Asia Pacific

N.Korea's economy shrank most in 23 years amid COVID-19, sanctions - S.Korea

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A vendor is pictured in a shop in a newly constructed residential complex after its opening ceremony in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

SEOUL, July 30 (Reuters) - North Korea's economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020 as it was battered by continued U.N. sanctions, COVID-19 lockdown measures and bad weather, South Korea's central bank said on Friday.

Gross domestic product (GDP) in the isolated economy contracted 4.5% last year in real terms, the Bank of Korea (BOK) said on Friday, the worst since 1997 and reversing a 0.4% growth in 2019, the first expansion in three years.

"Along with the continued intense U.N. sanctions, North Korea's lockdown measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic ... and worsened weather conditions such as heavy rains and typhoons were the main drivers to the contraction," a BOK official told reporters.

"North Korea's COVID-19 measures included border blockades, 30-day quarantine for those who showed (COVID-19) symptoms, a ban on domestic travels and restriction on entry to Pyongyang," the official said, adding that these moves greatly impacted the manufacturing industry and the services sector.

Estimates for North Korean economic data by the BOK are considered the most reliable as the isolated nation does not disclose any statistics on its economy.

While North Korea has not officially confirmed any virus cases, its leader Kim Jong Un late last month said the failure to implement measures to tackle the coronavirus had caused a "great crisis". read more

In June, Kim said the country was struggling with a "tense" food situation, citing the pandemic and last year's typhoons.

A South Korean government source with close knowledge of the matter told Reuters this week that North Korea faces its worst economic crisis since a 1990s famine killed as many as 3 million. read more

But the source said few deaths have been reported from hunger in the latest crisis, thanks to Chinese aid and the release of military and emergency reserves.

North Korea closed borders and halted trade with China, its biggest economic lifeline, after the pandemic erupted.

The source said the two countries are expected to resume trade as early as August via cargo train services after scrapping plans to do so in April due chiefly to concerns over more contagious variants of the coronavirus.

The breakdown of Friday's data showed that industrial output, which accounts for 28% of the North Korean economy, decreased 5.9%, while output from agriculture, forestry and fisheries fell 7.6%.

The services sector, which accounts for a third of the economy, also shrank 4.0%.

The BOK has been publishing its estimates since 1991, based on information from various sources including the South's intelligence and foreign trading agencies and unification ministry data.

Meanwhile, North Korea's international trade volume plunged 73.4% to $0.86 billion last year, as exports of the non-sanctioned items such as watches and wigs were estimated to have decreased 86.3% and 92.7%, respectively, on COVID-19 lockdown measures.

"Trade volume which took up about 21.9% of the GDP in 2016 ... was sharply reduced to 2.9% in 2020 after the COVID-19 lockdown impact added to the economic sanctions," the BOK official said.

Reporting by Joori Roh; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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