North Korean food imports from China continued to decrease in July, with figures remaining below their 2014 equivalents, according to the most recent trade figures from Chinese customs.
Imports of nearly all foods, as classified by trade groupings, appeared lower in July 2015 than in the same period last year.
While imports of cereals saw a slight increase over June totals, they were 35 percent of the July 2014 figures. Whereas last year’s imports began to increase sharply in the summer months, this pattern has yet to be replicated in 2015.
“According to defectors, in 2014, daily amounts of food intake increased. In addition, data from the bank of Korea showed production in livestock industry has been increased significantly,” Jung Eunmi, a senior researcher of Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University told NK News.
Imports of milling industry – a category which includes flours, starches and other processed cereals -also were also well below their 2014 equivalents. July last year saw the beginning of a large spike in imports which lasted until November.
In contrast this year’s July figures were at their lowest levels since February.
The news comes despite a long period of drought in North Korea that likely damaged harvest yields. The long running water shortage caused concern among the DPRK’s neighbors and numerous international aid agencies.
Russia, Iran and the World Food Program all upped their donations to North Korea to help mitigate the drought’s effects.
‘There are other informal ways (of securing food) such as savings harvests from past years and private trade’
Jung warned however that trade statistics might not tell the whole story, as numerous other avenues of securing food in North Korea exist.
“Even though the imports have not increased so much, it does not mean their harvests are not affected by drought … There are other informal ways such as savings harvests from past years and private trade including non-governmental exchanges.
“Additionally, North Korea can save the harvests when their production is higher.”
While the volume of imports across most food trade categories decreased, those relating to vegetables and vegetable preparations appear to buck the trend, with July imports showing large spikes in volume.
In June and July combined, the DPRK imported more than 1,000 tons of vegetables from its neighbor. Last year’s figures did not show a similar increase in imports.
ENERGY AND FUEL
North Korea’s gasoline imports from China continued to be volatile, dropping to zero after a large import in June. The erratic nature of the trade could be due to stockpiling or trade data being incorrectly recorded and carried over into later months.
The gasoline spending, however, was accounted for in diesel imports, with North Korea upping expenditures from just $63,000 in June to nearly $1.4 million in July.
Overall North Korea’s diesel imports follow a similar trend to food, with Chinese exports of the fuel gradually decreasing over time. In July 2014 the DPRK was ramping up diesel imports until November, at which point it spent nearly $9 million on the fuel in just one month.
In July North Korea’s exports of electrical energy to China increased from a not insubstantial 1.3 million Kilowatt hours (Kwh) to 1.6 million.
The DPRK generally struggles to generate enough electricity, leading to rolling blackouts even in the capital. According to Chinese customs figures however, exports of electricity to China are nothing new, running all the way back to 2005.
“There’s a long history in the Customs record of relatively minor exports of electricity from the DPRK to China … last month’s (data) corresponds to about 23 average MW of power – not a huge amount, but not entirely trivial either. The average value, about 4 cents U.S./Kwh, is about right,” David Von Hippel, senior researcher at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability told NK News.
North Korea selling electricity to its neighbor seems counter-intuitive given its own shortfalls, however the pattern of the export provides an insight into where the power comes from.
Figures from both Chinese customs and the ITC trade map show DPRK electricity exports rising in the summer months, and dropping to nearly zero in the winter. The cycle is consistent with electricity generated from a hydropower plant.
North Korea’s harsh winters normally means rivers and lakes freeze over, causing output from hydro plants to drop dramatically from November onward.
“There are hydroelectric generators along the Yalu river ((between China and North Korea) and are jointly owned by China and North Korea. Half of electricity produced in the generator goes to China while the other half goes to North Korea,” Lee Seok-gi at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade told NK News.
“The data shows the generator had to stop during the winter season when the water froze, and as North Korea suffered a lot from drought this year, the production level of electricity is far lower than that of same months in last year.”
The most likely candidate for generating the power is the Supung Dam, on the DPRK’s northern border with China. According to power plant statistics site Industcards.com the facility is one of the largest in Asia, at over 100m high and 850m across.
The Supung Dam was built during the Japanese colonial period, but was upgraded and extended by China after the Korean War.
‘… it’s possible is that the DPRK is selling some of the generation from its side to China’
The plant is currently administered by a joint venture company called the Korea-China Hydroelectric Co. Delegations from the company are often mentioned by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
“(There are) several dams in the Supung cascade, each have a sets of turbines and generators that are dedicated, respectively, to China and to the DPRK … it’s possible is that the DPRK is selling some of the generation from its side to China either to generate foreign exchange or because it can’t use the power itself, or both,” Von Hippel said.
Oddly, as a result of the Supung Dam joint venture, electricity is an unlikely candidate for one of the relatively few products where North Korea is a net-exporter to China.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grevedon
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Featured Image: Rural North Korea by Ray Cunningham on 2014-09-15 09:09:44