North Korea may be considered a country with few natural resources, but the United States and Europe are eyeing possible large deposits of minerals there that could be used in the high-tech and weapons industries.
The countries’ interest in North Korea’s minerals so far has been a separate issue from Pyongyang’s nuclear threat. It is not clear how the recent six-party accord in which Pyongyang agreed to end its nuclear arms quest in exchange for energy aid will affect the matter.
The president of a major U.S. shipping company visited Nampo port, southwest of Pyongyang, in 2003 and told a trade ministry official there that he could provide the harbor with a container crane, according to a Japanese business executive.
The Japanese executive said he was impressed by the U.S. company’s boldness, saying many other U.S. business leaders have been making similar visits to help keep the door open to any opportunities that may arise, including mining.
While Tokyo-Pyongyang relations remain chilly over North Korea’s abductions of Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, European countries, including Germany and Italy, have been sending delegations to the North to study its mining industry.
“Some of them are interested in rare metals,” said Teruo Komaki, an expert on North Korea at Kokushikan University. “There are also many Chinese talking about investment.”
Rare metals, including tungsten, nickel and cobalt, are difficult to extract and stable supplies are important.
Tungsten is in big demand in the manufacture of personal computers. The United States also uses it to make bombs and tanks.
China has a monopoly on tungsten: It is home to 62 percent of the world’s known deposits and held 88 percent of the market in 2004.
But there is a possibility North Korea could compete with China to supply the precious metal.
The Metallic Minerals Exploration Agency of Japan, now the Oil, Natural Gas, Metals National Corporation, analyzed mineral deposits in North Korea using satellite photos and issued a report in 2001, saying, “Deposits of minerals, chiefly gold, are distributed widely.”
Although details of the deposits are unknown, there is one clue to their contents.
During the war, when Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, mineral surveys were conducted to find resources for the war effort.
An annual report on Korean industry published by Toyo Keizai Shimpo-Sha in June 1943 said, “There is an extremely wide range of underground resources in Korea, and the volume is considerably rich. . . . The tungsten rush has replaced the gold rush.”
The report lists tungsten and gold and provides details about mines. It says there are large quantities of the minerals on Mount Kumgang, a sightseeing destination in North Korea.
“We can see why South Korea’s conglomerates and government are so keen on the unprofitable sightseeing trips to Mount Kumgang,” said Keiji Abe, a researcher of Korean technological history.
Seoul agreed to provide electricity to North Korea in the six-party accord signed this week, and the two countries agreed in July to cooperate in resources development.
Although North Korea is known for having little energy, aging facilities and inefficient mining capability, Takeo Harada, former head of the North Korea team at the Foreign Ministry, warned, “Japan will eventually miss out unless it engages in diplomacy with North Korea on the premise that each country has its eye on underground resources.”