North Korea is sitting on trillions of dollars of untapped wealth, and its neighbors want in

Jun 16, 2017, 06:00 PM

Few think of North Korea as being a prosperous nation. But it is rich in one regard: mineral resources. Currently North Korea is alarming neighbors with its frequent missile tests, and the US with its attempts to field long-range nuclear missiles that can hit American cities. A sixth nuclear test could be imminent. An attack on the US or its allies would be suicidal, so Pyongyang probably aims to extract “aid” from the international community in exchange for dismantling some of its weaponry—rewind about 10 years to see the last time it pulled off the old “nuclear blackmail” trick.

But however much North Korea could extract from other nations that way, the result would pale in comparison to the value of its largely untapped underground resources. Below the nation’s mostly mountainous surface are vast mineral reserves, including iron, gold, magnesite, zinc, copper, limestone, molybdenum, graphite, and more—all told about 200 kinds of minerals. Also present are large amounts of rare earth metals, which factories in nearby countries need to make smartphones and other high-tech products. Estimates as to the value of the nation’s mineral resources have varied greatly over the years, made difficult by secrecy and lack of access. North Korea itself has made what are likely exaggerated claims about them. According to one estimate from a South Korean state-owned mining company, they’re worth over $6 trillion. Another from a South Korean research institute puts the amount closer to $10 trillion.

North Korea has prioritized its mining sector since the 1970s. But while mining production increased until about 1990—iron ore production peaked in 1985—after that it started to decline. A count in 2012 put the number of mines in the country at about 700. Many, though, have been poorly run and are in a state of neglect. The nation lacks the equipment, expertise, and even basic infrastructure to properly tap into the jackpot that waits in the ground.

In April, Lloyd R. Vasey, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that: North Korean mining production has decreased significantly since the early 1990s. It is likely that the average operational rate of existing mine facilities is below 30 per cent of capacity. There is a shortage of mining equipment and North Korea is unable to purchase new equipment due to its dire economic situation, the energy shortage and the age and generally poor condition of the power grid.

It doesn’t help that private mining is illegal in communist North Korea, as are private enterprises in general (at least technically). Or that the ruling regime, now led by third-generation dictator Kim Jong-un, has been known to, seemingly on a whim, kick out foreign mining companies it’s allowed in, or suddenly change the terms of agreements. Despite all this, the nation is so blessed with underground resources that mining makes up roughly 14% of the economy.

China is the sector’s main customer. Last September, South Korea’s state-run Korea Development Institute said that the mineral trade between North Korea and China remains a “cash cow” for Pyongyang despite UN sanctions, and that it accounted for 54% (paywall) of the North’s total trade volume to China in the first half of 2016. In 2015 China imported $73 million in iron ore from North Korea, and $680,000 worth of zinc in the first quarter of this year.

North Korea has been particularly active in coal mining in recent years. In 2015 China imported about $1 billion worth of coal from North Korea. Coal is especially appealing because it can be mined with relatively simple equipment. Large deposits of the stuff are located near major ports and the border with China, making the nation’s bad transportation infrastructure less of an issue. For years Chinese buyers have purchased coal from North Korea at far below the market rate. As of last summer, coal shipments to China accounted for about 40% of all North Korean exports. But global demand f...