Daily NK snapshots from North Korea

Scenes from the Samjiyon construction project. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Vessels with luxury goods slip through sanctions’ loopholes (Jang Seul Gi)

Despite international sanctions against North Korea, the country’s elites have been able to exploit a loophole, namely allowing shipping vessels to turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS; an automated tracking system that displays other vessels in the vicinity), to continue importing luxury goods such as Mercedes Benz automobiles and vodka. At a recent parliamentary forum in Seoul, Park Syung Je, the chairman of the Center for New Asia Security Studies cited a reportfrom Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, and said “Between 2015 and 2017, as many as 90 countries served as luxury goods procurement sources for North Korea, equating to an estimated total value of more than USD 5.1 billion.”

Park criticized the South Korean government as sharing in the blame of these flagrant violations of the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions. He referenced the shipping route that two Mercedes Maybach S600s (intended for Kim Jong Un) took from Rotterdam, Netherlands to get to Pyongyang, with a pit stop in the port of Busan, South Korea. “The South Korean government can hardly be oblivious to a shipping vessel in its own port loaded with luxury goods and headed toward N. Korea,” he said. Park stressed the need for secondary measures to counteract these loopholes, such as insurance companies denying coverage for those vessels that turn off their AIS and financial institutions conducting more robust due diligence before financing vessels.

New smartphone fails to cover new ground (Mun Dong Hui)

North Korean propaganda media outlet Meari announced the release of a new smartphone called “Kiltongmu” (“Travel Companion”). Meari expounded the distinctive features of this smartphone such as a high-resolution liquid crystal display (LCD) screen, fingerprint and facial recognition functionality, and more than thirty kinds of dictionary, entertainment, and multimedia apps. However, based on an analysis of the article and pictures published by Meari, the “Travel Companion” does not seem to contain any new developments compared to North Korea’s previous smartphone models aside from a “quick handwriting input” feature.

Moreover, Meari claimed that existing smartphone models such as “Blue Sky,” “Pyongyang,” and “Azalea” were developed domestically. However, Daily NK analysis has confirmed that these smartphones are either assembled from components imported from China or are fully-assembled units imported from China with only the software being installed in North Korea. Since coming to power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stressed the importance of North Korea’s domestic scientific research and development as one of the pillars of his plans to develop the country. For example, during his address at the First Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly earlier this year, Kim spoke of how “[t]alents and science and technology serve as key engines for the development of [a] self-supporting economy.”

North Koreans face demand for construction materials (Jong So Yong)

North Korea completed a railroad in Ryanggang province connecting Hyesan to Samjiyon in 2018 as part of plans to establish a transportation network with Samjiyon at its center. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, however, ordered the reconstruction of the railway bed, and repair work has been ongoing throughout this year. Apartments deemed to be unsightly and detracting from the aesthetics of the landscape have also been demolished and replaced entirely with new apartments. Approximately 1,000 residents who were evicted from the demolished dwellings have been guaranteed housing within newly-built tenement houses and apartments.

The North Korean authorities charged with overseeing the Samjiyon construction project have used Kim Jong Un’s lofty ambition that Samjiyon will become a key sightseeing city to solicit construction materials such as cement, concrete blocks, and gravel from those displaced residents who have been guaranteed housing. Though locals look forward to the prospect of Samjiyon becoming a metropolitan hub of commerce and tourism, they have been burdened by the forced labor and various costs exacted from them by the regime.