Some experts see the December 2013 execution of Jang Sung-taek, uncle of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader, as a move that may halt the exploitation of the nation’s rare earth elements.
Back in December, the rare earths market was abuzz with the news that Korea Natural Resources Trading and Australian private equity firm SRE Minerals had formed a joint venture company aimed at advancing the Jongju rare earth element (REE) “super deposit,” located in North Korea’s North Pyongan province.
As Rare Earth Investing News reported at the time, the company, called Pacific Century Rare Earth Minerals, has been given not only a 25-year license to mine Jongju, but also the option to renew the license for a further 25 years after that.
The news was significant not only because Jongju could be the biggest REE deposit in the world — Pacific Century’s website states that it has a mineralized potential of at least 6.06 billion tonnes and an estimated resource value of $64.9 trillion — but also because North Korea is notoriously secretive and rarely collaborates with outsiders.
Given that secrecy, it’s perhaps unsurprising that few people realized the execution of Jang Sung-taek, uncle of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jon-un, could cause problems for Pacific Century — and indeed for any REE activity in the country.
Cause of death: REEs?
One news outlet that did notice was InvestorIntel. Shortly after Jang’s death — which occurred just one week after the Pacific Century announcement — the news outlet published an article that breaks down the charges laid against him and his connection to REEs.
The article states Jang was found guilty of “debauchery in many forms” — more specifically, a 2,700-word bill of indictment describes him as letting “the decadent capitalist lifestyle find its way to [North Korean] society by distributing all sorts of pornographic pictures among his confidants since 2009. He led a dissolute, depraved life, squandering money wherever he went.”
It also calls him a “traitor to the nation for all ages,” as well as “worse than a dog” and “despicable human scum,” terms that are “often reserved in state propaganda for South Korean leaders.”
However, what’s more interesting, according to InvestorIntel, is the claim that Jang sold off “precious resources of the country at cheap prices.”
The basis of that claim, according to the publication, seems to be the fact that in the summer of 2012, Jang both provided South Korea with a sample of North Korea’s REEs and made a visit to China, “where discussions must have involved whether [Kim Jong-un] would honor his father’s REE-for-food swap.”
The end of economic reform?
While it’s clear that REEs were not the only factor behind Jang’s execution, they do seem to have been one of them. For that reason, there is some concern that his death indicates that North Korea is not ready to exploit its REEs, particularly if doing so will involve foreign investment.
On that note, a Want China Times article published earlier this year quotes Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies researcher at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, as saying that Jang’s death shows that North Korea is resistant to change and “has no interest in making the necessary reforms to sustain foreign investment in its economy.”
That’s because doing so would jeopardize “[t]he two conditions of its survival, the constant crisis and the isolation which are needed for the maintenance of the regime.”
Similarly, the Associated Press notes that “Jang had been seen as the leading supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms” and was a key link between the two countries. ”If [Kim Jong-un] has to go as high as purging and then executing Jang, it tells you that everything’s not normal in the system,” the news outlet quotes Victor Cha, a former senior White House adviser on Asia, as saying. “When you take out Jang, you’re not taking out just one person — you’re taking out scores if not hundreds of other people in the system. It’s got to have some ripple effect.”
Whether that ripple effect will impact REE extraction in North Korea remains to be seen. However, for its part, InvestorIntel sees trouble ahead for Pacific Century — its article on the topic ends with the dour statement that Pacific Century is “taking the concept of ‘political risk’ to a whole new level.”
Securities Disclosure: I, Charlotte McLeod, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.