Trade Traffic Tells of N.Korea’s Dependency on China

Choson Ilbo

It is the afternoon of July 1, and seven trucks carrying iron ore are lined up at the customs house in the border town of Tumen, in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, waiting to clear customs with their North Korean cargo. The trucks are laden with so much ore that it is a wonder they can support it all.

“These days, there’s a lot of iron ore coming in from North Korea,” a customs official muses. “Maybe they’re indiscriminately shipping out unprocessed ore because they’ve sold everything else worth selling.”

At the Musan Iron Mine further up the Tumen River at Musan, North Hamgyong Province, it looks like the ore is being sucked into a Chinese black hole. On July 5, some 10 13-ton Chinese trucks laden with ground iron ore from Musan were heading to towns in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture like Nanping, which faces Musan across the river, and Chungsan. Chinese trucks are also busy climbing the hills near the Musan mine. The project to develop the Musan mines is China’s largest investment in North Korea, with the country’s Jilin Province saying in December it would invest 4 billion yuan (about US$483 million) into the mines, which had been inactive. Ground iron ore imports started full-scale this year.

The skyrocketing trade between the North and China including in underground resources started with Pyongyang’s economic reforms in 2002.

According to statistics from China’s Customs General Authority, China accounted for 25 percent of North Korea’s total foreign trade in 2002, but the figure rose to 33 percent a year later and to 39 percent last year. Meanwhile, Japan — North Korea’s third largest trading partner — dropped from 13 percent in 2002 to 7 percent last year, while South Korea’s share of North Korea trade has been decreasing.

Lee Myong-suk is a member of the city council of Yanji, a town busy handling a great deal of trade between China, North Korea and South Korea. “There has been more and more trade traffic coming from North Korea via Dandong on the Yalu River and the Yanbian area on the Tumen River,” she says. “It’s a combination of North Korea’s economic difficulties and China’s demand for raw materials.”

As North Korea’s economic dependency on China grows, there are mounting concerns that the impoverished country could one day be reduced to a de-facto Chinese province. Prof. Nam Seong-wook of Korea University smells a rat. “China’s investment in North Korea, which doesn’t have even a properly constituted market, appears to be motivated by political objectives rather than economic incentives,” he says.


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