February 25, 2020
Writing for 38 North, NCNK Program Manager Daniel Wertz takes a close look at recent Chinese trade data with North Korea, looking at how this economic relationship has changed - and how it hasn't - over the past three years.
Since the imposition of far-reaching United Nations sanctions on North Korea in 2016-2017, China has accounted for 95 percent of the world’s reported merchandise trade with North Korea, according to mirror statistics published by the DPRK’s trading partners. These mirror statistics tell only a part of the story of North Korea’s external economic relations, given the extent of North Korean sanctions evasion and other economic activities abroad that aren’t captured by merchandise trade data. Nevertheless, the trade statistics published by China’s General Administration of Customs are an invaluable source of information on North Korea’s foreign trade if carefully assessed.
A review of Chinese merchandise trade data with North Korea for the 2017-2019 period indicates the following:
- Chinese exports of non-sanctioned goods to North Korea remained steady after the onset of enhanced UN sanctions, and increased by over 10 percent in 2019. This implies that a hard currency crunch has not forced North Korea to cut back on legitimate imports.
- Legitimate North Korean exports to China remain extremely low in the aggregate. However, its exports of certain categories of non-sanctioned goods—such as watches and fake eyelashes—have rapidly grown over the past two years.
- In line with UN sanctions, Chinese Customs has not reported any textile imports from North Korea since 2017. However, North Korean imports of fabrics from China have continued, indicating that the DPRK’s export-oriented garment industry has not collapsed.
- Reported Chinese food exports to North Korea hit a record high in 2019, helping to explain the stability of food prices in the country despite indications of a poor harvest early in the year.