One of North Korea’s most significant internal assets is its large reserve of mineral resources. North Korea sits on top of a wide range of large mineral deposits, ranging from iron and coal to non-ferrous and rare-earth minerals such as magnesite, and these reserves have been estimated to be worth trillions of dollars. Despite their size and total value, North Korea has been unable to fully exploit its mineral reserves as a result of both international sanctions that prohibit North Korean exports of its mineral resources as well as a lack of technical capacity available to North Korean miners.
North Korea sits atop a very substantial reserve of mineral resources, with an estimated 200 different types of minerals in North Korea believed to have some economic value. These mineral resources can be found in many parts of the country, and are distributed across about 80 percent of the DPRK. North Korea’s mineral resources have been estimated to be worth between $6 and $10 trillion.
North Korea’s mineral industry is primarily oriented around iron and coal mining, and of the estimated 728 mines in North Korea roughly 241 are believed to coal mines while another 260 are thought to be metal mines, with the remainder dedicated to the mining of industrial minerals. In addition to coal and iron, North Korea also sits on an abundance of other minerals including graphite, zinc, tungsten, gold, barite, apatite, molybdenite, limestone, magnesite, and copper. Many of these reserves – including North Korea’s deposits of tungsten, graphite, gold ore, and molybdenum – rank in the top ten globally in terms of overall size. North Korea’s reserve of rare-earth minerals as a whole may be the world’s largest.
In terms of individual mineral reserves, one of the most significant may be North Korea’s supply of magnesite. North Korea’s magnesite reserves are thought to be the second-largest in the world behind only China, and are estimated to be roughly 2.3 billion metric tons. Magnesite has a range of civilian, industrial, and military uses including for livestock feed, fertilizer, wastewater treatment, and building materials, while magnesite with a purity of 99 percent or more can be used in optical equipment, nuclear reactors, and rocket nozzles. North Korea has in the past exported magnesite to a number of countries including China, Germany, and the Netherlands, though exports to countries other than China have ended as a result of international sanctions.
Those sanctions in general have in recent years limited the benefits available to North Korea from its reserves of mineral resources. In 2016-2017 in response to ongoing North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests, the United Nations Security Council enacted far-reaching sectoral sanctions against North Korea, which have targeted – among other things – North Korean mineral exports. Despite these sanctions, North Korean exports of its mineral resources to China have continued, and have included both magnesite and coal exports.
In addition to sanctions, limitations that exist in North Korea’s mining industry have limited the DPRK’s ability to fully exploit its mineral resources. North Korea’s ability to operate its mining industry at full capacity is likely constrained by a combination of a lack of mining equipment and an inability to purchase new equipment, along with the country’s limited supply of electricity and the poor overall state of its power grid.