Beijing No Longer Releasing Figures on North Korean Trade

Well, this Reuters report gives some empirical depth to recent media analysis that China is clearly eager to repair its ties with the DPRK.:

China has stopped publicly issuing trade data about North Korea, veiling the potentially sensitive numbers about its wary neighbour under another category while the two countries seek improved ties.

Destination and origin statistics on China’s imports and exports for September issued on Monday gave no separate numbers for second straight month for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the formal name of the North, as they have long appeared in the tables.

The trade tables for coal, crude oil, oil products and cereals issued by China’s General Administration of Customs instead used another category, “other Asia not elsewhere specified”, which for those commodities at least appeared to cover exclusively trade flows between China and the North.

Analysts and officials have used Chinese statistics to gauge otherwise opaque ties between the two communist neighbours. But North Korea has stopped appearing in the Chinese data since last month, when statistics for August also avoided mention of it.

The change may help Beijing to obscure shifts in economic flows with the North, which relies on China for most of its trade and aid.

An official in charge of data services at the Customs Administration told Reuters that the change would last, but would not say why. Reuters and other companies buy the data.

“We’re no longer issuing trade data about North Korea,” said the official, who declined to give her name. “We’re not allowed to issue the data anymore.”

She declined to answer further questions, referring them to another data services official.

That official, Xu Xianghui, said the data could not be released because of a “technical fault”. But Xu said it was unclear if that fault would ever be fixed.

Last year, trade between China and North Korea reached $2.79 billion, up 41.3 percent on 2007. But in the first nine months of this year bilateral trade slipped to $1.85 billion, a fall of 2.9 percent compared with the same months last year.

The data provided suggested Chinese exports of crude oil to the North have fallen slightly this year, while Chinese exports of rice to the North reached 48,240 tonnes in the first nine months of the year, a jump of 140 percent from the same period of 2008.  (Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)

If you’re the type to keep track of such things, this story has yet to be picked up by One Free Korea or the Daily NK.  [Note: It did, however, show up on NK Economy Watch subsequent to a tip by yours truly.] The story was reprinted yesterday in the Hong Kong standout paper, the South China Morning Post on page A4  (you know, pages?  as in, leaves in the paper edition that some of us still read?) under the headline “Beijing hides North Korea trade statistics,” and next to a picture of a huge field of drying persimmons in Guangdong.  Incidentally, South China Morning Post is one of those sources that you can only access via subscription to its site, paper copies, or to PressDisplay.

Just for the record, I have had some issues before with translations and word choice of Chinese sources by the Reuters staff in Beijing, including Ken Wills, who edited the above piece (which nevertheless includes the massacred header “BID TO IMRPOVE TIES”), but I don’t see any reason to question the basic legitimacy of this particular report.   In fact, we’re fortunate to have the information, particularly the figures on oil and food aid.

And, although rice imports from China were way up, by no means is everyone being fed in North Korea.  Quite the contrary.  The Good Friends’ latest report gives some in-depth analysis of Chinese grain dispersal to the DPRK in 2008, showing China’s strategy of delivering only a third of the requested amount in the spring quarter, but then amping up deliveries later in the year.  While John Feffer argues convincingly that food is a basic human right, unfortunately, it has become a political weapon for all sides in the North Korean imbroligio.

Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, KCNA via Mike Madden's insouciant post "Kim Jong Il's Love in an Elevator" -- click image for link to the incomparable NK Leadership Watch blog

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