During the late 1970s, the DPRK enjoyed consistent trade surpluses, due in part to increasing shipments of agricultural products, gold and silver, and armaments in exchange for hard currencies. Despite the improving trade picture, the DPRK had still not emerged from the shadow of foreign debt left over from the mid-1970s. Declining prices for precious metals in the early 1980s made it difficult for the nation to meet its debt obligations, even after repeated rescheduling. In 1987, a new rescheduling agreement was reached after Western banks threatened to freeze the DPRK's bank assets if it failed to service bank loans. External debt was estimated at $12 billion in 1996. In the early 2000s, the government was focusing on attracting foreign aid and earning hard currency without introducing market reforms. Desperately needed food and fuel aid from donor countries declined in 2002/03, due in part to the government's threats of nuclear weapons capabilities.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that in 2001 the purchasing power parity of North Korea's exports was $826 million while imports totaled $1.874 billion resulting in a trade deficit of $1.048 billion.