For North Korea, anthracite exports are a major means of foreign currency earnings and the country’s top export item to China. Exports are expected to continue to rise this year.
China’s year-on-year import of anthracite from North Korea increased 39.7 percent (16.49 million tons) from the previous year, accounting for 41.5 percent of the total amount of anthracite import for China (39.66 million tons). North Korea has now surpassed Vietnam as the top exporter of anthracite to China.
Other than natural resources, North Korea has virtually no other major export commodities to offer. The recent standstill in inter-Korean economic cooperation and toughened international sanctions has made it difficult for North Korea to earn foreign currency. Thus, North Korea has pushed for a steady increase in its hard coal exports to China. North Korean anthracite is considered to be of relatively high quality, maintaining a higher unit price (10 USD/ton) than Vietnamese anthracite.
Currently, China’s steel industry is the largest consumer of the North Korean anthracite, with the main consumers being local steel companies in Liaoning, Hebei, and Shandong Provinces, as they are geographically closer to North Korea and have easy access to shipping ports.
The market for North Korean anthracite is expected to expand. Since last year, the Chinese government began to implement wide-ranging air-pollution management measures. As a result, Chinese authorities designated the Hebei Province and the surrounding areas of Beijing and Tianjin municipalities as key areas to improve and control air pollution. With the help of allocated subsidies from the central government, local governments began to distribute hard coal briquettes to homes in farming villages. China’s major anthracite producing areas are in remote mountainous regions. So the demand for North Korean anthracite briquettes is anticipated to increase.
Late last year, the former head of the (North) Korean Workers’ Party Jang Song Thaek was accused, charged and executed for, among other “anti-state activities,” selling the country’s “precious [natural] resources” (presumably to China) at very cheap prices. But his execution does not appear to have made a significant impact on the anthracite trade between the DPRK and China. With China’s growing demand for North Korean anthracite, the export volume is expected to rise.
However, some argue that despite the growing demand North Korea’s coal production capacity is limited and will experience difficulties. Currently, North Korea has already suppressed significantly its domestic demand in order to meet the export volume. North Korea’s mining facilities are said to be old and badly in need of repairs, but large investments from Chinese companies that could be put toward this endeavor are reported to have dried up.