North Korea resumes rail trade with China, imports badly needed food and medicine
North Korea is once again importing large quantities of food and medicine from China as rail trade between the two countries has resumed for the first time since April, sources in both countries told RFA.
The first train departed China’s border city of Dandong on Monday morning and arrived at a quarantine facility near North Korea’s Sinuiju, an official from Sinuiju’s surrounding North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Most of the cargo unloaded from the train’s 11 freight containers was food. However, there were also medicines like fever reducers, antibiotics and glucose,” said the source.
“The Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] shortened the quarantine period for all cargo from freight trains from seven to 20 days to only three or four days,” he said. “The number of quarantine workers increased from 20 to 50 to process through quarantine work of the cargo more quickly.”
The shipments were badly needed. North Korea has been short on food and medicine since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020, when Beijing and Pyongyang shut down their border and suspended all trade.
The closure has also been ruinous for the North Korean economy, as much of it depends on trade with China.
Though rail freight resumed in November 2021, it was again suspended after only a week due to a resurgence of the virus in China. In 2022, rail freight again resumed but only for a few months.
In May North Korea declared a national “maximum emergency” because of a major outbreak that started in April. It was the first time Pyongyang acknowledged that COVID-19 was spreading within its borders since the beginning of the pandemic, officially ending its claim that the country was completely “virus-free.”
In August, Pyongyang declared “victory” over COVID-19 and lifted many of the emergency restrictions, but rail freight remained suspended.
The first shipments coming in from China will not be equitably distributed, the North Pyongan source said. The government usually gives priority to privileged residents of the capital Pyongyang, who enjoy a higher standard of living compared to their provincial counterparts.
“According to the central government’s instructions, basic foods such as sugar and cooking oil are to be first supplied to Pyongyang,” the source said. “The medicines will be first supplied to military units and residents of the border areas.”
A source in Dandong confirmed to RFA Monday that workers moved the freight train, which had been sitting in Dandong Station since mid-August, onto the main track on Sunday and began loading it with cargo.
“I was mobilized as a freight forwarder and loaded cargo on the train … from yesterday afternoon through the night. The burlap bags that I loaded were sugar and boxes full of four-kilogram [8.8-lb] tanks of cooking oil,” the second source said.
“In relatively light boxes were fever reducer pills like ampicillin and such, and then in heavy boxes were things like glucose and intravenous drugs. There were so many antibiotic injections that they filled three to four freight cars,” he said.
The second source confirmed that the food was bound for Pyongyang and the medicine for military units and hospitals in the Sino-Korean border region, where symptoms suspected to be related to COVID-19 infection are said to be spreading.
Back in business
North Korean trading companies have been preparing in anticipation trade would restart, a trade related source in the western coastal province of South Hwanghae, who declined to be named, told RFA.
“After the authorities declared victory in the war against COVID-19 on Aug. 10, the provincial trade bureaus rushed to prepare for imports and exports, hoping that trade would resume with China soon,” the source said.
The trade agencies were having a hard time staying afloat with the border closed, the third source said. Many sectors in North Korean society need to generate income or procure raw materials through trade with China to function normally.
“The provincial trade bureau of South Hwanghae is being pressed by the provincial party committee to address repairs for asphalt roads in each region in the province, “said the third source. The Provincial Fisheries Management Bureau also agreed with their Chinese business partners to export raw and dried seaweed in return for fishing materials, including nets, in return.”
“Even though all the trade negotiations are finished, the Provincial Fisheries Management Bureau is sitting on their hands and waiting because trade with China hasn’t officially resumed,” he said. “The provinces have not traded at all for three years. The province can import and export much-needed goods through trains and ships only when there is an order to resume trade with China.”
Employees of the trading companies have had to sacrifice during the border closure, according to the third source.
“The Provincial Trade Bureau used to be the envy of all the other bureaus,” he said. “It has been a long time since the trading bureau stopped distributing food to its employees, because they haven’t been trading for three years.
“Other institutions in the province are waiting for trade with China to resume to purchase necessary supplies. Members of the trade bureau, however, are more eager to see trade begin because their livelihood is more dependent on trade,” said the source.
In the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, trade with China was of paramount importance to the economy due to the geographical location, an official there told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“North Hamgyong province is the only region which borders both China and Russia. Due to these geographical conditions, North Hamgyong province was more active in trade compared to other provinces. But now everything is blocked,” the second source said.
Although shipments from China have resumed, it remains unclear when rail trade with Russia will restart.
Seoul-based NK News reported Sept. 9 that North Korea and Russia agreed to resume cross-border shipments in September. The U.S. government has said that Russia is “in the process” of buying ammunition from North Korea for use in the war in Ukraine.
Voice of America reported that the South Korean Ministry of Unification assessed that freight service between Dandong and Sinuiju restarted on Monday, with a ministry spokesperson saying it was not certain how long the rails would be open or what kinds of goods would flow into North Korea.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin confirmed during a press conference that the two countries had agreed to resume freight transport “according to border-related treaties and through friendly consultation,” but North Korean state media did not immediately confirm that rail freight had resumed.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.