Sanctions Force North Korea to Shutter Chemical Factory

The plant could not likely obtain material necessary for its operations under sanctions supported by China, a source says.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (C) inspects the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, a large plant manufacturing fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and industrial chemicals in the city of Anju in North Korea's South Pyongan province in a file photo.

A North Korean chemical plant which had been shuttered for 20 years and renovated for reoperation in 2016 appears to have been shut down again due to international sanctions imposed on the regime of leader Kim Jong Un, sources inside the country and in neighboring China said.

The Chongsu chemical plant located in the workers’ district of Sakchu county in North Hamgyong province sits opposite the city of Dandong in northeastern China’s Liaoning province across the Yalu River separating North Korea and China.

The chemical factory It underwent a major renovation in October 2016 and until recently was known to produce batteries for military use, sources said.

“The Chongsu chemical plant had been reactivated for less than a year, and it’s been eight months since any smoke has come out of it,” a resident of Dandong’s Kuandian county told RFA’s Korean Service. “If there is no smoke coming out of its smokestack, then it’s evident that the plant has stopped operating.”

“International sanctions on North Korea may have had a big impact on the deactivation of the chemical plant,” said the source who declined to be named. “There is strong possibility that the chemical plant was not able to obtain necessary materials because of China’s sanctions.”

The United Nations, with backing from North Korea’s longtime ally China, unanimously approved sanctions against North Korea in December as punishment for its development and launch of a ballistic missile that Pyongyang said is capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

The sanctions place caps on the import of crude oil, and refined oil products, such as diesel and kerosene that are crucial to North Korea’s economy. They also impose a ban on the export of a range of products, including food, machinery, electrical equipment, wood, earth, and stones, to other countries.

In early January, China’s Ministry of Commerce began imposing limits on exports of crude oil, refined oil products, steel, and other metals to North Korea, in line with U.N. sanctions.

China suspended North Korea coal imports in 2017 after the U.N. adopted a previous sanctions resolution to punish the country for its nuclear weapons program by tightening restrictions on coal exports.

“Because of China’s sanctions, chemicals, including sulfuric acid, are not allowed to be sent to North Korea,” the source said. “So how can the plant produce batteries without an essential material?”

Authorities let the Chongsu chemical plant fall into neglect in 1996 during the Great Famine during which up to 3 million North Koreans starved to death due to a variety of factors, including the state’s economic mismanagement, an end to aid and trade concessions from the former Soviet Union after it collapsed, and a series of floods and droughts.

“When they initiated the major renovation of the chemical plant, they probably did not expect there would be sanctions against them or any power shortages,” he said.

A North Korean resident of North Hamgyong pointed out that that the chemical factory could not sustain operations after a nearby hydropower plant stopped generating electricity last year when the Supung Dam, its water source, dried up during a drought.

“In order to operate factories in North Korea, raw materials and electricity must be guaranteed,” said the source who declined to be named.

Fertilizer production

The chemical plant was built in 1943 and produced calcium cyanamide, a chemical fertilizer commercially known as nitrolime, and phosphate fertilizers when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).

In 1966, when North Korea founder and former leader Kim Il Sung was in power, the facility was expanded to produce other chemical fertilizers.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies issued a dossier in 2004 listing five major North Korean civilian chemical production facilities that sat on the border with China, including the Chongsu chemical complex.

A report issued five years later by International Crisis Group listed a chemical plant in Chongsu as one of four chemical weapons sites on the border with China, though specific names of the facilities were not given.

Though North Korea has long denied having a chemical weapons program that produces nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents, the U.S. Defense Department believes the rogue nation likely possesses production capability and a chemical weapons stockpile that could be used with artillery and ballistic missiles, according to an Associated Press report in March.

In February, the U.S. determined that North Korean used the chemical warfare agent VX to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, at the Kuala Lumpur international airport in Malaysia in February 2017.

In response, the U.S. imposed sanctions on North Korea under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act in addition to existing U.S. comprehensive sanctions targeting unlawful North Korean activities.

Later that month, a leaked report by U.N. investigators said that North Korea sent a range of materials used in ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs, including acid-resistant tiles, valves, and thermometers, to Syria between 2012 and 2017, The New York Times reported.

The U.S. and other nations have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons on civilians in enclaves controlled by rebels, including an apparent toxic gas attack earlier this month that killed dozens of adults and children in the town of Douma near the capital Damascus.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.