The economics of coal trade, sanctions, and rice prices in North Korea
By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein
This may just be one piece of anecdotal evidence, but it’s interesting to note that sanctions haven’t necessarily leading to coal exports stopping – as we know from the multitude of evidence that North Korean coal ships have still been making their transport rounds – but primarily to drastically slashed prices, and surely to significantly smaller volumes being shipped as well. This reinforces the point that even if trade continues, sanctions put a large premium on trading with North Korea. Importers of North Korean coals, simply put, have to get charged less because of the risk they’re taking, and those exporting North Korea need to be paid more for the endeavor to be worth it.
(UPDATE on August 12th): I realized I may have misread the article – the source that Daily NK spoke with appears to be referring to domestic prices for coal, not export prices. Still, since we know that coal is in fact being exported through various evasion methods (albeit in fairly small quantities, perhaps), the point stands.
The article also makes an interesting point about the market prices for rice. It is remarkable how little prices have changed through the past year, when sanctions have been in place and enforced by China to a much greater extent than before. Still, according to this piece, prices aren’t dropping even though people’s incomes in fact are going down significantly, at least in parts of the country. So it may be that prices were already at or close to the “reservation price” for suppliers, i.e., the lowest point at which they’re willing to sell at all. Hard to confirm or check, but it is a plausible partial explanation for the strange dynamics of market prices in North Korea over the past year.
As coal exports have slowed to a crawl due to international sanctions, North Korea’s coal country of Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, and Kujang County, North Pyongan Province, have been suffering under intense economic difficulties. Most residents in these areas were dependent on the export of coal and are directly feeling the effects of the trade stagnation.
“When coal was being exported, it went for up to 130,000 won (16 US dollars) a ton, but now due to the sanctions the price has fallen to 50,000 won (around 6 US dollars) a ton […] The coal must be sold for workers to get paid. The halt in exports has even led to someone starving to death,” said Kim Woo Chul (alias, male resident of Kujang County), who was traveling in China on August 1.
“In April or May this year a fifty-year-old man died of starvation,” he said, nothing that while corn is provided by the government in July and August, “it lasts for less than two months.”
Kim also said that rice is being sold in the market but most people in the region can’t afford it. “Food is not scarce in the Kim Jong Un era, but people have no money so they can’t buy it,” he emphasized. Kim also noted that there were many empty food stands at the markets because demand has fallen due to the lack of money.
Another resident from Kaechon, South Pyongan Province, named Ri Sung Rim (alias) added, “There is a lot of rice at the markets, and people would buy it if they had money, but they don’t have money because coal is not being sold anymore […] People who ran private businesses selling coal are having a particularly bad time and are starving because they can’t even make corn porridge.”
She explained that a small amount of corn is given to those actually producing coal by the state, but teams that are not producing anything receive no food rations. “They have nothing to eat so there are even people who are taking their children and leaving the region,” she said.
The two interviewees also talked about the chronic electricity shortages in North Korea. While Pyongyang and other major cities are supplied with a relatively steady supply, the rural areas receive very little. People cannot watch television because of the lack of electricity, which means that many in these areas only recently found out that Kim Jong Un had met with the leaders of South Korea and the US.
“Electricity is only supplied for an hour or less in Pyongsong, while those who are wealthy siphon off electricity from factories or use car batteries,” said Kim. “Some of the wealthier people use car batteries to watch KCNA on television sets, but most cannot afford that.”
“Production teams get electricity, but residents don’t get electricity in their homes […] Car batteries need to be recharged to supply electricity at home, but there are no places to recharge them. People get them recharged if they know someone at the factories, but they are out of luck otherwise,” Ri said.
“I only found out about Chairman Kim Jong Un visiting China when I visited the country […] People need electricity to see the news and, since they can’t, they don’t know what’s going on.”
Export sanctions lead to hard times for those in coal-producing regions