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N Korea at crossroads

Wigs and watches keep North Korea's economy ticking under sanctions

Trade deficit with China hits record high in 2019

North Korean workers at a clothing factory in Pyongyang. Apparel exports have been hit hard by U.N. sanctions.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- North Korea is boosting exports of clocks, watches, wigs and other goods not barred by U.N. sanctions as a lifeline for its battered economy, though its trade deficit with China still came to a record $2.37 billion in 2019.

North Korean exports to China increased 10.8% to $216 million, while imports jumped 16.8% to $2.59 billion, the Seoul-based Korea International Trade Association said Thursday.

The trade deficit increased by $350 million, four times the deficit from 2016, before the U.N. imposed heavy sanctions on top North Korean exports like coal and apparel.

Clocks and watches were North Korea's biggest export to China last year at $49 million. Parts for time pieces ranked high among its imports, and the country is believed to be assembling clocks on contract from China.

Other exports included wigs, models, shoes and soccer balls. North Korea could be tapping the laborers forced to return home from China and other countries due to sanctions.

Imports included textiles and food, like soybean oil and rice, as well as construction materials. The North Korean leadership is developing tourist attractions, such as a resort in Wonsan and hot springs, in hopes of bringing hard cash into the country.

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