China is providing large amounts of fertilizer to its ally North Korea and plans to send food aid to the impoverished nation, according to sources inside the country, despite backing international sanctions meant to punish the regime for pursuing its nuclear weapons program.
North Korean sources told RFA’s Korean Service that Beijing had delivered fertilizer to assist in collective farm production even earlier this year than it had in years past—and in larger quantities.
The aid follows Chinese support for tighter restrictions on the North's financial activities as part of stiff sanctions levied by the United Nations against Pyongyang in March for conducting its third illicit nuclear test a month earlier.
“The Chinese government gave fertilizer much earlier than last time,” a source who works for the agricultural department of North Hamgyong province said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Based on the amount of distributions to each collective farm, I think the overall amount of the fertilizer exceeds 200,000 tons,” he said.
The source did not provide details of when China delivered fertilizer last year or the amount it had donated.
But a farmer from Yanggang province told RFA that this year Beijing had sent fertilizer to North Korea, which faces chronic food shortages, more than a month earlier than it had in 2012.
“Last year, I was provided with fertilizer that came from China around June 10,” the farmer said.
“[At that time] each collective farm only received 10 tons of the fertilizer, which was a really tiny amount.”
The farmer said that this year China had begun delivering fertilizer as early as April 26.
An official of the trading department in North Pyongan province told RFA that all fertilizer deliveries from China had been processed through the customs department in the provincial capital Sinuiju, which lies across the border from Dandong city in China’s Liaoning province.
He said that all of the shipments were designated as free aid from the Chinese government and had arrived at the border via train and container truck.
“Our trade department doesn’t normally import such a large amount of fertilizer at once, but the trade department of each province has been ordered to stock up to 200 tons of fertilizer,” he said.
“I was informed that China will also send food aid soon. Since Pyongyang already knew the aid would be coming, the government has already begun distributing food held in storage to the North Korean people,” he added.
The sources RFA spoke to in North Korea said they found it hard to believe recent reports they had heard from South Korean media about Beijing supporting international sanctions against Pyongyang because of the ongoing trade.
The sanctions do not bar other countries from sending food and other forms of aid to North Korea, but prohibit financial interactions with North Korea in a bid to further isolate the country and pressure it to give up its nuclear weapons program.
China is impoverished North Korea's main diplomatic and economic ally but has shown growing irritation with Pyongyang's war threats, and in March backed tough U.N. sanctions against the hardline communist neighbor for its defiant nuclear and missile tests.
Reports that China is providing large-scale aid to North Korea suggest that Beijing may be taking a two-pronged approach to reining in its bellicose southern neighbor—scolding Pyongyang on the international stage, while supporting the North bilaterally.
“Trade between North Korea and China is very much active,” the farmer from Yanggang province said.
“They have even built a new customs house in Yanggang’s Samjiyon district,” he said.
The farmer added that smuggling across the Yalu River, which lies along the border between the two countries, “is still carried out extensively.”
“Farmers had traded 2 kilograms [4.4 pounds] of corn for 1 kilogram [2.2 pounds] of Chinese fertilizer until few days ago,” he said.
“But since the new fertilizer has arrived from the Chinese government, they now trade them one to one.”
Last week, the state-run Bank of China Ltd.—which Washington has accused of financing Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs—said it had halted business with North Korea’s Chosun Trade Bank.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies on Monday called the decision a “very hopeful sign” in efforts to end the North’s nuclear ambitions, but added it is not yet clear whether the move signifies a real shift in Beijing’s approach to dealing with Pyongyang.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to the region, said last month that it was up to China to “put some teeth” into efforts to press North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
Reported by Sung Hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Goeun Yu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.