Magnesite is one of the most important sources of magnesium.
The mineral (chemical formula MgCO3) occurs as veins in and an alteration product of ultramafic rocks, serpentinite and other magnesium rich rock types. Wikipedia defines ultramafics as “igneous and meta-igneous rocks with a very low silica content (less than 45%), generally >18% MgO, high FeO, low potassium, and are composed of usually greater than 90% mafic minerals (dark colored, high magnesium and iron content).” The Earth's mantle is composed of ultramafic rocks.
Among its many applications, large quantities of magnesite are burnt to make magnesium oxide, an important refractory material used as a lining in blast furnaces, kilns and incinerators.
And magnesite is but one of about 200 kinds of minerals--also including
iron, gold, zinc, copper, limestone, molybdenum, and graphite--in vast reserves that sit below the mostly mountainous surface of North Korea, a trove that could be worth trillions of dollars. Large amounts of rare earth metals are also part of the country’s underground potential, the kind of materials needed to make a range of products, from smartphones to precision guided missiles. (North Korea’s total magnesite reserves were reported at six billion tons in 2009, the second highest magnesite reserves in the world.)
But secrecy, lack of equipment and expertise, international political and economic sanctions, and a neglected infrastructure have combined to make taking advantage of that potential “goldmine” an unrealized enterprise. (As of 2012, North Korea had nearly 700 mines across the country but many are in a state of neglect.)
"North Korean mining production has decreased significantly since the early 1990s,” says Lloyd R. Vasey, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is likely that the average operational rate of existing mine facilities is below 30 per cent of capacity," he adds. "There is a shortage of mining equipment and North Korea is unable to purchase new equipment due to its dire economic situation, the energy shortage and the age and generally poor condition of the power grid."
Despite these glaring shortcomings, and the fact that private mining is also considered illegal in the communist country, mining still composes 14% of North Korea's economy with China as their main customer, even in the face of UN sanctions.
South Korea’s state-run Korea Development Institute has said that the mineral trade between North Korea and China remains a “cash cow” for, and that it accounted for 54% of the North’s total trade volume to China in the first half of 2016.
North Korea’s neighbors have long eyed its mineral wealth. About five years ago China spent some $10 billion on an infrastructure project near the North’s border, primarily to give it easier access to that wealth. But earlier this year Pyongyang suspended metals exports to China in retaliation for UN-issued coal trade restrictions, signed on to by Beijing.
Ironically, South Korea has its own plans for the mineral resources, which it sees as a way to help pay for reunification, should it ever come to pass. Overhauling the North’s decrepit infrastructure, including the aging railway line, will be part of the enormous bill.
In May, South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport invited companies to submit bids on possible infrastructure projects in North Korea, especially ones tied to the mining sector.
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