North Korea’s 2017 budget report is out, and that means we can glean some insights into the country’s economy. This is a brief overview, so I would advise readers who wish to do more research on their own to use Ruediger Frank’s previous writing on the topic as a guide to making sense of the most recent budget report (see, for example, here, and here), in combination with information about the budget report itself.
Before delving into some points from the report, here’s the usual mantra about figures from North Korea: numbers should never be taken as exact, and their reliability is sketchy at best. It is impossible to tell for sure what is propaganda and what is actual, realistic information, and all figures should be taken as indicative only.
With that out of the way, here are some observations, in no particular order:
The economy has grown, according to North Korea’s own figures, but by less than previous years. That is, if you take Ruediger Frank’s view that growth of state budget revenue is a proxy for overall economic growth, which went up by 4.9 percent from the previous year. This is significantly lower than the past few year’s estimates and results, so in a way, it reflects a real decrease in economic performance. Thus, it is an admission of sorts that the economy isn’t doing all that well at the moment. There are several potential reasons for this figure (which, again, may not even be true or accurate). Recall that exports only started dropping in any drastic sense from early fall last year, when Chinese sanctions enforcement began.
For 2018, the “envisaged” growth rate is much lower, at 3.2 percent. Perhaps this, too, is overtly optimistic given how difficult things seem at the moment. Or perhaps it’s a realistic anticipation of a real downturn, but no disaster.
The budget report recognizes that a significant share of economic activity occurs out of the central government’s hands. Though North Korean publications do not explicitly recognize private economic activity, they’re less and less shy about talking quite openly about key facets of the marketized system. Frank pointed out previously, for example, that budgetary items such as revenues from provinces, according to some, essentially represent incomes from the non-centrally planned share of the economy. If this interpretation is correct, over a quarter of economic production (26.1 percent) is openly admitted by Pyongyang to be out of central planning hands. The share may well be more than the double that in reality, depending on how you count. In any case, the budget report – and this isn’t new at all, I should point out – recognizes that a significant share of the economy is out of central government hands: “Provinces, cities and counties are expected to balance expenditure with their own revenue and contribute lots of funds to the central budget.”
The state foresees continued growth from private and semi-private enterprise revenue next year. To see why, consider two budget posts that may appear especially peculiar for a nominally socialist economy: the social insurance fee (사회보험료수입금) and the real estate rent (부동산사용료수입금). The income from these is expected to grow by 1.2 and 1.8 percent respectively. Revenues from the transaction tax (거래수입금) are anticipated to grow by 2.5 percent. These, too, have been mentioned in previous budget reports so their appearance per se is not new. Information about what exactly they are is rather tricky to come by, and I’m grateful to my good friend and colleague Peter Ward for sending me excerpts from a 2010 North Korean dictionary (광명백과사전) on the social insurance and real estate rent fees.
The social insurance fee, basically, is just what it sounds like: a fee charged from “socialist organs and factories” as well as individual worker’s earnings, to help guarantee a decent life for “people who lose their ability to work [로동능력을 잃은 사람]” as well as the elderly and others in need. The real estate usage fee is explained as a revenue from “socialist organs and factories” charged in order for the government to maintain the quality and standard of its property, i.e., its buildings and land (which technically is all the land and all the buildings in the country). In other words, this is a fee charged to enterprises in a general sense, it seems. Both the social insurance fee and the real estate usage fee are probably best thought of as general revenue streams for the government, rather than income later used for a specific purpose. The transaction tax was first mentioned in the budget report for 2011, and is most likely a form of general tax on enterprise activity.
Again, these revenue flows are not new, and neither is their reporting. But fact that these revenue channels are institutionalized parts of the official economy say something about how far North Korea has gone from the Stalinist economic model, even nominally speaking. In a fully planned economy, there would be no need for fees or taxes (and indeed, North Korea claims to be a tax-free society) because all production would be planned, and its results collected in full and distributed by the state. Fees and taxes are only necessary when economic production occurs outside of state hands, which likely about half or more of economic activity in North Korea does.
No reader should take this post to mean that the North Korean economy is doing well, improving, or remains untouched by sanctions. Politically, it would likely be very tough for the state to report a major downturn in a year of such scaled-up sanctions and international pressure. But the overall assessment – that things are getting tougher but are not yet catastrophic in any way – may well be accurate. The question is how long it can go on this way, and it seems to me that economic projections for 2018 may well be more optimistic than they should be. Of course, with China’s sanctions enforcement reportedly letting up in some respects, there might be more cause for optimism than we realize.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is the co-editor of North Korean Economy Watch and an associate scholar with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
This post was originally published by North Korean Economy Watch and appears with kind permission.