Trade Between North Korea and China Seen Likely to Resume in April

Railroad workers are conducting safety inspections on a cross-border bridge and officials suggest an early April opening.
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Trade Between North Korea and China Seen Likely to Resume in April Chinese visitors look on from the Broken Bridge as a train travels on the Friendship Bridge across the Yalu river from North Korea to China, in Dandong, Liaoning province, China June 10, 2018. Picture taken June 10, 2018.

After more than a year without trade between North Korea and China, who closed the Sino-Korean border to fight the coronavirus pandemic, there are signs that trade could resume in April, sources in China told RFA.

In January 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Pyongyang and Beijing closed their 880-mile border on the Yalu and Tumen Rivers and suspended all trade. The move devastated the North Korean economy, especially in border regions, where a large percentage of local commerce depends on the purchase and sale of goods imported from China.

Additionally, smugglers from North Korea who make their living by shuttling goods to and from China suddenly found themselves struggling to make ends meet. Commerce in entire towns dried up and industries that rely on Chinese raw materials could not continue to operate.

But this week, Chinese safety inspectors have been spotted on a major bridge connecting the Chinese city of Dandong with North Korea’s northwestern city of Sinuiju.

“Yesterday an acquaintance who works at Dandong Station informed me they are inspecting and repairing railroad tracks so international trains between China and North Korea can begin running from early April,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.

“They also set up new quarantine facilities in the Dandong and Sinuiju customs offices, which have been closed for more than a year because of the coronavirus, and they are waiting for trade to resume,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Inspections and repairs are necessary because trains between the two border cities have not traversed the 74-year-old Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge in so long, the source said. The area near the bridge is a popular tourist spot where visitors to Dandong can catch a glimpse of the reclusive Stalinist state across the river.

“We know that only freight cars will be allowed to cross the border, not passenger cars. I heard that North Korea is opening its borders to import food, building materials and agricultural goods, which they need immediately for their economic development plans,” the source said.

“The inspectors from Dandong Station have been working on the tracks from morning to evening. They wear fluorescent safety clothes and helmets, so they are clearly visible to tourists around the bridge,” said the source.

The source said that trains from China would only be allowed to travel as far as Sinuiju, unlike before the pandemic, when they passed through the border city on their way to Pyongyang, about 140 miles overland.

“Perhaps it is because North Korea’s emergency quarantine measures have not yet been lifted, and this is freight-only, not a passenger train,” the source said.

The emergency quarantine measures limit movement between provinces and absolutely prohibit any contact with Chinese.

Another source, also from Dandong, confirmed to RFA that rail traffic would resume between the two cities in April.

“Even if they reopen the border, the movement of people is prohibited and only freight will be allowed,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Today I saw a number of inspectors at the bridge across the Yalu River. The coronavirus is a huge concern in North Korea, so the economic situation must be pretty serious if they are going to reopen the borders,” said the second source.

News that trade between China and North Korea will resume has spread all over Dandong, and trade officials from North Korea and their Chinese counterparts have been feverishly working to get their deals in place ahead of the reopening, according to the second source.

“Trade with North Korea has been suspended for more than a year, so traders in Dandong, who are on the verge of bankruptcy, are in a much better mood than before,” the second source said.

The second source acknowledged that rumors of a resumption of trade had made the rounds in Dandong many times over the past year, but never came to fruition.

“This time it’s different. Given the movement of all the North Korean trade workers in and around Dandong, and the inspections on the Yalu River bridge, the possibility that Sino-Korean trade will resume in April is really raising the expectations of all the traders from both countries,” said the source.

In 2019, the last full year before North Korea and China stopped trading, total trade volume between the two countries amounted to slightly more than U.S. $3 billion, according to data from the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA).

China was the origin country for 96 percent of North Korea’s imports in 2019 and was the destination country for 67 percent of North Korean exports, according to data published on the website of the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC).

According to a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights, the border closure caused many North Koreans to starve to death, with children and elderly resorting to begging in the streets or risking execution by breaking laws to obtain food from China.

“Prolonged COVID-19 prevention measures have resulted in a drastic decline in trade and commercial activities and severe economic hardship to the general population, causing increased food insecurity,” said the report.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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