With sanctions still in place and trade with China at record lows due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korean state-owned coal mines are finding new ways of making money by turning to the domestic market. 

“Recently, coal exports have not been doing too well and many coal mines are looking for new ways to make money,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told Daily NK on June 8. 

“They are looking to sell to factories or any other businesses that are in need of coal,” he added. 

According to the source, the supply of coal to North Korean factories and businesses decreased significantly when the country’s authorities were focused on export activities aimed at earning foreign currency.

Despite the notable crash in export levels this year, the supply of coal to North Korean factories and other businesses has yet to recover to previous levels. This is because coal mines have been engaging in their own profit-making businesses.

“Coal mined from state-run coal mines is supposed to go to an agency in charge of distribution, but [these days] not all of the coal is being supplied to the appropriate agency,” the source said. “Coal mines have to make a profit to feed the large number of workers they have, so they decided to start doing business directly with the procurement and sales departments at companies.” 

Some companies that received coal from this distribution system now have to buy the coal directly from coal mines, the source said, adding, “In these cases, coal mines sell the coal at a cheaper price than the usual market price.”

Some trading companies have reportedly begun working with railway authorities to transport large amounts of coal by train rather than by truck. 

“They are making efforts to reduce distribution costs by going to coal-scarce areas and selling coal there while buying and then reselling that region’s specialty goods,” the source said. 

“Of course there is still wholesale selling of coal taking place among merchants located near the mines. Since coal is a commodity that is always in demand, buyers are flocking to the markets,” the source added. 

Generally, coal in North Korea used to be sold at around KPW 300,000 per ton, but by the end of 2017, after the implementation of more severe international sanctions, the price had plummeted to around KPW 200,000. Yet, due to smuggling and other factors, coal prices crept back up to KPW 290,000 per ton last year, according to the source.

*Translated by Gabriela Bernal

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.