North Korean officials fight over cargo space on trains from China

The military gets priority over state agencies executing economy policies.
By Hyemin Son
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North Korean officials fight over cargo space on trains from China A man walks near freight cars with Korean characters reading "Seopo" and "Dandong" at a train station in Dandong, Liaoning province, China April 21, 2021.

North Korean agencies are fighting with the military and one another over cargo space on trains that are now once again bringing in goods from China, after two years of closed borders left a vast shortage of supplies, officials told RFA.

In January 2020, Pyongyang and Beijing stopped bilateral trade in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The move effectively cut North Korea off from the rest of the world and devastated its economy.

Rail freight briefly resumed on Nov. 1, 2021, but was shut down again a week later due to surges of confirmed cases in China. Pyongyang and Beijing reopened the border to rail freight only last week.

Government agencies under the control of North Korea’s Cabinet are working to bring in necessities for the country’s citizens and rebuild its economy. But the military, which is not controlled by the Cabinet, needs its own resources and is taking up most of the space there is on the freight trains to bring them in.

“The sudden reopening has led to a growing conflict between government administrative agencies,” a trading company official from the northwestern province of North Pyongan, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service Jan. 23.

“The allocation of the cargo compartments is under the direct control of the Central Party, and it looks like priority is given to the Second Economy Committee,” the source said, referring to trading companies affiliated with the military.

Trading companies for the ministries under the Cabinet are classified under the First Economy Committee.

“In the end, the trading companies affiliated with the Cabinet offices are likely to lose space to the military’s needs,” the source said. “The non-military-affiliated trading companies urgently need to bring in daily necessities for the people to survive, but they have not been able to do anything because they have been pushed to lower priorities.”

Cabinet officials are unhappy that the Central Committee would give all the space to the more privileged organizations like the military and the Party, while still telling them they are responsible for reviving the country’s moribund economy, the source said.

Some of the officials are even griping that the central government does not care about its citizens and only restarted trade to help the privileged elite and the military, according to the source.

“It’s not like in the past, where both you and I share power. Now the more powerful one can just say, ‘All 15 cargo compartments are mine,’ Regular companies can do nothing,” the source said.

On the morning of Jan. 17, a train with more than 10 cars crossed the Yalu River from the North Korean border city of Sinuiju, headed for China’s Dandong on the other side, an official from another trading company in the capital Pyongyang told RFA.

“Most of the cargo spaces on the train were designated for the Second Economy Committee,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“They want to supply materials for the military … ahead of the Lunar New Year on Feb. 1. The authorities are only interested in munitions, so it will be impossible for them to recover the people’s economy, which since the pandemic has been severely deteriorated,” the second source said.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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