This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A freight train loaded with Chinese corn has arrived in North Korea, the first international cargo train to cross the Sino-Korean border in more than a year amid warnings of dire shortages in the impoverished North, sources in China told RFA.
Freight 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 sanctions imposed by the UN and U.S. over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Many in North Korea who made their living trading in goods from China were left with no way to support themselves. They have been clamoring for an end to the trade ban, but the government has prioritized emergency measures against the spread of the virus.
“An international freight train carrying aid goods for North Korea left Dandong Station early this morning and headed for North Korea,” a Chinese citizen railway worker of Korean descent told RFA’s Korean Service April 17.
“After completing customs procedures at Sinuiju Station, the Chinese freight train headed to Pyongyang’s Seopo Station, the final station,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. The train will first be disinfected in Sinuiju, which recently acquired equipment for this purpose, the source added.
The entry into North Korea of a train loaded with cargo is being seen as a good sign for those hoping for a full-on resumption of trade.
The fact that the aid train did not utilize a new rail route that diverts Chinese cargo to a processing center in nearby Uiju could indicate that it is not part of an official lifting of the trade ban. The source said there was a considerable amount of secrecy surrounding the train and its contents.
“What they loaded on the train is officially unknown to the staff at Dandong Station. But those who saw the cargo being loaded know that it was food, because food is the most urgent problem in North Korea. It was not rice but about 300 tons of corn,” the source said.
“They are sending corn instead to rice and some say North Korea is declaring it as animal feed, and then it will be used as food. Corn has become a major food source for North Korea’s military working on national construction projects,” said the source.
Though food items are not banned under international sanctions, the secrecy may be an attempt to shield Beijing from international and domestic criticism.
The source said Chinese residents of Dandong were not enthusiastic about their government providing aid to North Korea.
“The Chinese here think that no matter how much food is sent to North Korea, it is nothing more than pouring water into a broken jar,” said the source.
“They are showing negative reactions, saying that although there may be starving people, they don’t know how much food will be given to the general population even if North Korea receives thousands of tons of food.”
Another source, a resident of Dandong confirmed to RFA on the same day that the train left Dandong for North Korea that morning at 3 a.m.
“For some reason the Chinese authorities are hiding details about the cargo… Even the staff working at the station were not told about what was loaded in the freight train. It’s a secret to everybody,” said the second source.
“It’s still too early to judge whether trade between China and North Korea will resume and if we can exchange goods again, but it is true that China has begun providing supplies in the form of loans because the shortage of food and supplies in North Korea is at a serious level,” the second source said.
People in North Korea were aware that shipments from China were coming in, according to the second source.
“I talked to my counterpart in North Korea… As news spreads that support and supplies are coming from China, the people are hoping that it will help relieve the food and supply shortage,” the second source said.
An April 16 RFA report quoted a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong, who said that that the train was laden with 300 tons of food as the first batch of supplies to be sent to North Korea.
“In addition, trucks loaded with agricultural goods and construction materials are waiting to cross the border…. not only at Dandong Station, but also near Donggang and the New Yalu River Bridge where there are also large piles of supplies waiting to be sent to North Korea by large freight trucks,” said the source in the report, adding that the supplies were pesticides, fertilizers and plastic film used in rice planting.
Life in North Korea without Chinese trade has been harsh.
UN Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report last month that the closure of the border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a “serious food crisis.”
“Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them,” said the report.
RFA reported earlier this month that North Korean authorities were warning residents to prepare for economic difficulties as bad as the 1994-1998 famine which killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.
Kim Jong Un was quoted in state media this month as saying the country faced grim challenges.
“Improving the people’s living standards … even in the worst-ever situation in which we have to overcome unprecedentedly numerous challenges depends on the role played by the cells, the grassroots organizations of the party,” Kim said during an opening speech at a meeting of cell secretaries of the ruling Workers’ Party.