North Korea is notorious for its totalitarian regime and human rights violations. Fewer people may realize the secretive country is also sitting on trillions in untapped wealth.
Some of these stockpiles are among the largest in the world, and North Korea, a tiny and cash-strapped nation, frequently uses them to bring in additional revenue – no matter the laws against doing so.
But the country is too poor to create the infrastructure needed to export the minerals – at least in large enough quantities to make a dent in its overall wealth. Still reliant on China, South Korea, and Russia for its financial and energy needs, North Korea has only made small deals with neighboring countries.
Lloyd Vasey, founder of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, noted recently that North Korea’s mining production has fallen by roughly 30% since the 1990s.
“There is a shortage of mining equipment,” Vasey wrote, “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.”
In 2014, Russia mapped out the construction of a rail linewithin North Korean borders. Though it ultimately fell through, the plan was to entice North Korea with workable infrastructure in exchange for use of its mineral stockpile.
North Korea has repeatedly tried to capitalize on its mineral abundance despite United Nations sanctions, according to Quartz. In August 2016, Egyptian officials seized more than 2,300 tons of iron ore from a North Korean cargo ship headed to the Suez Canal.
The large quantity of iron along with 30,000 accompanying rocket-propelled grenades marked the largest ammunition seizure in the history of sanctions against North Korea, according to a UN report published in February. The capture “showed the country’s use of concealment techniques, as well as an emerging nexus between entities trading in arms and mineral,” the report said.
In that regard, North Korea continues to face a catch-22 with its mineral stockpile. The country is too poor to use the deposits itself, but too volatile in its leadership to gain the trust of international bodies that may permit the minerals’ export.
The deposits will continue to sit underground, unused and untapped, until surrounding countries figure out a way to make workable partnerships.