North Korea's Economy Is Growing at Its Fastest Pace Since 1999

  • Expansion was fastest since 1999, and better than the South’s
  • Per capita income still only 4.5% of that in South Korea

BOK Reports North Korea 2016 GDP Growth of 3.9%

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North Korea’s economy grew in 2016 at the fastest pace since 1999, helped by a recovery from a drought in 2015. Military spending, including on testing nuclear weapons and missiles, also boosted growth, and raised tensions in the region.

Gross domestic product expanded 3.9 percent from a year earlier, according to an estimate from the Bank of Korea. The expansion was concentrated in mining, manufacturing, and utilities such as electricity, gas, and water supplies. Per capita income in the North was estimated at 1.46 million won ($1,300), or about 4.5 percent of that of its southern neighbor’s.

The BOK said it estimates North Korea’s economic growth by using raw data compiled by related organizations such as the intelligence agency and unification ministry. The calculation has limits, with the BOK using South Korean data such as prices to substitute for unknown information.

North Korea’s missiles and development of weapons of mass destruction are measured as investment and production and support GDP growth, said Shin Seung-cheol, an official at the BOK’s economic statistics department. Missile tests could also be included in government spending, Shin said, adding that it’s hard to tell from the data when the weapons were developed, or how many weapons there are.

The expansion came despite progressively tighter sanctions that the international community has imposed as the North steps up tests of missiles and nuclear weapons. The UN Security Council passed a resolution in November that tightened sanctions, including cutting the country’s coal exports, after the regime conducted its fourth and fifth nuclear tests.

The South Korean government also pulled out of the Gaeseong industrial park in early 2016. The facility had been a key source of foreign capital for the North. The penalties have failed to deter North Korea, who said it successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile this month.

China accounted for 93 percent of North Korea’s trade in 2016, the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency in Seoul said in a separate statement on Friday. The Pyongyang regime’s overall trade volume increased 4.7 percent last year to $6.55 billion, the data showed.

More details:

  • Mining increased 8.4 percent on higher coal and lead production.
  • Manufacturing expanded 4.8 percent.
  • Utilities production jumped 22.3 percent, the biggest gain since the BOK started releasing data in 1990, due to increased water and thermal power output.

The outlook for this year doesn’t look as good, with crop production hit by the worst drought since 2001, according to a report from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Early season harvest was down by 30 percent and planting for the main crops was disrupted, the report said.

— With assistance by Adrian Leung, Kanga Kong, and Andy Sharp

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