Editor: Insurance plays an important role in supporting economic development and foreign investors. Aside from its usual role in pooling and transferring risks, it also helps companies to obtain financing by protecting collateral. We have begun preliminary research into North Korea’s insurance industry and how we can help develop it. This guest piece by Jakub Rehor, a workshop leader who helped us lead a series of workshops on risk management in Pyongyang, reflects very preliminary understanding we have on the sector, which we will fine-tune as we continue to build our internal knowledge base. It is based on dated sources, and current practices may diverge from what Jakub has highlighted. In the planned, state-controlled economy of North Korea, familiar concepts (including insurance) acquire a very different meaning. In a market economy, insurance coverage indemnifies individuals or corporations for losses suffered due to natural disasters, accidents, sickness, or death. In North Korea, what is called “insurance” functions as a fundraiser for certain entities in the government.
There are two kinds of insurance products in North Korea, individual and enterprise insurance. Both are compulsory and are administered by KNIC (Korea National Insurance Corporation). Compulsory individual insurance is deducted automatically from salaries, and is used to fund the state-run healthcare system. Individuals cannot file claims under this insurance; all payments go into the healthcare system to cover its costs and to other state-directed uses. This individual insurance program was originally administered by Korea Central Bank, but parts of it were moved to KNIC where it formed a new department.
Individuals do not have the option of buying property or life insurance in DPRK. Only state-owned enterprises can use property insurance. Compulsory enterprise insurance covers property losses from all major perils (there is exclusion for war). There are no separate policies or riders for windstorm, earthquake, flooding, etc. Instead, policies specify coverage by type of property (animal insurance, machinery insurance, etc.)
Pricing is set without regard to individual risks and loss history. Rather, insurance operates on a pooled basis, with the goal of roughly matching premiums with claims and administration costs. There are no reserves and the state absorbs any losses or profits. As a result, KNIC has no incentive to care about profitability or correct pricing (and, presumably, service) for local insurance operations priced in North Korean won.
There is no independent regulatory authority in DPRK overseeing KNIC’s activities. In theory, the Central Bank and Finance Ministry should be involved, but in reality they don’t have the expertise or political backing. The only oversight of KNIC comes from the party which provides mainly political supervision.
Given the pooled nature of the compulsory policies and lack of risk-based pricing, KNIC acts mainly as an administrator, collecting premiums and disbursing payments. In this position it functions as a revenue generator for the government via two channels:
1. It fails to pay market replacement value of losses. Claims are settled at official government prices which do not reflect market reality.
2. It has been alleged that KNIC has been involved in reinsurance fraud. Media reports claim that European reinsurers write policies for KNIC which then submits false claims, or retains a portion of the claim settlement payments rather than passing it on to the insured.
The existing insurance arrangements in DPRK are clearly inadequate for the needs of foreign joint ventures operating in the Special Economic Zones. If North Korea hopes to attract foreign investment, it needs to modernize its insurance system to bring it into line with expectations of outside investors.
Written by Jakub Rehor and edited by Geoffrey See