That dollar amount reflects a -94.8% reduction since 2016 and a -66.9% drop from 2019 to 2020.
The 5 biggest exports from North Korea in 2020 were electrical insulators excluding fittings (11.2%), electric storage batteries (11%), electrical energy (7.6%), iron ferroalloys (6.8%), and phone system devices including smartphones (4.8%). Combined, that quintet of major exports represents 41.5% of the overall value of globally exported goods during 2020.
Based on estimates from Heritage.org, North Korea’s exported goods represent 0.4% of total North Korean economic output or Gross Domestic Product on Purchasing Power Parity basis.
North Korea’s Major Trading Partners
The latest available country-specific data shows that 85.6% of products exported from North Korea were bought by importers in: China (43% of the global total), Myanmar (9%), Poland (6.2%), Seychelles (6.2%), Nigeria (4.9%), Luxembourg (3.4%), Uganda (3.3%), Mozambique (2.6%), Curaçao (also 2.6%), Ethiopia (2.2%), Costa Rica (2.1%) and India (1.6%).
From a continental perspective, 51.1% of North Korean exports by value were delivered to fellow Asian countries. A smaller 23.8% was sold to importers in Africa. North Korea shipped another 20.4% worth of goods to Europe.
Tinier percentages from North Korea went to went to Latin America (4.6%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, and North America’s Canada only (0.1%).
Given North Korea’s population of 25.7 million people, its total $146.9 million in 2020 exports translates to under $10 for every resident in that country.
North Korea’s unemployment rate was 25.6% in 2020 according to Heritage.org.
North Korea’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in North Korean global shipments during 2020. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from North Korea.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: US$50.1 million (32% of total exports)
- Iron, steel: $21.8 million (13.9%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $12 million (7.6%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $11.2 million (7.1%)
- Machinery including computers: $7.4 million (4.7%)
- Clocks, watches including parts: $6.8 million (4.3%)
- Vehicles: $6.4 million (4.1%)
- Ores, slag, ash: $5.6 million (3.6%)
- Other chemical goods: $5.2 million (3.3%)
- Pharmaceuticals: $3 million (1.9%)
North Korea’s top 10 exports accounted for 82.6% of the overall value of its global shipments in 2020.
Electrical machinery and equipment was the lone grower among the top 10 export categories, up by 148% from 2019 to 2020.
Leading the decliners among the top 10 North Korean export categories were vehicles (down -86.9%), clocks and watches including parts (down -86.2%), and machinery including computers (down -81.7%).
At the more granular four-digit Harmonized Tariff System code level, North Korea’s most valuable exported good was electrical insulators excluding fittings (11.2% of North Korea’s global total). Close behind in second place were electric storage batteries (11%) trailed by electrical energy (7.6%), iron ferroalloys (6.8%), phone system devices including smartphones (4.8%), plated or coated items made from flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel (4.5%), assembled watch components (4.3%), cars (3.2%) and tungsten ores or concentrates (2.9%).
The following types of North Korean product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports.
In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: US$49.7 million (Up by 227.1% since 2019)
- Iron, steel: $21.7 million (Down by -54.8%)
- Machinery including computers: $6.1 million (Down by -84%)
- Vehicles: $5.8 million (Down by -87.8%)
- Ores, slag, ash: $3.7 million (Down by -78.9%)
- Aluminum: $2.1 million (Up by 101.4%)
- Other chemical goods: $1.5 million (Reversing a -$10 million deficit in 2019)
- Zinc: $640 (Down by -5.6%)
- Articles of iron or steel: $548 (Down by -86.3%)
- Books, newspapers, pictures: $311 (Down by -82.8%)
North Korea has highly positive net exports in the international trade of electrical machines. In turn, these cashflows indicate North Korea’s strong competitive advantages under the electrical machinery and equipment category.
North Korea incurred an overall -$401.2 million trade deficit for 2020, down by -82.2% from the -$2.25 billion deficit one year earlier.
Below are exports from North Korea that result in negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on home country North Korea’s goods trail North Korean importer spending on foreign products.
- Animal/vegetable fats, oils, waxes: -US$84.3 million (Down by -42.8% from 2019)
- Tobacco, manufactured substitutes: -$39.7 million (Down by -57.5%)
- Milling products, malt, starches: -$38.7 million (Down by -51%)
- Sugar, sugar confectionery: -$35 million (Down by -40.4%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: -$24.8 million (Down by -90.3%)
- Rubber, rubber articles: -$23.2 million (Down by -61.2%)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$22.3 million (Down by -51.8%)
- Manmade filaments: -$17.2 million (Down by -90.9%)
- Cereals: -$16.7 million (Down by -78.7%)
- Organic chemicals: -$16.2 million (Down by -64.8%)
North Korea has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits under the product category entitled animal or vegetable fats, oils and waxes.
North Korean Export Companies
Not one North Korean corporation ranks among Forbes Global 2000.
According to global trading e-commerce platform Alibaba, the following are examples of exports-related companies from North Korea.
- Elpis Corporation (engine oil)
- Groon Co. Ltd (metal scrap including electronics scrap)
- Hai Dan (cosmetics)
- Kim’s Enterprise & Supplying Co. Ltd (construction machinery)
- Korea Ryonghung Trading Corporation (anthracite coal, lead)
- KQ Earphone (earphones, headphones)
- Pishon Technology (LCD panels)
North Korea’s capital city is Pyongyang, nicknamed the “Capital of Willows”.
See also South Korea’s Top 10 Exports, China’s Top 10 Imports and Capital Facts for Pyongyang, North Korea
Forbes 2019 Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on September 12, 2021
Heritage.org, 2021 Index of Economic Freedom: North Korea (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on September 12, 2021
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on September 12, 2021
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on September 12, 2021
The World Factbook, Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on September 12, 2021
Trade Map, International Trade Centre. Accessed on September 12, 2021
Wikipedia, List of Companies of North Korea. Accessed on September 12, 2021
Wikipedia, North Korea. Accessed on September 12, 2021