.

“They have been ordering goods from their Chinese counterparts to import construction materials and basic food. They are trying to secure foreign currency to pay for the imports,” he said.

A North Korean source in Dandong, with knowledge of the situation, also told RFA on Thursday that the Dandong-Sinuiju freight train service was about to resume.

“Since yesterday, a Dandong-based logistics company has been recruiting truck drivers to transport goods to the Dandong freight station and manpower to load goods on the freight train in preparation for the resumption of Dandong-Sinuiju freight train operations,” he said.

The logistics company must collect basic food such as sugar and flour, iron products, and construction materials ordered from North Korea from all over China and transport them to Dandong freight station, said the source, who declined to be named so as to speak freely.

Additionally, Dandong quarantine authorities will directly manage the freight station and the trains that return to China after transporting goods to North Korea, he said.

Chinese workers who load and unload goods on freight trains in Dandong must have received COVID-19 vaccinations, the source added. Workers will be tested daily for the virus and can continue on the job if their results are negative.

The freight train will operate 15 to 17 cars at a time and will go directly to the Uiju quarantine facility, formerly the Uiju Airfield, near North Korea’s northern border with China, the source said.

(Source: Hyemin Son, “Rail freight service between China and North Korea to resume in days,” Radio Free Asia, August 5th, 2022.)

This may just be one individual news report, but the overall context also seems to speak for this in many ways. North Korea recently announced the end of its first Covid-19 wave. It might not be a coincidence that this report comes at the same time. Indeed, declaring the Covid wave over was more or less a prerequisite for re-opening rail freight traffic. It may be that signals from the Chinese government that they were willing to re-open the railway link factored into the North Korean authorities’ decision to declare the first wave over.

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Was North Korea’s Covid-19 “victory” planned from the beginning?

Wednesday, July 20th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

Since last month, there’s been strong signs that North Korea may soon declare “victory” over Covid-19. Its claims of progress against the virus are puzzling, like many claims the country has made about its Covid-19 situation, especially at a time when cases were climbing in the rest of the region. The most recent example came this past Monday, when the regime said it was close to solving the crisis completely:

“The anti-epidemic campaign is improved to finally defuse the crisis completely,” the Korean Central News Agency said. It added that the North had reported 310 more people with fever symptoms.

The World Health Organization has cast doubts on North Korea’s claims, saying last month it believed the situation was getting worse, not better, amid an absence of independent data.

The North’s declaration could be a prelude to restoring trade long hampered by the pandemic, one analyst said.

“Under the current trend, North Korea could announce in less than a month that its COVID crisis is over and that could be a prelude to resuming crossborder trade,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Sejong Institute’s North Korea studies centre in South Korea.

(Source: Reuters, “North Korea says nearing end of COVID crisis,” Reuters, 18/7/2022.)

Signs that North Korea may soon declare victory began to appear only a little over a month after the country even admitted to having any cases of the virus in the first place. As AP put it a few weeks ago:

According to state media, North Korea has avoided the mass deaths many expected in a nation with one of the world’s worst health care systems, little or no access to vaccines, and what outsiders see as a long record of ignoring the suffering of its people.

[…]

What’s clear, though, is that the daily updates from state media make it appear inevitable that the nation will completely defeat a virus that has killed more than 6 million people around the world. According to the official tally, cases are plummeting, and, while 18% of the nation of 26 million people reportedly have had symptoms that outsiders strongly suspect were from COVID-19, less than 100 have died.

The South Korean government as well as some experts believe that North Korea may soon declare that it has beaten the virus. This will be linked, of course, to Kim’s strong and clever guidance.

[…]

“There are two sides to such a declaration,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “If North Korea says that COVID-19 has gone, it can emphasize that Kim Jong Un is a great leader who has overcome the pandemic. But in doing so, it can’t maintain the powerful restrictions that it uses to control its people in the name of containing COVID-19.”

(Source: Hyung-jin Kim, “‘It always wins’; North Korea may declare COVID-19 victory,” Associated Press, 21/6/2022.)

Indeed, a declaration of final victory is by no means a certainty, and the government would indeed lose a powerful reason for the stronger measures of social control it has implemented over the past few years.

But what about all the state has to win by declaring victory over Covid-19? I’m not talking here about the propaganda value for Kim Jong-un and his “clever guidance”, but about the economy. I speculated when the North Korean government first admitted that Covid had spread to the country that it could be a step toward normalizing the situation and, in the longer run, a step toward opening the border back up for trade with China.

When the government recognized it had been hit by Covid, it turned it from a risk to be avoided at all cost into a problem to be dealt with. By doing so, it made the border closure more or less superfluous; if the virus is already in the country, no more need to keep trade at close to a standstill.

In this light, declaring victory over the virus would be a natural step, and that would itself be a step toward fully normalizing trade and easing or abolishing internal restrictions. Several recent signs indicate that this may be happening. North Korea seems to, more or less, want to open trade back up with China, no longer fearing that the virus will enter the country. To the contrary, Chinese authorities are now weary of the virus coming in from North Korea. As Daily NK reports:

Although North Korea is making a show of confidence, claiming that the coronavirus situation in the country has “completely stabilized,” the Chinese government is tightly controlling trade with the North due to concern about the state of the pandemic in the country.

According to a Daily NK source in China on Monday, as coronavirus cases decrease, factories and restaurants are reopening in regions of China that border North Korea, including Liaoning and Jilin provinces. With highways, railways, ports and other inter-regional transportation links soon set to reopen as normal, the movement of goods and people within China is expected to improve.

However, in contrast to moves to relax domestic disease control measures, the Chinese government has yet to begin easing controls and inspections regarding trade with North Korea. In regions that border North Korea, Chinese authorities are reportedly cracking down hard on Chinese people directly contacting or doing business with North Koreans.

The source told Daily NK that the Chinese government is levying fines of at least RMB 300,000 (around USD 44,450) on people caught smuggling with North Koreans, a measure that has helped prevent Chinese traders from readily dealing with their North Korean counterparts.

On the other hand, North Korean trade officials are making more requests for imports from Chinese traders. With North Korean authorities recently allowing certain North Korean trading companies to participate in or expand existing trade with China, these companies appear to be responding by increasingly asking for items to import.

(Source: Seulkee Jang, “China still appears wary about reopening trade with North Korea,” Daily NK, 20/7/2022.)

North Korean firms, presumably on order by or at least approval from the state, are in other words trying to start trade ties back up while Chinese authorities are weary.

Internally, too, authorities have eased restrictions. According to Radio Free Asia, travel restrictions were virtually dismantled late last month:

North Korea has lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions nationwide, a sign the government may soon claim victory over the coronavirus pandemic, RFA has learned.

After two years of denying the virus had penetrated its closed borders, North Korea in May acknowledged COVID had begun to spread among participants of a large-scale military parade the previous month and declared a “maximum emergency” to fight the disease.

As part of its response, the government restricted movement between provinces and prohibited large gatherings. But now, after a partial lifting of the travel ban in late May, North Korea ended the limitations completely on June 12, a source from the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Residents are able to travel to other provinces and even to the capital city, Pyongyang,” the source said. “The new order from the National Emergency Quarantine Command was given to residents of each neighborhood in Pohang district.”

Each neighborhood watch unit held meetings to explain the policy change to residents, the source said.

“They have been unable to travel outside the provincial borders with only the partial lifting of restrictions, so they welcome the news,” he said. “It is especially great news for merchants who rely on long-distance travel between provinces for their businesses.

“But even if the restrictions are completely ended, there is still a separate procedure that requires travelers to carry a COVID-19 test certificate issued by the quarantine command. We can get a travel pass only if we have the test certificate,” he said.

North Korea requires passes for travel between provinces even under normal circumstances.

Residents with mobile phones can access test certificates through a smartphone app, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA. Others must travel to receive a paper copy.

“In rural areas such as Pakchon county, you have to visit the town quarantine center, which is miles away, to get a COVID-19 test certificate,” the second source said. “If a resident who wants to get a test certificate does not have a mobile phone, it is inconvenient.”

But she agreed that most residents are happy the restrictions are ending.

“Now they hope that the residents will have their livelihoods restored as soon as possible, but also by lifting the blockade of the border with China,” she said.

After briefly restarting rail freight shipments from China earlier this year, new outbreaks in China forced Beijing and Pyongyang to suspend trade again. Aside from the short respite, trade has been suspended since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020, with disastrous effects on the North Korean economy.

The first source said that not all residents were overjoyed at the lifted restrictions, believing that the government had an underlying and unsaid motive.

“There are speculations that restrictions were lifted in order to mobilize the residents,” the first source said, referring to the government practice of forcing residents to provide free labor for construction, farming and other state projects.

“The COVID-19 lockdown restricted mobilizations on national construction projects and on rice planting duties,” he said.

Nevertheless, the government has been saying that it is the leadership of Kim Jong Un that has eradicated the coronavirus, the second source said.

Sources told RFA that North Korean traders and their Chinese counterparts are preparing to resume trade quickly once the Sino-Korean border reopens. They anticipate that cross-border trade will resume once coronavirus case numbers subside.

(Source: Jieun Kim, ,”North Korea ends COVID-19 travel restrictions as ‘fever cases’ subside,” Radio Free Asia, 22/6/2022.)

It seems, thus, that the admission of Covid back in the spring may have been the first step to normalizing the situation. It is a change that the North Korean economy very much needs.

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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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Four months after re-opening, China-North Korea rail traffic shuts again

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Only four short months after traffic started up again following a two-year shutdown, Chinese authorities announced late last week that railway traffic between Dandong and Sinuiju was to be halted again from May 1st, this past Sunday. According to Chinese authorities, this was done at the request of the North Korean government. The reason is the recent rise in Covid-19 cases in Dandong which has prompted a strict quarantine regime in the city, as in many Chinese localities. This move comes a few weeks after border guards in North Korea were apparently ordered to wear gas masks following the rise of cases in China.

As long as North Korea continues to hold zero Covid cases rather than mass vaccinations as the main policy goal, and China’s strict quarantine policies continue, this is like how trade between the two countries will continue for some time, with intermittent stops every now and then when cases rise in China. It still remains to be seen how long the pause in trade will last.

It is, of course, troubling for the North Korean economy. Goods such as fertilizer, pesticides and other farming inputs are badly needed imports. Radio Free Asia reports that traders have been purchasing these goods, in addition to food, as “national emergency goods”, most likely a priority category created by the North Korean government:

Days before the closure, traders made preparations for the last shipments, the source said.

“The freight station is now filled with fertilizer, pesticide and food purchased by North Korean trading companies as national emergency goods. The last trains will be shipped to a quarantine facility in Uiju either tomorrow or the day after,” he said.

RFA reported last year that North Korea had completed a new rail line between Sinuiju and a quarantine facility in Uiju, in anticipation of trade reopening prior to the end of the pandemic. The new facility allows entire trainloads of cargo to be sterilized prior to distribution to Pyongyang and the rest of the country.

A second source familiar with Sino-North Korean trade in Dandong confirmed that rail freight would stop at the beginning of May.

“North Korea urgently needs farming materials and fertilizer, so the two sides have both agreed to bring the supplies to Sinuiju by the end of this month,” he said. “People expect that the freight train between Dandong and Sinuiju will resume only after COVID-19 disappears and the city lockdown is lifted throughout China.”

(Source: Hyemin Son, “Zero-COVID policy in Chinese border city stops freight to North Korea,” Radio Free Asia, May 2nd, 2022.)

The resumption of train traffic earlier this year was not the end of the border quarantine but, rather, the beginning of a new phase with intermittent shutdowns for the time being. As of now, this may help clear some of the backlog of imports in quarantine in North Korea. But as long as these dynamics continue, they will disrupt trade between the two countries and inflict serious damage on the North Korean economy.

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Chinese Foreign Ministry on rail link trade resumption

Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

This Bloomberg story on the resumption of railroad traffic carries an interesting quote by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson:

China says trade via a railroad link with North Korea has restarted, giving a much-needed boost to Kim Jong Un’s battered economy as the neighbors restored a service Pyongyang cut about a year and a half ago due to pandemic fears.

“After friendly consultations between the two sides, freight in goods in Dandong has resumed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday at a regular press briefing, referring to a Chinese border city.

“This work will be conducted while ensuring pandemic prevention and safety, and to help normal trade exchanges between the two countries,” he added.

Kim’s decision to close borders at the start of the pandemic slammed the brakes on the little legal trade it had with China, his state’s biggest benefactor. It also helped push the sanctions-hit economy into its biggest contraction in more than two decades, with Kim making rare admissions of the country’s difficulties in recent months.

(Source: “China Says Rail-Borne Trade With North Korea Has Restarted,”  Bloomberg News, January 17th, 2022.)

This statement certainly does suggest that the resumption is intended to be permanent, and that the two countries will work to restore trade the way it was before the Covid-19 border lockdown.

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Has China-North Korea trade via rail resumed, and what could it mean?

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

By: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Today (January 16th), a freight train from North Korea crossed into China for the first time since the pandemic border shutdown began. Reuters reports, based on statements by several Chinese businesspeople involved in border trade, that this marks a more permanent, long-term resumption of trade between the countries.

It is too early to say if this is a long-term change or a unique event, and the coming weeks and months will confirm whether or not this marks a permanent change. It will also, hopefully, give us some sort of clue about how quarantine procedures are supposed to work on the North Korean side.

It goes without saying that this would be a welcome change for the North Korean economy. The pause in North Korean exports to China has created significant difficulties, but as Bill Brown has often pointed out, the blockade against North Korean imports from China also creates severe problems for several industries. As an example, see this Radio Free Asia report about the bottlenecks in the economy that tire shortages are causing:

The source said that two of the four cars owned by his company cannot be used due to the tire shortage.

“Drivers will use the same tires until the treads are worn out and shiny, so it has become the norm to re-use punctured or torn tires by putting a small piece of an old tire tube over them. Sometimes they have to be put in at an angle because the tires they are using are either larger or smaller than the vehicle’s specifications,” the source said.

“I have never seen new tires produced locally. Since international trade is stopped due to the border closure, it has become difficult to import used tires,” said the source.

The ban has become problematic for many North Korean drivers who use their vehicles for supplemental jobs in the country’s nascent market economy, the source said.

“They can no longer drive their cars to earn a little extra income because they don’t have tires.”

(Source: Chang Gyu Ahn, “North Korean tire shortage grounds vehicles, disrupts commerce,” Radio Free Asia, January 13th, 2022.)

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

Wednesday, 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.)

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North Korea’s tense food situation

Tuesday, 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.

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

Thursday, 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.)

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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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