Aug. 26 (UPI) -- North Korean demand for sugar is at an all-time high, according to Chinese trade data.
Overall trade between North Korea and China, Pyongyang's biggest trading partner, dropped in July by 24% from the previous month, Chinese customs data show, South Korean news service CBS No Cut News reported Wednesday.
The only import item that registered an increase was "granulated sugar," according to the report. Last month, North Korea imported 17,916 tons of white sugar, worth $7.54 million, an increase of 27% from June.
The Chinese data on July bilateral trade activity released Tuesday also shows two-way trade stood at about $73.84 million. In June, that number was estimated to be about $96.8 million. The decline in trade could be a sign North Korea may have resumed restricting border activity amid COVID-19.
North Korea's demand for sugar has been rising steadily. Ten years ago, the regime imported only about $1 million worth of sugar from China annually, Voice of America's Korean service reported.
In 2018 and 2019, the country began to import about $40 million worth of sugar annually, a near 40-fold increase, the report says.
Analysts who spoke to VOA said sugar is considered an essential good in North Korea, where food remains scarce for the majority of the population. There is evidence there were episodes of panic buying of sugar in the country at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when North Korea quickly closed its borders, analysts say.
The demand for sugar may have been the driver behind a North Korean decision to agree to a barter deal with the South in June.
The deal was made public earlier this month, and would have involved the South's Inter-Korean Agricultural Cooperative Federation supplying the North with sugar in exchange for alcoholic beverages.
The North Korean trading firm that signed the deal was found earlier this week to be under U.S. and international sanctions.