It has been widely reported that the DPRK enforced strict border closures throughout 2020 and 2021 to stop the spread of COVID-19. Unsurprisingly this severely impacted trade opportunities, especially with China. China is North Korea’s biggest partner in both legal and illegal trade. In 2020, China’s reported trade with North Korea was down 80% from the previous year. Whilst the North Korean regime has maintained some level of income by violating sanctions through ship-to-ship transfers of oil and continuing to export tons of coal, it is clear that a strict border lock-down has resulted in devastating economic consequences.

South Korean outlet “Seoul Pyongyang News” recently reported shipping activity resumed between China and North Korea during the summer of 2021, according to their sources in bordering China cities. The Port State Control Committee of the Asia-Pacific have also released data indicating several North Korean ships have been seen entering various Chinese ports, signifying an increase in trade between the neighbors as well as a blatant disregard for ongoing sanctions.

Sanction evasion

Over the past few years North Korea’s efforts to evade sanctions have only increased. A recent Panel of Experts investigation has described ongoing illicit imports and exports carried out under cover of foreign flagged ships with obscured origins, but the latest data showing North Korean ships in Chinese ports suggests both nations no longer feel the need to hide the illegal activity.

The North Korean ships largely come from Nampo, a city in South Pyongan on the banks of the Taedong River. Nampo Port is a known hub for illegal activity, with satellite imagery released in the UN Panel of Experts report highlighting continuous use of the port to evade sanctions including carrying out illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil as well as loading exports including coal.

A Pyongyang Papers investigation has also discovered that a North Korean trading corporation known as Korea Kumgangsan Trading Corporation, is planning to export 5,000 metric tons of graphite per month to a Chinese corporation called Dandong Earth Science and Technology Co., Ltd. The graphite is due to be loaded from Nampo Port.

Dandong Earth Science and Technology Co., Ltd, also known as 丹东大地科技有限公司 in Chinese, is located in Dandong, China’s largest border city, directly across the Yulu river from the North Korean city of Sinuiju. The company is represented by Mr Shen Guochun (沈国春) with an office adjacent to the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. Dandong is a prime location for ongoing trade with the DPRK and was the focus of heavy investment prior to the pandemic. Dandong Earth Science and Technology Co., Ltd. are so shameless about their activity with North Korea that company profile online even states “Since its establishment, the company has given full play to its regional advantages and vigorously developed its import and export trade with North Korea.” (translated from Chinese).

Location of Dandong Earth Science and Technology Co., Ltd. taken from business listing website
Street view of Dandong Earth Science and Technology Co., Ltd. office location

Graphite Demand

Graphite is required for lithium-ion battery production and there is no substitute for it. It is also a good conductor of heat and electricity and so is therefore useful in electronic products. Global demand for graphite has been growing by over 20% a year, fueled by the constant production of cell phones, cameras and laptops. The mounting worldwide focus on electric vehicles and renewable energy means that demand will only increase further. A report by the World Bank Group predicts almost 500% rise in graphite supply would be needed by 2050, in the shift to a ‘low-carbon future’.

North Korea is no stranger to the graphite industry, exporting $4.65m in graphite in 2018, making it the 16th largest exporter of graphite in the world. China is also a big player in the industry, having been the largest producer and exporter of flake graphite for decades. Recently China has been importing more graphite, increasing imports by 22% between July 2020 and July 2021. China has a long record of circumventing sanctions in order to trade with North Korea, so illegal graphite imports will undoubtedly continue to rise as global demand surges along with trade routes reopening following the pandemic.

Where does the money go?

The high demand for graphite naturally leads to high prices- in 2019, the global price of graphite was $690 per metric ton, and prices have only increased since then thanks to new rounds of Chinese environmental inspections, demand growth and plant closures during the pandemic.

Sadly, it is unlikely the substantial income from illegal graphite exports will be used to help feed the North Korean population, who have been hit hard by border closures and food shortages. Kim Jong Un told citizens to prepare for another ‘Arduous March’ indicating the potential for another famine similar to that of the 1990’s, which killed up to 10% of the population. Despite this clear economic hardship, recent displays of military developments such as ballistic missile tests show that the North Korean regime is still funneling money towards the development of its weapons program whilst letting the citizens of North Korea starve! If you have any information regarding North Korean sanction evasion, please get in touch.

North Korea’s continued pursuit of a ballistic nuclear weapon program, along with the UN security council-imposed sanctions it faces, regularly dominates the headlines. This often reduces the focus on the millions of citizens, living in Pyongyang and other neighboring cities, facing a huge humanitarian and health crisis.

The humanitarian and health crisis in North Korea existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world. Unfortunately, North Koreans are no stranger to famine having endured a period of mass starvation and economic crisis between 1994 & 1998 known as the ‘Arduous March’ or the ‘March of suffering’. Estimates vary hugely but between 240,000 and 3,500,000 North Koreans died of starvation and malnutrition due to a number of factors including economic mismanagement and poor decision making from the regime. More recently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic with immediate border closures, preventing the import of food and medicine which has further intensified the current crisis. An increased number of citizens begging for food, a rise in homelessness and desperate need for antibiotics and medicine puts the North Korean economy on the brink of recession according to Jiro Ishimaru from Asia Press.

Pyongyang and Beijing

Beijing has been North Korea’s closest foreign ally since the fall of the Soviet Union, with China often accused by other UN member states of stalling and persistently discrediting the accusations of the DPRK’s continued efforts to violate UN Security Council resolutions. However, the DPRK’s trade with China shrank by approximately 80% in 2020 after the nation sealed its borders.

Not only has the pandemic disrupted the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, recent reports of a high level North Korean official dying after being given a Chinese-made injection has strained the relationship further. Kim Jong Un reportedly became very angry after learning about the incident and has banned the use of all Chinese medicines at major hospitals in Pyongyang, including Chinese made COVID-19 vaccines.

This isn’t the first time that the regime has had to adopt this extreme stance, in 2005 the government demanded a directed crackdown to try and eradicate the illegal medical practices of retired DPRK doctors using medicine and equipment smuggled from China. Orders were given to each municipal and provincial procurator office to “eradicate private doctors” and to “actively control profit-making anti-socialistic activities by the doctors who must care for the people’s health”.

Healthcare in the DPRK and abroad

Pyongyang Papers have reported before on the failing healthcare system in the DPRK. Despite their claims of offering free national medical service and health insurance to all citizens, many defectors and refugees have revealed that this in fact only applies to the uppermost classes citizens who often come from a long lineage of people devoted to the socialist regime.

The majority of citizens instead must pay for medical procedures along with the equipment and medications needed alongside it. Due to the fact state-run hospitals are so expensive and unreliable, many North Korean’s instead turn to the cheaper option of doctors and surgeons who practice illegally and discreetly in their own homes.

Death by dangerous practice

Although the uppermost class may receive free healthcare, the standard of medical practice received from DPRK doctors is poor. Unfortunately, the death of a high-level North Korean mentioned above is not the first of its kind. There have been other reports of death caused by North Korean doctors practicing medicine illegally both in the DPRK and abroad.

Even though the North Korean health care system may be crumbling due to a lack or resources including medicines and basic medical equipment, this does not stop the regime from sending North Korean doctors overseas to generate much needed income to aid its ballistic nuclear weapons program. One of the countries that has North Korean doctors present is the Republic of Congo.

Information has been forwarded to Pyongyang Papers from a contact within the Republic of Congo that two DPRK doctors have been arrested and charged with illegal practice of medicine and manslaughter. The contact informed us that the Doctors were from Korea Moranbong Medical Cooperation Centre (Moranbong) and working in the Republic of Congo. A Republic of Congo based representative has so far failed to get the two doctors released.

The fate of the doctors is yet to be determined- but the future of the DPRK’s economy, humanitarian and healthcare crisis looks bleak as the regime continues to prioritize its own aims ahead of the needs of North Korean citizens wo continue to suffer.

If you have any information on illicit DPRK activity, please get in touch.

This year has seen a pandemic affect the whole world, infecting over 66 million people and resulting in excess of 1.5 million deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. There are very few countries unaffected by COVID-19. With one of these exceptions being North Korea who have recently taken offense to South Korean remarks by an official! Pyongyang Papers questions how the DPRK has managed to avoid what has been described by some as the worst pandemic the world has ever seen? Is it realistic that a country of over 25 million people sharing a border with the rumored country of origin has escaped without any cases or is this claim just propaganda? Pyongyang Papers has investigated this story!

According to the UN Panel of Experts midterm report, the DPRK responded rapidly to the COVID-19 outbreak with border closures and enforcing severe quarantine measures on thousands of its citizens. Flights to and from China and Russia were suspended in late January, except for a single flight to Vladivostok on 9 March. Passenger rail services to China and Russia were also suspended at around the same time, as was cross-border road transportation – immobilizing the DPRK’s economic lifeline.


Even if the unlikely claims that there have been zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 within North Korea are true, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the North Koreans based overseas. Pyongyang Papers has been informed that North Korean citizens working illegally overseas in Vladivostok, Russia, have contracted COVID-19 and that many more are in quarantine. Issuing work permits to nationals of the DPRK is currently prohibited due to the regimes continued pursuit of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, with Russia citing prevention of travel due to COVID-19 as their justification for non-compliance with UN sanctions.

Instead of helping their citizens and providing healthcare, North Korean officials have apparently grown angry with their citizens and issued a stern warning to keep the virus away from North Korea. It seems it is too late for those poor North Korean workers already infected, as North Korean officials are now demanding extreme measures from the infected citizens in Vladivostok. No doubt to ensure that North Korean workers illegally in Russia are not identified, in the future, as the way that COVID-19 entered the DPRK.

Vladivostok view
An image of Vladivostok

DPRK Healthcare

North Korea claims to provide universal healthcare with a national medical service and health insurance system that is all offered for free, however this claim is widely disputed by North Korean defectors. They claim that patients must pay for all health care services and that the upper classes have a higher standard of health care. “How much money a patient has determines whether they live or die”.

Neurologist Choi Jung Hun, a North Korean defector, disputes Kim Jong Un’s claims that North Korea has not had a single case of COVID-19, believing that the deadly virus entered the country prior to the closure of the 1400Km shared border with China at the end of January. When asked the motive behind the DPRK falsifying this information, Choi stated “The healthcare system is very weak. They don’t want to show that to the world”. Instead the DPRK have been quietly seeking help from China, Russia and other UN agencies. Lack of basic medical supplies, equipment, sanitation and access to water are just a few of the difficulties that the DPRK could face in this aggressive war against COVID-19.

Tripoint Memorial in Fangchaun, China
The Tripoint Memorial in Fangchaun, China

The Regime

More importantly it is not only the rest of the world that the DPRK wants to fool with their claims, it also wants to uphold the following of its own population. As Dr Choi states “If it becomes clear that the health care system cannot take care of the people then they will lose confidence in their government. It would mean the system is not infallible”.

It is well documented that the North Korean regime mistreats its workers abroad. Pyongyang Papers has previously published an article investigating the regime refusing permission for severely ill workers abroad to receive treatment. The regime views its illegal workforce abroad as a means to make money to be sent back to Pyongyang and continues to show a total disregard for human life, even during a global pandemic!

If you have any information about evasion of DPRK sanctions, please get in touch with Pyongyang Papers.