The U.N. Security Council last month tightened sanctions on North Korea, including new trade restrictions. It said it would ban textile exports and limit fuel imports, as well as make it illegal to create joint ventures with North Korean companies. Pyonyang responded by firing a ballistic missile across Japan. It landed in the sea. In response, South Korea lobbed two missiles into the water in a simulated attack.
With all the fireworks and drama, there’s been little discussion about what the trade sanctions – a common tactic when dealing with rogue regimes – actually mean for this isolated country of 25 million’s economic relationship with the rest of the world.
What does North Korea actually trade with the rest of the world? Who are its trading partners? What are the trends? If it were ever to open up, would it be able to equal the economic muscle of its booming Asian economic neighbors? What opportunities might there be for shipping and logistics companies?
North Korea exports coal, fish and textiles, and imports cars, electronics, food and fancy clothes, according to data from IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas.
Most importantly, the data underscores dictator Kim Jong-un’s reliance on China to sustain any semblance of a functional economy. North Korea now does over 90% of its trade with China, up from 20% in 2000. That's why China's announcement that it would partly enforce UN-mandated sanctions is significant.
Essentially, China buys North Korean commodities, especially coal, and, in exchange, gives Pyongyang the stuff it needs to maintain a decent standard-of-living for its upper classes and military, such as luxury cars, computers and phones. (North Korea’s customs data is difficult to access, and trade data comes from tabulating numbers from trading partners assembled by GTA.)
Overall, North Korea remains isolated from the rest of the world, trading only $6.4 billion worth of goods in 2016, less than Malta or Macau. By comparison, total trade in South Korea, a country of 51 million was $835 billion, 130 times more than its communist neighbor.
Total trade, North Korea, 2007-2016
|2007||$4.5 billion||2012||$7.3 billion|
|2008||$6 billion||2013||$7.8 billion|
|2009||$3.1 billion||2014||$7.3 billion|
|2010||$5.5 billion||2015||$6.3 billion|
|2011||$6.8 billion||2016||$6.4 billion|
North Korea has a special relationship with China, going back to Beijing’s support during the Korean War. China still has an embassy in Pyonyang. The countries share an 870-mile border, and Beijing has largely opposed harsh sanctions for fear of destabilizing North Korea and triggering a refugee crisis. The current diplomatic standoff over the nuclear arsenal hinges on China putting pressure on the renegade Asian nation.
As GTA data shows, the economic relationship increasingly resembles that of a client state and superpower, like Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Trade with China has grown to $5.8 billion from $488 million in 2000. North Korea’s economic reliance on China to the exclusion of other countries has solidified this decade.
Total trade North Korea–China trade, by year (and percentage of trade with China vs overall trade)
|2011||$5.6 billion (82%)|
|2012||$5.9 billion (81%)|
|2013||$6.5 billion (83%)|
|2014||$6.4 billion (88%)|
|2015||$5.4 billion (86%)|
|2016||$5.8 billion (91%)|
North Korea used to trade more with Japan and Thailand, and even Germany and Mexico, but now no other country is even close. The only other countries that trade with North Korea are Russia and some Asian neighbors, and their numbers are dwarfed by China’s.
Total trade with North Korea, by country, 2016
|China||$5.8 billion||Pakistan||$29 million|
|India||$142 million||Venezuela||$19 million|
|Philippines||$83 million||Sri Lanka||$13 million|
|Russia||$77 million||Singapore||$13 million|
Like many undeveloped, mountainous countries, North Korea is reliant on mining. It’s rich in coal, iron ore and zinc. Mining experts say the industry could develop more but suffers from insufficient and pricey electricity grids. In 2016, North Korea exported $1.2 billion of coal to China, up from $96.5 million in 2006.
And it’s ramped up its exports of raw textiles. North Korea’s textile to exports to China increased to $736 million in 2016 from $422 million in 2011. It’s unclear to what extent China will enforce the U.N.-mandated ban.
And what do North Koreans want? Well, the same stuff everybody else does. In 2016, North Korea shipped in from China $315 million of electronics to China, $269 million of cars and car parts and $135 million of clothes.
The Trade Numerologist is IHS Markit’s unique weekly look at global trade by award-winning journalist John W. Miller, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, using proprietary numbers from IHS Markit’s Global Trade Atlas database, the world’s most complete and accurate set of trade numbers.