Archive for the ‘International trade’ Category

North Koreans arrested for trade in rhino horn

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

According to the Daily NK:

One of the two North Koreans arrested on site for engaging in illegal trade of rhinoceros horns in Mozambique has been confirmed a Pyongyang diplomat, according to the Voice of America.

“Of the two arrested North Koreans, one was confirmed to be Park Chol Jun, a diplomat working at Pyongyang’s embassy in South Africa,” VOA reported, citing an official working at Seoul’s mission in the same country.

The two perpetrators, arrested on the 3rd this month, posted bail the following day and left the country for South Africa, the official said.

The North Korean mission there paid roughly 30,000 USD for their bail, the South Korean official said.

North Korean diplomats are said to often engage in illegal activities in other countries.

In March, a Pyongyang diplomat was deported from Bangladesh after attempting to smuggle in 27kg of gold, while in April, a couple from the North’s mission in Pakistan was caught selling alcohol on the streets of Karachi without a license.

“These kind of illegal activities have been around for a long time, because they stem from structural problems in operation,” Hong Sun Kyeong from the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea, who was also a former Pyongyang diplomat in Thailand, said. “Since the late 1970s, the North has not been giving its overseas missions money to operate. So not only do they have to make their own money, the state also makes it a rule that they have to wire back ‘loyalty foreign currency.’”

He added, “Back in the North, they do not recognize such illicit activities as being illegal, so even if officials are deported, they can just as easily be sent to missions in other countries.”

Here is coverage in the Joong Ang Ilbo.

Read the full story here:
Pyongyang diplomat caught in illegal trading of rhino horns
Daily NK
Kim Seong Hwan


DPRK selling Viagra in Bangladesh

Friday, May 15th, 2015

According to UPI:

A North Korean restaurant manager in Bangladesh was arrested in connection with illegal sales of Viagra and alcohol on Friday.

The supervisor of Pyongyang Restaurant in Dhaka, identified as a North Korean woman, had been secretly selling the impotence drug alongside other pharmaceuticals, reported South Korean news agency Yonhap.

Bangladesh’s Customs Intelligence Investigation Department was tipped off about the illegal sale of alcohol – and a raid on Friday uncovered 210 pills of Viagra, other medications, 94 cans of Foster’s beer and ten bottles of whisky, according to Bangladesh news site Prothom-Alo.

Pyongyang Restaurant in Dhaka is presided over by North Korea embassy staff, and an embassy employee reportedly tried to block the investigators.

Moinul Khan, head of the Customs Intelligence Investigation Department, said legal steps would be taken against the one North Korean national who was arrested.

Yonhap reported Bangladesh news network Jamuna TV was first to report the arrest, and said the North Korea-operated restaurant was raising funds through illegal operations.

Bangladesh’s population is mostly Muslim, with 83 percent of the country adhering to the Islamic faith. Alcohol cannot be sold without government permission.

This is not the first time North Korean envoys have been connected to illegal activity in Bangladesh.

In March North Korean diplomat Son Yung Nam tried to transport $1.4 million worth of gold bars, 170 in total.

Bangladeshi customs officials said the gold was most likely headed for a “local criminal racket” in order to raise cash for North Korea.

Read the full story here:
North Korean arrested in Bangladesh for sales of Viagra, alcohol
Elizabeth Shim


Chinese firms urged to remain confident in DPRK

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

China has encouraged its companies doing business in North Korea to remain confident, despite strained political ties between the two neighbors.

The Chinese ambassador to North Korea, Li Jinjun, made the remarks at a meeting on Wednesday with a group of Chinese businessmen in North Korea, the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang said in a statement.

Li told the Chinese businessmen that he has briefed North Korean officials on China’s ambitious Silk Road project aimed at reviving the ancient trade route between Asia and Europe.

Taking advantage of the Chinese Silk Road project, Li “encouraged Chinese companies to seize the opportunity to remain confident in their businesses in North Korea,” according to the statement.

Since taking up office in March, the Chinese ambassador has held a series of meetings with North Korean officials, including North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Gil-song and Minister of Foreign Trade Ri Ryong-nam.

With a US$40 billion fund, the Silk Road project, known as “One Belt, One Road” in China, is designed to build ports, expressways, railways and other infrastructure with its neighboring countries.

China is North Korea’s economic lifeline and diplomatic backer, but political ties have strained in recent years, particularly after the North’s third nuclear test in early 2013.

Read the full story here:
Chinese firms urged to remain confident in N. Korea


Chongryon chief’s son arrested over suspected DPRK mushroom imports

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-7-17): Chongryon chief’s son pleads not guilty. According to Kyodo:

One of two men linked to the pro-Pyongyang group Chongryon have pleaded not guilty to illegally importing mushrooms from North Korea.

Ho Jong Do, a son of Ho Jong Man, who heads the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), said the charges were totally wrong as their trial opened Thursday in the Kyoto District Court.

The other defendant, Kim Yong Jok, president of a Tokyo-based company affiliated with Chongryon, pleaded guilty.

The men imported about 3,000 kg of matsutake mushrooms produced in North Korea, worth around ¥7.6 million, via China in September 2010, prosecutors said.

Japan has banned imports from North Korea as part of sanctions against the country over its nuclear arms and missile development programs.

Japanese investigators have alleged North Korea aimed to obtain foreign currency by exporting the highly sought-after mushrooms.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-5-12): According to the Kyodo:

Police on Tuesday arrested three men, including the son of the head of the pro-Pyongyang group Chongryon, on suspicion of illegally importing a shipment of matsutake mushrooms from North Korea.

Masamichi Kyo, 50, whose father is Chongryon chief Ho Jong Man, runs a Tokyo-based company affiliated with the organization.

The investigation — carried out by Kyoto police and three other prefectural police forces — involved raids in March on sites related to Chongryon, also known as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.

The group has functioned for decades as North Korea’s de facto embassy in Japan in the absence of diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

Kyo’s arrest could further complicate bilateral ties, given that the initial raid prompted North Korea to lash out, with Pyongyang declaring that talks with Japan would now be “difficult” to achieve.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Tuesday that police are “conducting their investigations based on law and evidence.”

A source close to Chongryon said Kyo is widely regarded as Ho’s bookkeeper, although he kept a low profile at Chongryon and only served in a senior post at one of the group’s local chapters in Tokyo.

The two other individuals arrested were Kim Yong Jak, 70, the president of the company Kyo works for, and Kazuhide Yamanaka, 63, a senior official at a related company.

The three are suspected of conspiring with two other men on Sept. 27, 2010, to import illegally via China some 1,800 kg of matsutake mushrooms from North Korea. The shipment was worth around ¥4.5 million.

“This is a false accusation,” Kyo said as he was escorted by investigators out of his condominium following his arrest Tuesday morning.

Officers quoted him as saying, “I will not cooperate as this is an unjustified arrest.”

The police suspect the mushroom shipment was part of North Korea’s bid to acquire hard currency, as Japan has maintained an embargo on imports from North Korea since October 2006. The measure is part of a package of sanctions by Tokyo on Pyongyang for its missile and nuclear tests.

The focus of the investigation is whether Kyo acted on the orders of the North Korean government.

Chongryon sources say Kyo served as an executive of the association’s Adachi branch, but he has not worked at the headquarters in Chiyoda Ward and was not a high-profile activist for the group.

That is why investigative sources say surveillance was “lax” on him, and Kyo was able to visit North Korea as his father’s proxy. A re-entry ban on Ho meant he stayed in Japan while his son traveled.

When the economic sanctions preventing Ho’s re-entry were partially lifted and Ho was able to visit North Korea last September, his wife and Kyo were already in Pyongyang when he arrived, investigative sources say.

Because investigators believe the mushroom deal was part of North Korea’s measures to secure foreign currency, they are now examining the transfer of funds between Chongryon and Pyongyang.

At around 6:40 a.m. Tuesday, about a dozen investigators carrying cardboard boxes entered Kyo’s condo in Adachi Ward.

About 30 minutes later, Kyo emerged, wearing a mask and a cap, looking down and surrounded by investigators.
Separately, Japan and North Korea are at loggerheads over stalled bilateral talks on Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.

Read the full story here:
Chongryon chief’s son arrested over suspected N. Korea mushroom imports


DPRK and Russia ink deal

Monday, April 27th, 2015

According to Xinhua:

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Russia on Monday signed a protocol in Pyongyang, the official KCNA news agency reported.

The details of the protocol, which was signed after a meeting of the DPRK-Russia Inter-governmental Committee for Cooperation in Trade and Economy, Science and Technology, were not disclosed.

The two sides discussed issues of boosting cooperation in trade, economy, science and technology between the two countries, said the KCNA.

The protocol was signed by Ri Ryong Nam, the DPRK’s minister of external economic relations, and Alexandr Galushka, Russian minister of development of Far East.

Officials taking part in the meeting also included Russian ambassador to the DPRK, Alexandr Matsegora, and the Russian government economic delegation headed by Galushka.

On the same day, DPRK Vice Premier Ro Tu Chol met the Russian government economic delegation and had friendly talks with them.

Read the full story here:
DPRK, Russia ink protocol after inter-governmental meeting


North Korean workers in Russia

Monday, April 27th, 2015

According to NK News:

The amount of North Korean citizens officially working in the Russian Federation from the start of 2015 is now 20 percent higher year on year, information from Russian media stated.

A total 47,364 North Koreans are at present working in Russia since the year began, an April 22 report from business daily RBK stated.

By nationality, only Chinese and Turkish workers exceed them in terms of numbers, at 80,662 and 54,730 respectively, the report said.

Those three countries also comprise a total 80 percent of the foreign workers in Russia, the report noted.

While North Korean workers within Russia are known largely for working in logging camps throughout Siberia, they are also working in plastering, the RBK report stated.

Demand for North Koreans plasterers have also taken up the majority of Russian work permits in that skill, at 9,026 out of a total 14,783, the report added.

Read the full story here:
North Korean workers in Russia up 20%
NK News
Christopher Rivituso


China tries to involve DPRK in Silk Road Initiative

Friday, April 24th, 2015

According to Yonhap:

China has asked North Korea to join its ambitious Silk Road project to revive the ancient trade route between Asia and Europe.

Chinese ambassador to North Korea, Li Jinjun, made the request on Tuesday when he held a meeting with North Korea’s Minister of Foreign Trade, Ri Ryong-nam in Pyongyang, according to a statement posted on the website for the Chinese Embassy in North Korea.

With a US$40 billion fund, China has aggressively pushed the so-called “One Belt, One Road” initiative aimed at building ports, expressways, railways and other infrastructure with its neighboring countries.

“Ambassador Li introduced the concept and vision of ‘One Belt, One Road’ and hopes the two sides will work together to seize the opportunity to promote China-North Korea economic and trade cooperation,” the statement said.

Li said, “Developing friendly and cooperative relations with North Korea is the unswerving policy of the party and the government of China. China is ready to work together with North Korea.”

The statement did not say how the North Korean minister responded.

Political ties between North Korea and China remain strained due to the North’s defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, but China is the North’s economic lifeline and diplomatic backer at the United Nations.

Read the full story here:
China seeks N. Korea’s cooperation in Silk Road initiative


Mudubong news (UPDATED)

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

UPDATE 3 (2015-8-4): US group seeks seizure of Mudubong. According to the Financial Times:

The family of a South Korean man believed killed in North Korea are trying to seize a Pyongyang-owned vessel being held in Mexico, in a new sign of how legal snares are complicating the regime’s international trade.

Kim Dong-sik, a 53-year-old pastor, was abducted by North Korean agents in China in 2000 and can be presumed dead, a US court ruled in April. It ruled that Pyongyang should pay $330m to Mr Kim’s family, who are US citizens.

The family have seen an opportunity to secure a first instalment of this sum, in the form of the Mudubong, a North Korean cargo ship held by Mexican authorities since colliding with a coral reef last July.

On Tuesday their lawyers vowed to appeal after a Mexican court declined to consider their petition to place a lien on the Mudubong, which would give them the legal right to seize it. The court ruled on Monday that the case did not fall under its jurisdiction.

“We want to get the boat into our hands and sell it, and put the money towards the judgment against North Korea,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the family’s lead lawyer, who represented the family in the successful US action and who has previously won cases resulting in the seizure of Iranian-owned assets in the US.

Some legal experts consider the move a long shot, given that the US ruling would first have to be recognised in Mexico — an opinion seemingly endorsed by the Mexican court’s initial ruling. However, Alberto Mansur, the lawyer representing the family in Mexico, maintains that the case is on firm ground.

“This has never been done when the defendant is a sovereign nation but the recognition procedure is pretty straightforward,” he said.

The North Korean embassy would be the defendant in the case, he said. “Our laws provide for the attachment of assets when enforcing a claim,” Mr Mansur added.

The lawsuit brings a new twist in an affair that reflects the complexity of efforts to implement UN sanctions against Pyongyang. Two weeks after the Mudubong ran aground off the Mexican coast, the UN Security Council and US Treasury issued new sanctions against Ocean Maritime Management, which was accused of involvement in illicit arms trading. OMM is the Mudubong’s ultimate owner, according to a panel of experts appointed by the Security Council.

In an attempt to sidestep this measure, the panel of experts reported in February, North Korea has attempted to conceal the fact that OMM controls Mudubong. The registered owner, Mudubong Shipping Company, was quoted by North Korean media in May as saying: “Our company is a corporate body independent of [OMM] . . . There is . . . neither reason nor ground . . . to make the ship subject to ‘sanctions’.”

But the experts’ report said they still considered the Mudubong an asset of OMM, and had conveyed this to Mexico’s government. The report criticised weak implementation of sanctions against OMM, with at least six nations inspecting OMM vessels but failing to impound the ships.

“The Security Council confirmed on May 6 the Mexican government’s obligation to continue freezing the Mudubong. Mexico will continue to abide by this decision for as long as it is not modified or withdrawn by the Security Council,” the Mexican foreign ministry said in an emailed response to questions.

The ministry did not respond to a question about what it planned to do with the ship.

UPDATE 2 (2015-7-17): Mexico has repatriated the remainder of the crew. According to UPI:

All 33 North Koreans on board a ship that had drifted into a coral reef near Mexico have been repatriated after a year of custody.

Mexico media outlet E-veracruz reported Friday a port operations manager in Tuxpan, Veracruz said 13 remaining North Koreans were sent home on Wednesday.

33 North Korean nationals were on board the Mu Du Bong when the ship had fallen off its designated sea route, and 20 detainees were released earlier this year, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

Two members of the North Korean embassy in Mexico had visited the port city to urge the release of the remaining 13 on Tuesday.

The 6,700-ton Mu Du Bong had left from a Cuban port in July 2014 before it was stranded on the reef 9 miles from Tuxpan.

Mexico had detained the ship’s personnel because the two countries were in disagreement over the ownership of the Mu Du Bong.

Mexico had said the ship belonged to North Korea’s Ocean Maritime Management, a firm blacklisted by the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions committee for engaging in illicit arms trades in the past.

In response, North Korea’s top envoy to the U.N. denied any links between the Mu Du Bong and the blacklisted company.

Read the full story here:
Mexico repatriates all 33 North Koreans on board ship Mu Du Bong
Elizabeth Shim

UPDATE 1 (2015-5-9): DPRK unhappy with UN freeze on Mudubong. According to Xinhua:

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) slammed the United Nations Security Council on Friday for slapping sanctions on “Mudubong,” a DPRK’s cargo ship that has been held for almost ten months in Mexico after it struck a coral reef off the coast.

The UN Security Council decided to freeze the Mudubong ship on Wednesday because it believed the ship belongs to Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) Co., Ltd, a company blacklisted by the United Nations in July 2014 for shipping embargoed arms.

But the manager of Mudubong Shipping Co., Ltd., whose name was not given, claimed that Mudubong is a legitimate commercial ship operated by Mudubong Shipping Company and has no links to the OMM, according to the KCNA news agency.

“Our company is a corporate body independent of the Ocean Maritime Management Co., Ltd. as it is a social cooperative organization established according to relevant laws of the DPRK,” the manager said in a statement.

“I vehemently denounce the step as a provocation of the hostile forces to lay a hurdle in our shipping business, a wanton breach of international law, undisguised disregard of domestic laws of the sovereign state and … a grave encroachment on the sovereignty of the DPRK,” the KCNA quoted the manager as saying.

The manager insisted Mudubong is “a peaceable civilian trading ship which has neither violated international law nor handled any prohibited cargo,” adding that the Security Council has no justification to impose the sanctions.

The manager requested Mexican authorities to provide cooperation on the principle of humanitarianism in letting free the ship together with its crew members.

Read the full story here:
DPRK slams UN freeze on Mudubong cargo ship

ORIGINAL POST (2015-4-23): McClatchy post solid summary of Mudubong case:

The cargo holds were empty and the 430-foot-long North Korean freighter Mu Du Bong was riding high in the water when the vessel slammed into a coral reef in Mexican waters in the Gulf of Mexico last July 14, thudding to a halt.

The freighter did more than tear up staghorn and elkhorn coral. It also crashed into U.N. sanctions that have trapped it in the hands of the Mexican government.

Salvage vessels pulled the freighter off the reef 12 days later and brought it to port in Tuxpan, where it’s been idle for nine months, moored to a wharf on the Tuxpan River. North Korea has declined to repatriate the 33 crew members, and they occasionally can be seen fishing off the freighter’s deck.

Earlier this month, North Korea’s deputy representative to the United Nations made some slightly menacing remarks demanding that Mexico terminate what he called a “complete abnormal situation.”

“We will take necessary measures to make the ship leave immediately,” envoy An Myong Hun said at a news conference April 8 in New York.

It’s an odd standoff in a corner of the world far from North Korea and the chambers of the U.N., where diplomats knowingly mention 1718, 1874 and 2094, the Security Council resolutions aimed at shutting down North Korea’s nuclear program and reining in its weapons proliferation efforts.

It was those arms-trafficking practices that led the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on a North Korean concern, Ocean Maritime Management Co. Ltd., that counts the Mu Du Bong among its 14 oceangoing freighters.

Another of the company’s vessels was intercepted in Panama nearly two years ago, its cargo holds piled high with sacks of Cuban sugar. When inspectors removed the sacks, they discovered two MiG-21 fighter jets, 15 jet engines and radar control systems for missile launches. The freighter, the Chong Chon Gang, had left Cuba bound for North Korea and was about to transit the Panama Canal when Panamanian inspectors boarded it. Cuba claimed the war materiel was being sent to North Korea to be refurbished and was to be returned.

The harbormaster at the Port of Tuxpan, Alberto Orozco Peredo, said the captain of the Mu Du Bong had a far humbler mission than smuggling weaponry.

“He was coming for fertilizer,” Orozco said, adding that the freighter had been chartered in Cuba for a single excursion to Tuxpan to pick up the shipment and return to the island. “Maybe they (the North Koreans) offered to do the shipping for cheap.”

Orozco said he’d accompanied members of a U.N. Security Council sanctions committee when they inspected the moored ship. He said they’d found nothing.

“For a 30-year-old ship, it was in a good state of repair. You can see that it’s clean,” Orozco said. “The vessel complies with all security standards.”

The crew members have shore passes but rarely leave the vessel. When six months had passed, their temporary visas expired. In recent days, immigration officials have begun the work of granting them indefinite humanitarian visas.

While North Korea can’t dislodge its ship, the reason it keeps all the crew members in Mexico is unclear.

“From day one, they have been free to move wherever they want to go, within or outside Mexico,” Ricardo Alday, political coordinator of Mexico’s mission to the U.N., said in an email.

A local shipping agency, Tajin Consignaciones, arranges through the North Korean embassy in Mexico City to provide food to the crew. Agency director María de los Ángeles Monsivais declined to speak to a reporter.

The U.N. Security Council hit Ocean Maritime Management with sanctions last July, and the company scrambled to keep its ships on the high seas without seizure, often with their maritime transponders turned off.

“Thus far, 13 of the 14 vessels controlled by OMM have been renamed, their ownership transferred to other single ship-owner companies . . . and vessel management transferred to two main companies,” said a preliminary U.N. report dated Feb. 23.

The freezing of the Mu Du Bong has put Mexico in a tough position.

“There is no set procedure for what to do once they seize the ship,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, part of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California.

Some experts think that going after North Korean freighters engaged in ordinary trade is only likely to drive Pyongyang away from any negotiations.

“That’s a misguided effort. People have to make a distinction between things that are prohibited and normal commercial activity,” said John Merrill, a former chief of the Northeast Asia division of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “It seems a little bit ridiculous to keep holding these guys, and it’s going to have consequences.”

Others disagree, saying economic pressure on North Korea is the only way to get its attention and force concessions.

“The purpose of the sanctions is to buy time for diplomacy. If the sanctions are not being enforced, then there’s no pressure at all on North Korea,” said William J. Newcomb, a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University who’s a former member of the U.N. Security Council’s panel of experts on North Korea sanctions.

Newcomb noted that the Mu Du Bong’s travels were similar to the activities of the Chong Chon Gang before it was caught carrying Cuban weapons.

“It had all the earmarks of an arms transfer,” he said.

Mexico reportedly was about to free the ship late last year, but An, the North Korean envoy, said the nation had received a warning from a senior U.N. official.

“Suddenly, the Mexico government revoked its position. They said they have received advice from an unnamed undersecretary-general of the United Nations for the continued detention of the ship,” An told reporters.

Now, Mexico’s posture is that the ship will be retained indefinitely.

“The ship will be held (as long as) the company that owns it remains under U.N. sanctions,” Alday wrote in his statement, noting that Mexico “is obliged to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

A former senior Mexican diplomat, Andrés Rozental, said Mexico wasn’t worried about any possible retaliation from North Korea.

“They’re obviously not going to send their military here to free that boat,” he said.


DPRK doctors murdered in Nigeria

Friday, April 10th, 2015

According to the Diplomat:

In February, three North Korean men were murdered in their homes in Yobe, Nigeria. Their bodies bore wounds indicative of machete blows, most likely inflicted by members of the jihadist group Boko Haram, whose bloody war has claimed up to 15,000 lives across the country since 2009. One of the men was beheaded. Two were slashed across the throats. Their wives were found hiding in the flowerbeds. The Associated Press report on the murders contained scant details about the lives of the men, who were not named, besides their profession: they were doctors. They arrived in 2005 as part of a ‘technical exchange’ with a local hospital and stayed a decade. They lived in modest homes in a quiet neighborhood and rode three-wheeled taxis around town.

You can read the full story here:
The Curious Case of North Korea’s Overseas Doctors
Poppy McPherson


China rejects DPRK coal shipment (Again)

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

UPDATE 1 (2015-4-4): For the second time this year, the Chinese have rejected a shipment of North Korean coal. According to the Korea Herald (Yonhap):

China has returned a shipment of anthracite coal to North Korea because it failed to meet standards for mercury emissions, according to a local report on Saturday.

This appears to be the second rejection by China of the North Korean mineral this year.

The shipment arrived at the Longkou port of China’s northern coastal province of Shandong late last month, but was returned as its quality did not satisfy China’s environmental regulations,, a local Shandong Internet news site, reported, citing an unnamed Longkou port official.

The report did not elaborate further or include the volume of the rejected North Korean coal.

In September last year, China announced strict regulations against the sale and import of coal with high toxic pollutants, including mercury and sulfur, to improve the country’s air and water quality.

Anthracite coal accounted for 39.8 percent of North Korea’s total exports to China last year.

China’s imports of North Korean coal plunged 53.2 percent from a year earlier to 16.78 million tons in January this year, according to Chinese customs data.

ORIGINAL POST (2015-3-9): Back in October of 2014, Kevin Stahler was the first person to point out (as far as I am aware) that the DPRK’s coal exports to China were in decline. Quoting Kevin:

However, this year North Korea’s anthracite exports to China are on course for a hard landing. The total value of imported anthracite is down 23 percent in the first half of 2014 compared to a year earlier. That’s an annualized $340 million hit to North Korea’s balance of payments. But North Korea is not alone: China has seen a double-digit decline in both the value and volume of its total world coal imports from January – August 2014.

On March 4, 2015, Yonhap reported that China returned a shipment of coal to the DPRK for reasons related to domestic environmental protection regulations:

China has rejected imports of some North Korean anthracite coal because the coal failed to meet domestic standards for mercury emissions, a local newspaper reported Wednesday, in what appeared to be China’s first rejection of North Korean minerals over environmental concerns.

The shipment was returned to North Korea on Feb. 27 from the Rizhao port of China’s northern coastal province of Shandong, the National Business Daily newspaper reported, citing an unnamed port official.

The report did not elaborate further, or include the volume of the rejected North Korean coal.

After three decades of rapid industrialization, China regularly sees hazardous air pollution with levels of particulate matter rising to nearly 40 times the limits set by the World Health Organization during the winter months.

In September, China announced strict regulations against the sale and import of coal with high toxic pollutants, including mercury and sulfur, to improve the country’s air and water quality.

Anthracite coal accounted for 39.8 percent of North Korea’s total exports to China last year.

In January, China’s imports of North Korean coal plunged 53.2 percent from a year earlier to 16.78 million tons, according to Chinese customs data.

On March 9, UPI reported on one of the key aspects of China’s new environmental policies and how it will affect the DPRK:

China’s crackdown on coal-related pollution will take a heavy toll on the North Korean economy, South Korean newspaper Donga Ilbo reported Monday.

China’s plan is to drastically reduce coal consumption by 160 million tons in the next five years. The plan, presented at the National People’s Congress in Beijing, aims to reduce the fossil energy use that is contributing to severe pollution in big cities, The Australian reported.

Countries exporting coal to China are all affected, but the plan could create an economic crisis in impoverished North Korea. Coal and iron-ore exports are two of North Korea’s biggest exports to China, its biggest trading partner.

According to the Donga Ilbo, more than 97 percent of North Korean exports are shipped to China*, and coal, iron ore comprise 60 percent of all North Korean exports.

China’s anti-pollution policy is affecting North Korean cargo. A North Korean ship delivering coal to China was turned away at the coastal city of Rizhao on Feb. 27. The Donga Ilbo reported the coal did not satisfy China’s environmental regulations.

The rising ban and other factors are placing the impoverished North Korean economy in a tight squeeze.

Anna Fifield also covered this story for the Washington Post and Guardian.

*The article reports that China accounts for 97% of the DPRK’s international trade. This is only true if one excludes South Korean trade–which South Korea does because they consider North-South trade as “inter-korean” trade.