This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un sent a “verbal message” to Chinese President Xi Jinping, praising China’s effectiveness in stopping the spread of the coronavirus, according to state media, in what analysts said was a strategic move to shore up Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing.
Kim “congratulated [Xi], highly appreciating that he is seizing a chance of victory in the war against the unprecedented epidemic,” the Korean Central News Agency said Friday.
“Kim Jong Un wished Xi Jinping good health, expressing conviction that the Chinese party and people would cement the successes made so far and steadily expand them and thus win a final victory under the wise guidance of Xi Jinping,” the report said.
It was not immediately clear when the message was sent or how it was delivered. But it was the second time this year that Kim communicated with Xi about COVID-19.
The North Korean leader in late January said he supported China’s efforts against the deadly virus, even sending an “aid fund” to Beijing.
North Korea officially claims that there is not a single confirmed case of COVID-19 inside the country. But public lectures in towns across the country in late March told residents the disease had spread to three parts of the country. Pyongyang’s measures to stem its spread, including closing off the Sino-Korean border, have hurt the livelihoods of residents who rely on trade with its northern neighbor.
On top of the pandemic, Pyongyang has been hurting economically due to U.S. and U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea experts in South Korea saw the messages of support from Kim as a strategic move, pinning the country’s hopes of economic revival on improved relations with China as Sino-American relations have hit a stumbling block of late, with the U.S. blaming the Chinese government for its lack of transparency in the beginning stages of the pandemic.
China would be happy to see a North Korea eager to get behind it at a time when tensions with the U.S. are on the rise. He predicted that trade between the northeast Asian neighbors would resume in full once the coronavirus situation dies down.
As negotiations with the U.S. over Pyongyang’s denuclearization have stalled, North Korea is turning to China to bail it out of its current economic malaise, according to the Korea Institute of National Unification’s Cho Han-bum.
“Kim Jong Un seems like he must be having various difficulties,” Cho told RFA.
“In fact, China is the only country that can help immediately because the North Korean economy is having very difficult time in the wake of the coronavirus crisis and sanctions.”
Chung Jae-hung of the Sejong Institute said North Kora’s offer of aid was “clearly a friendly gesture to China.”
“For North Korea, this is aimed at laying the groundwork for future negotiations with the U.S. by strengthening ties with countries that are friendly to North Korea such as China and Russia,” Chung added.
Customs official banished
In one measure of the economic fallout from the closure of North Korea’s border with China, customs officials have been caught smuggling goods across the border or collecting bribes to look the other way for other smugglers.
“In the middle of last month, the customs office chairman in Wonjong-ri, Rason was caught by the Security Department trying to smuggle goods into China,” a resident from North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA on Tuesday.
“They found out that he took bribes to send more than 500 kilograms [1,100 pounds] of dried pollack to China using a secret passageway in the customs building,” the source said.
The source said that under normal circumstances the customs official would have gotten away with the illicit transfer.
“Customs officials regularly conspire with smugglers, and they share their bribes with security agents,” the source said.
“But now with the coronavirus situation, customs duties have been completely suspended and the number of people working [in the customs offices] was kept to a minimum,” the source added.
“[This is why] he was caught trying to smuggle the goods to China all by himself.”
According to the source, the chairman was fired in late April and deported to a remote region of the country as punishment, after the Security Department’s investigation revealed he had often taken bribes and smuggled goods.
Another North Hamgyong resident who requested anonymity confirmed that the customs chairman got caught and was punished.
“Customs officers, including the high-ranking customs officials, were hard-hit when the customs door was slammed shut by the coronavirus crisis,” the second source told RFA.
The second source confirmed the chairman was banished to a remote area.
Though trade between China and North Korea grinded to a halt in late January due to COVID-19, North Korea has been receiving emergency supplies from China, including food and medical supplies.