North Korea eager to restart rail trade with China, Russia

Reopening the rails would be a boost to the economy, but Beijing and Moscow have final say.
By Hyemin Son for RFA Korean
2022.09.15
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North Korea eager to restart rail trade with China, Russia A locomotive pulls two freight cars on the Friendship Bridge over the Yalu River, which connects the Chinese city of Dandong with Sinuiju in North Korea, Jan. 8, 2010.
Reuters

Economically ailing North Korea desperately wants to resume rail freight with China, and to a lesser extent, Russia, but sources, including a government official, told RFA that the decision to reopen the rails lies with Beijing and Moscow.

North Korea is particularly dependent on trade and aid from China, its main ally and trading partner. Restrictions on the flow of goods from the country during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns devastated North Korea’s already chronically unstable economy.

Rail freight between the border cities of Dandong, China and Sinuiju, North Korea resumed in November 2021, but shut down after only a week after a resurgence of the virus in China. Rail freight re-opened in January 2022, but shut down again in late April.

A trade company official last month told RFA that rail freight would resume on Aug. 8 or 9, but that did not happen, and the suspension has extended into mid-September.

“Trade agencies have not yet been officially notified as to when freight train service between Sinuiju and Dandong, … will resume,” an official from Sinuiju’s surrounding North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The international freight train has been waiting at Sinuiju Station since the beginning of August. It is ready, waiting only for instructions from the Central Committee to depart for Dandong,” he said.

Dandong and Sinuiju lie on opposite sides of the Yalu River, and the rail bridge between them has essentially been the lifeblood artery for North Korea for the past decade, as trade with China has accounted for about 90 percent of all foreign trade in North Korea.

In 2019, prior to the pandemic, trade volume was more than U.S. $3.2 billion, but in 2020 that fell to $863 million, according to figures from the Seoul-based Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA). 

The North Korean government acknowledges the importance of Chinese trade, but it cannot decide to resume trade on its own.

“The timing … depends on the Chinese, not us,” the source said. “The trains are ready to go, but only when the Chinese government opens up Dandong customs again.”

“There is a rumor that some of the freight service between Sinuiju and Dandong will resume this month, but we will wait and see how it will go. We all hope for at least a partial resumption,” he said. “They predict it may happen in mid-October, after the Chinese Communist Party’s national convention.”

Russian rescue?

Though the status of trade with China remains up in the air, Russia’s isolation resulting from its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year may serve as a catalyst for the resumption of trade with North Korea.

“Friendly relations between North Korea and Russia have improved remarkably, so freight train service between the two countries is expected to resume before the end of this month,” a source from the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA.

But he said there has been no official word on if the rails would reopen between North Korea’s Tuman River Station and Russia’s Khasan Station.

 “The timing … coincides with Russia’s decision to supply oil and gas to North Korea, so it’s Russia that has final say,” the second source said. 

Russia has agreed to purchase artillery shells and rockets from North Korea to aid in its war effort, according to U.S. intelligence. Observers have speculated that North Korea could receive discounted crude oil and fuel in the deal. 

The second source said members of the North Korean military expect that the deal will happen. 

“I heard it from a border guard officer in the Tuman River area who knew the facts well,” he said.

On September 11th, North Korean media reported that the Russian government sent a congratulatory message to mark the 74th anniversary of the establishment of the regime in North Korea. The message included that Russia is ready to strengthen cooperation with North Korea in all areas.

“We are seeing two desperate countries cooperating with each other to address their respective ‘deficits,’” Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation told RFA on Sept. 7.

“Should both countries be further pushed to the brink, we may see greater cooperation between the two nations on a need-basis,” she said. 

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

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