Ships carrying grain labelled as “construction materials” have been sailing from a northeastern Chinese port to nearby North Korea, dockworkers told RFA, describing a secret operation run at night kept to avoid international scrutiny.
North Korea, which has struggled with chronic food insecurity for decades, suffered a huge economic shock in January when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a complete shutdown of the Sino-Korean border.
The coronavirus lockdown followed drought and poor harvests in the impoverished country, whose trade options are limited by international sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash for its nuclear and missile programs.
Chinese rice and corn are put on ships in the Chinese border city of Dandong. From there the ships sail about 100 nautical miles to Nampo, southwest of the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a Chinese source of Korean descent from Dandong, told RFA’s Korean service.
The source, who requested anonymity to speak freely, had been hired recently as a dockworker loading the ships at nighttime. The cargo is labelled as construction materials according to the source, who described daily shipping activity in mid-June but added that the scale of the operation was unknown.
“These days, they are loading shipments of food here in Dandong port every night.”
“These ships used to carry emergency supplies and construction materials to North Korea, but now they are being used to transport food,” the source told RFA’s Korean Service June 14, after he had worked a week as a day laborer at the port.
“This food is being exported by a certain Chinese trading company which has a dry materials contract with a state-run trading agency in North Korea. The company pays 200 yuan [U.S. $28.29] per day to each laborer loading the ships,” the worker said.
“But it’s all done in secret so no one can figure out how much food is being shipped, and if North Korea is paying for imported food or if the Chinese government is providing it for free,” added the source.
“The trading company keeps it all a secret by saying that the cargo heading to North Korea is construction materials, not food,” the source said.
Food shortages and coronavirus
China is believed to be North Korea's largest aid donor, but Beijing releases few figures and prefers to provide relief on a bilateral basis. Most other donors give humanitarian aid through UN agencies and NGOs, subject to monitoring.
International sanctions on North Korea do not prohibit humanitarian assistance, but they make fertilizer hard for the North to obtain and aid groups say the restrictions hamper operations.
Another source, a trader from Dandong who asked not to be named, confirmed to RFA that ships carrying food are leaving the port nightly, sent by “a local trading company in China, which has been trading with a North Korean state-run trading company for many years.”
“China is sending food aid to North Korea, which is suffering from chronic food shortages and the coronavirus crisis,” the second source said.
The Dandong dockworker said shifts start very late at night.
“Work begins at night, [often later than 10 p.m.] After being fully loaded, the ships sail for Nampo, and return after three days. But since there are several ships transporting the food, we’re working at the port every night,” the dockworker said.
“We don’t have any information about when the food shipments will end because of all the secrecy of the project,” the dockworker said.
The Dandong trader said that under the UN sanctions regime, North Korean ships cannot sail into Dandong to retrieve the food, so the North Korean trading company must instead pay a premium for the Chinese company to deliver it.
“In 2016, North Korean ships were banned from entering Dandong under a UN resolution that imposed sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile development tests. That’s why all the ships involved are Chinese,” said the Dandong trader.
RFA reported in January that Beijing had agreed to send food by rail from Dandong, which is across the Yalu River from North Kora’s Sinuiju city, causing a backup in freight traffic.
Sources said they were puzzled as to why the food aid was needed, especially since North Korea was not reporting any food crisis at the time.
Recurring food shortages
According to estimates from the South Korean Unification Ministry, North Korea will produce only 4.64 million tons of grain this year, about 860,000 tons shy of the 5.5 million tons it needs to adequately feed its citizens.
Earlier this month, the World Food Program (WFP) said humanitarian assistance is needed for more than 10 million people, nearly 40 percent of the country’s population.
The WFP hopes to provide food aid to about 1.2 million North Koreans this year.
North Korean state media said the country experienced its worst drought in 37 years last year, prompting warnings of a food crisis following 2018 harvest that had been the worst in a decade.
Two UN agencies, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, were at that time concerned that the June 2019 harvest of crops like wheat and barley would be extremely low after the prolonged drought.
A report released by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in May 2019 said that 10.9 million people -- more than 43 percent of the population -- did not have access to adequate food last year.
China extended massive bilateral food aid during 1994-98, a period North Korea calls the “Arduous March,” when the country lost as much as 10 percent of its population of 22 million to mass starvation, amid an economic meltdown brought on by mismanagement and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.