North Korea has suspended exports of rare minerals to China in reprisal for Beijing’s recent suspension of North Korean coal imports, sources said Thursday, amid rising tensions between the neighboring nations.
A source based in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province, near the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service that while the move was meant to convey anger over the coal ban, it is only temporary because Pyongyang has no resources to export other than minerals and its trade partners are limited.
“Iron ore from Musan mine and magnesia clinker from Dancheon are still exported to China, but the export of molybdenum from Musan county and cobalt minerals from Hoeryeong has been completely halted,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The central authorities suspended the export of rare minerals from around Feb. 20. I believe it is an action of reprisal because China sympathized with United Nation sanctions against North Korea and stopped importing North Korea’s coal.”
Beijing's customs authority on Feb. 18 suspended all imports of coal from North Korea with immediate effect until the end of the year, citing U.N. Resolution 2321.
In an opinion piece on Feb. 20, China’s official Global Times newspaper denied speculation in the Western media that the ban was a response to the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Malaysia a week earlier, suggesting the move was instead linked to Beijing’s disapproval of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
The article noted that some 40 percent of North Korea’s foreign currency is believed to be coal exports to China.
According to RFA’s source, North Hamgyong province relies heavily on profits generated by molybdenum and cobalt exports, and had been hit hard by the rare mineral export suspension.
“The export of these minerals suddenly stopped without any notice, so mine workers and their families can’t earn their livelihood,” he said.
“Therefore, alternative measures are needed immediately.”
Mine workers who have been left without jobs are “bewildered,” the source said, adding that it was unclear how long the suspension of rare mineral exports would last.
A second source, who also asked not to be named, told RFA Wednesday that the rare mineral export suspension was similarly affecting Yanggang province, another region in North Korea bordering China.
“I don’t know what other regions are like, but Yanggang province has completely stopped exporting minerals to China for some time now,” he said.
“The minerals from Yanggang province are all rare, so suspending exports will cause a blow [to the economy].”
The Yanggang source also suggest that the export suspension would not last long, due to the region’s reliance on China for basic operating needs.
“Even though none of the minerals—copper concentration and zinc concentration from Hyesan mine, Tungsten from Daebong mine, and molybdenum from Yonghwa mine—are being exported, Hyesan mine is still using electricity from China,” he said.
“This implies that the export suspension won’t last long.”
Last week, a political commentator who asked to remain anonymous told RFA that Beijing had always shied away from implementing U.N. sanctions against North Korea after negotiating an exemption on the grounds that sanctions would endanger the well-being of the North Korean people.
The commentator said China’s ban on North Korean coal imports shouldn't be taken as evidence of a harder line on Kim Jong Un coming out of Beijing.
U.N. Resolution 2321, passed last November, capped North Korea's coal exports at U.S. $400.9 million annually, or 7.5 million tons.
But China imported 18.6 million tons of coal from North Korea in the first 10 months of 2016, an increase of 13 percent over the same period in the previous year.
Written by Sunghui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.