This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has built a new rail route to its border with China designed to isolate freight in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, an important first step toward restarting imports from its largest trading partner, sources in the country told RFA.
Prior to the pandemic freight from China would travel from North Korea’s northwestern border city of Sinuiju to Seopo Station in Pyongyang. The new route links Sinuiju, a port city across the Sino-Korean border from China, with a processing and quarantine facility in Uiju, about 10 miles to the northeast.
“Construction on the railroad between Sinuiju and Uiju, which began in October last year, was completed in time for the Day of the Sun,” a resident of Uiju told RFA’s Korean Service Monday, referring to the April 15 birth anniversary of leader Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung (1912-1994).
“The new railroad is directly connected to the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge between Dandong, China and Sinuiju, and it will be used exclusively for international freight,” said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Freight has not flowed freely from China for more than a year. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang closed down the entirety of the 880-mile Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade in a move that proved disastrous to the North Korean economy.
Many in North Korea who made their living through the purchase and sale of goods from China were left with no way to support themselves. With the people clamoring for an end to the trade ban as their situations become increasingly dire, and the government prioritizing emergency measures against the spread of the virus, the new train route is an important step toward resuming imports.
“All international train freight imported from China as a national emergency commodity, from the Day of the Sun onwards will be headed to Uiju via the newly established railroad,” the source said.
“The reason they built the new railroad was to resume trade after ensuring that international freight can be safely and continuously carried in, even if the coronavirus lasts for a prolonged period. I am not sure if this railroad will be only temporarily operated during coronavirus or whether it will continue to operate even after the pandemic ends,” said the source.
Another source, a trader from North Pyongan province, told RFA Tuesday that the shift away from the old Sinuiju-Seopo route was meant to protect the capital from the deadly virus.
“This seems to be a temporary measure… as the Sinuiju-Uiju railway has been built as a single line and has its limitations for freight transport,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“If trade resumes and large amounts of freight come in, they will have no choice but to use Seopo Station in Pyongyang, which is connected with multiple railway lines,” the second source said.
A third source, a resident of Sinuiju, told RFA that authorities installed three-meter wire fences along the whole Sinuiju-Uiju route.
“They mobilized soldiers to install the fences along each section of railroad,” said the third source.
“Residents call this measure excessive, saying it’s absurd because the railroad isn’t going to a prison camp.”
Life in North Korea without Chinese trade has been more than 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 last week 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 last week 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.