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Data Questions: 

Where is this data from?

This chart is based on data from KOTRA (the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency), which in turn is based on mirror statistics reported by GTIS Global Trade Atlas, with corrections for possible misreporting. For 2014-2017, this data includes an estimate of China's crude oil exports to North Korea, which have gone unreported for those years.

How are trade categories organized?

This chart is based on the Harmonized System of merchandise trade classifications, an internationally-recognized and standardized system. Categories in the chart are mostly categorized by HS section, the broadest grouping of merchandise definitions. HS sections under which North Korea has minimal exports are included in the "other or unspecified" pie slice. Clicking on an individual pie slice will bring up data on 2-digit HS chapters within that section. (HS codes are further subdivisible into 4-digit and 6-digit definitions, which are not included in this chart.)

What are North Korea's primary imports?

North Korea's imports are somewhat more diversified than its exports; the country's largest imports have been crude oil and refined petroleum (both are included within the "HS 27: Mineral Fuels, Oils, Waxes, & Bituminous Substances" category). Other major reported imports include machinery, electronics, textile fabrics, and trucks.

According to press reports, North Korea also imports a significant amount of luxury goods, which are prohibited for export to North Korea by UN sanctions. (These sanctions, however, only provide a limited definition of luxury goods, and individual states have leeway in determining what qualifies.) While luxury goods may be included under a range of HS codes, it is likely that mirror trade statistics do not fully capture the value of such goods imported by North Korea.

Where can I find more detailed data?

The UN Comtrade database allows users to research trade patterns based on HS codes, trading partners, and years. Additionally, MIT's Observatory of Economic Complexity offers useful data visualizations for examining trade data for North Korea, as well as for other countries.

What items are prohibited for export to North Korea under international sanctions?

Successive UN Security Council Resolutions, most recently UNSCR 2397 (adopted in December 2017), restrict or prohibit certain categories of trade with North Korea, as well as placing restrictions on the country's financial and shipping activities.

The Resolutions include an arms embargo, and a prohibition on the sale or transfer of dual use items that could be used for nuclear, missile, or WMD development. Additionally, the following items are currently prohibited for export to North Korea:

  • Luxury goods, defined by various Resolutions as including but not limited to certain types of jewelry; yachts; luxury automobiles and racing cars; luxury watches; aquatic recreational vehicles; snowmobiles; items of lead crystal; recreational sports equipment; rugs and tapestries; and porcelain or bone china tableware.
  • Aviation fuel, jet fuel, and rocket fuel, other than aviation fuel supplied to civilian passenger aircraft outside the DPRK to the extent necessary for round-trip flights;
  • New helicopters and vessels;
  • Condensates and natural gas liquids; and
  • Industrial machinery, transportation vehicles, iron, steel, and other metals, with the exception of spare parts to maintain civilian passenger aircraft

The most recent UN resolutions have imposed progressively stronger restrictions on North Korea's imports of crude oil and refined petroluem products, with UNSCR 2397 setting a cap on crude oil imports at 4 million barrels per year (roughly the level of imports in prior years), and on refined petroleum product imports at 500,000 barrels per year (roughly a 90% reduction from previous years). Additionally, the provision of bulk cash and gold to North Korea is prohibited when it could contribute to North Korea's WMD programs or the evasion of sanctions.