North Korea’s Controversial Rare-earth Resources Could Transform Economy
In 2013, the discovery of a vast resource of the group of minerals known collectively as rare earths, south of the capital Pyongyang, was announced. The Jongju target as it is known, indicated a total mineralization potential of 6 billion metric tons (mt), with a total of 216.2 million mt of rareearth oxides (REE). More than 200 different minerals are said to be found in the region.
This is a truly massive deposit and, if it lives up to its promise, has the ability to transform the North Korean economy and shake up one of the most important mineral sectors on the planet. REEs are vital to the modern technology industry. North Korea itself is desperate for foreign currency, but years of underdevelopment have meant that it has lagged far behind the rest of the region in economic development.
Heading the project is South African born Dr. Louis Schurmann, fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and lead scientist on the project. An experienced geologist, Schurmann has worked deposits throughout Africa for most of his career, and has been to some wild places. None, perhaps, though as offgrid as the ultra-secretive state that is still technically at war with the USA.
Schurmann, who was based in Australia at the time, was approached by SRE Minerals, a privately held company based in the U.K., which together with its venture partner Korea Natural Resources Trading Corp. were exploring the deposit. Together, they would manage the project through an entity called Pacific Century Minerals (PCM).
“The brief was to have a look at several mineral occurrences and provide PCM with general geological and due diligence reports,” Schurmann said. But first, he had to ensure he wasn't breaking any laws— North Korea is under international sanctions.
“Part of the due diligence was to ensure that the client had the rights to be there, and that I was not doing anything prohibited under United Nations or Australian sanctions,” he said.
According to Schurmann, it was worth the effort. The Jongju Complex consists of six elongated multiple intrusions, mainly alkali pyroxenite, orthoclase pyroxenite, alkali gabbro, pegmatite and lamprophyre. The Achaean Granite (i.e., the country rock) in close proximity to the intrusions has been fenitized to varying degrees, producing quartz syenite, alkali syenite, nepheline syenite, pyroxene nephelinite, microcline syenite and albite syenite.
He noted that the mineralized zones are characterized by a marked decrease in grain size and change in color to dark green to brown. The main constituents are recrystallized, equigranular (roughly equal in in size) feldspar, clinopyroxene, alkali-amphibole, mica, magnetite, zircon and ilmenite, but with a pervasive “overgrown” nature.
So far, the initial assessment is of a REE resource , more than double the current known global resource of 163 million mt, and six times the reserves in China, the market leader. Altogether the complete mineral resource of the deposit could be as high as 6 billion mt, according to Schurmann.
When first announced, the news was greeted with caution. The junior mining sector lives and dies by “Eureka” announcements, but given the location of the deposit, and its sheer size, together with the lack of information, this was an eye-popper.
Adding to this was ongoing tension between the north and its neighbor South Korea. The two countries remain divided since the end of a bitter civil war, and the boundary between them is one of the most heavily fortified in the world. Occasionally, shots are exchanged across the frontier and both countries remain battle-ready should things escalate.
Intense Scrutiny and Hostility At the same time, North Korea is shunned by much of the global community. Its human rights record is the subject of constant scrutiny. Not surprising then, that the announcement of the Jongju discovery has brought intense scrutiny, and with it suspicion and even outright hostility by some North Korea watchers.
“The numbers are not backed up with any solid data; it is nothing but a list of what they have under the ground,” Choi Kyung-soo, a senior researcher at the North Korea Resource Institute, was quoted by NK News, a South Korea-based monitoring organization, as saying.
Kyung-soo went on to deliver a personal attack on Schurmann: “He has absolutely no credibility. Whatever he says, I take it as [a] hoax.” However, Kyung-soo, who has written extensively on North Korean mineral issues, did not provide any data backing up his claim. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Schurmann has shrugged this off as an inevitable consequence of the robust debate related to anything to do with the north. For geologists, exploring in countries where matters of state are murky comes with the territory. “With more than 25 years of experience in Africa, I have always been searching for economic potential in places where others would not go,” he said. Ultimately, it’s the rocks that will tell the final story, not the politics.
“I personally have always seen deposits as economic dynamos—especially in Africa and most recently in Asia—which could support basic development and growth. Development and growth in most “stressed” nations and regions can be catalysts to induce change.”
Mineral wealth and mining could provide just the shakeup the country needs, much as it has with other resource-rich developing countries. Already there are indications that this is happening. Technology-oriented industries in countries such as Russia, Japan and Europe have been pushing for a thawing of relations. India has also been working at improving ties with North Korea, and the two countries have hosted ministerial visits from each other with increasing frequency over the past few years.
“The success of the SRE Minerals deal could serve as the catalyst that opens the door to further investment,” said Global Risks Insights, an influential U.S. thinktank in a recent report. “Given the stakes at risk, the next two decades could contain the potential to make or break North Korea’s long-term prospects.”
The country has a long way to go, however. Lack of electricity and a scarcity of modern plants and machinery are only the beginnings of the impediments to developing a mature mining industry. Land and property rights are also murky.
Schurmann, however, believes that, in time, these will be overcome. SRE’s agreement with the state is solid, he said, and the possibility of jobs and investment is a big incentive to stick to it.
In the meantime, drilling continues and Shurmann receives samples regularly. “We are finding that the work was well done and that their data is accurate,” he added. “This will shorten our exploration schedule to some degree. The aim however is not just to check the historical information but to add new information up to a stage where any announcement by SRE to develop the project will make sense.”