The Jongju prospect, located south of Pyongyang, reportedly contains more than 200 different minerals, including more than 200 million mt of rare-earth oxides.The Jongju prospect, located south of Pyongyang, reportedly contains more than 200 different minerals, including more than 200 million mt of rare-earth oxides.

North Korea’s revelation, two years ago, that it has a vast deposit of minerals caused a stir—and no small amount of controversy—but if true, could substantially change the secretive country’s fortunes.

In 2013, the discovery of a vast resource of the group of minerals known collectively as rare earths, south of the capital Pyongyang, was announced. The Jongju target as it is known, indicated a total mineralization potential of 6 billion metric tons (mt), with a total of 216.2 million mt of rare-earth oxides (REE). More than 200 different minerals are said to be found in the region.

This is a truly massive deposit and, if it lives up to its promise, has the ability to transform the North Korean economy and shake up one of the most important mineral sectors on the planet. REEs are vital to the modern technology industry. North Korea itself is desperate for foreign currency, but years of underdevelopment have meant that it has lagged far behind the rest of the region in economic development.

Heading the project is South African-born Dr. Louis Schurmann, fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and lead scientist on the project. An experienced geologist, Schurmann has worked deposits throughout Africa for most of his career, and has been to some wild places. None, perhaps, though as off-grid as the ultra-secretive state that is still technically at war with the USA.

Schurmann, who was based in Australia at the time, was approached by SRE Minerals, a privately held company based in the U.K., which together with its venture partner Korea Natural Resources Trading Corp. were exploring the deposit. Together, they would manage the project through an entity called Pacific Century Minerals (PCM).

“The brief was to have a look at several mineral occurrences and provide PCM with general geological and due diligence reports,” Schurmann said. But first, he had to ensure he wasn’t breaking any laws—North Korea is under international sanctions.

“Part of the due diligence was to ensure that the client had the rights to be there, and that I was not doing anything prohibited under United Nations or Australian sanctions,” he said.

According to Schurmann, it was worth the effort. The Jongju Complex consists of six elongated multiple intrusions, mainly alkali pyroxenite, orthoclase pyroxenite, alkali gabbro, pegmatite and lamprophyre. The Achaean Granite (i.e., the country rock) in close proximity to the intrusions has been fenitized to varying degrees, producing quartz syenite, alkali syenite, nepheline syenite, pyroxene nephelinite, microcline syenite and albite syenite.

He noted that the mineralized zones are characterized by a marked decrease in grain size and change in color to dark green to brown. The main constituents are recrystallized, equigranular (roughly equal in in size) feldspar, clinopyroxene, alkali-amphibole, mica, magnetite, zircon and ilmenite, but with a pervasive “overgrown” nature.

So far, the initial assessment is of a REE resource , more than double the current known global resource of 163 million mt, and six times the reserves in China, the market leader. Altogether the complete mineral resource of the deposit could be as high as 6 billion mt, according to Schurmann.

When first announced, the news was greeted with caution. The junior mining sector lives and dies by “Eureka” announcements, but given the location of the deposit, and its sheer size, together with the lack of information, this was an eye-popper.

Adding to this was ongoing tension between the north and its neighbor South Korea. The two countries remain divided since the end of a bitter civil war, and the boundary between them is one of the most heavily fortified in the world. Occasionally, shots are exchanged across the frontier and both countries remain battle-ready should things escalate.