N.Korea Increasingly Squeezed by Sanctions

  • By Choi Yeon-jin, Kim Myong-song, Lee Yong-soo

    February 22, 2018 11:50

    North Korea seems to be feeling an acute pinch from international sanctions. A paper shortage has apparently driven the North to cut the circulation of the state-run Rodong Sinmun daily by two-thirds, while the impoverished country no longer has access to satellite networks for air traffic control because it defaulted on payments.

    North Korean officials are reduced to blackmailing defectors in South Korea for money by using their family in the North as virtual hostages. The North's trade deficit has tripled, leading to a lack of hard currency.

    ◆ Insolvency

    North Korea seems to have been cut off from international satellite networks for eight months, a fact revealed inadvertently when an exclusive airplane carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister Yo-jong entered South Korean airspace on Feb. 9.

    According to data from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport obtained by the Chosun Ilbo, North Korean air traffic control used a landline rather than the global VSAT communication network to inform their counterparts at Incheon International Airport that the flight had taken off from Pyongyang Sunan International Airport.

    The North was unable to use the satellite service provided by a provider in Hong Kong because it defaulted on payments. North Korea has been unable to access the service for the past eight months. The North was apparently unable to use the service for 40 days back in November of 2015 for the same reason.

    As a result, South Korean air traffic controllers had to communicate with their counterparts in the North via telephone when the plane carrying Yo-jong returned to Pyongyang. And even the fixed line was apparently unstable, with air-traffic controllers in the North having problems hearing signal tones.

    ◆ Blackmailing Defectors

    Describing the blackmail attempts, a defector here said that North Korean authorities posted a video clip on a propaganda website slandering and blackmailing him and his family.

    "I also got a mysterious phone call from the North claiming that my family was begging me to send them more than W10 million," the defector said (US$1=W1,076). "It appears North Korean defectors who were either lured back to the North or went back voluntarily after obtaining South Korean citizenship are informing on other defectors that they ran into during debriefing in the South," and North Korea is using that information to blackmail them.

    One North Korean defector recently bought 130 tons of rice and sent it to North Korea's intelligence agency, apparently as a result of blackmail. One researcher at a state-run think tank in South Korea said, "The woman returned to the North and was reunited with a son she left behind in North Korea. She handed over the rice to guarantee her safety."

    ◆ Trade Deficit

    North Korea's exports to China, meanwhile, are expected to drop 94 percent this year to less than US$100 million. They already fell 37.3 percent in 2017 to $1.65 billion, the lowest level since 2010, due to UN Security Council sanctions. Lim Soo-ho, an expert on the North Korean economy at the South's Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, gave the forecast in a seminar on Wednesday.

    According to Chinese trade data last year, exports to China of the North's main product, anthracite, fell 65.9 percent, and there was no trade from March to July and October to December because China complied with fresh UN sanctions that banned imports of North Korean anthracite.

    North Korea tried to make up for the loss through exports of other minerals, fisheries products and textiles, but to no avail because new UN sanctions then blocked minerals and fisheries imports in October and September last year.

    According to Lim, North Korea is expected to suffer a $1.58 billion trade deficit this year after a deficit of $1.68 billion in 2017, three times larger than the 2016 deficit.

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