Is China looking to enhance its grip on rare earths through North Korea?

China could gain access to a rare earth mine in North Korea in exchange for investment in solar energy, a Chinese industry association website said. The deal could ease North Korea’s chronic power shortages.

According to the Association of China Rare Earth Industry, building a solar power plant capable of producing 2.5 million kilowatts of electricity each day in inland areas like North Pyongan would cost around $2.5 billion. China’s reward for investing would be mining rights to a rare earth mine on the province’s borders.

A source close to the Chinese rare earth industry told Reuters that this type of agreement is “wishful thinking” on behalf of North Korea. The source was skeptical about the real level of Chinese interest in the project.

“Investing in North Korea is not safe. Its international reputation is poor and many companies will not necessarily be interested,” the source said.

UN Security Council resolution 2270, adopted shortly after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in 2016, bans the country’s exports of gold, titanium ore, vanadium ore, and rare earth minerals.

Rare earths or rare metals are a group of 17 chemical elements with special characteristics. They are actually not rare, despite their name, but they are difficult to find in desirable concentrations and are hard to process, as the ores often contain naturally occurring radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium.

Metals and alloys that contain them are used in many devices that people use every day, such as computers, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, magnets, and fluorescent lighting.

The escalating US-China trade conflict has raised concerns about the measures each side could end up taking, including Beijing’s option to restrict the export of rare earth metals. This is considered one of Beijing’s nuclear options in its battle with Washington, as China is the world’s top producer of rare earth metals and holds the largest reserves.