North Korean trade with China halted by COVID outbreak in Chinese border city

One week after resuming rail freight, Chinese authorities lock down Dandong, stopping the trains.
North Korean trade with China halted by COVID outbreak in Chinese border city A train from China crosses the border bridge between China and North Korea in Dandong, Liaoning Province in this file photo.

The spread of coronavirus in a key Chinese city bordering North Korea put an abrupt halt to rail freight between the two countries only eight days after they lifted an almost two-year-long trade cut-off, sources in China told RFA.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Jan. 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang sealed off the 880-mile Sino-Korean border and suspended trade to prevent the virus from crossing the border into North Korea.

The move killed off much of North Korea’s nascent market economy that relied on the purchase and sale of Chinese imports, and the lack of imported food, fertilizer and equipment led to skyrocketing food prices.

The resumption of rail freight on Nov. 1 had raised hopes that badly needed relief would be flowing across the border, but a new spike in COVID-19 cases in Dandong, across the Yalu River from North Korea’s Sinuiju has dashed those hopes.

“Since Friday, the coronavirus emergency quarantine has been bolstered in the Dandong area,” a resident of the city told RFA’s Korean Service on Sunday.

“Due to the outbreak, all public transportation networks were suspended and there is a red light up between customs offices in North Korea and China,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

City authorities told the residents of Dandong that traffic from outside the city would not be allowed in and advised them to stock up on enough food for a one-month lockdown, the source said.

“Additionally, the Dandong municipal government will restrict businesses like restaurants, massage parlors, internet cafes, mahjong and gaming parlors and public saunas under a strengthened emergency quarantine posture,” the source said.

“Restaurants will have limits on the number of guests they can serve and will have limited business hours, and the police are banning large gatherings and restricting movement of people,” said the source.

Residents who wish to ride buses must now present their ID and register with the authorities before being allowed to buy a bus ticket, the source said.

“Wouldn’t it be difficult for trade between China and North Korea to resume under these circumstances? When the virus first took hold in Wuhan, a city very far from the North Korean border, North Korea took that as a signal to lock down customs,” the source said.

“Now it’s in Dandong, right across the river. Would they reopen their border so easily this time?”

Authorities are also locking down other areas of Dandong’s surrounding Liaoning province, including Dalian, about 190 miles (300 km) to the west, a Chinese citizen of Korean descent told RFA.

“The city government and police have blocked off roads and railways and residents are banned from moving after there were new confirmed cases in Zhuanghe,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons. Zhuanghe is a smaller city administered by Dalian.

“Dalian and Dandong are three hours away by car, so residents often use the trains and highways to get around, but they’ve suspended bus and train travel and are making security checks on the highways,” the source said, adding that gatherings and certain businesses are also restricted in Dalian.

“In this situation, it is unlikely that Sino-North Korea trade will resume anytime soon.”

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, Dandong had recorded 20 new cases on Sunday – up from 11 on Saturday.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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