North Korea sends delegation to China for emergency supplies

The unofficial trip came as the border was closed following a brief reopening in response to new COVID cases.
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North Korea sends delegation to China for emergency supplies A North Korean man looks out from a North Korean train before leaving for North Korea at the Dandong border railway station in northeast China's Liaoning Province in this file photo.

An unofficial delegation from North Korea travelled to China for emergency supplies on the same day the newly reopened border was shut down due to a spike in coronavirus cases, sources in China told RFA.

The border with China was closed in January 2020 at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a move that all but destroyed the nascent North Korean market economy, much of which relies on Chinese trade to stay afloat.

Rail trade resumed on Nov. 1, with trains travelling from Dandong, China, over the Yalu River to Sinuiju, North Korea. But eight days later, the link was closed again due to a lockdown in Dandong from a new spike in coronavirus cases.

China typically accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s international trade. North Koreans have held out for almost two years without any Chinese imports, but supplies of many goods are running low.

Sources said the delegation asked Chinese officials in Dandong for cooking oil and seasonings, construction materials and several kinds of fabrics.

“Two train cars crossed the bridge on Nov. 8  from North Korea, and at first we thought it was just a maintenance team coming to inspect the condition of the railroad connection between Sinuiju and Dandong, because we heard they’d be coming,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.

“The railway maintenance team were in the front car, but there were three unofficial delegations from Pyongyang in the second car. They were here to request emergency supplies,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The delegation made their way to the North Korean consulate in the city to meet with Chinese officials, according to the source.

“We don’t yet know whether the Chinese officials they met were from the central government in Beijing, or if they were from the local government in Dandong, entrusted to act on behalf of the central government,” the source said.

The discussion in Dandong was not about receiving food aid, according to the source. Reports out of North Korea have indicated that the food situation there is dire, with the government telling people to prepare for shortages that could rival the 1994-1998 famine that killed millions of North Koreans. The shortages have already led to starvation deaths.

But the just-completed harvest appears to have alleviated some of the fear about mass famine in the short-term, the source said.

“Considering that the North Koreans sent their delegation to request supplies to the North Korean consulate, it’s likely that the two governments have already reached an agreement and these were working-level discussions,” said the source.

“The delegation was willing to risk coming into Dandong, where the coronavirus is raging strong. That proves that the shortage of supplies in North Korea is extremely serious,” the source said.

At the beginning of 2021, when it was apparent that the border would stay closed for at least several months, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called on the country to overcome its food and resource problems in accordance with its founding “juche” ideology, which preaches self-reliance on the individual, local and state level.

“How desperate North Korea must be. The government told the people to endure the border closure by pushing self-reliance, and now here they are, requesting emergency supplies from outside,” a second source in Dandong, also a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, told RFA.

The Chinese officials partially accepted North Korea’s request for the various raw materials, food enhancers and seasonings, and construction materials, the second source said.

“With the coronavirus spreading again in all parts of China, including in Dandong and the three northeast provinces, there’s no telling as to when railway trade will resume. It was supposed to reopen this month,” the second source said.

The halt in trade is not only harmful for North Korea. Chinese trading companies had stocked up to prepare for the reopening, but now must watch the goods sit in warehouses, the second source said.

“The delay in resuming rail trade has resulted in the Chinese companies becoming increasingly impatient,” the source said.

Though rail trade between North Korea and China was suspended for almost two years, RFA reported that China in April 2021 sent a train load of about 300 tons of corn, likely as food aid but registered as animal feed.

Many were hopeful at that time that rail trade would resume, but the border remained closed for another six-and-a-half months before it briefly reopened.

Translated by Leejin Jun for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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