Maritime trade between North Korea and China picks up

Ports are bustling with activity, although it’s not clear if goods are for the general public.
By Jieun Kim
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Maritime trade between North Korea and China picks up This file photo shows construction materials piled up at the port in Dandong, China awaiting shipment to North Korea.

Maritime trade between North Korea and China appears to have resumed, with Chinese port cities in the northern Yellow Sea scrambling to hire enough workers to quickly load ships bound for North Korea after a nearly two-year cut-off in trade to fight the pandemic.

But it isn’t clear if the goods being shipped will benefit average North Koreans or just the ruling elite, one source said.

The two countries closed their land border and suspended all trade at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020. The effect on North Korea’s economy since then has been catastrophic, with major disruptions in the commercial activity of many of the country’s cities and towns.

On Nov. 1, rail freight between the Chinese border city of Dandong and Sinuiju, a North Korean city on the opposite bank of the Yalu River border, briefly resumed. But it was shut again a week later due to renewed outbreaks of COVID-19 reported in China.

Rail traffic remains closed, but sources said ships have been actively crisscrossing the Yellow Sea between ports.

“North Korean ships are importing large quantities of Chinese … construction materials, pharmaceuticals and high-end commodities,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong told RFA’s Korean Service Dec. 11.

“The Chinese trading companies have reopened storage warehouses that were closed during the trade suspension during the pandemic,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

The source said Dandong’s pier is again bustling with activity, after almost two years of sitting idle.

“The workers at the pier had lost their jobs and were having a hard time getting by, but now they are so busy packing and shipping goods to North Korea,” the source said. “Labor for exporting goods to North Korea is in such high demand that Chinese trading companies are paying as high as 100 yuan [U.S. $15.71] per day in cash.”

The Chinese port in nearby Dalian has also resumed sea trade with North Korea, according to a source.

“Another trade vessel departed from Dalian to North Korea today. The vessel has a load capacity of 50,000 tons, and it was filled with construction materials, food and pharmaceuticals — all ordered by a North Korean trading company,” the source, a trade professional from Dalian, told RFA.

“The vessel appears to be operating under an official trade agreement between the Chinese and North Korean authorities, but the strange thing is that these vessels mainly operate at night,” the second source said.

The timing of the shipments and the high quality of materials being shipped to North Korea have led to suspicions that the materials are not for the public’s use, the source said.

“The construction materials include waterproof roofing materials so expensive that they aren’t even commonly used here in China,” the source said. He added that the order was placed by the country’s Ministry of State Security, which is seen as a sign that the goods are destined for the elite.

RFA reported in June 2020 that ships carrying grain labelled as “construction materials” had been sailing from Dandong to North Korea.

Sources in that report said the ships would only leave at night and in secret, to avoid international scrutiny.

In April 2021, RFA reported that North Korean State Agencies “officially” resumed maritime smuggling activities, mostly importing Chinese cooking ingredients for food factories that were idle due to a lack of materials during the pandemic.

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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