U.N. Sanctions Cut North Korea’s Trade Volume in Half

This photo taken on November 20, 2017 shows boats and ships at Rajin harbour in North Korea's northeastern city of Rason, near the borders of both China and Russia. - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russia's leader Vladimir Putin are expected to meet in the eastern Russian port …
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

A report published Friday by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), an organization funded by the government of South Korea, showed that North Korea’s trade volume was cut in half during 2018, evidently as a result of sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.

The KOTRA report showed North Korea’s trade volume falling to $2.84 billion in 2018, a 48.8 percent decline from the previous year. Exports fell by a dizzying 86.3 percent, imports declined 31.2 percent, and the North Korean trade deficit rose by 17.5 percent.

The Korea Times cited the specific U.N. Security Council resolutions that appeared to deflate North Korea’s trade volume so sharply, saying:

Resolution 2371, which took effect in August 2017, bans U.N. member nations from importing North Korean coal, iron ore and seafood. Resolution 2375, which came into force a month later, bans purchasing textiles from North Korea and selling natural gas condensates and liquids to the regime. Resolution 2397 in December also bans selling industrial machinery and vessels.

Because coal, iron ore and textiles are North Korea’s main export items, their drop of almost 100 percent led to the plunge in exports, KOTRA said. The North’s exports of mineral fuel and oil dropped by 96.9 percent and textiles fell 99.5 percent.

Exports of most banned items declined, but light items that were not included in the sanctions showed noticeable growth. The export of clocks, watches and their parts jumped 1,533.7 percent from a year earlier, and wigs, cotton and feather products climbed 159.3 percent growth. 

The North imported mineral fuel and oil worth $360 million, accounting for 13.7 percent of its imports. Electrical equipment and machinery, the No. 2 and No. 3 import items in 2017, declined 97.6 percent and 96.9 percent respectively. 

KOTRA found that China is still by far the most important trading partner for North Korea, accounting for almost 96 percent of its trade, but even North Korea’s trade volume with China fell by 48.2 percent. Russia is North Korea’s next biggest partner but accounts for only 1.2 percent of its trade volume.

The South China Morning Post noted China has promised to continue abiding by U.N. sanctions until North Korea denuclearizes, and the Chinese economy has been so weakened by its trade war with the United States that it might no longer be capable of rescuing North Korea by itself.

James Downes of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told the SCMP that if North Korea’s trade volume keeps sinking, it could cause “uncertainty” among dictator Kim Jong-un’s inner circle because Kim has stated his top priority is economic growth. The KOTRA report shows North Korea’s trade slipping below $3 billion for the first time in Kim’s reign.

“In effect, this could serve to weaken Kim’s legitimacy, not in the short term, but in the longer term, if current economic projection forecasts continue. Diminishing trade between both countries would, therefore, be highly damaging and unstable for the Kim regime,” Downes predicted.

Chosun Ilbo on Friday saw North Korea’s economy heading into “the worst contraction since the famine of the 1990s that killed millions,” and continued, saying:

Researchers at the [South Korean] Institute for National Security Strategy told reporters Thursday that the North Korean economy is shrinking and the effects could hit hard in the second half of the year.

They said factories could stop operating if they cannot import machinery, electronics and metal components for maintenance due to international sanctions.

They also predicted that the economic difficulties could result in delays in major construction projects underway in Samjiyon, Ryanggang Province, in the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist zone in Kangwon Province, and in the Yangdok hot springs zone in South Pyongan Province.

Chosun Ilbo nevertheless expected North Korean negotiators to take a hard line during anticipated future talks with the United States, in part because they will be given good reason to fear for their lives if they show any sign of weakness.

Reuters on Thursday quoted Red Cross and Red Crescent officials who said malnutrition and disease are on the rise in North Korea due to droughts and floods combined with the flagging economy, calling for hundreds of thousands of dollars in urgent international relief to purchase irrigation supplies for North Korean farmers.

These calls were met with observations that Kim’s regime is still spending vast amounts of money on military hardware and luxury goods while its farmers starve, including a recent purchase of “at least two armored limousines valued at $500,000 each.”

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