Experts say North Korea earned at least $22 million last year in illegally selling, uh, sand. "This is one of the most unique cases of North Korean sanctions evasion behavior that we've seen," Lucas Kuo, an analyst with the nonprofit Center for Advanced Defense Studies, tells CNN. Kuo and his partner, Lauren Sung, first noticed more than 100 ships with Chinese flags or names in North Korea's Haeju Bay, less than 20 miles from South Korea, in May 2019. They initially suspected goods were being transferred from ship to ship to hide their origins, as the UN knew was happening, per Reuters. Satellite images, however, showed what looked like an operation to extract sand from the sea floor. Under UN sanctions, North Korea is barred not only from exporting coal, its most profitable export, but any type of earth or stone.
Even so, the country pulled in at least $22 million in 2019 using "a substantial sand-export operation," UN investigators said in an April report, drafted before Kuo and Sung published their findings in March. It noted an unnamed country had supplied intelligence claiming North Korea sold 1 million tons of sand abroad from May to December. Kuo and Sung say the barges spotted in May 2019 departed for various destinations in China—the world’s largest consumer of sand, used in the making of cement, glass, even computer processors. China has denied wrongdoing, however, saying it "has always fulfilled its international obligations" and complies with UN sanctions, per CNN. In response to the UN report, China claimed authorities had been "unable to confirm that the sand had been transported to Chinese ports." (Sand is a hot commodity.)