North Korea's international trade is characterized by its ongoing deficit, which varied from US$570 million in 1995, US$320 million in 1998, and US$440 million in 1999. This chronic disparity between import expenditure and export income reflects the low level of the country's exportable products as well as its international isolation, which limits the number of its trade partners. The loss of large-scale trade with Russia in 1991 was a blow that worsened the trade deficit. Soviet-North Korean trade dropped from US$2.7 billion in 1990 to US$100 million in 1999. The loss increased North Korea's growing foreign debt.
North Korea exports minerals, metallurgical products, manufactures, armaments, timbers, and fish products, and imports energy products, grain, machinery, equipment, and consumer goods. Its 2 largest trading partners are China and Japan, with South Korea, Germany, and Russia making up its other markets. In 1995, Japan purchased 28 percent of North Korea's exports, followed by South Korea (21 percent), China (5 percent), Germany (4 percent), and Russia (1 percent.) The largest suppliers of imports to North Korea were China (33 percent), Japan (17 percent), Russia (5 percent), South Korea (4 percent), and Germany (3 percent).
Better relations between North and South Korea might well turn the South into the North's largest trading partner. Inter-Korean trade increased by 24 percent during the first 5 months of 2000, with more than a third of this sum contributed in aid from South Korea.