Before the virus complicated matters, things had been looking up: Reforms, a bumper harvest and sanctions-dodging were helping North Korea claw back some of the lost growth triggered by tougher United Nations trade restrictions and a drought. The UN Conference on Trade and Development estimated that the economy expanded by 1.8% last year, following its biggest slump in decades in 2018. That view tallied with a surge in China’s imports that suggested an increase in economic activity and trade. Global sanctions piled on North Korea in 2017 for its nuclear and missiles tests have slammed its trade and access to vital resources such as oil. That hasn’t stopped Kim from building his nuclear arsenal and finding ways to evade the economic restrictions, such as the illegal trading of commodities via high-seas transfers between ships, the U.S. and others have said.
North Korea stepped up its illegal exports of coal last year, with most of those deliveries headed for China, according to a confidential UN report reviewed Monday by Bloomberg News. Pyongyang raked in $370 million of shipments from January through August alone, a panel monitoring the enforcement of sanctions on North Korea said in the report to the Security Council, citing evidence provided by an unidentified member state.
The Kim regime also managed to import luxury vehicles and other sanctioned items including alcohol and robotic machinery, the report showed. While these activities could be affected by the border closure, other illicit activity highlighted in the report won’t, such as the country’s acquisition of virtual currencies and cyber-attacks against global banks to evade financial sanctions. Prior to the virus lockdown, Kim had been pushing back against Trump’s pressure. In a speech to ruling party leaders on Dec. 31 — the same day reports of the new virus first emerged in China — Kim denounced the U.S.’s “gangster-like acts” and said he was no longer bound by a two-year freeze on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. A resumption of major tests would undercut Trump’s claim that his unprecedented decision to meet with Kim in June 2018 made the U.S. safer, just as he gears up for a tough re-election fight. Still, Kim has so far refrained from provocations that could blow up his relationship with Trump.
North Korean foreign ministry adviser Kim Kye Gwan said last month that Pyongyang would never propose trading a key nuclear facility in exchange for UN sanctions relief, according to state media. He added that it would be “stupid” to expect ties between Trump and Kim to help restart talks. Even before the virus, there was a limit to how much Kim could do to shore up the economy without more access to foreign capital. One study after another has suggested that Kim would eventually face a economic crisis if he was unable to secure enough hard currency to sustain a push forward with development.
“Kim wants sanctions lifted because he wants high-powered economic growth to underpin his power grip, but he has no reason to risk his survival by giving in to U.S. demands to denuclearize first,” said Lee Jong-seok, a former South Korean unification minister. “Kim won’t budge, no matter the pressure.”