Coronavirus Kills Income of North Korean Traders in China and Workers Inside North Korea

dandong-border-trade Trade workers in Dandong, China load goods onto trucks bound for North Korea.
Yonhap News

North Korean traders stationed in China and working people depending on local markets in North Korean cities are finding it difficult to make ends meets as the novel coronavirus (nCoV) epidemic spreads, RFA has learned.

With the Sino-Korean border closed, China has extended the Lunar New Year holiday to avoid the spread of the disease in schools, workplaces, and on public transit--precautions that have brought trade between the two countries to a standstill.

Sources in China say that some of the North Korean trade workers there have had to borrow money from their Chinese business partners just to get by.

“The biggest impact is the inability to trade because of the border closures,” a source in the Chinese border city of Dandong told RFA’s Korean Service Sunday.

“[They] have no way to make any money unless trade deals between North Korean and China resume. The North Korean government’s border closures to stop the spread of the virus have killed off all economic activity,” said the source.

“The workers in China who were unprepared for this are now having a very hard time,” the source added.

The halt in income is putting the trade workers in a difficult position. On the one hand, they must continue to pay rent and buy food to survive, while, on the other hand, North Korea does not want them to borrow money as Pyongyang believes it will damage the country’s reputation.

“If security agents know they are borrowing money for living expenses, they could criticize it as an act of dishonor to North Korea. So the trade workers are being extremely cautious [when asking for a helping hand],” the source said.

Such borrowing might be unearthed at weekly self-criticism sessions.

Self-criticism, or saenghwal chonghwa, is a regular act by which the citizens report to the authorities on any shortcoming they might have pertaining to loyalty to the state.

During regularly scheduled sessions, citizens are also expected to be critical of each other and to collectively determine a plan to correct the shortcomings.

“The weekly saengwhal chonghwa sessions held on Saturdays at the consulate [in Dandong] have not happened since the Lunar New Year (Jan. 25),” said the source.

“But the Chinese government has banned large meetings due to the virus, which suggests that the trade suspension will continue for the foreseeable future,” the source added.

Across the border

Meanwhile, in North Korea, the trade stoppage due to coronavirus is having a huge impact on people’s livelihoods. As commodities become scarce, people begin to horde goods, which drives up prices. This has resulted in less foot traffic in local markets, and less opportunity to earn money for the country’s working class.

Sources say the North Korean government is turning a blind eye to the needs of the people and is only concerned with the safety of the country’s leaders during this time of crisis.

“Since the government declared a national quarantine emergency to prevent coronavirus from entering the country, the most affected people have been the working class,” a resident of South Pyongan province told RFA Sunday.​

“As the prices of goods rise, people begin to stockpile them in their homes. With no new goods coming in, ordinary people with no money have no jobs at the local markets,” the second source said.

Normally when times are tough in one region of the country, North Korea’s working class will try their luck in other regions. This is, however, not an option this time.

“[They] cannot even go to other regions to sell goods because interregional travel is banned [due to the fear of spreading the virus],” the second source said.

“With no way to earn money, the people are starting to resent high-ranking officials and the wealthy. They are venting their anger on authorities,” said the second source.

A third source, also from South Pyongan, told RFA Monday, “[Fear of] the disease has stopped the movement of residents coming and going for the past two weeks.”

“The rich and the well-connected are not worried, but the livelihoods of the people in the lower classes is in serious trouble,” the third source said.

According to the third source, the poor are angry that the rich care about their health, but don’t seem to care if they have eaten.

“They say they might die from a disease, but they could also die from starvation because they are unable to make enough money to support themselves for a day,” said the third source, adding that the working class say there is no difference between the two because they are dead either way.

The third source called on the government to do more to relieve the hunger of the poor while restricting their movement and pushing pause on their ability to earn income.

“We don’t know how long the authorities will keep the border closed and clamp down on the movement of people. They need to do more than justify their actions by saying we are in an emergency situation,” the third source said.

“They should release food rations to the people or come up with more practical measures. But, they are only concerned about the safety of the leadership and the stability of the regime. So people are angry.”

In China alone, more than 40,000 people have been confirmed infected with nCoV, and more than 900 have died as a result.

As of Monday afternoon, North Korea has not reported a single confirmed case.

Reported by Joonho Kim and Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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