Korea Resources, South Korea’s state fund for developing natural resource projects, has appointed Australian investment bank Macquarie to sell its 10% stake and offtake in Cobre Panama, which is 75% owned by Canada’s First Quantum.

One source close to the company said that Zijin was not interested in taking a formal shareholding stake in the mine. But four other sources told Fastmarkets that Zijin was a key interested party in Korea Resources’ rights to a 10% offtake of copper concentrates, which would not necessarily be linked.

With a combined stake and offtake valuation of over a billion dollars, interest in the stake has been limited to Chinese funds and private equity rather than metal industry participants. These funds intend to option the offtake copper concentrates out to Zijin, the sources said.

The Cobre Panama offtake rights would be the latest in a series of overseas copper coups for Zijin, which has in the past year bought up the Bor smelter in Serbia, as well as the Timok and Bisha mines through its $1.4 billion acquisition of Canada-based Nevsun Resources.

It also comes amid an unprecedented expansion of Chinese copper smelting capacity and a need for the market there to find stable copper concentrate supply rather than purchasing at rapidly more expensive spot terms for the product.

Jinrui Futures, the brokerage arm of China’s top smelting company Jiangxi Copper, estimates that 600,000 tonnes of copper smelting capacity will come online this year in the country. This would create 2.3 million tonnes of additional copper concentrate demand at an average grade of 26%.

Fastmarkets’ copper concentrate Asia-Pacific treatment charges (TCs) index is down by 37.8% since the end of last year at $52.40 per tonne / 5.24 cents per lb on Friday June 28.

“It’s indicative of developments we may see in other operations,” a mining source who declined to be named told Fastmarkets.

“Chinese companies are still on the prowl for decent assets - there’s more activity to happen in the copper industry,” he said.

Zijin, Korea Resources and Macquarie declined to comment when contacted by Fastmarkets.

Cobre Panama began shipping commercially last week with the initial production heading to China, via spot sales. The mine will target 150,000 tonnes of copper metal in concentrate production this year rising to 350,000 tonnes per year in 2021.

Controversy in Korea

Initial bids on Korea Resources’ Cobre Panama stake have not been up to the level that the agency is looking for. Ideally, Korea Resources are looking for a South Korean outfit to take control of a project that has seen $660 million of public funds sunk into its development.

“[Korea Resources] is an arm of the government, it’s one of their missions to sell the offtake into Korea,” a second source said.

But domestic metals businesses, such as South Korea’s major copper smelter LS Nikko and chaebol-related traders Posco Daewoo, Samsung C&T and Hyundai Corporation have demurred on the tender.

Korea Resources have accordingly delayed the submission of binding offers for the stake and offtake until August 8, according to a notice on its website.

“[Korea Resources] doesn’t want to sell to the funds or capital that they see have no fundamental understanding of the company,” a third source with knowledge of the dealings said.

The new timeline gives Korea Resources more breathing room to hash out a deal with a potential buyer, but further on from that the time limit is soon after - Cobre Panama is expected to begin delivering contracted copper concentrates to offtake partners around September.

“They don’t have any experience in finding buyers for cargoes, but from the end of the third quarter they’ll have to,” the second source said.

Additional reporting by Anna Xu in Shanghai