US-North Korean Trade: Soooo little

May 12, 2011 7:15 AM

We have been engaged in a productive debate with the invisible college on sanctions, and we realized that it might be useful to take a quick look at what we actually trade with North Korea. The answer, not surprisingly, is “very little.” But we were surprised at exactly how little.

The US Census Bureau runs a user-friendly trade database; trade data for North Korea is posted for 1992-2010. On the import side, imports are zero--literally--for 2005-10. We imported $1.5 million in 1994, and then again, its a string of zeroes going back to 1992 except for $100K in 2002.

Well, maybe not zero exactly; there are bits of this-and-that in the rounding error with some weird surprises (our favorite: $6402 of semiconductors in 2002). But this is slightly consequential for the sanctions question since it means at least some licenses are being issued, but the quantities are simply too small to register.

Exports are not always trivial. In 2008, they totaled over $50 million. This database reports commodity composition only for 2002-2010, so we checked and exports for that period are dominated by agricultural products, with a few other odds and ends like pharmaceuticals thrown in.

These numbers clearly do not include aid; we filled that in from a useful 2008 Congressional Research Service report by Dick Nanto and Emma Chanlett-Avery.

US Trade with North Korea($ millions)
Exports(top three items, 2002-2010) Imports(top three items, 2002-2010) US Aid(from CRS), 1995-2008
1992 0.1 0
1993 2.0 0
1994 0.2 0
1995 11.6 0 9.7
1996 0.5 0 30.3
1997 2.5 0 82.4
1998 4.4 0 122.9
1999 11.3 0 287.2
2000 2.7 0.1 138.7
2001 0.5 0 177.7
2002 25.1Wheat; other agricultural non-manufactured; rice 0.1Apparel; books, magazines and other printed material; semiconductors 172.9
2003 8.0Dairy; other agricultural non-manufactured; pharmaceuticals 0 27.8
2004 23.8Corn; wheat; other agriculture non-manufactured 1.5Medicine and pharmaceuticals; apparel 52.9
2005 5.8Wheat, soybeans, vegetables 0Photo machinery and trade tools 7.5
2006 n.a. n.a. 0
2007 1.7Wheat only 0 45.0
2008 52.2Corn, wheat, soybeans 0 106.0
2009 0.9Wheat; miscellaneous; pharmaceuticals 0 15.0 (requested)
2010 1.9Wheat; nursery stock;pharmaceuticals 0Artwork n.a.



Thanks for this interesting data! It shows that North Korea is importing from the US, but we are not allowing any imports from North Korea. This proves that the US is using its sanctions policy to isolate North Korea, not because NK wants to isolate itself.
A sad commentary on the current US policy toward NK! If we want NK to reform its economic system,
then we should encourage further trade with NK by lifting our ban on imports from NK.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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