If North Korea has anything in abundance, it's people. And how can this commodity be monetized? By sending them overseas to work and send their earnings back to North Korea, holding their families hostage to ensure compliance.
Over 50,000 North Korean laborers toil overseas for the regime, sending back remittances totaling nearly $2 billion a year.
The laborers work in terrible conditions for long hours and are lucky to see even 10 percent of their paycheck.
North Korean laborers can be found in more than 40 different countries in the Middle East, Africa, and even Europe—but mostly in China and Russia, with 20,000 and 19,000 workers, respectively.
Most are employed in industries requiring hard physical labor, like construction. And with the United Nations cracking down on other North Korean cash flows, the country has been increasing the number of laborers sent overseas to make up for the shortfall in cash it earns from other activities.
North Korea has been involved in the drug trade since the 1970s, when it defaulted on its international debts and ordered its embassies to self-fund.
One of the ways the embassies initially accomplished this was to traffic drugs using diplomatic immunity.
Later, North Korea started manufacturing illicit drugs of its own—primarily methamphetamine—and exporting some of them through its embassies.
North Korean methamphetamine gained notoriety primarily for its high purity (99 percent), which is not surprising considering the drugs were manufactured in state-owned factories under the supervision of professional chemists.
However, since the mid-2000s, illicit drug activity appears to have been "privatized,"with the state apparently taking a smaller role in manufacturing, transportation, and distribution of methamphetamine.
The purity has decreased dramatically, indicating that production may no longer be taking place in state-owned factories. However, methamphetamine is still plentiful in North Korea itself, where it is reported that meth is offered "as casually as tea."
In a country where food is scarce and famine stalks the land, the appetite-suppressing properties of methamphetamines are very useful.
Probably the most audacious North Korean export has been an attempt to build a fully functioning nuclear reactor for Syria at Al-Kibar, which Israel bombed in 2007. North Korea patterned the reactor on its own gas-graphite one.
As this type of reactor is not very complex, North Korea could have and probably did supply most of the parts itself.
The North Koreans apparently modeled the building almost exactly on the Yongbyon reactor, later constructing outer walls to hide the shape of the facility, turning it into a featureless box.
If the reactor had not been bombed, it could have produced enough plutonium for one or two weapons per year once it was operational.
Just three days before the reactor was bombed, a North Korean ship was caught delivering nuclear fuel rods, most likely destined for the reactor. And the whole thing ended up netting up to $2 billion for North Korea, with the money coming from Iran.