Great Confiscation Updates: Regime Turns Attention to Foreign Currency

The North Korean People’s Safety Agency has declared a “complete prohibition of foreign currency usage. The decree was issued on December 26th and went into effect on Monday 28th. A source inside North Hamkyung Province reported, “A People’s Safety Agency declaration on banning the use of U.S. dollars, Yuan and the Euro was publicized on the 26th. The declaration was posted in public places and in every workplace starting this morning.

The title of the declaration is, “On punishing severely those who use foreign currencies within our Republic. Surprisingly, the targets of the declaration are said to include foreigners visiting North Korea.

A source from Yangkang Province also reported, “From December 28, no foreign currencies can be used. The foreign currencies the declaration meant were dollars, Yuan and the euro. According to the source, this new regulation was a Cabinet decision, and the People’s Safety Agency is responsible for its implementation. The declaration stipulates, “Not for any reason may individuals or organizations possess any foreign currency, with the exception of banks.[Daily NK]

The directive from North Korea’s Ministry of People’s Security seen at one of Pyongyang’s commercial markets said that from January 1, residents will not be allowed to directly pay with dollars, euros or other foreign currencies for food, goods and other retail items, Xinhua news agency reported. “Foreigners with foreign currency will also have to exchange it for North Korea’s own currency to use it,” the report added, citing the announcement. [Reuters, Chris Buckley and Jon Herskovitz]

There will be almost no exceptions to this new rule except North Korean banks holding foreign currency after international transactions. For everyone else, we can assume that examples will be duly set:

“The relevant authorities will adopt measures to establish strict order for the circulation of the national currency,” the directive said, according to Xinhua. [….] It also warned that businesses breaking the new restrictions would be shut down and their property confiscated, and illicit foreign exchange deals would be “harshly dealt with.” [Reuters]

The North Hamkyung Province source also cautioned, “Upon the release of this declaration, there will inevitably be someone sent to a prison camp or sentenced to an extreme penalty as a model case. These days, if you are unlucky, you may become the model case for bringing in Yuan or dollars. [Daily NK]

North Koreans’ holdings in foreign currency are very different from their savings in North Korean currency in two ways: first, the regime can print all the dollars we’re willing to let it get away with printing, but it still lacks the unilateral power to cancel dollars, which will always have intrinsic value on the black market. People — especially people with the means to pay extortion money and buy their way out of a prison camp — are still going to hoard them, especially after the regime has given them so much reason to distrust the North Korean currency. The new currency’s value is already plunging, even as the regime struggles to re-set wages and prices.

The second and more important difference is who holds foreign currency in North Korea — aside from foreigners, of course: the elite. Now, having seen the ferocious anger the Great Confiscation provoked among the proles, the regime is still willing to confiscate the savings of inner and outer party members. That is a real risk, because the military and security forces — the people who carry guns — come from these classes. Apparently, at least one person in the South Korean government agrees with me. Who can imagine any South Korean official saying this while Roh was President?

“It is difficult to estimate the threat to us that will arise in the aftermath of the currency reform and from the regime instabilities as leader Kim Jong-Il goes ahead with a hereditary power handover,” the minister said in a New Year message to the South’s 655,000-member military. [….]

“North Korea is continuing to expand its armaments despite a lack of food and serious economic challenges,” minister Kim said, calling on the military to stay alert to the potential threat. [AFP, Park Chan Kyong]

Make that two people in South Korea. It’s rare that I find myself agreeing at all with anyone from a place with a hippie pinko name like the “Hankyoreh Peace Institute:”

Kim Yeon-Chul, director of the independent Hankyoreh Peace Institute, said the ban on using foreign exchange was aimed at stabilising the value of the new won against overseas currencies. “In the end, all will depend on whether the North will be able to curb inflation, especially whether it can rein in rampant food prices through a stable supply of food rations,” he told AFP.

On that account, it’s already looking bleak. The North Korean regime appears to be buying up every bag of rice it can find across the Chinese border — to the point where it’s getting hard for the Chinese to buy any. If the regime (as opposed to food smugglers) is in fact behind this shopping spree, it’s a welcome development — it’s a rare case of the North Korean regime apparently spending foreign exchange money on food instead of goodies like centrifuges, Italian yachts, and Omega Watches. For the regime to shift its priorities in such an unprecedented way — even as the palace economy’s income from weapons sales is being pinched — suggests just how dangerous the men in the palace think the situation on the streets must be.

(Interestingly, Open Radio is claiming that possible successor Kim Jong Eun is being set up as the fall guy architect of this Great Confiscation.)

Yet unless the regime has enough foreign exchange to meet the caloric needs of the people in-kind, the value of new currency will collapse, the state’s wages will become worthless, and discontent will rise again in the spring. And this time, it won’t just be the proles in the countryside who will be discontented. Yet thus far, the regime’s preferred strategy has been to hand out stacks of the new currency while continuing to crack down on markets. This means more cash that’s less trusted than ever is chasing less food than ever, which fuels hyperinflation and disincentives farmers and food smugglers from selling food to markets where people can buy it.

Yet another source of uncertainty here is the regime’s historic tendency to turn a blind eye, eventually, toward enforcing diktats that the majority of people violate of necessity. It may well be that a year from now, the yuan will be North Korea’s de facto currency for large transactions. The Daily NK seems to agree:

The reason for this measure is that there is no confidence in the North Korean currency, so the public preference is for foreign currency holdings, which the authorities cannot regulate easily. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that people will willingly pay their own foreign currency to the state, irrespective of this requirement, while it is likely to end up stoking inflation. The source explained, “For the time being it will be difficult to use foreign currency, but after a while, it may be possible to use it again. Since faith in our money has already dropped, no matter how hard the authorities regulate it, demand for foreign currency will increase.

For each year since 1994, North Korea’s economy has been slipping progressively out of the regime’s control. So far, the regime has managed to hold onto its control through a combination of arbitrary terror and mutual isolation. Each year, a few more straws are added to the camel’s burden. I believe that popular disgust with the regime is both deep and wide, to a much greater extent than it was in the past, even if that disgust is still unfocused. The big unknown is how many more straws the camel’s back can hold.

1 Comment

  1. Until 2002, North Korea was planned co-operative society, with the government fixing prices and supplying commodities. That was a failure. It changed in 2002 to profit-based socialism, where everything had its price, where the government was no longer responsible for supplying food or product, and where limited private agriculture, private ownership and price-controlled markets were permissible to supplement need. That has now been abolished. There are parallels to the New Economic Policy of Lenin, which was abolished by Stalin in an orgy of bloodshed — killing and imprisoning the NEP-men who had profited from markets, and the rich kulaks who had profited from farming, and resulting in purges and farm collectivisation where the farmers became state employees. It was followed by a series of terrors to mainitain an unbalanced state of fear in all.

    We know that Little Kim has always feared markets, and said so in 2001 and 2002. Is it credible that we’ve just seen the completion of a Seven Year Plan — not to improve the economy, but to flush out, and then destroy, potential opponents who showed spirit and initiative in capitalist roading? And the culmination of the Plan will be another Soviet terror?

    This gives some rational, albeit twisted, logic to the current disaster — and it’s only going to get worse.