Archive for the ‘Graphite’ Category

S. Korea to develop two resource rich areas in N. Korea

Thursday, December 27th, 2007


South Korea plans to develop two resource rich regions in North Korea that can benefit both countries and fuel cross-border economic cooperation, the government said Thursday.

The blueprint calls for more funds to be funneled into North Korea so prospective developers can conduct geological surveys and compile detailed data for future reference, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said.

Resource-poor South Korea imports most raw materials to operate its heavy industry-centered economy. Lack of social infrastructure and mining knowhow have prevented North Korea from fully developing resources.



N. Korean graphite material to arrive in S. Korea on Saturday

Friday, November 23rd, 2007

Lee Joon-seung

North Korean graphite material made at an inter-Korean joint venture factory is being shipped to South Korea, the Commerce Ministry said Friday.

The 200-ton shipment from the factory near the city of Haeju left the North Korean port of Nampo earlier in the day and is expected to reach Incheon on Saturday, the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy said.

“The shipment is significant because it is the first time that products made from minerals in the North have been shipped to the South after being manufactured at an inter-Korean joint venture company,” a ministry official said. The graphite can be made into heat-resistant bricks, pencils, ceramic melting pots and car brake linings.

South Korea’s state-run Korea Resources Corp. (KORES) holds a 50 percent stake in the US$10.2 million graphite processing plant along with the North’s Kwangmyung Trading Co.

The factory can produce 3,000 tons of processed graphite every year, with KORES entitled to 1,830 tons for 15 years as payment for its initial investment. The amount is equivalent to 15 percent of the graphite products the country imports every year. China, Japan and Germany are currently South Korea’s main suppliers of the material.

The state-run company signed the contract for the joint venture in July 2003, and commercial production began in April of this year. Initial test production began in April 2006.

The ministry also said the Jeonchon mine near the factory is estimated to hold 6.25 million tons of crystalline graphite ore.

Wonjin Co., a local carbon refractory brick manufacturer, signed a contract in September with the KORES to buy all the graphite from North Korea and market it in South Korea.


US Geological Survey 2006 Minerals Yearbook

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Summary: For the next 4 to 5 years, the North Korean mining sector is likely to continue to be dominated by the production of coal, iron ore, limestone, magnesite, and zinc. Because of growing demand for minerals by China and the Republic of Korea, their investment in North Korea’s mining sector is expected to increase and to extend beyond their current investments in apatite, coal, copper, and iron ore into other minerals, such as gold, magnesite, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc. North Korea’s real GDP is expected to grow at between 1% and 2% during the next 2 years.

Other highlights:

  • North Korea ranked third in production of magnesiate in the world.  Its value-added product–magnesia clinker, which is used as a refractory metal–was marketed world wide. 
  • According to Corporate social Responsibility Asia (CSR Asia), North Kroea ranked virtually last in environmental sustainability in the world, despite the country’s enactment of major laws for environmental protection, such as the Land Law of 1977, the Environmental Protection Law of 1986, the Forrestry Law in 1982, and the Law on Protection of Useful Animals in 1998.
  • On the basis of North Korea’s industrial structure in 2004 (the last year in which data is available), the mining sector accounted for about 8.7% of North Korea’s gross domestic product.
  • Recoverable coal reserves in North Korea were estimated to total about 8 billion metric tons in 2006.  Coal production reportedly dropped to about 23 Mt/yr in 2006 from 37.5 Mt/yr in 1985 mainly because of outdated mining equipment and technology.

Download the full version here: USGS.pdf


N.K. metals, minerals to be sold directly to South

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

Hankyoreh (h/t Tim Beal)

Deal would see such shipments cross the DMZ for the first time

For the first time in the more than 50 years since the Korean War, minerals produced jointly by the two Koreas will be sold in South Korea. The two countries will also start to work on developing new mine projects and will launch drilling as early as next month, Lee Han-ho, head of the Korea Resources Corp. (KORES) told the Hankyoreh in a recent exclusive interview.

Lee is one of the group of business leaders and government officials that will accompany President Roh Moo-hyun during the second-ever inter-Korean summit slated for Oct. 2-4.

“On September 5, I met with Chung Un-up, North Korean head of the Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Association in Pyongyang, and signed a deal to sell black lead products that two Koreas jointly produced at a mine in Hwanghae Province,” Lee said. “We also agreed to work together in developing a limestone mine in Shinwon of the same province and start drilling for black lead in the Pungcheon region.”

So far, minerals produced in the North have been sold in South Korea through a third country, such as China. Every year, US$10 million to $100 million worth of originally North Korean-produced non-metals were shipped to the South. This new project will be the first time such materials produced by the two Koreas will directly cross the line that has divided the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The cross-border shipments would also come at a time when China is working on joint ventures with the North to develop resources in the communist country. Experts see the first-ever joint production and shipment of minerals as providing a boost for inter-Korean cooperation in the resources field.

Lee was invited to the North by the Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Association. The first shipment, amounting to 200 tons will be on the South Korean market earlier next month, with 800-1,000 tons of black lead to follow. Wonjin Co. will be responsible for the sale of the black lead, which will be used in making fire-resistant materials and carbonized steel. Eight hundred tons of black lead would be priced at around $150,000.

KORES opened a 50-50 joint venture with a North Korean firm in April last year, but its full-blown operation has been delayed until recently due to electricity shortages in the North.


2nd Inter-Korean Summit and Prospects for Discussion of Economic Cooperation

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

Institute for Far Easter Studies
NK Brief No. 07-8-14-1

The second inter-Korean summit meeting is coming up soon, scheduled to open on August 28 in Pyongyang, and interest is building regarding discussion on economic cooperation. It is true that the North is prioritizing political and military issues in order to shore up its government by normalizing relations with the United States. However, considering its serious economic woes, the ability of South Korea to offer a ‘gift package’ can significantly influence the success or failure of this summit.

It is not yet clear how economic cooperation will fit into the agenda, but Seoul and Pyongyang have been constantly discussing this issue, so some insight has been given. In particular, the ‘consumer’ North has been referring to domestic and international cooperation, and through Pyongyang’s requests, some clarity has been added to what goals could unfold during the upcoming meeting.

Energy Sector

The North Korean economy is saddled with severe shortages of electricity and fuel oil, causing production to slow and therefore stagnating consumption, putting the country into an ongoing vicious circle of economic depression. North Korea possesses facilities to produce 7.7 million kW of steam- and hydro-electric power, but in reality is incapable of operating these facilities at more than 30%.

The opinion that expansion of North Korea’s electrical infrastructure is necessary, not only for the North, but also for South Korea, is gaining strength. South Korean projects to develop North Korean mines and import its coal have been delayed due to a lack of electrical power. In the future, enterprises looking to set up in North Korea will also require a steady supply of electricity.

In what way the two Koreas will cooperate on energy is not yet known, but North Korea is sticking to its demand for light-water nuclear reactors. If construction were restarted on the reactors begun by the now-defunct Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), North Korea could quickly have not only the energy production amount currently available, but an additional 2 million kW, as well.

North Korea’s power facilities are in a state of deterioration, but the number of facilities in the North are adequate for the current state of the economy, so a plan for the restoration of generation and transmission facilities, or the 2 million kW of electrical power offered by the South Korean government two years ago could be considered sufficient.

Natural Resource and Infrastructure Development

One other highly probable agenda item on inter-Korean economic cooperation will be development of natural resources. This is because a model in which North Korea’s relatively abundant underground natural resources are developed, and in which these resources being used by South Korean businesses, would create a ‘win-win’ result for both Seoul and Pyongyang.

According to a report given by the Korea Resources Corporation at a conference last year, North Korea possesses upward of forty different valuable minerals, including iron-ore. Analysis of these North Korean resources shows that a considerable amount of South Korea’s 40 trillion won (430 billion USD) worth of mineral imports per year could be brought in from North Korea instead.

As development projects in North Korea’s graphite mines are already underway, and the import of North Korean anthracite is being considered in order to meet quickly growing demand for charcoal in the South, cooperation in the natural resource sector appears to be one of the core points to inter-Korean economic cooperation.

As for North Korea’s railways, the heart of the country’s distribution infrastructure, completion of the section of track on the Kyungui Line between Kaesong Station and Moonsan Station, as well as the section of the East Sea Line between Mt. Kumgang Station and Jejin Station, means that the infrastructure for regular service between the two countries is now in place, although talks regarding the details of such regular service are not being held.

If regular service on these two lines between North and South Korea can be achieved, expensive transportation costs can be reduced, and of course, in the future, connection of the railway with continental rail networks such as the Trans-Siberian Rail and the Trans-China Rail would help to enable the Korean Peninsula to emerge as the hub of North East Asian distribution.

Furthermore, considering the fact that North Korea’s mining facilities and technology, as well as its ports, loading facilities, and other transportation infrastructure, are severely lacking, a plan linking development of natural resources to projects developing infrastructure also appears viable. It is also already known, to some extent, the nature of North Korean needs in its infrastructure sector, and if this upcoming summit closes successfully, it is expected that an inventory of these needs will become more concrete.

Vitalizing Kaesong Industrial Complex

The Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) is also an important undertaking. At the moment, a problem has arisen concerning the construction of a second KIC, but even if only the originally planned 26.4 million square-meter complex is built, the fact is that currently the first 3.3 million square-meter stage is complete, and considering that it employs North Korean labor, this is no easy feat. Companies moving into the KIC are asking that easy communication with South Korea and simplified import procedures be prioritized.


Successes Made in Physical Prospecting

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007


The Central Physical Prospecting Group under the State Bureau of Natural Resources Development is successfully carrying on the survey of underground resources by advanced physical prospecting methods, thus greatly contributing to the economic progress of the country and the land construction. Recently, the prospecting group has introduced the advanced methods in the geological survey and developed modern facilities to explore a new phase for surveying the underground resources. 

The prospecting group, founded in January Juche 46 (1957), has already registered great achievements in the survey of underground resources and the land development. 

Over the last five decades, it has powerfully propelled the development of the national economy with its successful survey of valuable raw materials and fuel resources and greatly contributed to the geological development and the land development in the country with scientific geological survey and the confirmation of the geological foundation. 

It has found out many geological layers and systematized their formation periods and geological composition in a well-arranged way.

They, on the basis of their success, have discovered the law on the distribution of valuable minerals and surveyed and registered scores kinds of minerals, several hundreds of mineral deposits, thousands of mineral bodies and outcrops, and a thousand and several hundreds of heavy mineral streams and metal diffusion zones.

They have achieved many successes not only in the prospecting of abundant iron ore, coal resources and the new graphite deposits but also in the confirmation of the amounts for nonferrous metals, rare metallic mineral resources, nonmetallic mineral resources and magnesite mineral resources. 

The survey of groundwater, hot springs, subterranean heat and the foundations of many construction projects including the Kumsong dam and the Samsu Power Station dam are associated with the efforts of the Central Physical Prospecting Group.


Brisk Geological Prospecting

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007


Great efforts are being directed to the geological prospecting in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The State Bureau for Direction of Natural Resources Development has recently dispatched geological experts, IT technicians and prospectors to the areas of Komdok and Kapsan to find out more nonferrous metal ore resources. 

While concentrating forces on the survey of the foundations of major construction objects, the bureau is pushing ahead with the work of finding out more reserve coal and ore mines with abundant deposits and securing the sites for detailed prospecting.  

The South Hwanghae Provincial Geological Prospecting Administration Bureau has surveyed the ingredients of sand in western coast areas in detail and secured quality sand resources available for hundreds of years. 

The South Phyongan and North Hamgyong Provincial Geological Prospecting Administration Bureaus also found out more anthracite and bituminous coal fields in western and northern areas.

Geological corps under the North and South Hwanghae, Jagang and Kangwon Provincial Geological Prospecting Administration Bureaus have intensified geological prospecting work in their provinces, thus opening up a bright vista for excavating larger amount of non-ferrous metal ore.

The South Hamgyong Provincial Geological Prospecting Administration Bureau has completed in a short span of time the foundation survey and designing for major projects of national significance, and the Sumun and Paekam Geological Prospecting Corps under the Ryanggang Provincial Geological Prospecting Administration Bureau have also registered successes in the survey work for the construction of the Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station and other projects.


N. Korea urges implementation of inter-Korean economic accord

Thursday, January 25th, 2007


North Korea has called upon South Korea to implement an earlier agreement to help revive its light industry in return for tapping into the communist nation’s natural resources, a senior unification official said Thursday.

During Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung’s first visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex since he took office in December, Ju Dong-chan, head of the North’s Kaesong development agency “asked the minister to honor the agreement, saying it is not an aid, but only swapping of natural resources and raw materials,” the official said anonymously.

In July 2005, South Korea agreed to provide the North with US$80 million worth of raw materials to help it produce clothing, footwear and soap starting in 2006. In return, the North was to provide the South with minerals such as zinc and magnesite, after the mines are developed with South Korean investments, guaranteed by the Pyongyang government.

But the agreement was never carried out as North Korea abruptly cancelled scheduled tests of two cross-border railways in May 2006. North Korea’s subsequent missile and nuclear weapons tests further clouded hopes to implement the accord.

“Lee agreed in principle to honor the accord, but he held the position it is more important to create a favorable environment for carrying out the agreement,” the official told reporters.

Asked about the North’s denial of reports that it scrapped plans to change its partner for tours of Kaesong, the official said it is purely a matter of business, which does not require the intervention of the government.

Just hours after Lee returned to Seoul from Kaesong, an unidentified spokesman for the Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (KAPPC) said the North “has no formal agreement with the Hyundai side over the issue of tour of Kaesong.”

Despite its earlier contract with Hyundai Asan, North Korea requested a new deal with Lotte Tours Co. in 2005. However, the South Korean government said the change can happen only when Hyundai Asan voluntarily concedes or pulls out of the business.


North Korea bites a golden bullet

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Korea Times
Donald Kirk

Gold fever is rampaging through the ruling elite of North Korea in the quest for relief from seemingly incurable economic malaise exacerbated by more than a year as a total outcast from the international financial community.

Word from Pyongyang is that trading companies and even individuals are offering payments in gold for imports from across the border with China and also in barter deals for products imported from elsewhere. Gold also has become a form of currency in the internal reward system of payoffs and bribes manipulated by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to guarantee the loyalty of high-ranking officials.

The rush to sell gold – and, to a lesser extent, silver – has sharply escalated in the 16 months since the US Treasury Department blacklisted Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau, banning all firms doing business with US firms from dealings with that bank. The Treasury Department charged that the BDA had been the principal conduit through which North Korea was shipping counterfeit US$100 “supernotes” printed on a highly sophisticated Swiss-made press in Pyongyang.

It’s well known that the US ban forced the BDA to impose a freeze on North Korean accounts totaling $24 million, but less well known that the bank also stopped purchasing gold produced by North Korea’s historic gold mines, in operation, sporadically, since the late 19th century.

Output of the mines, in mountains about 160 kilometers north of Pyongyang, fell sharply in the late 1990s as a result of flood and famine but, with foreign expertise, has begun to pick up in the past few years.

The impact of the ban, moreover, goes far beyond a single bank in Macau. Although North Korea last spring sold $38 million in gold and silver in Thailand, Pyongyang has been frustrated in reviving its presence on the London bullion market, the world’s largest marketplace for precious metals, amid increased US pressure on the large international banks that are the major buyers of gold.

It was in the aftermath of the ban on the BDA that North Korea’s Chosun Central Bank coughed up the information required by the London Bullion Markets Association (LBMA) for listing as a “good deliverer” of gold. North Korea from 1983 to 1993 had been in the LBMA’s good graces, averaging a ton a month in sales to London buyers that included some of the world’s leading banks, but had slipped off the list after failing to keep up deliveries.

The fact that the Chosun Central Bank again is listed with the LBMA, however, is no guarantee North Korea will be able to sell its gold. The US Treasury ban on dealings with the BDA – as well as sanctions unanimously imposed by the United Nations Security Council after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in October – has spooked buyers in London.

While the LBMA disavows “political criteria” in deciding on eligibility for its “good delivery list”, an LBMA memorandum leaves no doubt how buyers are likely to respond to overtures from a country or company on an international blacklist. None of them, according to Stewart Murray, the LBMA’s chief executive, is willing to take delivery from a company or country that is subject to sanctions.

Or, as the LBMA memorandum puts it, “If, for instance, a bullion custodian considered that it was bound by national or international sanctions that were in force against a particular country, it would have to refuse to accept bars from a refiner in that country.”

The memorandum, moreover, does not mince words when it comes to stating the importance of a “good deliverer” rating. “Given the status of London as the world’s leading center for bullion trading,” it says, “the LBMA List has become the de facto world list of quality refiners and Good Delivery accreditation is a highly sought-after accolade.”

In recent years, “the List” – capitalized in the memo – “has grown primarily due to the listing of refiners in China and Russia” and now totals 77 refiners in 31 countries.

Investors see North Korea as competing on a world stage once sanctions are lifted. “What we’re doing is normal business,” said Roger Barrett, whose firm, Korea Business Consultants, operates in North Korea from headquarters in Beijing. By reviving old minesand developing new ones, he argued, “We’re creating jobs for people, in line with the UN basic charter, in line with economic growth.”

Barrett also believes North Korea may somehow get around the sanctions by finding new markets. “Why would you go to the trouble of going to London?” he asked. “They’re totally entitled to sell their gold.” The fact is, however, that London remains the place to sell gold in significant quantities on a regular basis.

Under the circumstances, Colin McAskill, chairman of Hong Kong’s Koryo Asia Ltd and the guiding light of the Chosun Development and Investment Fund, dedicated to investing in North Korea, accused top US Treasury officials of waging a campaign to make sure the ban on banks dealing with the BDA extends to gold and silver.

McAskill accused US officials, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Stuart Levey, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, of “using coercion, innuendo and sheer force to intimidate banks from dealing with North Korea”.

Among the victims of the US campaign is one of Koryo Asia’s projects, the Daedong Credit Bank, the only foreign bank based in North Korea, set up primarily to deal with accounts of foreign firms and embassies in Pyongyang. The freeze of North Korean accounts in the BDA, according to McAskill, includes about $7 million funds of Daedong Bank customers.

McAskill avidly supports North Korean demands for the US to lift the ban on the BDA – a move that would not only open up the frozen North Korean accounts but would provide the opening needed for Pyongyang to trade in a wide range of products around the world.

The financial issue is assumed to have ranked at the top of an agenda discussed in meetings in Berlin between the chief US envoy, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan. Hill, reporting on the Berlin talks in stop-offs in Seoul, in Tokyo and Beijing, seemed hopeful about “progress” in the next round of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, expected to open in Beijing next month, after the failure of negotiators to get anywhere in the last round before Christmas.

South Korean media said North Korea had agreed to shut down its five-megawatt reactor at its nuclear complex Yongbyon in return for the US promise of massive aid, the crux of the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement that blew up in 2002 amid US charges of a separate, secret North Korean program for developing warheads from enriched uranium.

There was no assurance, however, that the US is ready to relent on the BDA or that the UN Security Council will consider lifting its own sanction – enough to dissuade banks in London from buying North Korean gold regardless of the US ban on the BDA.

McAskill believes the rationale for the crackdown on the BDA is flawed. He questions the validity of the counterfeit charge and, in any case, says most of the frozen funds are not those of the North Korean government, even though they’re tired up in North Korean accounts. “We want to get a breakthrough on the six-party talks by getting the sanctions eased or lifted entirely,” he said. “We’re at a very delicate stage.”

Whatever happens, McAskill sees North Korea as ripe for investment, with precious metals high on the list of potential exports. “North Korea wants to move back into legitimate business,” he said. “They have a wealth of minerals – gold, silver, zinc, magnesite, copper, uranium, platinum – that needs investment to extract.”


North Korea’s golden path to security

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

While the West and Japan have targeted North Korea’s overseas bank accounts to curtail its weapons program, Pyongyang has recently turned to more ingenious ways of maintaining its international businesses through substantial exports of gold, silver and other valuable metals.

Pyongyang has apparently found a willing conduit to global buyers through its many business connections in Thailand, which has recently emerged as the isolated state’s third-largest trading partner after China and South Korea. According to official Thai Customs Department statistics, North Korea shipped 500 kilograms of gold worth 398 million baht (US$11 million) to Thailand last April.

The following month, another 800kg of gold worth 635 million baht landed in Thailand courtesy of North Korea. Also, in June, 10 tons of silver worth 148 million baht was sent from North Korea to Thailand, followed by 12 tons worth 166 million baht last October.

In sum, North Korea exported 1.35 billion baht – or nearly $40 million – worth of precious metals to Thailand last year.

That is a substantial figure for North Korea, a country with an estimated gross domestic product of about $22 billion and whose total exports amounted to just over $1 billion, according to official statistics. Thailand is bound by the international sanctions imposed last October against North Korea by the United Nations in response to Pyongyang’s exploding an atomic bomb.

According to official Thai statistics, the gold and first consignment of silver were shipped to Thailand before the UN sanctions were imposed. But there is nothing illegal in North Korea exporting precious metals, unless, of course, the income from the sale can be tied directly to the country’s controversial weapons programs, which anyway would be extremely hard to prove.

Untapped riches
North Korea’s gold and silver mines remain largely untapped. According to Tse Pui-kwan, a Chinese-American chemist who joined the US Bureau of Mines in 1990, North Korea has significant deposits of copper, gold, graphite, iron, lead, magnesite, tungsten and zinc. When the Cold War ended and North Korea lost large amounts of foreign aid from both the Soviet Union and China, its mining industry fell into disrepair and extraction activities sharply declined.

But with new foreign cooperation, production has resumed, which the recent exports to Thailand clearly demonstrate. North Korea’s main gold mine is in Unsan county in North Pyongan province, about 150 kilometers north of Pyongyang. It was originally opened by a US firm in 1896, when Korea was still an independent and unified kingdom, and was later taken over by a Japanese company when the peninsula became a colony ruled by Tokyo in 1910.

Nearly a century later, consultants from Clough Engineering of Australia in 2001 inspected the same mine under the sponsorship of the United Nations Office for Project Services. They estimated that Unsan held 1,000 tons of gold reserves, which if true would make it one of the world’s major gold mines. Silver is also mined in the same area, while iron ore and magnesite are found in North and South Hamgyong provinces in the northeast.

North Korea’s extraction techniques are sometimes controversial. According to witnesses interviewed by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea for its 2003 report “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”, there is a gold-mining labor camp near Danchun in South Hamgyong province, where thousands of prisoners are being held and forced to work under abysmal conditions.

In that same report, several witnesses claimed that “some of the mine shafts dated back to the early days of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s. Accessing the veins of minable gold required descending and, later, ascending a wooden staircase 500 meters in length, using gas lanterns for light. Deaths from mining accidents were a daily occurrence, including multiple deaths from the partial collapse of mine shafts.”

The first attempt to modernize North Korea’s gold-mining industry was made by an Italian financier and former Foreign Ministry official, Carlo Baeli, who traveled to the country in the early 1990s and claims to be the first Westerner to do business with Pyongyang since the Korean War. He later wrote a book called Kim Jong-il and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, which was published in Pyongyang in 1990, obviously with official permission as it was printed by the state-owned Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Apart from painting a flattering portrait of the North Korean leader, the book describes Baeli’s first trip to Pyongyang in 1990, of which he wrote, “We were interested in investing in the mining industry, mainly in the extraction of gold and granite.” Baeli later signed a contract for a loan of $118 million to purchase mining equipment, and the goal was to resurrect no fewer than six gold mines across North Korea. The money was to be provided by international banks such as Midland Bank and the Naples International Bank. He also arranged for the mining equipment to be shipped from Italy.

But heavy flooding in the mid-1990s damaged both the equipment and the mines and, according to a 2006 report in Forbes magazine, Baeli today works as an adviser to the Pyongyang government at a tire-recycling plant. The car and truck tires are imported from Japan, get ground into granulate in North Korea, and are sold to China for road resurfacing, car mats and shoe soles. A lucrative business, perhaps, but not quite the golden dream Baeli had when he first arrived in Pyongyang nearly 17 years ago.

Another unusual partner in North Korea’s gold trade may have been the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In August 2001, the right-wing South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo published a story claiming that Marcos in September 1970 had deposited 940 tons of gold bars at a Swiss bank in the name of the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung. The report came from a former Marcos aide, and Munhwa Ilbo carried a copy of the bank-account certificate on its front page. The alleged gold bars were part of what a Japanese army general had looted from Asia during World War II, Munhwa Ilbo claimed.

That report was never independently confirmed, but it nevertheless reflects the mystique and speculation that still surround North Korea’s gold industry – and how little the outside world actually knows about it.

Financial pressures
When the US took action against Banco Delta Asia in Macau in September 2005, labeling it a “primary money-laundering concern” for North Korean funds, very little evidence to substantiate the charges was ever produced. North Korea lost $24 million when the accounts it held with the bank in the name of a front company, Zokwang Trading, were frozen. Zokwang, which had been operating in Macau for decades, also closed its office and relocated to Zhuhai province across the border in China proper.

The action against Banco Delta Asia, a privately owned bank that the Macau government later had to prop up to prevent it from collapsing, was the second move against North Korea’s assets abroad. In a much less publicized action, North Korea’s only bank located in a foreign country – the Golden Star Bank in Vienna – was forced to suspend its operations in June 2004. The Golden Star was 100% owned by the Korea Daesong Bank, a state enterprise headquartered in Pyongyang, and was allowed to set up a branch in the Austrian capital in 1982.

For more than two decades, Austrian police kept a close eye on the bank, but there was no law that forbade the North Koreans from operating a bank in the country. Nevertheless, Austria’s police intelligence department stated in a 1997 report: “This bank [Golden Star] has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with everything from money-laundering and distribution of fake currency notes to involvement in the illegal trade in radioactive material.”

Eventually the international pressure to close the bank became too strong. Sources in Vienna believe the US played an important behind-the-scenes role in finally shuttering Golden Star’s modest office on 12 Kaiserstrasse in the Austrian capital. Until then, Vienna had been North Korea’s center for financial transactions in Europe and the Middle East. Visitors to North Korea have noted that euro coins in circulation in the country – the US dollar is not welcome in Pyongyang – invariably came from Austria. (Euro notes are the same in all European Union countries, but coins designate individual member countries.)

Last October, in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, Japan froze a dollar-denominated account that North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank held with an unnamed Japanese bank. The account had a balance of $1,000 and had not been active for nearly a decade, so the move was mainly symbolic: to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot use banks in Japan for any deposits, big or small.

So it is hardly surprising that North Korea is looking for new ways to manage and maintain its international business interests and for new partners when it is increasingly locked out of most foreign countries. That is where Thailand apparently comes into the picture.

In 2004, trade between Thailand and North Korea for the first time overtook trade between Japan and North Korea. Previously, a string of North Korean-controlled front companies, managed by the Chosen Soren, or the Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, had supplied North Korea with computers, electronic goods and other vital items.

In 2003, North Korea’s total trade volume to Japan was just over $265 million and fell even lower in 2004. At the same time, trade between Thailand and North Korea rose to more than $331 million in 2004. Two-way trade between Thailand and North Korea totaled $328 million in 2005, with Thai exports to North Korea amounting to $207 million and North Korean imports to Thailand totaling $121 million.

During January-November 2006 – the latest statistics available from the Thai Customs Department – trade totaled about $345 million, with Thai exports accounting for $200 million and North Korean imports $145 million. Thai imports of gold and silver have pushed those trade figures higher.

North Korea’s trade with Thailand grew mainly under the previous government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at one point proposed signing a free-trade agreement between the two countries. In August 2005, Thaksin was formally invited by Kim Jong-il to visit Pyongyang. The visit never materialized, and since Thaksin was ousted last year in a military coup, the future of Thai-North Korean relations is very much in doubt.

But gold and silver are highly fungible and North Korea apparently has lots of the commodities. It appears Kim Jong-il has for now found at least one golden path around the international sanctions imposed against his regime’s nuclear tests.