At the same time, North Korea is shunned by much of the global community. Its human rights record is the subject of constant scrutiny. Not surprising then, that the announcement of the Jongju discovery has brought intense scrutiny, and with it suspicion and even outright hostility by some North Korea watchers.

“The numbers are not backed up with any solid data; it is nothing but a list of what they have under the ground,” Choi Kyung-soo, a senior researcher at the North Korea Resource Institute, was quoted by NK News, a South Korea-based monitoring organization, as saying.

Kyung-soo went on to deliver a personal attack on Schurmann: “He has absolutely no credibility. Whatever he says, I take it as [a] hoax.” However, Kyung-soo, who has written extensively on North Korean mineral issues, did not provide any data backing up his claim. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Schurmann has shrugged this off as an inevitable consequence of the robust debate related to anything to do with the north. For geologists, exploring in countries where matters of state are murky comes with the territory. “With more than 25 years of experience in Africa, I have always been searching for economic potential in places where others would not go,” he said. Ultimately, it’s the rocks that will tell the final story, not the politics.

“I personally have always seen deposits as economic dynamos—especially in Africa and most recently in Asia—which could support basic development and growth. Development and growth in most “stressed” nations and regions can be catalysts to induce change.”

Mineral wealth and mining could provide just the shakeup the country needs, much as it has with other resource-rich developing countries. Already there are indications that this is happening. Technology-oriented industries in countries such as Russia, Japan and Europe have been pushing for a thawing of relations. India has also been working at improving ties with North Korea, and the two countries have hosted ministerial visits from each other with increasing frequency over the past few years.

“The success of the SRE Minerals deal could serve as the catalyst that opens the door to further investment,” said Global Risks Insights, an influential U.S. think-tank in a recent report. “Given the stakes at risk, the next two decades could contain the potential to make or break North Korea’s long-term prospects.”

The country has a long way to go, however. Lack of electricity and a scarcity of modern plants and machinery are only the beginnings of the impediments to developing a mature mining industry. Land and property rights are also murky.

Schurmann, however, believes that, in time, these will be overcome. SRE’s agreement with the state is solid, he said, and the possibility of jobs and investment is a big incentive to stick to it.

In the meantime, drilling continues and Shurmann receives samples regularly.

“We are finding that the work was well done and that their data is accurate,” he added. “This will shorten our exploration schedule to some degree. The aim however is not just to check the historical information but to add new information up to a stage where any announcement by SRE to develop the project will make sense.”

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