Observers of North Korea are close to consensus on a view that the border with China is being reopened to trade, after a 15-month closure designed mainly to shield the smaller and poorer country from Covid-19 contagion.
The closure had halted trade in sanctioned items along with food and medicine and other essentials. The official emphasis in opening up will be on the latter. After all, even ruler Kim Jong Un acknowledges the country is in dire straits.
But of course the official renewal of unsanctioned activity will tempt sanctions violators, as well, to resume buying and selling as it will be easier for them to blend in along the border than it was on the long-deserted premises where even a single out-of-place East Asian stood out.
“A Chinese freight train crossed the Sino-Korean border for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, and Chinese products started to reappear in Pyongyang grocery stores,” said US-government-funded Radio Free Asia, whose North Korea reporting I have found generally stands up to close scrutiny
Among numerous signals that reopening is imminent are reports that trucks have crossed the New Yalu River Bridge from the China side, carrying materials presumed to be for construction of a customs office and warehouse on the North Korea side.
That would indicate there are plans finally to open what I and others have joked about as a bridge to nowhere, which the two countries had agreed to build in 2009 to replace an existing single-lane bridge.
The bridge itself was completed years ago, but the final connection on the North Korean side could not be made while the two were haggling over who would pay for roads and buildings needed on the Korean side.
“It is unclear whether the construction materials transported by truck to North Korea over the New Yalu River Bridge were supplied to the country as aid from China,” said the Seoul-based specialty news site DailyNK, another respected outlet when it comes to getting news out of self-isolated North Korea.
DailyNK mentioned the bridgework in an article in which it published a photo of a North Korean barge collecting river sand, presumably to be used in construction projects.
DailyNK quoted a source on the China side of the river as saying: “There have been many sightings of North Korean patrol boats since the border blockade began last January, but this was the first time in more than a year that I spotted a North Korean ship on the Yalu River in the daytime. Aside from the sand collection ship, three tugboats were working on the river for quite some time.”
As for why sand-collecting vessels were permitted to resume operations first, Daily NK speculated that it might have been because “such ships do not have to dock in China. There have not yet been any sightings of North Korean trading ships or fishing boats heading towards China during the daytime on weekdays.”
As Radio Free Asia notes, there’s a complicated relationship between North Korea’s official trade and outright smuggling. In between, there is even “official smuggling”:
Freight by rail and ship has not flowed freely from China since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020. Fearing that the virus could spread into North Korea, Beijing and Pyongyang agreed to close down the 880-mile Sino-Korean border in a move that proved disastrous to an economy already pinched by UN and US trade sanctions.
Many in North Korea who made their living trading in goods from China, including small-time merchants who smuggle goods across the border, were left with no way to support themselves. So-called “official smuggling” on a larger scale by government enterprises, which mainly served as a means to get around the sanctions, also came to an abrupt halt.
With no imports coming in, food prices skyrocketed, but sources told RFA that prices were going down again this year as the government-run agencies recently began bringing in food ingredients from China.
In that spirit, the Daily NK article noted that “the North Korean ship in Daily NK’s photo is mainly used to collect and transport sand for use in construction projects. However, smugglers also used the ship during nighttime operations before the border blockade began last January.”
The Chinese government, said DailyNK, “has stated that it will continue to tightly control unauthorized trade between individuals to prevent the spread of Covid-19 even after official trade restarts.
Ride the rails
The Voice of America (like RFA, funded by the US government while generally enforcing high journalistic standards) published before-and-after satellite photos of a train yard at the North Korean border city of Shinuiju, showing that a temporary train garage to protect idle rolling stock from winter weather had been removed on March 31.
VOA reported that the structure was installed in October 2020. It was still there in mid-March when Maxar Technologies released satellite imagery showing it in place. In Maxar’s photo, it looked from the sky like a skinny strand of aluminum foil wrapping, or like bales of insulation lined up head-to-toe for 400 meters.
VOA also reported that large quantities of goods were waiting in the Chinese border city of Dandong and other Liaoning Province locations. It reported the sighting at a station in Dandong of freight trains marked with the destination Sopo – a city outside Pyongyang.
The Seoul mainstream daily Dong-A Ilbo, in a story published today, April 26, said that trade by ship had resumed in March. “Pyongyang imported 12.97 million dollars’ worth goods including fertilizer in March, according to the Chinese General Administration of Customs,” the paper reported.
Osaka-based AsiaPress/Rimjingang, whose undercover North Korean reporters communicate with editors via smuggled Chinese cellphones, had predicted as early as March 4 that trade was about to resume, starting with items essential for farmers in the planting season.
AsiaPress cited instructions to a trading company from the North Hamgyong Province trade bureau in Chongjin. “According to the reporting partner, the instructions were as follows: ‘The priority for imports is agricultural materials. We have been told to get ready to import fertilizers, insecticides, greenhouse plastic sheeting, parts of agricultural machinery and equipment.’”
What about the virus?
AsiaPress added: “Since coronavirus prevention became a top priority, North Korea’s year-on-year trade with China fell by 80.7% in 2020 and is currently down about 90% from 2016, when economic sanctions were tightened. This is due to the major curtailment of imports of non-essential goods on the orders of Kim Jong-un as well as a sharp drop in foreign currency earnings.
“Shortages of daily necessities, medicines, and production materials have worsened, and factory equipment and spare vehicle parts are not coming in from China, leaving the economy in a state of paralysis. Some of the poor have died of disease and hunger.”
The need to grow sufficient food in the new farming season is “the main reason for the North Korean government’s urgency to resume trade,” AsiaPress reported, quoting one of its “reporting partners” as saying: “The quality of domestically produced fertilizer is poor. Farmers say that domestic fertilizers made from human feces are inferior to processed compost. People who cultivate their own fields are looking for fertilizer made in China.”
As for the coronavirus danger that led to the closure, AsiaPress added:
Only the Tumen River separates North Hamgyong Province in North Korea from Jilin Province in China. Since the beginning of this year, there have been signs of another coronavirus outbreak in China and, on January 24, the number of newly infected people in Jilin Province reached 67.
However, the number of new infections since February 7 is zero, and the situation has been successfully contained for the time being. Liaoning Province, on the other side of Sinuiju, the largest trade gateway between [North Korea] and China, has also been able to control the number of new cases.
RFA reported on April 14 that North Korea had completed a new rail route designed to isolate freight, bypassing the densely populated capital, Pyongyang, to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
There are too many clues here for us to dismiss this story as the odd rogue journalist blowing hot air. Something’s going on, and it’s important.
Reopening China trade officially after a soft start won’t be a miracle cure for all that ails North Korea’s economy. Still, it’s likely to give Kim some breathing space so he can focus on feeling out his new adversary in the White House, Joe Biden.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.