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China refuses North Korean proposal to restart trade, fearing reintroduction of coronavirus

China Trucks (Anna Frodesiak/WikiCommons)
April 15, 2020

China has rejected a proposal by North Korea to reopen bilateral trade in mid-April, instead offering to open up the border a month later due to concerns over the coronavirus, leaving cash-strapped Pyongyang in the lurch for yet another month while smuggling is on the rise, sources in North Korea told RFA.

North Korea suspended trade in late January, fearing that the coronavirus could make its way across the porous Sino-Korean border, but now it is Beijing that fears a resumption of trade could result in the virus’ reintroduction into China.

Since the outbreak of the virus, North Korean authorities have been enacting extensive measures to prevent it from spreading, including the cancellation of major cultural events and the quarantine of entire counties near the border.

The isolated state still says it has zero confirmed cases of the virus, but experts doubt the claim, while sources on the ground say COVID-19 has been spreading rapidly, especially in the rural provinces.

But trade with China is North Korea’s chief source of foreign cash, so its resumption is crucial not only to the government, but also to the people, many of whom have been struggling to make ends meet since the preventative measures kicked in, because they are directly or tangentially involved in the transport or sale of goods from China.

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Those people will have to figure out how to survive at least another month, as the border will be closed through mid-May.

“We know that North Korea proposed to China to resume bilateral trade after the Day of the Sun, but China refused,” a trader in North Pyongan who requested anonymity told RFA’s Korean Service on Sunday.

The Day of the Sun is a national holiday falling on April 15, the birthday of Kim Il Sung who founded the country and as grandfather of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was the first ruler in the three-generation Kim Dynasty.

“The official reopening of the Dandong and Sinuiju customs office has been postponed until mid-May,” said the source.

The Chinese border city of Dandong lies on the Yalu river just across from Sinuiju on the North Korean side in North Pyongan. Customs offices in both cities were shut down in January when the border was closed.

“As the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan in the northern Chinese province of Hubei and spread across China, the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] sealed off the border and took measures to prevent the epidemic from entering North Korea,” the source said.

“But as the restrictions on the movement [of people] in Wuhan and other parts of China were lifted on the 8th [of April, North Korean] authorities decided they would resume trade with China after the Day of the Sun.”

China on April 8 lifted a travel-ban on people in Wuhan that had been in place for 76 days. During that time, China has seemingly flattened the curve, with total confirmed cases still in the 80,000 range. China no longer leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases, having dropped to seventh as the coronavirus has rapidly spread through Europe and the United States.

“So now China is reluctant to resume trade between the two countries, fearing that if they open up with North Korea, the coronavirus could flow back into China,” the source said.

“There is a growing number of infected patients in North Korea due to a lack of quarantine facilities and medicine to cope with the epidemic, and China is well aware of it,” added the source.

RFA could not independently confirm the source’s account that positive COVID-19 cases exist in North Korea.

Though trade has been cut off, China has been cooperating with North Korea on the humanitarian front, regularly shipping in medical supplies, according to the source.

“Even now, Chinese trucks carry emergency supplies as requested by the authorities. They come through the Sinuiju customs office,” the source said.

Another trader who requested anonymity, from Hyesan, Ryanggang province, told RFA the same day that the customs office there will also remain closed until mid-May.

“It was supposed to be fully open to accept cargo after the Day of the Sun,” said the second source.

“But it is likely that fertilizer and other agricultural supplies that have already had their import contracts approved will be brought in as emergency shipments after the Day of the Sun,” the second source said.

The second source said that North Korean authorities are less concerned about the virus coming into North Korea from across the river, so legitimate trade will have to wait until the border reopens.

“China’s coronavirus crisis has almost calmed down, so authorities are taking quick steps to restart trade, but China has refused to accept our proposal, because they don’t want the virus to come back in from [here],” said the second source.

Smuggling resurgence

“But smuggling across the river has begun in the parts of Ryanggang province on the border, led by the state trade agency,” said the second source.

While smuggling is technically illegal it is tolerated as a necessary component of the North Korean economy. Those who engage in it can utilize their personal connections or wealth to have border guards look the other way. Many smugglers themselves have government positions, leveraging their power for personal gain.

UN sanctions intended to deprive Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be used in its nuclear program mandate that some items are restricted from entering North Korea, but most consumer goods and foodstuffs are permitted under the sanctions regime.

It was not immediately clear if the state agencies were smuggling sanctions-restricted items into North Korea, but the shutdown of trade with China has resulted in skyrocketing food prices and scarcity.

“Residents of the border area, who can see the state agencies smuggling are critical of their hypocrisy,” said the second source, adding, “They complain that the state agencies have been assaulting merchants who tried to smuggle goods from China on the justification that it was necessary to prevent the epidemic [from entering North Korea].”

RFA reported earlier this month that a special forces team was deployed in Ryanggang to crack down on smugglers. The unit even severely injured two smugglers who were caught in the act of trying to bring goods across the river. The report revealed that the undercover soldiers even targeted innocent people for being in the area on only the suspicion of smuggling.

“But now [the state agencies] themselves are the ones smuggling in broad daylight.”