• North Korea's economy grew 3.9 percent in 2016, its fastest pace in 17 years, South Korea's central bank said on Friday
  • That was despite international sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear weapon program
  • North Korea is facing severe food shortages due to the worst drought since 2001, a U.N. agency said
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during a ballistic rocket test-fire through a precision control guidance system.

North Korea's economy grew at its fastest pace in 17 years in 2016, South Korea's central bank said on Friday, despite the isolated country facing international sanctions aimed at curbing its defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Gross domestic product (GDP) in North Korea last year rose 3.9 percent from the previous year when the economy contracted due to a drought and low commodity prices, the Bank of Korea said. The expansion, driven by mining and energy, marked the biggest rise since a 6.1 percent gain in 1999.

North Korea, which counts China as its biggest trading partner, also boosted exports by 4.6 percent, the most since an 11.8 percent jump in 2013.

North Korea does not publish economic data. The Bank of Korea has released GDP data on North Korea every year since 1991 based on information from government agencies including South Korea's Ministry of Unification and the National Intelligence Service.

North Korea has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missile and nuclear programmes and the Security Council has ratcheted up the measures in response to five nuclear tests and two long-range missile launches.

In February, China also banned all imports of coal from its reclusive neighbor, cutting off its most important export.

A Bank of Korea official declined to comment on how the Chinese coal ban and tightened international sanctions since last year would affect North Korea's economy in 2017. The United Nations' food agency said on Thursday North Korea is facing severe food shortages due to the worst drought since 2001.

Fraction of South Korean economy

North Korea's 2016 GDP in real terms stood at 32.0 trillion won ($28.50 billion), according to the Bank of Korea data - a fraction of South Korea's 1,508.3 trillion won ($1.34 trillion) in 2016 GDP.

Mining and manufacturing make up the biggest portion of North Korea's industry, accounting last year for 33.2 percent of the sector.

Overall exports from North Korea, excluding trade with South Korea, rose 4.6 percent last year to $2.82 billion thanks to shipments of fishery products, which soared 74.0 percent, the South's central bank said.

North Korea imports rose 4.8 percent to $3.73 billion, led by plant products and textiles.

Although trade between the two Koreas plunged 87.7 percent last year due to a shutdown of a joint industrial zone the North shared with the South just north of the border, the North's headline trade numbers were barely affected, the data showed.

The Kaesong Industrial Zone was shut down early last year after the North tested a long-range rocket in February defying U.N. sanctions.