North Korea Trade Rebounds on Growing Partnership With China

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) inspecting the planned construction site for the Pyongyang Folk Park in Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un took over as leader of North Korea in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Source: KNS/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea’s trade expanded more than 20 percent in 2010 to $6.1 billion on growing business with China even as the economy shrank for a second year, South Korea’s national statistics office said.

Trade volume increased 22.3 percent in 2010 after a 10.5 percent decline in 2009, Statistics Korea said in its annual report today in Seoul. Commerce with China accounted for 57 percent, or $3.5 billion, of North Korea’s foreign trade, up from 53 percent in the previous year. The totalitarian state doesn’t report economic statistics.

North Korea’s gross domestic product contracted 0.5 percent to 30 trillion won ($26.1 billion) in 2010, compared with South Korea’s 1,173 trillion won, the Bank of Korea said in November. Per capita income was 1.24 million won compared with South Korea’s 24 million won.

Kim Jong Un took over as leader of North Korea in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The regime has relied on economic handouts since the mid-1990s and an estimated 2 million people have died from famine, according to South Korea’s central bank. The United Nations and the U.S. increased sanctions on the country aimed at curtailing its nuclear weapons program after 2010 attacks that killed 50 South Koreans.

Chinese aid to the stricken country will probably increase as the government in Beijing seeks to avoid a flood of refugees from crossing the 880-mile (1,416 kilometer) border it shares with North Korea, analyst Dong Yong Sueng said. While food shortages have contributed to rising defections, North Korea has shown no willingness to ease sanctions by abandoning its nuclear weapons program.

Economic Dependence

“North Korea’s economic dependence on China will inevitably increase for the time being unless there’s some resolution to the nuclear situation,” said Dong, a senior fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul. “China wants a stable North Korean regime and succession to avoid a potential influx of refugees.”

North Korea had a shortfall of as much as 700,000 metric tons of food last year, which could affect a quarter of the population, according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization. China provides almost 90 percent of energy imports and 45 percent of the country’s food, according to a 2009 report from the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

China is preparing to consent to a North Korean request to provide 1 million tons of food in time for the April 5 anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, Japan’s Fuji Television said on its website. The report didn’t say where it obtained the information.

Providing Assistance

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin today told reporters in Beijing that while he wasn’t aware of the report, “we have always been providing assistance to the DPRK within our capacity which we think will be conducive to the stability and development of the country.” DPRK is an acronym of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim’s military had over one million soldiers in active duty and 7.7 million reserve troops as of November 2010, today’s report said, citing South Korean Defense Ministry figures. The North operates under a military-first policy and has remained on combat alert since the Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce and not a peace treaty.

North Korea’s population rose to 24.2 million in 2010 from 24.1 million in 2009, about half of South Korea. Inter-Korean trade rose 13.9 percent from a year earlier to $1.9 billion last year, Statistics Korea said.

South Korea plans to set up a fund to raise as much as 55 trillion won to pay for eventual reunification with North Korea, Unification Minister Yu Woo Ik said in an interview with Bloomberg last October.

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