Archive for NK Economics

Why legal investments in North Korea are a money laundering risk

You’ve often seen me write about the importance of “financial transparency” in transactions with North Korea. For a decade, economic engagement has mostly been done by one of two models: (1) controlled interactions with members of the elite, the actual effects of which are negligible at best; and (2) barbed-wire capitalism, where a few North Korean officials relay orders from foreign managers to hand-picked workers, and where the regime seals the whole enterprise off to prevent it from influencing the local community.

The former are, for the most part, of little financial significance. The latter may represent a significant source of income for illegitimate uses, and may also help the regime hide its flows of dirty money.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way by now. The idea behind economic engagement was to gradually draw North Korea into compliance with the rules that the civilized world lives by. Yet ten years later, the South Korean Unification Ministry can’t tell us how much (if anything) Kaesong’s workers receive after the regime takes its cut from their wages, and the Undersecretary of the Treasury recently expressed his concern about just how North Korea is spending that money.

The U.N. Panel of Experts now expresses a related worry — that North Korea could be using its ostensibly legal businesses to conceal and launder the proceeds of illicit activity:Screen Shot 2015-03-03 at 7.32.53 AMScreen Shot 2015-03-03 at 7.33.11 AMA few days ago, we saw that North Korean diplomats have been smuggling gold to earn hard currency for Pyongyang. That’s not just of concern because of how North Korea spends the earnings, but also because of concerns about conditions in which the gold is mined. As noted here, however, North Korea continues to run most of this business through the dollar system.

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Hence, the renewal of FATF’s warning about “countermeasures.”

Recently, a scholar friend emailed me that his opponent in a debate had criticized the effrontery of blocking North Korean assets that are the co-mingled proceeds of legal and illicit activity. In fact, that is standard law enforcement practice, because co-mingling is the essence of how criminal organizations conceal the illicit origin of their earnings.

Defendants often commingle SUA proceeds with legitimate funds. The government need not prove that all proceeds in a transaction were unlawfully derived, but must be able to trace some of the proceeds to a SUA. Criminally derived proceeds deposited with legal funds are considered to be withdrawn last unless the account/business is deemed to be permeated with fraud. This implies that the business operations are so intertwined with fraud that to segregate the legitimate operation and profits is impossible. Special agents should work closely with the attorney for the government when investigations involve commingled funds to ensure the elements of the crime are met. [IRS]

That’s why Congress, and many third-country parliaments, have long given their law enforcement agencies the authority to seize co-mingled funds.

The Treasury Department could do a great deal to regulate transactions with North Korea — and perhaps, put more food into empty bellies and drive the development of a true market economy — simply by requiring OFAC to license them. As a condition of each license, the Treasury Department could ask the applicant for assurances that the ultimate end-use of the funds would be for items that would benefit the people: food, clothing, medicine, consumer goods, materials for civilian construction projects, or electronic items like desktop computers that help to open up information flows.

To make this requirement truly effective, the EU Central Bank could impose similar requirements for Euro-clearing transactions. If Canada, Britain, Australia, and Switzerland joined, they would collectively cover just about all of the world’s convertible currencies, leaving only trades in Chinese Yuan unregulated. Of the latter, the Treasury Department could still target the most egregious with secondary sanctions.

In his paper about labor conditions in Kaesong, Marcus Noland called for investors in North Korea to adhere to a single set of minimal standards, akin to the Sullivan Principles. What I’m calling for here is a financial analogue to the Sullivan Principles — a requirement that investors ensure that their money will be used to better the lives of the North Korean people, rather than being wasted on weapons and luxury goods.

The real flaw in the engagement argument today, ten years after it began, is that it can’t show any significant, enduring, positive impact on North Korea, its treatment of its people, or its relations with the wider world.

It’s unfortunate that so many advocates of engagement are too focused on making nice with their minders to insist that the regime make any of the changes they once promised. Two good places to begin would be transparency in their labor and financial arrangements. If they did, they might strengthen their argument by showing that they’ve made legitimate, positive change in how North Korea does business.

Somehow, I don’t think this will encourage Kim Jong Un to engage with us.

I think Marzuki Darusman is a good man who means well, but it’s difficult to derive a coherent policy from this:

“This is a new thing, spotlighting the leadership and ridiculing the leadership. In any authoritarian, totalitarian system, that is an Achilles’ heel,” Darusman said in an interview in Tokyo, where he held talks with the government on an investigation into North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.

If this kind of ridicule seeps into North Korea, it could become lethal for the regime, he said. “If they want to preserve their system, the only way to do that is not to close themselves off from the international community but to actively engage,” he said. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

OK, so they need “engagement”–presumably, trade–to preserve the system, which we all agree should not be preserved. So should we cut off trade?

But the world also should be actively engaging with the Kim regime to draw it out of its self-imposed isolation, Marzuki Darusman said Friday, calling the United States’ increasingly aggressive approach toward North Korea “unfortunate.”

“In the overall picture, I think much hinges on the way the U.S. acts,” said Darusman, a former attorney general of Indonesia. A harder line against North Korea could “stall or delay the process that needs to be put into place,” he said.

I don’t get it. If ridicule of His Porcine Majesty scares the bejeezus out of the little gray men in Pyongyang, and if we’re supposed to use engagement to mock His Porcine Majesty mercilessly, why does Marzuki suppose that Kim Jong Un would widen engagement rather than stick with the current, controllable kinds of engagement that are serving North Korea’s priorities rather nicely? Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un continues to succeed at smothering the penetration of real capitalism.

Marzuki is a distinguished jurist who has done a great service to humanity by the facts he’s helped to establish. Maybe that’s enough for one man for one lifetime.

Reports: Musan mine to lay off 10,000 workers; coal exports halted

At the end of last year, the Daily NK reported that North Korea’s iron ore exports to China had stopped, but offered two different explanations for that — a price dispute with China, and a shortage of hydroelectric power caused by drought. One of the reports claimed that the power cuts halted the massive iron ore mine at Musan, which had caused “major disruptions” at the Kim Chaek and Songjin steel mills. All three facilities are propaganda showpieces of North Korean industry.

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[The massive Musan mine. The yellow line on the left is the border with China]

In a follow-up report, the Daily NK now blames electricity shortages and a price dispute with China for plans by North Korea to lay off 10,000 of the 23,000 workers at Musan. The decision isn’t going over well with the workers:

For most, the focal concern is what happens next, as no jobs are guaranteed to those laid off. “Officials at the mine may say that they’re struggling with deciding on whose names to add to the list, and workers are irate, saying that ‘they can’t get away with this!’” the source said, noting that the surrounding village has been cast into a state of “unrest” because of the cutbacks. [Daily NK]

According to last year’s reports, however, labor shortages in the coal mines have caused North Korea to send inexperienced convicts to work there, causing a high rate of disabling and fatal accidents. One would think that the regime could find work for these men, even if that work is in Malaysia.

But now, Radio Free Asia reports that North Korea’s coal exports to China have also “dropped off dramatically,” and that the North has exported “little if any” coal to China this year. According to the report, North Korean coal has a high sulfur content and can’t pass China’s new air quality standards. RFA also links North Korea’s troubles to lack of hydroelectric power, indirectly. North Korea can’t export its coal, because it has to send it to thermal power plants, to keep the lights on in Pyongyang.

(Me: on top of all that, North Korea’s railroads and the locomotives that run on them are poorly maintained, and they’re mostly powered by electricity. Putting a lot of coal trains on the network will further strain the infrastructure.)

With mineral products accounting for more than 60% of North Korea’s exports to China, and with China being the destination for 90% of North Korea’s exports, one might expect to see these disruptions (if they’re sustained) reflected in Pyongyang’s luxury goods imports for 2015.

Hard times for North Korean mines, and miners

Please pardon me for taking a few days of rest with my family during the holidays. I’ll have much to say about The Interview, Nate Thayer’s intrepid reporting on the AP, and other exigent matters after we’re all played out on Legos and board games. Meanwhile, I have a few posts that I’d written last weekend and had planned to publish when North Korea hit the front pages. Here is the first of them.

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A series of possibly conflicting reports from North Korea’s outer provinces claims that North Korea’s mining industry is under unusual strain, due to commodity price disputes with China, or due to drought causing a lack of hydroelectric power to pump water and run hoists. Despite promises of ten-fold wage increases for miners, those increases have failed to materialize, and the payment of baseline wages is unsteady:

“These days, because of a dispute over prices with China, iron ore exports have been halted, and in many cases salaries go unpaid,” the source said. “With operations suspended at the mine due to the extreme power shortage in the country, people are worried that they won’t even receive their 30,000 KPW.” [Daily NK]

Yet copper demand has risen … due to a “recent order for copper to produce bronze statues of the son and father Kims all across the country.” Imagine that.

Separately, the Daily NK reported on November 25th that operations at Musan, North Korea’s largest iron ore mine, had halted due to power shortages caused by low rainfall, and that this had caused “major disruptions” to the Kim Chaek and Songjin steel mills. (The report makes no reference to a price dispute with China. It seems improbable that both stories are true.)

Meanwhile, the regime is trying to raise coal production, perhaps to offset its lost iron ore revenue, by drafting slave labor from prisoners sentenced for “minor” offenses like selling smuggled CDs, and “conducting illegal business operations.”

“Upon orders to produce more coal, the state has been forcing male prisoners, who have been sent to labor training camps for misdemeanors, to coal mines,” a source in South Pyongan Province told the Daily NK on Friday.

Labor training camps refer to correctional facilities under the Ministry of People’s Security that hold criminals who have committed less serious crimes. They are held in these camps from anywhere between one to six months, where they carry out intense labor. Usually prisoners of these camps are mobilized to construction sites or farm areas, and coal mine work is considered an extreme exception,  reflecting the serious rate of power deficiency currently facing the North.

The prisoners are worked day and night at coal towns some kilometers away, eating and sleeping on site. [Daily NK]

The article goes on to detail a long list of occupational hazards (collapses, accidents due to lack of lighting) that either kill the miners or drain away their lives (malnutrition, exhaustion, beatings, and respiratory problems due to coal dust and poor ventilation).

She explained once such case, “A few days ago, a prisoner in his 40s fell unconscious from suffocation and then died from the added malnutrition. He then received ‘parole,’” going on to add, “With more residents learning about the conditions at coal mines for those in labor training camps, rumors are spreading that if you land yourself in a training camp, you come out dead.”

“Women who have their husbands in these camps are passing on bribes to security officials and trying everything they can to get them out,” she asserted. “As they get to know of how the inmates are working, not even because of a serious crime, people are saying even during the Japanese colonial period they did exploit people this much.” 

Although the drafting of prisoners as unskilled labor suggests a labor shortage, some (other?) part of the North Korean government is exporting (skilled?) mine laborers to Malaysia, where the conditions sound hardly better than inside North Korea itself.

Malaysia has defended the use of North Korean labourers in its mining industry, saying they are particularly good workers because of their dedication, strength and bravery.

After a North Korean was among those killed in a mine explosion at the weekend, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, told reporters that the men had been working legally under a special agreement between Pyongyang and authorities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

“When it comes to industries such as coal mines, the jobs are very dangerous and tough,” Wan Junaidi said. “No local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs — that is why [we] need foreign workers. In the coal-mining sector, only Britain, China and North Korea have highly-skilled workers.” [….]

The minister’s comments come just two days after three men — Tun Tun Win, 36, from Burma; Kardianto, 38, from Indonesia; and Pang Chung-hyok, 29, from North Korea — were killed after a blast ripped through the mine on Saturday morning. Another 29 men were injured, seven of them from North Korea. Forty-nine of the 119 foreign workers at the Sarawak mine were North Koreans. [The Guardian]

The report quotes “defectors’ groups” as saying there may be as many as 65,000 North Koreans working abroad now. The usual suspicions arise that the workers in Malaysia are receiving anywhere from zero to 15% of their salaries, as at the Kaesong Industrial Park, the Siberian logging camps, and Qatar’s new World Cup construction sites.

Collectively, mineral products constitute North Korea’s largest legal exports. The trend bears watching, not only because of its potential effects on North Korea’s economy and society, but also because the regime may feel tempted to substitute falling mineral exports with illicit exports, or by exporting more food.

What if the capitalist North Korea is just as bad as the communist North Korea?

There are many reasons why the Sunshine Policy failed, most of them rooted in the character of the men who rule in Pyongyang, and in the character of the men in Seoul who conceived and executed it. And in that conception, the flaw that was obvious to some of us from the very beginning was that Sunshine — and its surviving derivatives — invested its monotheistic faith in economic reform, yet in practice (and to a large extent, in theory, too) it was agnostic about political reform and disarmament.

I have always held something closer to the opposite priorities. Personally, I believe that capitalism, with just enough regulation to maintain a peaceful society, is a superior economic system to any form of statism, but I’m not messianic or Hegelian about it, as long as the system doesn’t deny its people the right to live. Of course, North Korea does deny its people the right to live, but things like privatizing agriculture and local markets have never been the principal focus of Sunshine advocates, either. They have always invested their passion in top-down capitalism — specifically, projects like Kaesong, Kumgang, and any sign that the regime was interested in trade and money.

Which, of course, it has been all along. Pyongyang has consistently allowed just enough trade to feed, equip, and maintain the military, and buy swag for the elite. The Washington Post‘s Anna Fifield reports from Pyongyang that the elite are getting more swag, but this does not mean that North Korea is reforming.

Cars, for instance. A recent visitor, in the capital for the first time since 2008, found many more of them on the streets — and not just the locally produced “Pyonghwa” brand or Chinese BYDs, but Lexus sport-utility vehicles and late-model BMWs and Audis.

And shoes. Many women are dressing more fashionably, and brightly colored, shiny high heels, often with jewels, appear to be the trend du jour.

Changjon Street, in the heart of the city, near Kim Il Sung Square, is unrecognizable from a few years ago. Rows of round apartment towers line the street. Lit up at night, they are festooned with neon bands, giving them the appearance of giant fireworks. By day, the towers are reflected in the glittering river, making the city look “just like Dubai,” in the words of one government-appointed minder. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

I’m far more likely to accept these representations from Fifield than from, say, Jean Lee, because Fifield is no one’s cheerleader.

But the situation in the cities outside the capital, and even more so in the countryside, remains extremely dire. The state does not provide anything like the kinds of rations it once did, and hunger remains widespread.

Even in Pyongyang, there are still many more signs of extreme poverty than wealth. Bent-over elderly women carry huge sacks on their backs, men with weathered faces sit on their haunches by the roadside, and North Korean children appear noticeably smaller than their South Korean peers.

Foreign visitors to Pyongyang are driven along the same routes from their hotels, no matter where they are going, leading them to conclude that only certain streets are fit for foreign consumption.

We see reflections of the same thing in Pyongyang’s military belligerence, its continued weapons development, its spurning of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, its retrograde crackdowns on information, agriculture and trade by non-elite North Koreans, and its new foray into hostage-taking. The rich are getting richer, but the people in charge are still psychopaths.

The most interesting question Fifield’s report raises is where all that money is coming from. An easier question to answer is where North Korea is getting all the luxury goods that it’s banned by U.N. resolutions from buying.

But indirectly, Fifield raises a more fundamental policy question. What if we accept, for the sake of argument, that Kim Jong Un has abandoned socialism for state capitalism, without disarming or altering its essential contempt for humanity? Did economic reforms in China necessarily equate to political reforms? Was Nazi Germany less of a menace despite being state-capitalist? If North Korea’s de facto abandonment of socialism means that Sunshine has succeeded, it’s an awfully hollow victory.

Derivatives of Sunshine still live, of course, as do a surprising number of die-hard adherents. But whenever I ask them why they adhere, they confess that it isn’t really because they believe, but because they can conceive of no better ideas.

 

Of fools and their money: Volvo sold North Korea 1,000 cars. On credit.

As a tool of economic isolation, North Korea’s business ethics have proven to be far more effective than U.N. sanctions.

See also Yang Bin, Senator Robert Torricelli and David Chang, Chung Mong Hun, Nigel Cowie, Roh Jeong-Ho, Albert Yeung Sau Shing and the Emperor Group, the Xiyang Group, and Lloyd’s of London. There’s actually a whole market in North Korea’s defaulted sovereign debt “involving more than 100 banks from 17 countries” dating back to the 1970s and 1980s.

And still, the lemmings keep coming.

Two weeks ago, North Korea’s largest denomination bill was worth 63 cents.

That bill is the 5,000 won note. When North Korea announced last last month that the bills would be replaced, even at a 1:1 exchange, its value fell to 52 cents, and many merchants refused to take the bills for any price.

As of last November, at the official exchange rate, a 5,000-won note was worth $52.

RFA: N. Korea tells overseas trade reps not to use the internet

In our latest of edition of North Korea Perestroika Watch, Radio Free Asia, citing identified sources speaking on condition of anonymity, reports that Pyongyang has instructed its overseas money-men to stop using the internet. The regime is even threatening to seize their work and personal laptaps to enforce the order. The trade workers tell RFA that the order, which even includes the use of e-mail, is impeding their ability to do their jobs and earn foreign currency.

A source living in China along the border with North Korea said the order was issued verbally by senior officials in Pyongyang recently. It is causing great inconvenience to the trade officials, most of whom are based in China with others living in Europe, Russia, and Africa, the source said.

“The order discouraging trade workers abroad from using the Internet by the North Korean government is actually a warning to not [disseminate] outside information,” said the source, who is linked to trading of goods with North Korea. “Trade workers abroad are used to contacting the North Korean authorities at home by email,” the source said. [Radio Free Asia]

According to the report, most of the North Koreans overseas save enough to buy laptops, which they then use to access South Korean web sites. Presumably, many of these people understand enough English to all kinds of sites, including this one. Which could mean I’m going to stop getting all those hits from Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

If the report is accurate — and it seems like something that could be confirmed through multiple sources — then it suggests that the regime must have enough fear of the internet’s subversive power to incur some economic harm from the imposition of this inefficiency.

The regime has gone so far as asking trade workers to communicate by fax, presuming anyone else still has a fax machine.

The U.N. Panel of Experts recently printed documents showing that North Korean trading companies used e-mail with .silibank domains to facilitate the weapons transactions with Cuba that were uncovered by the seizure of the Chong Chon Gang last year. Years ago, Sili Bank was the false-dawn perestroika sighting of the week when it set up a pay-for-message e-mail system for foreigners. Curiously, and unlike many other North Korean banks, Sili Bank does not have a SWIFT number, suggesting that if it really does operate as a bank, it doesn’t operate internationally.

Personally, it’s hard for me to imagine that this order will last much longer than North Korea’s ban of the U.S. dollar, or South Korean clothing. It will be a huge hassle for a few weeks, after which all those affected will have that much less respect for the state’s authority.

N. Korea Perestroika Watch: Man executed for calling China

The Daily NK provides us some updates on Kim Jong Un’s ongoing crackdown on unauthorized contact with the outside world, via sources in North Hamgyeong Province, in the far northeast:

The North Korean authorities recently added five extra clauses to Article 60 of the country’s criminal code, which pertains to attempts to overthrow the state. The additional clauses codify harsh punishments for acts including illicit communication with the outside world, which could in principle now incur the death penalty. [….]

The newly re-codified offenses include: ? Illegal phone contact with foreigners, including South Koreans; ? Viewing South Korean dramas or DVDs and listening to [foreign] radio broadcasts; ? Using or dealing in drugs; ? Transnational human and sex trafficking; and ? Aiding and abetting defectors and leaking state secrets.

In criminal code revisions made in mid-May of last year, harsh punishments were decreed for a loose basket of acts deemed to be seditious, including political agitation, rioting, and public demonstration. Sedition was one of a litany of charges thrown at Kim Jong Eun’s uncle Jang Song Taek before his execution in December last year.

If North Korea is as stable as some “experts” suggest it is, then why is it necessary for its government to raise the penalties for such unthinkable acts as “political agitation, rioting, and public demonstration?” In fact, we’ve seen fragmentary reports of demonstrations in North Korea in the past, mostly by female traders protesting market restrictions.

The nature of the revised punishments provides a stark reflection of the regime’s anxiety at the nature and scale of cross-border activities, the source explained. A minimum of five years “reeducation” or the death penalty can be decreed for those caught communicating with the outside world, a minimum of ten years reeducation is the maximum punishment for simply watching South Korean media or listening to foreign radio, and a minimum of five years reeducation is possible for drug smuggling. [Daily NK]

Separately, the Daily NK reports that the regime is using its traditional methods for showing its subjects that it’s more serious about enforcing these rules that it had been in the past, when it was possible to bribe one’s way out of enforcement.

The victim, a 49-year old stage lighting engineer called Ri Kyung Ho, was executed in March. His execution, though not public, was used as an example to others, and his family has been incarcerated in a State Security Department (SSD) facility.

The latest report is that North Korea is making examples of those caught, but isn’t executing them in public, perhaps because it fears that video may leak out again. So were there posters, or other announcements of the execution? The report doesn’t say.

“Ri Kyung Ho was caught out of town by an SSD agent with a signal detector. He’d been calling his family in South Chosun” the source said, explaining the background to the man’s arrest. “He probably didn’t have time to take the phone apart and hide it before SSD agents got to his house.”

Ri was reportedly involved in North Korea’s emerging black-market banking system, a system that got a big push from North Korea’s 2009 currency “reform,” which wiped out the savings of millions of members of the country’s rising non-elite middle class. That system has not only stocked North Korea’s markets with food to fill the void left by a non-functional state distribution system, it has also helped many poor North Koreans pay for that food with money sent home by relatives in China and South Korea.

In the course of Ri’s subsequent interrogation, it reportedly emerged that not only had he been making regular phone calls, but had also been involved in remittance transfers from South Korea and aiding and abetting defections.

“He seems to have started by conveying money from defectors to their families, but then began to help people who asked him to send their families to China,” the source said. “Some people are asking why he was killed just because of the money thing, but there are a few who were close to him and his wife, and they say it was because he had been helping defections.”

“In times gone by you could bribe your way out of this, but right now they’re sure to punish you. Nobody knows when or why they might get caught up in it, so everyone is nervous,” she said. “Anyone who uses a cellphone to call ‘that way’ or ‘the other way’ [meaning South Korea or China] is scared.” [Daily NK]

The report only cites a single unnamed source. If it’s is true, expect to see more sources corroborate it, or tell us about more executions from more cities, particularly along the border.

And now, a brief Marxist-style criticism of North Korea’s class struggle and internal contradictions (Updated)

Yonhap reports that North Korea has cut its grain imports from China by more than in half in the first quarter of this year “due to an increase in the country’s grain production last year.” A fall in market prices for corn corroborates that there is a greater supply of corn than usual; ordinarily, spring is the leanest time of year for poor North Koreans.

Despite Pyongyang’s decision to buy and import less grain, the World Food Program, which recently found that 84% of North Korean households have borderline or poor food consumption, continues to ask foreign donors to contribute $200 million to a program intended to feed the people Kim Jong Un won’t. (Humanitarian aid accounted for 95% of U.S. exports to North Korea, which also rose sharply last year.) So, either the WFP is overestimating hunger and should reevaluate its aid programs, or Pyongyang is accepting — and gaming — international aid to allow it to fund other priorities (an allegation that has been made before by others, here). It’s also possible that both alternatives are true.

Just in case you’re tempted to say that the drop in food imports means China is cracking down on North Korea, trade statistics released earlier this month by the Korea International Trade Association show that “North Korea exported 16.5 million tons of anthracite [coal] to China in 2013 … a year-on-year increase of 39.7%. Those exports earned Pyongyang “approximately US$ 1.373bn, a 15.5% increase over 2012.” Yonhap also reports, however, that starting in January, Pyongyang “significantly stepped up checks on its coal exports to China,” a development that’s said to be related to the purge of Jang Song Taek, who was accused of selling off North Korea’s resources too cheaply. We’ll soon see if second-quarter figures show any decrease, or whether this is just ChiCom disinformation.

Partially as a result of this, North Korea’s GDP grew by nearly 5% last year, according to the Hyundai Research Institute. Some of that money was invested in the “railroads, metal, and power generation sectors” — and yes, North Korea still has the world’s highest military spending as a percentage of GDP. The beneficiaries of this wealth do not include North Korea’s health care system, whose failure The Guardian tries to hang on sanctions, either out of bias or ignorance about the bigger picture. The data, taken with other data suggesting that North Korea recently began showing a current account surplus, hardly suggest that Pyongyang is feeling a cash squeeze. It’s just setting its own priorities, as usual.

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Who is feeling a cash squeeze, aside from the poor who can’t afford to buy food? The Outer Party elites in Pyongyang. After several months of strict enforcement, the regime has finally relaxed that order confiscating their foreign currency. According to the Daily NK, plenty of people who were terrorized by the purge of Jang Song Thaek handed over their savings out of fear that much more than their savings was at stake:

High-rise apartment buildings, streets lined with stores selling expensive products and high-end restaurants are cropping up in Pyongyang since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un focused state spending on the capital. But that modernizing drive has come at a heavy cost to the provinces, which are languishing in backwardness and poverty. 

“In December of 2011, after he just came to power, Kim Jong-un issued an order to populate Pyongyang by the end of 2012 with the cream of North Korean society in terms of political and ideological beliefs,” a source recalls. [Daily NK]

From a nominally egalitarian and Marxist perspective, Pyongyang’s confiscatory impulse is almost understandable, or at least easy to rationalize. Pyongyang residents aren’t keeping those high-end stores in business on the salaries of civil servants.

[See, AP? This reporter told us about the minders, and that this was
not a typical North Korean shopping experience. It isn’t so hard!]

In the provinces, by contrast, food rations have stopped, and officials there have to squeeze and extort the proles to survive, and prosper:

Central Party cadres dispatched to October 18th Cooperative Farm in Baekam County, Yangkang Province are drawing the ire of local residents as they prove enduringly corrupt, Daily NK has learned.

A source located in the region reported on the 22nd, “It’s the lean spring period and food is quite scarce, but these three cadres sent from Section 4 of the Central Party Agriculture Department still eat pork almost everyday. People are really unhappy. There are these kids of people who might get meat just once or twice a year out there in front of their lodgings just to smell it cooking.”

Cadres were first dispatched to the farm in 2008 to oversee the potato harvest, the source explained. In addition to having their own housekeeper, they regularly order the manager of their accommodation to purchase piglets, which they then raise.

“At a time when more and more people in the Okcheon Unit are running out of rice, the cadres can continue to live in their own world. People attack them, pointing out that ‘workers starve while the ones ordering them around are living well. They can eat till their stomachs stick out,” the source went on.

“Just last month a man in the unit starved to death,” she continued. “People say that he couldn’t harvest last autumn, so his wife went to get frozen potatoes out of the ground and tried to make a living by making food out of their skins. He passed away while his wife was left behind to try and sell what she had made.”

“When [cadres] go to Pyongyang they take a ton of potato starch with them, and tens of farmers are mobilized for the indignity of loading the freight,” she alleged. “They don’t care; they just say, ‘When going back, you shouldn’t go empty handed. If you want to get help with things like farming equipment, there’s no choice; you have to give something before you can get anything.’” [Daily NK]

The regime can confiscate away some of the more ostentatious trappings of this widening class divide, but that widening class divide is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, and a case of Kim leading by example. Class barriers are now so strong that it has become difficult to marry across them. According to the reports, the confiscation is concentrated around Pyongyang, where there are few low-songbun people to see that divide. The regime’s more likely motive is probably just to rake hard currency in from the Outer Party to the Inner Party.

I wonder to what extent this confiscation has driven elite money into North Korea’s housing market, which is said to have boomed right around the time the confiscation was announced (yes, it’s possible to buy land and houses in North Korea). A regime that’s sustained by money laundering must eventually produce some accomplished money-launders and tax evaders. Coinciding with this, state enterprises have begun leasing out unused land to those who can afford to lease it. If the result is more sotoji agriculture and higher food production, that would be a good thing for the people, even if that isn’t a consequence the regime had intended.

(The reverse appears to be ongoing in the border city of Sinuiju, where the regime, or perhaps corrupt regime officials, are said to be selling real estate to Chinese investors.)

Given the extent to which the elites have leveraged their status to enrich themselves through corruption and trade (legal and otherwise), one can infer that this mass confiscation raked in millions of dollars in hard currency. I hope that the cost will be paid, eventually, in lost loyalty by the elites to the regime. In the meantime, if she ever cared to do so, Hazel Smith could fill volumes with “critical” studies about the intensifying class struggle between North Korea’s Outer Party, Inner Party, Capitalist Class, and Proletariat. Here is the perfect laboratory for Marxist crisis theory, and all the critical studies journals are missing out.

Update: More related thoughts from the Daily NK, which entitles its story, “May 1st a Reminder of Class Divide,” and reports that some workers are more equal than others:

Now, May 1st serves as a clear reminder of North Korea’s widening class gap amid the increasing prominence of the market economy. 

A former worker at a foreign currency earning enterprise based in Songnim, North Hwanghae Province explained to Daily NK, “A class system between workers began to form a few years ago. How one celebrates the May 1st holiday depends on their membership in either the lower or upper class, and mistrust has formed between the two.”

“State factory workers spend the day cultivating their vegetable gardens or just keeping busy at home. But workers at individually-run trading companies attend sports games put on by their employer. They even get high-end gifts like televisions and bicycles,” the defector said.

Moreover, “Even if they don’t win the game the employees still get a new set of underclothes, and this makes the state workers quite envious.  Now even children belong to a class based solely on the occupation of their parents.”

A former manager of a commercial enterprise management office in North Pyongan Province added, “The state workers really have a rough time in comparison.  Many of them can’t even get one bottle of alcohol.”

The story reports that factory workers, once glorified as pioneers of the workers’ paradise, no longer bring home income or rations, and are looked at as incompetent providers in their own homes. That must be a source of deep resentment in the factory towns int he provinces.

Speaking of those high-end gifts, we have fresh information about their origin:

North Korea increased imports of vehicles and alcoholic beverages from Hong Kong in 2013, despite an overall drop in bilateral trade, a South Korean report showed Thursday.

The trade representative office for Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) in Hong Kong said Pyongyang spent US$4.36 million to buy vehicles, up 27.5 percent from the year before, a large number of them with over 3-liter engine and seating capacity for more than 10 people.

Cars were the second-largest single product imported by North Korea from Hong Kong after electronic components, the office said.

“The cars were made in other countries and shipped through Hong Kong,” it said.

North Korean imports of alcoholic beverages shot up 51.3 percent last year from 2012, with whiskey and vodka making up the bulk of products shipped. Though liquor products only accounted for 1.4 percent of goods shipped from the former British colony to Pyongyang, its annual growth rate surpassed that of all others last year.

This trend continued into 2014, with North Korea’s purchase of alcoholic beverages soaring 758.8 percent in January and February vis-a-vis the previous year, according to the KOTRA office.

The latest report showed that two-way trade dropped 57.2 percent on-year to $26.99 million, with Hong Kong’s exports falling 53.7 percent. It said no crude oil, grain and fertilizers were shipped to the North. [Yonhap]

Most of these items are what U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions refer to as “luxury items,” and ban North Korea from importing. This is just more evidence of China’s disregard for and non-enforcement of those resolutions. If the Obama Administration is serious about enforcement, it would identify the companies in Hong Kong involved in this trade, leak the names of their banks, and identify a few good targets for a first round of sanctions that would block them out of the dollar system.

And not for nothing, but the U.N. Development Program, whose work in North Korea was the subject of a major diversion scandal a few years ago, is now allocating another $2 million “for projects to help ease energy and food shortages in North Korea.” Lest any apparatchik lack for gas for his new Benz.

If ever a country screamed for class warfare, North Korea is that country.

North Korea’s circular firing squad

The reaper has come for two more key North Korean diplomats:

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said that Pak Kwang-Chol, an associate of the young supremo’s uncle and political regent Jang Song-Thaek, was seen returning home after making a brief stopover in Beijing. The envoy and his wife were reportedly escorted by North Korean officials onto a flight to Pyongyang.

Sweden is an influential diplomatic player in Pyongyang, AFP said. Since the United States and North Korea have no diplomatic ties, the Swedish Embassy represents US interests in the country, acting as a kind of go-between. [link]

And this:

Hong Yong, the North’s deputy permanent delegate to UNESCO, and his wife were spotted at Beijing airport on Monday before taking the flight to Pyongyang, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said. Hong, one of Jang’s associates, took the post only six months ago, it said, quoting a diplomatic source in Beijing. [AFP]

Pyongyang had previously recalled its ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba, presumably also as part of the purge. North Korea has historically used Malaysian banks for money laundering, and Cuba has recently emerged as a North Korean arms supplier.

In addition, the Joongang Ilbo now reports that “two Workers’ Party executives, two cabinet members, two soldiers and one corporate manager” (a total of seven others) were also executed with Jang. The South Koreans are saying that for now, the purge has only reached Jang’s highest-level supporters:

“We are seeing signs that those who were deeply involved with Jang are being recalled and purged,” Ryoo Kihl-Jae, South Korea’s unification minister in charge of cross-border affairs, told lawmakers. 

The purge however appears to be targeting a relatively small circle of officials, Ryoo said, rejecting speculation of a sweeping clear-out of party and military ranks. “We do not see that it (the purge) is being carried out on a large scale, though it still needs to be seen to what direction it would develop,” he told members of parliament’s foreign affairs committee. [AFP]

I’m not sure I believe that. As early as December 6, The Daily NK reported that “municipal and provincial Chosun Workers’ Party secretaries and cadres from judicial and security organs have been summoned en masse to Pyongyang,” although it’s not clear how many were purged, and how many were simply called in to observe the festivities in which Jang was denounced and purged.

The same appears to be the case with North Korea’s cadres in China, who are more visible to us. In mid-December, it was reported that North Korea had recalled large numbers of China-based cadres who were involved in enterprises earning and laundering foreign currency. The subscription news site East Asia Intel also reports that Pyongyang is recalling “large numbers of North Korean businessmen” who worked in Shenyang and Dandong, “to facilitate trade” with China, and “attract Chinese investment.” Without getting behind the paywall, I can’t tell whether the report is based on new information, or simply regurgitates what South Korean sources had previously reported. Taken together, these reports suggest that the purge won’t be confined to the top echelons.

North Korea’s ongoing crackdown on cross-border movements, in an apparent attempt to prevent defections by potential targets of the purge, is circumstantial evidence of the purge’s potential to affect a significant number of North Koreans. Pyongyang has assigned more guards to patrol the border and asked four Chinese companies to suspend their tours of the North (a Chinese tour bus seems like an unlikely way to escape North Korea; it seems more likely that Pyongyang is afraid of what the tourists might see).

North Korea’s lower and middle castes will feel the most immediate impact of this crackdown. They are the most likely to rely on illicit cross-border trade, or try to cross the border to find work or defect. Reports from inside North Korea tell a mixed story. Although the regime has cracked down on cross-border movements since the purge, Chris Green writes that the regime isn’t cracking down on markets and trade internally. Domestically, the regime is sending a business-as-usual message, while discouraging any unauthorized discussion about Jang’s purge. For once, the regime shows signs of trying to mitigate (perhaps “calibrate” is a better word) the impact of its brutality on lower-caste North Koreans.

In the longer term, however, this will inevitably disrupt the regime’s own finances, possibly severely. North Korea’s ambassadors play an important role in financing the regime, by making both legal and illegal business deals. The diplomatic corps’s mercenary nature is so notorious that the U.N. Security Council’s latest resolution begins by referring to “the illicit activities of diplomatic personnel” and “transfers of bulk cash.”

It also seems increasingly clear that Jang was purged as part of a struggle over North Korea’s resources, and who gets to use them for everything other than feeding the hungry. North Korea’s mineral industries are most often mentioned as in contention. Fighting over those resources is affecting Pyongyang’s ability to profit from them. According to the Daily NK, as early as October, North Korea took the extreme measure of halting gold mining and exports to reassert control of that income stream. (That is extremely interesting, in light of other reports that the North’s agents in China were selling off gold. The continued sale of gold after the purge could suggest that officials in China were defying orders from Pyongyang and preparing to go to ground, consistent with what we read here.) North Korea’s “special economic zones” and its overseas restaurant operations have also been associated with Jang, and will probably be affected. In the background, the North is hinting at a general tightening of the North’s economic restrictions. That will be another drag on efficiency and investor confidence.

Everything this regime prioritizes relies on the business relationships that are now being questioned, and on the overseas currency-earning operations staffed by the people who are being purged today. If my guess is right, we’ll soon see data showing a drop-off in North Korea’s imports and exports (although those data are certainly questionable). That will inevitably affect Pyongyang’s ability to buy the loyalty of a new Inner Party, to finance its WMD programs, to control the borders, and to feed its army. It might even affect the pace of construction at showpiece projects, like water parks and ski resorts. Anyone but an impulsive psychopath would have to realize that.

North Korea’s overseas money men, called home, go to ground instead

After the news broke that Jang Song Thaek has been purged, The Daily NK reported that the regime was summoning party cadres from other parts of North Korea to Pyongyang. Now, new reports tell us that North Koreans in China are also being called back, possibly to be purged themselves. The Joongang Ilbo carries a fascinating interview with Lee Keum-Ryong, a defector and Free North Korea Radio correspondent, and obviously a very brave man. Lee defied the risk of abduction, or perhaps a curbside injection of neostigmine bromide, to get close to many of these North Koreans in Beijing. He reports that many of them have since vanished, but not all of them went home.

“I went to an office building where North Korean officials in the business of trade, whom I have personally known for some years, used to work. Stuff had been removed from all three rooms and [North Korean] strangers were standing guard. I waited for hours for North Korean officials to show up, but they didn’t. A source in China told me ‘a whole group of team members seemed to have disappeared’ and those who were standing guard at the office were an arrest squad [sent from Pyongyang].

“I [finally] reached a North Korean official in hiding through a go-between. The man, who worked for a trading company under the North Korean administrative department previously led by Jang Song-thaek, said, ‘I was able to flee [from arrest]. And I expect others [with ties to Jang] have done the same. I don’t know what to do next.’” 

The official told Lee he was mulling fleeing to another country, possible the United States or a European country. When asked how many North Koreans fled from arrest, the North Korean said he did not know. 

The Joongang Ilbo adds that about 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, who also had ties to Jang, may also have to decide whether to defect or return.

Pyongyang usually keeps the wives and children of its overseas agents at home, as hostages. The fact that any significant number of them refuse to return home suggests that cohesion and discipline are breaking down. It may also reflect the sentiments of officials in Pyongyang, although the choices there are more stark.

One of Lee’s Chinese sources told him a majority of North Korean workers [in Beijing] “are frightened and desperate.” “In Beijing alone, there are about 30 North Korean workers, and they are now nowhere to be seen … We don’t know whether they went back [to Pyongyang] voluntarily,” said the source. 

Most of those who disappeared are senior ranking members of North Korea’s trading companies who have worked with Jang over many years and have transferred foreign currency to Pyongyang. Lee quoted his Chinese source as saying there was an arrest squad dispatched from the North, fueling speculation that those who returned to their country did it involuntarily. 

“I bet their [North Koreans in China] position is that there is nothing to hope for after the execution of Jang Song-thaek,” said a Chinese businessman. “[Those who have disappeared] are North Koreans stationed in Beijing, Shenyang and Guangzhou. Those who were in Guangzhou are the people who looked after Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il,” he said. 

Many of these North Koreans were “in China to enhance bilateral trade and investment.” Some analysts interpret the order as a sign that the regime disapproves of Chinese-style reforms.

NK office

[via Yonhap]

At a minimum, removing these deal-makers will necessarily have some adverse effects on the deals they were making, or made. That will undo a great deal of connection-building and negotiation, and will damage economic relations between China and North Korea. The regime’s denunciation of Jang for “instruct[ing] his stooges to sell coal and other precious underground resources at random” and “selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone” will certainly chill new investment deals, and scare cadres into reinterpreting existing ones, causing more conflicts with investors. Regime banks accounts could even be lost if the only people who know where it is die without telling where they are.

Not that any of these things would be bad, mind you.

It’s hard to imagine that this purge could fail to cause a significant disruption in Pyongyang’s money flows. Could they really be dumb enough to do that to themselves? If they were dumb enough to destroy their own currency, then I suppose they are.

For what it’s worth, a North Korean official interviewed by the AP says that Pyongyang’s economic policies won’t change, that North Korea welcomes foreign investment, and that Pyongyang will proceed with its special economic zones. Not that I suppose this is really about me, but the interview answers my swipe that the AP hasn’t interviewed any North Korean officials or adding any useful information to our speculation about the purge. Whether these assertions are useful information is a question I’ll leave to you, to time, and to the boys at the Inmin Poan-Bu to tell, but they are exclusive and newsworthy. Good for the AP reporters for making the effort.

Let them drink beer: Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, where Orwell meets South Park

This week, the U.N. gave the North Korean government another million dollars for flood disaster aid to North Korea. Last month, the U.N. World Food Program appealed for $98 million to feed hungry North Koreans. Earlier this year, European NGOs blamed international sanctions for their difficulties paying for their operations in North Korea. And yet somehow, Kim Jong Un has found plenty of grain for brewing beer:

North Korea completed construction of a brand new brewery in Haeju city that has up-to-date production facilities, the communist country’s leading newspaper said Thursday.

The Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, said the brewery has fermentation, filtering, cold storage and bottling facilities that will allow it to produce alcoholic beverages to benefit people. [Yonhap]

This also happened in Animal FarmIt’s as if the North Koreans read Orwell and mistook parody for utopia.

You get similar ideas from this picture of Kim Jong Un supervising the construction of what richly deserves to be known as Cartmanland Pyongyang, “a waterpark, complete with slides, a wave machine and a restaurant.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un inspects the construction site of the Munsu Swimming Complex

I’m not sure that oligarchical hedonism equates to capitalism, but it sure isn’t socialism. There’s no denying that this is a change from the image that the first two Kim emperors displayed, but is it a good change? It certainly isn’t reform.

Let’s assume that North Korea abandons all pretense of socialism and class equality. Say it declares itself to be a capitalist or mixed economy–exactly what proponents of engagement have spent the last two decades so eager to see that they sometimes celebrated signs that no one else could see.

Why does it follow that a non-socialist North Korea would be any less of a danger to its own people, or to us? Isn’t it more likely that a capitalist North Korea would simply use its increased concentration of wealth to threaten us more? Wasn’t Nazi Germany a mixed economy?

New Focus on North Korea’s changing economy

They paint a vivid picture of an economy in a halting transition:

* For better or for worse, loan sharks who trade in currency and their connections to the regime have become an important part of the new economy.

* How businessmen make donations to regime projects to buy indulgences — letters of appreciation — from the regime, and use them as amulets against its enforcers of dependency.

* The decay of the Public Distribution System (PDS) continues to progress.  Teachers has been among the most favored recipients of state rations until recently.  Now, they moonlight as traders in the jangmadang to get by.  Who in North Korea still lives on the PDS?  From what I’ve read recently, it seems to be going the way of the pay phone, even in Pyongyang.

* There is also a fascinating report about the Ryugyong Corporation, which controls North Korea’s illicit drug business at all levels of vertical integration.  The report paints a surprisingly nuanced view of how Kim Jong Il would control these illicit activities overseas.  There was more negotiation and less outright coercion than I would have thought, and the report seems credible and well-sourced, although the estimate of “tens of thousands” of dollars a year seems implausibly low.

Best Graphics of the Week (So Far)

The first shows the persistence of regionalism, in living color.

Via Yonhap; hat tip to Step Haggard and Jaesung Ryu.

If I’m sitting in Pyongyang right now — and also, if I’m a malignant narcissist with a bloated army — I’m thinking the people who voted this way must be punished.  One sense of ill foreboding has been replaced by another.

The second graphic is a newer, higher resolution image of the Koreas at night.

Don’t stop there.  The full-resolution version is simply stunning.

So is it time for me to update my masthead image yet?  Things have hardly changed in nearly 20 years.  Aside from the fact that there are more lights on some parts of the Sea of Japan than on land in North Korea, it struck me that those fishermen in Chongjin sure do venture far out to sea at night.  It must take days to get there.  And even then, the lights on their boats are dimmer than those on the South Korean boats.

 

Reform Watch: North Korea can now afford to bury its orphans in Snoopy T-shirts

As a vibrant market economy arises from an underdeveloped one, it does not lift all boats as a rising tide would.  Some get very rich fast, and some stay very poor.  Such periods of rapid development are politically risky times, as uneducated masses are drawn away from their hardscrabble farm lives and packed into factory dormitories, slums, and shanty towns in the cities.  Those places become hothouses of envy and radicalism that can bring down the political systems in which wealth and poverty coexist uneasily.  It’s no coincidence that Marxist ideas rose as societies industrialized, and waned as most of the world entered a post-industrial phase.   Marxism is an ideology built around an emotion — envy.  To survive the political turbulence of industrialization, a strong state must have the means and the will to suppress lawlessness, but it must also inspire enough faith in The System that the masses harbor real hope that their lives will continue to improve under it.

On the surface, the coexistence of wealth and poverty in North Korea can resemble what we see in developing societies.  But in what sense can it be said that North Korea, a place where the government wraps an iron fist around most commerce and predetermines the potential of its citizens before they’re even born, is “developing?”  Are we really seeing the rise of a capitalist class in Pyongyang, or is the same old elite-class hoarding just becoming more ostentatious?  The great irony of North Korea is that its most destabilizing force today is the same kind of class envy that propelled most of the Marxist revolutions of the last century.  Two excellent news stories this week contrast the superficial trappings of wealth in Pyongyang with an exacerbation of poverty and continued starvation everywhere else.  While the elite in Pyongyang have never had it so good, children continue to starve and die in the markets of other North Korean cities.

Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea’s defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. Development organizations also blame speculators who have hoarded staples in anticipation of reforms that have yet to materialize. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.

“People were hopeful that Kim Jong-un would make our lives better, but so far they are disappointed,” said a 50-year-old named Mrs. Park, who like Mrs. Kim spoke on the condition that only her last name be used, fearing retribution when she returned home.

A member of the ruling Workers’ Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal.

“I would have given them food if I had any,” she said, looking away with shame.  [N.Y. Times, Andrew Jacobs]

This is some of the best journalism the Times has produced about North Korea in my memory.  I hope we’ll see more of Mr. Jacobs’s work.  Another giant, Barbara Demick, writes:

Women wearing fancy shoes, miniskirts and trousers, fashions popularized by the chic wife of North Korea’s not-yet 30-year-old leader. Brand new high-rise apartment buildings, which she’s heard have washing machines and refrigerators. People walking down the street yammering into cellphones stuck to their ears.

All things that, for now, at least, seem beyond the reach of the 52-year-old Kim, who, although she counts herself among the privileged as a resident of the North Korean capital, can barely afford to eat rice.

“Of course, they’re showing off with their cellphones. Who wouldn’t?” she snapped.

[….]

“There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder,” said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym.

[….]

“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.

At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.

As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]

Both articles are absolute must-reads.  Also not to be missed, and on the same theme:  this piece in The Atlantic, and this one by Laura Ling, although five points shall be deducted from Slitheren for all references to “Kangnam Style.”

Separately, other reports are claiming that North Korea’s food situation is as bad as it’s been at any time since the Great Famine.  I’m a committed agnostic about any statement that claims to represent the true food situation in North Korea, given the restrictions on access to reliable data and the substantial variations that probably exist from region to region.  It’s clear, however, that North Koreans don’t think their lives have improved during the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth or since the coronation of Kim Jong Un.  The perception of declining living standards is bad news for any ruling regime, but it’s fatal when it’s so easily contrasted to the rising and conspicuous wealth of a privileged few.  As a consequence, class envy in North Korea is almost certainly both deep and wide, and it’s turning North Korea into a Brechtian dystopia where the masses live by the laws of Erst kommt das Fressen and Der Mensch lebt durch den Kopf.

Hat tips to several readers.

UPDATE:  But then, the Kim Dynasty has become less Marxist with each generation, and more an expression of Emmanuel Goldstein’s oligarchical collectivism (I’m not the first one to be astonished by how much Goldstein’s criticism of Oceania sounds exactly like North Korea, but don’t take my word for it).  That’s why it shouldn’t surprise us that even the statues portraits of Marx and Lenin have been removed from Kim Il Sung Square.

North Korean Reform Watch 6

We don’t know how extensive North Korea’s agricultural reforms are meant to be, but we do know that North Korea wants us to think that it’s instituting big reforms in its agricultural sector, because it took the AP’s Jean Lee on a show tour of a collective where the “farmers” were primed to tell her it was so. Is it too cynical of me to tend to disbelieve any fact that North Korea wants me to believe is true? Props to Lee for her hard work at getting this sentence past her “colleagues” at KCNA:

North Korea has a per capita GDP of $1,800 per year, according to the U.S. State Department, far below that of its neighbors in Northeast Asia, and its rocky, mountainous terrain and history of natural disasters has long challenged the Kim regime to provide enough food.

Yes, that is all! Nineteen consecutive years of drought-slash-flood that for some reason target all parts of North Korea, exclusively, but which never seem to impede the flow of rice or Omega watches to Pyongyang! I love officially approved news, don’t you?

Meanwhile, we are reminded again why we ought to be skeptical of all that optimistic speculation, like this example from The New York Times. And then, a day later, Yonhap reports, “North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament closed its session Tuesday, the country’s state media announced without making reference to economic reforms widely expected to come from the unexpected meeting of legislators.” So there’s that. Not that there’s a particularly strong causal link between legislation and policy in North Korea, but given how rare it is for North Korea to put on this puppet show twice in a year, does the absence of any major legislative initiatives suggest that some of the strings have become tangled?

Meanwhile, on the more tangible side of North Korean economic policy, fewer things have changed than some would have us think:

After nearly two years of interrogations while imprisoned in the inhumane Yodok camp, also called simply “No. 15,” Jang became aware he was there because he had earned so much foreign currency, the defector recalled in a meeting in Seoul of North Korean survivors of the country’s political prison camps.

Jang said hundreds of other hard-working foreign-currency earners were sent to the political prison for the same reason.

While North Korean authorities assigned an annual foreign currency target of more than US$1 million to each foreign income unit, completing the assignment drew suspicion from the government because they assumed that achieving the ambitious goal must involve irregularities, Jang explained in a package of written recollections released at the meeting. [Korea Times]

Lest you wonder if I’m the only one asking for stronger evidence to support this wildly optimistic speculation, there more here, from Luke Herman.

Curb Your Enthusiasm: On Change in North Korea

Over at Destination Pyongyang, Chris Green offers some useful cautions to those who have allowed themselves to become unduly aroused at the prospect of reform in North Korea based on “evidence” that is either superficial, questionable, irrelevant, or some combination of these things.  Green questions “hyperbolic” reports that North Korea will abandon its central rationing system — a system that is more responsible for North Korea’s famine and hunger than any other single factor — because that would mean ceding a key means of controlling its subjects.  He also cites evidence that North Korea is, while denying any intention of reforming, also showing some leg to hopeful observers abroad to attract foreign aid.

It’s Stephan Haggard, however, who does the best job of putting all of this into perspective in a few short paragraphs, when he says:

Let’s calibrate expectations. First, to our knowledge there is no document that actually spells out—in print—the reform measures that are getting so much Western attention. Everything we are speculating about is based on reporting from a small handful of second-hand Korean sources. This is significant not only because the reform rumors may simply be false, but because the leadership has not committed publicly to the measures that are getting so much attention.

Second, however, this is understandable because no leader of North Korea is going to stand up and embrace market-oriented polices and protection of private property rights per se. Any reform (or “improvements” [??]) must be embedded in an ideological justification that ties it to the existing regime and its historical antecedents in the Great and Dear Leaders. The document “Let Us Effect Kim Jong Il’s Patriotism and Step Up the Building of a Prosperous Country”—released to the public on July 26—is not available in English yet, although the KCNA devoted no fewer than four separate stories to it on August 3. But it is laden with efforts to tie vaguely-worded economic objectives to patriotism and Kim Jong Un’s family lineage; this is the sort of ideological engineering we would expect.

Third, it is also important to recognize that no reform in such a system is going to overthrow the state-socialist system or be big-bang in form. Given the nervousness and ambivalence of the leadership toward the market—some of it well-founded–policy changes are going to be piecemeal, experimental and modest. Moreover, their objective is going to be strengthen—not weaken—the state socialist system. “Reform” could even make things worse; think the 2009 currency conversion.

Finally, there has been a lot of loose talk suggesting that “reform” implies some sort of political change. To the contrary, economic reforms or improvements are designed to consolidate power and forestall political change, not lead it. One need look no farther than the DPRK’s northern neighbor to understand that dynamic.

My point here isn’t that North Korea’s rulers will always resist all changes to the system.  They probably know better than anyone that current trends aren’t sustainable forever, no matter how many checks China writes.  Commentators like to mock predictions of regime collapse in North Korea, but in fact, North Korea has been in a state of steady economic, political, physical, and social disintegration since 1993, and while domestic terror can delay the inevitable, it can’t prevent it.  Only North Koreans know for certain, but I suspect that outside Pyongyang, the people are deeply discontented, and all that still glues the regime’s rule together is the lack of any alternative, which still can’t quite arise because of the people’s isolation, fear, and exhaustion, and probably some residual awe and nationalism.  An internal challenge — which at this point, would have to come from within the military — could inflame North Korea and morph in a Syrian-style civil war as quickly as clandestine communications allow the news to spread.  Ironically, the only thing that could really gird it among the disillusioned masses now is the threat of some external force.  That’s about all the regime’s propaganda really has left.

My point is, however, that any changes in North Korea in the short term will be modest and cosmetic, designed to preserve the regime’s control and its essentially repressive and threatening character.  The junta will seek to eliminate marginal inefficiencies, wrest control of currency-earning enterprises from disfavored factions, and attract external aid through cryptic inducements and diplomatic scams.  North Korea’s rulers — whose record of “reform” is largely one of retrograde incompetence — will not direct significant economic reforms until they find themselves under far more immediate and severe economic and political duress than they’re feeling today.  For now, there is only sketchy evidence to suggest that this is the case, and only in isolated places beyond Pyongyang’s well-guarded gates.  North Korea still seems to be getting plenty of support from China, and I doubt that North Korea would be threatening to tie a toe tag on the 2005 Joint Statement (long a dead letter in any event) if it didn’t have some confidence about its short-term survival.

Of course, there’s always the possibility of a mutiny or a coup by some disgruntled general, but it’s impossible to assess the likelihood of such a development.  That possibility has lurked, unconsummated, for a long time now.

In the medium term, however, the sort of distress that would force significant economic (and then, political) change is starting to look more and more likely.  Why?  For the same reasons that toppled Communist regimes from Kabul to Berlin in the five-year period starting in 1989, and transformed almost every other nominally Communist regime that still stood at the end of that period — the loss of great-power sponsorship.  Almost alone, North Korea barely survived that period by finding itself a new sugar daddy.  But within the next two years, and probably much sooner, China will begin to feel the full economic and political impact of the bursting of its real estate bubble.  Next will come a threat to its banks, many of them laden with bad state-directed debts.  Already, we’re seeing the first small signs of capital flight.  Today, China’s behavior resembles the manic cycle of like a 19 year-old meth addict whose high has just peaked.  China’s crash will be a very bad thing for the U.S. economy, too, of course, and it will be a time of extreme geopolitical danger.

The bright side to that dark cloud is that China will be seeking a lot of economic indulgences — on trade, exchange rates, intellectual property, market accessibility, and interest rates — from its most important trading partner, which will put us in a relatively stronger position to ask for other things in return. If we’re foresighted enough, the end of China’s sponsorship of North Korea will be one of those demands.  Even if we’re not, China might independently decide that North Korea is an expense it can’t afford.  That will force North Korea to make significant concessions to its neighbors, to its own people, to a new economic reality, and to us.  But once that juggernaut starts rolling downhill, there will be no controlling its speed or direction.

Update:  I also recommend this guest post by Gene Choi at Witness to Transformation.  Again, the change at all levels of society comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.