Based on estimates from the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, North Korea’s exported goods plus services represent 5.9% of total North Korean economic output or Gross Domestic Product. Please note that the overall value of exported goods and services includes re-exports. The analysis below focuses on exported products only.
From a continental perspective, 95.9% of North Korean exports by value were delivered to fellow Asian countries. A much smaller 1.6% was sold to European importers. North Korea shipped another 1.2% worth of goods to Africa with 1% going to Latin America excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean. North America bought a tiny 0.3% of North Korean exports.
Given North Korea’s population of 25.2 million people, its total $1.844 billion in 2017 exports translates to roughly $70 for every resident in that country.
Trading Economics projects North Korea’s unemployment rate to be an estimated 4.2% as of June 2018.
North Korea’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in North Korean global shipments during 2017. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from North Korea.
At the more granular four-digit Harmonized Tariff System code level, North Korea’s most valuable exported good is coal including related solid fuels made from coal. Other major North Korean exports are clothing, molluscs including scallops, iron, miscellaneous nuts and lead.
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): US$499.8 million (27.1% of total exports)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $420 million (22.8%)
- Ores, slag, ash: $187.5 million (10.2%)
- Fish: $164 million (8.9%)
- Iron, steel: $83.2 million (4.5%)
- Fruits, nuts: $79 million (4.3%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: $65.7 million (3.6%)
- Salt, sulphur, stone, cement: $44.2 million (2.4%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $43.6 million (2.4%)
- Machinery including computers: $35.2 million (1.9%)
North Korea’s top 10 exports are highly concentrated accounting for 88% of the overall value of its global shipments.
Fruits and nuts was the fastest-growing among the top 10 export categories, up by 54.9% from 2016 to 2017.
In second place for improving export sales was the salt, sulphur, stone and cement category which rose 13.2% led by natural graphite and quartz.
North Korea’s exported iron and steel posted the third-fastest gain in value up by 9.5%.
The leading decliner among the top 10 North Korean export categories was the mineral fuels-related category which retreated by -66%, thanks mainly to lower international sales of coal.
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.
- Mineral fuels including oil: $271.7 million (Down by -73.6%)
- Ores, slag, ash: $180 million (Down by -18.2%)
- Fish: $58 million (Down by -50.7%)
- Salt, sulphur, stone, cement: $38.6 million (Up by 85.9%)
- Oil seeds: $11.4 million (Reversing a -$1.5 million deficit)
- Fruits, nuts: $10.7 million (Down by -159.3%)
- Ships, boats: $9.9 million (Down by -61.9%)
- Vegetables: $6 million (Reversing a -$3.2 million deficit)
- Headgear: $2.9 million (Reversing a -$170,000 deficit)
North Korea has highly positive net exports in the international trade of coal. In turn, these cashflows indicate North Korea’s strong competitive advantages under the mineral fuels including oil category.
North Korea incurred an overall -$1.688 billion trade deficit for 2017, up by 647.7% from the -$225.7 million 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.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: -US308.9 million (Up by 32.5% since 2016)
- Machinery including computers: -$240.7 million (Up by 25.1%)
- Manmade filaments: -$218 million (Up by 25.7%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: -$217.3 million (Up by 33.4%)
- Vehicles: -$195 million (Down by -14.6%)
- Animal/vegetable fats, oils, waxes: -$122.9 million (Up by 59.9%)
- Knit or crochet fabric: -$100.2 million (Up by 32.8%)
- Manmade staple fibers: -$79 million (Up by 20%)
- Ceramic products: -$66 million (Up by 57.1%)
- Paper, paper items: -$63.4 million (Up by 6.6%)
North Korea has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits under the electrical machinery and equipment category, particularly mobile phones.
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”.
Please note that, unless otherwise stated, the results listed above are at the 2-digit Harmonized Tariff System code level.
See also North Korea’s Top Trading Partners, South Korea’s Top Trading Partners and China’s Top 10 Exports
Forbes 2016 Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on June 13, 2018
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on June 13, 2018
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on June 13, 2018
The World Factbook, Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on June 13, 2018
Trade Map, International Trade Centre. Accessed on June 13, 2018
Wikipedia, List of Companies of North Korea. Accessed on June 13, 2018
Wikipedia, North Korea. Accessed on June 13, 2018