North Korea is replete with natural resources such as tungsten, magnesite, and zinc. In fact, it is rich in over 200 types of minerals. It also is abounding in gold – gold that is not available to be mined by anyone from a foreign nation.
One reason that gold mining is off-limits to outsiders is because of North Korea’s closed-society status. The Hermit Kingdom allows few people to enter the country; less than 3,000 Westerners have ever visited. Those that have were closely followed and monitored.
Even if North Korea were an open society, its gold reserves would still not be accessible without extensive modernization. Electricity is non-existent except in the capitol city of Pyongyang. A paucity of appropriate tools and an archaic infrastructure further impede efforts to mine gold. However, labor camps force prisoners to mine in deplorable conditions according to the 2003 US Committee for Human Rights. North Korea has been sanctioned by most of the world in part because of its human rights abuses.
History of Mining in North Korea
Nonetheless, gold mining in Korea did occur as far back as the tenth century. Chinese and Arab traders exchanged goods for Korean gold and silver utensils. In the 1880’s, Korean and Western efforts to mine gold were made using a then-modern system. These efforts came to a halt because of financial and infrastructure issues.
In the late 1890’s, mining rights were granted to several American business men. Their firm, the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company, was the first mining concession in Korea. This was the longest and richest one ever granted to a Western company.
In the recent past, Carlo Baeli, an Italian entrepreneur, claimed to be the first Westerner to establish a business relationship with North Korea since the Korean War. His investment of $118 million was used to extract mainly gold and granite. However, in the mid-1990’s, large-scale flooding occurred demolishing mining equipment as well as the mines.
Thailand, with its many global business contacts, has become North Korea’s largest gold purchaser after China and South Korea. In 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un entered into an agreement which allows North Korean businesses to establish accounts in Russian banks in exchange for mining concessions.
Mines and Reserves
Although small-scale gold mining does occur in North Korea, it is still done using manual labor and small-scale techniques. Gold reserves, mined at only 30% of capacity, are found in nearly 80% of North Korea. It is estimated that North Korea has over 2,000 metric tons of reserves.
A mine in Yanggang Province, the Daebong Mine, produces only .15 metric tons of gold each year. China has promised to make capital improvements to the mine in exchange for mineral rights.
Another mine, Sangnong Mine in South Hamgyong Province, is one of the largest in the world. It is reported to have 181 metric tons of gold reserves. Pyrite, chalcopyrite, magnesite, and silver are also mined from Sangnong. The concentrate from the mining activities are processed in a plant in Dancheon City. The gold extracted from the concentrate is of a very high grade.
The Holdong Mine in North Hwanghae has been operational since the early 1890’s. It, too, is one of the largest gold mines in the world with an estimated reserve of almost 181 metric tons. The mine is able to process two metric tons of gold a year.
North Korea is eco-rich in untapped mineral reserves with gold being one of the largest. Perhaps the day will come when North Korea will have the government, the electricity, the infrastructure, the modern technology needed to extract the precious yellow metal. Until then, North Korea’s gold will probably remain as elusive to the world as it is.